What you need to know:
- The ritual of voting should unite communities in showcasing common aspiration expressed through diversity and choice.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey.
Fortunes accumulate, while men decay…
An observer of Kenya’s angst readily empathises with Oliver goldsmith’s opening lines. Dark overhanging omens suggest that all is not well, and will henceforth, rapidly worsen. All over this country, every hard-won promise is being cruelly snatched back, to be replaced with rudest chastisement.
Consider, for instance, Kenya Medical supplies Authority, Kemsa. Following torrential disclosures of wanton impropriety and overwhelming corruption at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, changes were effected at the top management of the institution.
The first order of business for leadership took the form of hounding and threatening staff to identify the whistleblowers who instigated the nauseating deluge of scandalous revelations. Ultimately, someone was sent home, leading to legal action against the agency. The logical end-point of thoroughgoing impunity is the destruction of whistleblowers without any attempt to mitigate corruption.
Under these conditions, government forcefully assured Kenyans on Thursday that the consignment of Covid-19 vaccines that arrived are safe and utterly corruption-proof.
Also consider the by-elections which threw the country into a fever on the same Thursday. As one of the most iconic events of popular democracy, elections are expected to be focal points of productive civic energy, and festivals of freedom.
The ritual of voting should unite communities in showcasing common aspiration expressed through diversity and choice. What we beheld instead was a ghastly orgy of mindless violence, acrimonious contestation and ill-tempered clamour. There was little difference in the behaviour of boisterous civilian thugs and government security agents as each did their best to terrorise with chilling abandon.
What we now know about various ills besetting our country might never have come to light without the godsend gift of the ubiquitous mobile phone camera and social media applications. Despite doing their best, legacy media have limited capacity to penetrate every nook of the grassroots at the speed required to cover impunity as it unfolds. Indeed, a lot of effort is invested to ensure that obvious media personnel and their heavy equipment are kept away from the sites of nefarious activity.
It is no exaggeration, therefore, to state that our democracy and freedom are kept alive by media in the hands of vigilant citizens everywhere in Kenya. This ubiquity of whistleblowing capability has exposed a lot of lying, corruption and mediocrity in the public sector, and revealed overzealous security sector hawks to be all hat and no cattle.
The constitution protects the right of citizens to think, express themselves, create and share information. A progressive state would go further to enrich these protections through an enabling statutory framework.
What we have instead is a state is frenzied struggle to undermine these constitutional guarantees and claw back citizens’ ability to find, document and share truth about issues that matter to them. We have witnessed chilling crackdown on bloggers, rabid police reaction to cameras and testy bureaucratic attitudes to freedom of information.
The misuse of computer and cyber-crimes regime is now routinely abused to assuage the feelings of insecure VIPs in wasteful dramas with little public interest or security concern. To add insult to injury, this escalation of frivolity is about to extend to the infliction of draconian punishment for pornography.
The intention here is to create opportunity for the state, at the behest of VIPs, to intrude into the lives of citizens and police their private conduct. Obviously, the aim is to severely constrict those fundamental rights and political freedoms that are indispensable to democracy.
As if these hastening ills are not already terribly worrisome, we must anxiously contend with the intensifying sense that the state is increasingly jostling with, and violently elbowing citizens out of public and private spaces. I refer not only to the severely limited access to public buildings, but also to increasingly violent policing of the private sphere.
Counterterrorism and Covid-19 have signalled the ways in which public health and security imperatives provide ample pretexts for the state to encroach on intimate dimensions of citizens’ lives. At the same time, the state appears to be in some form or other of existential contest with its citizens.
In all the foregoing cases, Kenyans may come to feel that the state is their principal adversary, detractor or competitor, not their foremost champion, enabler, protector or servant. There are too many ways in which government stands between citizens and their joys, dreams, opportunities, rights and freedoms. That, certainly, does not evoke the sunniest of feelings.
Kenyans increasingly feel like trespassers on a private domain because, over time, through persistent and creeping impunity, sinister oligarchs have effectively privatised the state. Thus, the idea of “the public” has been extinguished, and government, by and large, is the instrument of the will of certain VIPs. It is also a tremendous funnel of resources into private estates, and the means of asserting the wishes of the powerful. VIPs have interests that compete and often conflict with those of the majority.
The injustice and suffering we see all the time are understandable if we recognise that that the Kenyan state has devolved into a primeval, partisan, patrimonial, personal principality, and not the inclusive, just and democratic republic we intended it to be. Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey.