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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Innocent Victim? Not Exactly

The last few weeks have been rather trying for Kenyan media. The government’s criminal overreaction to the mock swearing in of Raila Odinga did not end with the shut down of the three leading television stations for over a week. Even after they were allowed back on air, the Uhuru Kenyatta administration has continued to throw a tantrum, with the President chasing journalists out of one of his official engagements and the state singling out three from the Nation Media Group, Linus Kaikai, Larry Madowo and Ken Mijungu, for special attention, forcing them to seek protection from the courts.

Faced with this onslaught, the media has been quick to don the costume of public interest and proceeded to play the part of innocent victim. In a piece published on the CNN website, Madowo condemns the “shutting down [of] networks that have such a massive following [and] public trust … by a rogue government.”

“Our job as reporters is to record history, whether the government of the day approves of it or not,” he continues, declaring Kenya “one of Africa's beacons for vibrant media [which] should not be dimmed out by an administration intent on censorship of independent voices, reducing the country to just another African dictatorship where critical journalism is outlawed and reporters constantly fear for their lives.”

Madowo deserves an Oscar for that performance. For while the government’s actions have been completely illegal and anti-democratic, outrageous in the extreme and deserving of full condemnation, Kenyan media has not behaved much better. The fact that he was forced to hawk his piece to CNN is telling. “This week, the @dailynation refused to print my column for the first time in nearly 4 years,” he had tweeted in explanation. In fact, a few days later, his column was to be cancelled entirely. And he wasn’t the only one targeted by the supposedly “vibrant media” which now seemed eager to do the government’s dirty work.
                     
On the eve of Odinga’s “inauguration”, a leaked internal memo from Nation Media Group (NMG) Editor-in-Chief, Tom Mshindi, suggested that he and Kaikai, NTV’s General Manager, were “aligned” on not providing live coverage for the event. That was before Kaikai that evening, in his capacity as Chairman of Kenya Editors Guild, blew the lid off a secret meeting at State House between of “a section of media managers and select editors from the main media houses” and President Kenyatta, his deputy, William Ruto, the Attorney-General as well as Cabinet Secretaries for Interior and ICT. It was at this meeting that the media was ordered not to cover the Odinga event live.

Ultimately, NTV did cover the event precipitating its being illegally switched off by the Communications Authority along with KTN and Citizen all of whom continued to stream their coverage on the internet. Kaikai would pay the price for his defiance as a quick reorganization at NTV has reportedly seen him sidelined on decisions regarding what content is broadcast and now even seems set to leave the group along with Madowo. At the moment, the two along with Ken Mijungu, the very people police were seeking to arrest, have been effectively banned from going on air and Madowo’s political talk show, Sidebar, appears to have been cancelled.

All this is part of a trend. Kenyan media houses have become adept at sacrificing top journalists to appease the government. Just as. in the current crisis, media owners and top management have been happy to throw journalists under the bus, so in 2014, The Standard fired 3 of its journalists after top editors were similarly summoned to State House over a story the government disputed.

In 2015, NMG fired world-famous cartoonist, Godfrey GADO Mwampembwa, after his cartoons drew the wrath of the Kenyan and Tanzanian governments. In 2016, Denis Galava was fired from his post as the Daily Nation’s Managing Editor for Special Projects, after he penned a New Year’s Day editorial that was, according to The Star, “deemed critical of President Uhuru Kenyatta's administration”.

Madowo’s notion that Kenya’s “vibrant” media conducts “critical journalism” is also quite misleading. We are talking here of establishments that are content to unquestioningly run press releases from State House as news, a habit which left the media badly exposed a few weeks ago after a claim by the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit that Kenyatta had been appointed a UNICEF global champion for youth empowerment turned out to be false. Further, many will not have forgotten that this same media houses were happy to pocket millions of public shillings for running illegal government advertisements during the campaign period. Or the role it played in allowing, and even encouraging, the delegitimization of civil society.

All this explains why many Kenyans have been ambivalent about supporting the media during the present onslaught. Poetic justice, some have called it, wondering why they should stand up for a media that does not stand up for them. There is a lesson for the media in all this. Protection does not come from courting the government, but rather from courting the people. In the end, as the Daily Nation’s own public editor wrote, it is the public that is “the best protector of press freedom”.

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Friday, February 02, 2018

Kenya's Future Increasingly Looks Like Its Past

In early 1965, after just a year of independence, Kenya’s first President, Jomo Kenyatta suspected Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga was planning a coup against his government. Deep divisions within the ruling Kenya African National Union - between those wanting radical and populist change to the inherited colonial system and those who were intent on consolidating it and seeking more gradual change – had been exacerbated by the murder of radical Nominated MP, Pio Gama Pinto in late February.

Determined to eliminate the threat, Kenyatta sent the paramilitary General Service Unit of the Kenya Police Force into Luo Nyanza to look for weapons and to intimidate Odinga’s Luo base. As related by Charles Hornsby in his opus, Kenya: A History Since Independence, “there was a press blackout on their activities, which included house searches, beatings and rapes, which were only made public at the end of the month, when angry Luo MPs raised the issue in Parliament”.

Within a year, Odinga had been forced out of KANU and had set up his own political party in opposition, the Kenya Peoples Union. As Hornsby states, Odinga was betting “that Kenyatta and KANU would play by the rules and that the West would ensure they did so.” However, Kenyatta’s patrons were silent during the next three years which witnessed “more serious abuses than were conducted against a political party at any time before or since in Kenya’s history”. These included changes to the electoral system on the eve of, and rigging during, the Little General Election; branding Odinga as a threat to “national stability”; the mangling of the 7 year-old independence constitution to concentrate power in the President and eliminate all checks on it; the reintroduction of colonial-style detention without trial; and intimidation of both the judiciary and the press. The period ended with the murder of Tom Mboya, Kikuyu oathing, a massacre of Odinga supporters in Kisumu, the banning of the KPU and detention of Odinga and his allies.

Fast forward half a century and Jomo’s son, Uhuru Kenyatta, is President and Jaramogi’s son, Raila Odinga, stands accused of attempting to stage a coup. Once again, the latter has been demonized by the ruling party and dozens have been killed beaten and raped by the GSU in Luo Nyanza. The media is silenced, the courts ignored, the state accused of electoral malpractice including engineering last minute changes to electoral laws and a round up of Odinga’s allies is under way. A new constitution enacted just 7 years ago which imposed serious limitations on Presidential power is roundly ignored and institutions meant to be a check on it, including the parliament, are completely servile. All the while, Western powers are silent. Just as in the 60s, they have opted to side with the Kenyattas whom they consider the best bet for preserving the colonial system that safeguards their interests above those of ordinary Kenyans.

So how will this end? Is it likely that Kenyatta will have Odinga arrested for treason? After all, his allies have been charged with abetting treason and the courts may have a hard time convicting them if the person accused of actually committing treason is allowed to wander freely. But perhaps the intention is not to seek convictions but rather to send a message. Still, history suggests some action may be taken though it might not be as drastic or as harsh as a treason charge. The senior Odinga was subjected to two years in detention by the senior Kenyatta and then house arrest by Kenyatta’s successor, Daniel arap Moi. The latter has already been bandied about as a possibility by Jubilee hardliners.

Any arrest of Odinga would undoubtedly spark massive unrest in Nyanza but, just as in the 60s, the Kenyatta government has shown that it is not averse to killing large numbers of citizens in order to cling to power. Further, the likelihood of the international community interfering to stop such is miniscule. Rather than an ideological battleground of the Cold War of yesteryear, Kenya is today on the frontline of other wars against terrorists and Chinese domination. These concerns outweigh Kenyan lives.

Kenya has basically regressed 50 years in the last 7 months and the 2010 constitution’s promise of a democratic renewal is fast fading. If extinguished, history suggests Kenyans may be in for decades of brutal and kleptocratic rule. It will be a steep price for the country to pay for not learning from its past.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Why Trump's "Shithole" Comments Are Nothing New


Eric Kiraithe, must really be well paid. Being the official spokesman of the Kenyan Government, is, in the words of Jerry Maguire, “an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege” that I’m sure he will never fully tell us about. We got a glimpse of what the job entails when the government sent him out this week to defend the indefensible: US President Donald Trump’s description of Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” and his declared preference for immigrants from Northern Europe.

The mental gymnastics Kiraithe had to engage in were a spectacle to behold. No doubt trying to curry favor with the famously petty and vengeful Trump, he declared that Kenya had no problems with African countries being called “shitholes” but nonetheless supported the African Union in condemning the comments whose context, he claimed, the government was still studying “to see whether it is worth the attention”, even though it had already determined that they were not directed at Kenya.

Still, there perhaps was an easier, and perhaps less humiliating, way for Kiraithe and his minders to extricate themselves from the bind. Trump may be an ignorant, racist, pathetic excuse for a human being but if we are honest, his sentiments are not dissimilar to attitudes held by many of the “respectable” people lining up to condemn him in the West and even here in Africa.

As any African applying for visa will tell you, the indignities visited upon us in the process make it plain that we are not exactly welcome. It is humiliating to have to demonstrate to strangers that one is not about to abandon one’s family and nation to live on the streets of Europe or America, to have them stand in judgment over your acceptability as human being. And that is just how the system treats those seeking a legal route for a temporary visit.

The reaction to the so-called European migrant crisis which saw more than a million unwanted migrants and refugees from the middle east and Africa cross into Europe in 2015, shows the extremes that will be considered in order to turn them back. “Europe has decided to cooperate with Libyan authorities, knowing the kind of torture, abuses, detention that migrants and refugees are exposed to in Libya,” Amnesty International’s Maria Serrano told Voice of America last month.
Of course, the idea of a crisis is not extended to the nearly 12.5 million Europeans who are resident in a country not their own within the European Union, even when 95 percent of these are hosted in just six countries. It is only a crisis when they come from “shithole countries”.

And it is not just Europeans. Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in Kenya in November declaring how he loves Africans, seems to only love them when they stay at home. Back in Israel, he has taken to branding African asylum seekers “infiltrators” is deporting thousands of them. In Libya, slave markets have re-opened with many of the same Africans Europe is turning away being treated as commodities.

But African citizens do not even need to try to leave the continent in order to experience the dehumanization associated with immigration. Kenya’s abysmal treatment of refugees from Somalia -who are crammed into crowded camps, forbidden from seeking work, regularly demonized as terrorists and even illegally forced back into the war zone across the border – is no less humiliating. Neither are the hoops Kenyans themselves – as well as other Africans - are forced to jump through when attempting to visit South Africa, formerly the continent’s largest economy, are no less humiliating.

In fact, Africans don’t even need to try to go outside their countries’ borders to be insulted or have heir humanity questioned. Hollywood as well as Western aid agencies and media regularly does it right in the comfort of our homes with their portrayal of Africa as a troubled, exotic paradise peopled by childishly simple, na├»ve beings unable to deal with the challenges of life and who need white saviors to rescue them from other white devils or from themselves.

Rounding out the parade of insulters are African elites, especially in the media and in politics, who have become our very own Uncle Toms, loyally regurgitating and fleshing out the worst stereotypes that the West has of us. Having opted not to reform the racist, extractive colonial states they inherited in the late 1950s and early 1960s, these elites have trouble seeing the humanity of the masses of citizens they prey on. So, like the Europeans before them, rather than fix dehumanizing political and economic systems, they try to beat and shame the natives into compliance with them, into accepting the space that the world has allocated to them at the back of the bus - which is the reason so many try to leave in the first place.

This brings us back to Trump and his comments. So should Kenyans be offended by them? You bet they should. But no more so than by the treatment and representations Africans have to endure every day from a world that has decided that they come from “shithole countries” and so must be shitty people.

And the supreme irony of it is, up till less than a century ago, Africans were quite content to stay on the continent. It was shitty people from other places who came here and forced them out.  It was shitty people who took them to places like Haiti, where, after they fought for and won their freedom, more shitty people blockaded and invaded them and created the very conditions today that a shitty American President, blissfully unaware of this, today disparages.

However, it is an irony that is completely lost on Kiraithe and the folks he speaks for.