We have a duty to save our country

This nation stands on the precipice. Unless reason prevails, we could all very well tumble down into a dark and dangerous abyss from which it could be almost impossible to extricate ourselves.

We take pride in Kenya, since independence 60 years ago, being hailed as an island of peace in turbulent seas; but it is delusional to imagine that we can never descend into the chaos, anarchy and civil strife that have afflicted many countries in the wider Eastern African region.

The cataclysmic events of the 2007 post-election violence served as a stark reminder that we are not immune to the strife that has at different times nearly destroyed Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Political, ethnic and religious conflicts have seen most of our neighbours face death and destruction on massive scales, and many of them are far from returning to peace and stability.

Having over the years been home to hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing turmoil from across our borders, and to date hosting some of the biggest refugee camps in the world, we should have a keen appreciation of the suffering ordinary people undergo when their leaders fight for power.

Ethnic clashes

The 2007/2008 violence, and previous political and ethnic clashes in 1997 and 1990-91, may pale in comparison to the carnage witnessed in some of our aforementioned neighbouring countries, but it was still mass murder, arson and human displacement on scales we should never countenance. Never should we take it for granted that we can never tip over into full-scale genocide or civil war.

That is why we must all step back and take a long, hard look at ourselves as we contemplate the possible consequences of the ongoing anti-government protests called by the opposition over the high cost of living and myriad other grievances.

President William Ruto and opposition leader Raila Odinga, in particular, owe it to themselves and to the people of Kenya to consider if they want any more blood on their individual hands. They must acknowledge that the sparks of conflagration have already been lit, and it is upon them both that lies the greatest responsibility to put out the fire before it spreads out of control.

This is not about blame games or continuing political contestation but about the simple acknowledgement that Kenya could burn unless the voices of reason prevail.

Previous efforts at dialogue, including formation of a bipartisan Parliamentary Committee, have floundered, but it is not too difficult to try again. It can happen if our leaders put pride and ego aside. They have to abandon obdurate positions and the reckless and irresponsible zero-sum games by which they seek to attain power or to hold on to power. They have to recognise that the welfare, peace and security of the citizens is far more important than either of them.

We are making a call for peace.

However, it cannot be a sterile peace for the sake of peace but one founded on the fundamental principles so well encapsulated in our National Anthem: Justice be our Shield and Defender.

Too often, we have sought and preached peace without addressing the underlying causes of our perpetual conflicts. Temporary accommodations of ‘handshakes’ and power-sharing deals have served in the past to still the waters but not deflect the coming storms. We, therefore, need a respite from conflicts on our streets so that we can give attention to an all-encompassing national dialogue that will, if necessary, go beyond narrow confines of negotiations between the political classes.

Constitutional freedoms

We call upon the protagonists on both sides to open their eyes, ears and minds to the cry of Kenyans. They must calm down their respective bands of supporters, disavow the use of violence and embrace the need for dialogue. But within any such initiatives, some core principles must be safeguarded.

One is that the constitutional freedoms of expression, assembly, procession, demonstration and picketing cannot be abridged under any circumstances, not even under the guise of preserving law and order or protecting the government in power. Any forcible dispersal of those merely exercising hard-won constitutional rights, especially unjustified use of lethal force, signals a dangerous regression to the dark days of the police state.

But it must also be stressed that those out to exercise their constitutional rights must do so only within the confines of the law. When they employ violence, destroy property or disturb the rights of others to peace and free movement, they must expect to face the consequences.

The government security agencies must also be reminded that they are established to serve Kenyans, rather than to serve the political need of any government that may for the moment be in power. Indeed, the founding laws of the National Police Service and other security arms stress that they must be independent and exercise their mandates free of influence and direction from any other authority.

Above all, we must disavow extremism from all sides. Those in government must be cautioned against the arrogance of power, and the presumption that they are in office eternally and will never be called to account. Those on the other side must acknowledge that there is a government in place, elected on a platform by which it must be given time and space to deliver on. Or fail, and face wrath of voters next time around.

National conversation

A national conversation calls for goodwill on all sides. It cannot be about seeking to topple the government. Neither can it be about the government using the coercive power of the State to cow a disaffected populace into submission.

We believe that voices of reason can be found on all sides.

Beyond the political classes, there are many groups that can play crucial roles in pointing the path away from a looming inferno. They include religious groupings, civil society, the media, trade unions, community leaders, regional and continental groupings and the international community. All of them have a sacred duty to make themselves heard.

Above all, responsibility lies on the people of Kenya to reject extremism, which is not in their interest, and demand accountability and responsible behaviour from their leaders. Our democracy accommodates competitive politics but it need not be confrontational.

At the end of the day, we all live in one nation, sailing on the same boat. If it sinks, we will all go down with it. Nobody will be spared.