By Patrick Gathara @Gathara
On Thursday, Kenya marks fifty years of independence. Over the next week, I expect that much of the country’s news media will be focused on a retelling of the history of the past half century. However, the previews I have seen over the last week do not offer much cause for hope that this will be an exercise in full honesty.
For example, last weekend NTV had two reports on the Kenya Defence Forces: one posing as a history of the force and the other highlighting the KDF’s special forces unit. The first totally ignored the numerous atrocities the KDF has been accused of committing in Northern Kenya against its own citizens; the second similarly skipped over the uncomfortable subject of KDF actions during the Westgate terror attack.
So it is clear that this will be a season of hagiography. Kenya will put on its Sunday Best and apply some patriotic perfume to cover the stench of the last five decades. We have already heard former President Mwai Kibaki’s version of our history, one which largely edited out the corruption and theft perpetrated by his and previous regimes.
The National Assembly has just given itself the power to “improve” the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. The Standard newspaper has even taken to comparing Jomo Kenyatta with Nelson Mandela, declaring that he was accommodating of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, whom he held under house arrest, and Tom Mboya, whom he murdered.
There is obviously little appetite for the truth. Like the coverage of the general election nine months ago, no one wants to be the on to rain on the national parade of self-congratulation, no one wants to be the bearer of bad news. Yet, like in March, this is an opportunity for real introspection, a chance to take stock of the achievements and failures of the past and to learn lessons for the present and future. It is an opportunity that we will waste little time missing, but a critical one nonetheless.
So what would we learn if we were honest about the past? At best, it’s a mixed bag. At independence, the government identified poverty, disease and ignorance as the most urgent challenges. Fifty years later, it is undeniable that progress has been made. Poverty rates have been lowered, we have more pupils than ever in our schools and life expectancy is as high as it’s ever been since independence.
We were one of the very few nations in Africa to do pretty well in the 1970s-80s in terms of covering basic needs and have even become a major trading hub in the region, despite up-and-down growth rates. In fact, for the first time in our history, the economy stands a real chance of maintaining a growth rate of above five percent for more than five consecutive years. These are the stories we will likely hear. How we have overcome the legacy of colonialism and put ourselves on the path to wealth and dignity.
Less will be said of the fact that Kenya is actually one of the most unequal places on earth, that much of the progress, especially the growth in incomes, has largely been concentrated in the top five percent of the population.
You will probably not hear about the failures of the Free Primary Education policy which has overcrowded the system, destroyed the prospect of quality education and, as whoever could take their kids out did, has driven up the cost of private schooling, locking the poor in a failing system. Or of our over-crowded and understaffed hospitals. Or of the fact that nearly a tenth of all babies do not survive to age five, most dying of preventable causes.
The media will not lament the fact that though our lawmakers and government officials are among the highest paid in the world, we have no money to pay teachers, nurses and policemen.
Ordinary Kenyans will be exhorted to pull together for even further progress by 2063. They will be asked to rally behind their government and its visions of progress. They will not be reminded that they are locked in to a system that delays, not expedites, their emancipation from chains of dictatorship and poverty. They will not be encouraged to question the assumptions underlying the definitions of independence and sovereignty and to ask why the system only seems to work for a few.
In 1997, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.
Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behavior is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”
In a similar manner, Kenyan political behavior has been conditioned by the design of our political system and how it has been managed since 1963 and beyond. We have been conditioned to expect failure or at best, mediocrity, from those we pay to deliver services to us. We have been conditioned to accept and move on when elections are stolen, when government revenue is used to line the pockets of elites, when alternative voices are silenced and when the news becomes little more than propaganda.
Kenyans are wont to blame themselves for electing poor leaders, for retreating into tribal cocoons, for driving badly, for the corruption, for the violence and crime. Yet, as Rev Timothy Njoya said recently, that is blaming the victims. We instead need to look at the design of the system we have been laboring under since before independence.
We need to scrutinize the conduct of those charged with maintaining it. We must understand why it does not work for us. Why, for example, traffic rules seem to only make money for government and not stem the carnage on roads. Or why constitutional protections seem not to matter when government considers them inconvenient.
According to the World Bank, Kenya has the opportunity to achieve one of the goals we had at independence and eliminate extreme poverty by 2030. To do that, we need to reduce poverty by two percentage points each year. But that would only be possible if economic growth is accompanied by structural changes that reduce inequality and enable the poor benefit from new economic opportunities. We would also need to ensure that safety nets adequately protect them from vulnerability to shocks.
However, for this, and more, to happen, we need to be honest with ourselves about our system and those responsible for it. We will need to expose our past and resist the attempt, whether by politicians or journalists, to improve it. Even when this means raining on the golden jubilee parade.
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