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Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Tribute To Kenya's Forgotten People

Last week, the country lost a great patriot, one, however, whom most Kenyans had probably never heard of. My grandmother, Eunice Nyawira, passed away in her hospital bed after a long illness. Born at the dawn of the colonial era, she lived to see Kenya gain her independence and the subsequent betrayal of their hopes. She is part of a generation that is dying out and with them goes a great deal of history, not just of our family, but also of the nation they leave behind.

These are the ordinary people whose passing goes unlamented for the most part in a country that reserves its adulation for its politicians. I did know a great deal about my cucu and I took her presence for granted, assuming she would always be there to tell her story. It is something I will regret for the rest of my life.

The current hagiographic memorialization of Kenneth Matiba and the angst over the fate of electoral commissioners just makes this loss seem even more severe. History has always been presented as the tale of a few powerful men and Kenyan history in particular revolves around the fates of Big Men like Matiba. In this telling, the experiences and acts of a humble peasant woman in a nondescript corner of what is now Nyeri county hardly seem to merit more than a few lines in the obituary pages. 

However, it is on the backs of people such as Cucu Nyawira that this country was built. It is their numerous small acts of resistance – such as when she confronted colonial officials in Nyeri to get my late mum admitted into Ngandu Girls, or when she organized food for Mau Mau fighters, for which she was briefly arrested and detained - that provided the podium on which the Big Men stood. An illiterate woman who bore and educated 10 kids, who organized her community to build schools, to create better housing as well as water storage is exactly the sort of everyday Kenyan we should honor and celebrate daily.

There are millions of unsung heroes and heroines like her across our land. Ordinary Kenyans who did and continue to do extraordinary things. They are the rocks upon which families, communities and nations are founded. Their stories deserve to be collected and shared, their lives celebrated. They are a valuable store of history and with each loss of one of their number, that store is irredeemably diminished. While they are still with us, we should have a nationwide project to collect and document their stories and their lives. And not just the elderly generation, but all of Kenya’s generations. Rather than Kenyan history being the story of its Big Men, we should make it the story of all its people.

I imagine this being a collective and collaborate effort. No one person or even one organisation could do it. The Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission took years to interview 40,000 Kenyans. To build a database of the stories of millions would simply be overwhelming. However, we do have the internet and the unlimited resources that it provides. If we could get Kenyans to contribute their own stories and those of their relatives and friends, then we could begin to assemble a massive popular archive. 

And the stories needn’t be solely about superhuman exploits.  In fact, the most important contributions would be the tales of everyday living and survival that would shine a light on who the Kenyans are and how they experienced history.  I, for example, remember Cucu Nyawira's delight upon learning that Egypt, where, according to the Bible, Jesus' family had fled to to escape persecution, was actually in Africa. Also her patient skepticism when informed that people had walked on the moon. She also told me of granaries Kikuyus used to set aside aside after the harvest specifically for the poor and the disabled, challenging the idea that charity is a thing we learnt from the West.

It would undoubtedly be an extremely ambitious undertaking but one that I believe would be worth every effort. “In my culture, when the elderly die natural deaths we throw a big party and sing and dance and trade stories about the life they lived and the lives they touched,” tweeted political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, recently. Nothing would be a more fitting tribute to Eunice Nyawira and the unseen millions like her to whom Kenya owes everything.

Friday, March 23, 2018

The Lies That Bind


The recent revelations about the role played by British spin doctors, Cambridge Analytica, in Uhuru Kenyatta’s campaigns during the last two elections in Kenya have caused a bit of an uproar. Though long rumored -and hotly denied by Jubilee Party mandarins – the confirmation delivered via hidden camera was jarring not only for the extent of their involvement, but also for their underhand methods.
However, the fuss around Cambridge Analytica has tended to obscure the fact that, even without their involvement, spin and deception have been made into a way of conducting the nation’s business.

Take, for example, the recent online proclamations by the ever publicity-seeking Kenya Film Classification Board that it had bagged a global award, the grandly named Arch of Europe. According to the citation, the award was in recognition of the KFCB’s “immeasurable contribution to the business world” and its “high outstanding professionalism demonstrated by prestigious performance”. Sounds good, eh?

However, a little digging turns up some unsavory facts that the Board’s CEO, Dr. Ezekiel Mutua, would rather you didn’t notice. The organization issuing the award, the Madrid-based Business Initiatives Directions, along with six other organizations, had been investigated in 2014 by the Center for Investigative Reporting of Serbia (CINS) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and their awards found to be, in many cases “bogus, sold by unscrupulous organizations that prey on human vanity”.

The investigation found that “giving” awards had become a lucrative enterprise. “The organizations that provide these awards are nearly always based in European Union countries and mostly market their awards to developing countries”. And the clue is in the word “market”. As the report states, while the organisations claim to do their research to find the best awardees “in reality in most cases they send out hundreds of email invitations and some even allow applicants to nominate themselves on organization websites. Anyone who replies, shows interest and agrees to pay gets an award.”

Basically, KFCB may have simply bought itself an award and then taken to Twitter to parade it as a marker of excellence. And in case you were wondering, the CINS/OCCRP report found that such awards do not come cheap. “In Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, around 50 public institutions received these awards. Some paid for multiple awards at prices that ranged from € 2,000 to more than € 7,000 (US$ 2,500-9,300) per prize.” That means close to a million of your tax shillings may have been expended in assuaging the egos of the folks at KFCB.

Lest one thinks that this is a unique case, a public statement has just been released by the Hamburg Media School, makers of the Oscar-nominated Kenyan film, Watu Wote, which apparently gives the lie to the KFCB’s and Dr. Mutua’s assertions that the latter attended the 90th Oscars Academy Awards ceremony in the US earlier this month. “Dr. Mutua was not in attendance at the ceremony and did not participate in the Oscars with us. He never received an invitation,” says the statement, which was posted on the film’s Twitter account. It also says that a KFCB-sponsored screening of the movie in Las Vegas, again trumpeted by the Board as highlighting “opportunities available for investments in the film industry in Kenya”, was actually done in violation of the school’s copyright and without their permission.

Perhaps Dr. Mutua has picked up this habit from his boss. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head. Many will recall the "Mandela Prize" that President Kenyatta was awarded last December for apparently demonstrating a true spirit of democracy when he accepted the Supreme Court to annul the August 8 election. “To put it simply, ‘the Mandela Prize’ is bogus,” concluded a 2016 investigation by the Moroccan news website, Le Desk, after Mohammed VI, King of Morocco, “won” it that year. It is not to be confused with the legit UN Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela Prize, which awarded once every five years as a tribute to the outstanding achievements and contributions of two individuals from each gender.

Kenyatta’s “Prize” also came from a fishy outfit, the Paris-based Mandela Institute, which, despite its name, has nothing to do with the late Nelson Mandela other than the claim that its Honorary President, Olivier Stirn, was his friend. Stirn himself has a chequered past, having been forced to resign in disgrace from the French cabinet in 1990 after he was caught hiring unemployed actors, students and day laborers to pose as an audience for senior Socialist Party speakers at a sparsely attended conference.

More recently, during the President’s state visit to Cuba, his spin doctors announced that the Cuban government had honoured his late father, Jomo Kenyatta, “as a towering figure in African and Caribbean liberation movement” by placing his bust at the Park of African Heroes in Havana. However, what they did not mention was that, as Dr Wandia Njoya has pointed out on Twitter, the plaque on the bust doesn't mention fighting for freedom and, perhaps more importantly, that the busts there are sometimes donated by African governments themselves. Crucially, there was no mention of who was paying for this particular bust.

So as we express our outrage at Cambridge Analytica’s corruption of our democracy, we must not deceive ourselves that what they were doing is somehow different from the everyday actions of our public officials. From fake wars against corruption, to our invented ethnicities to the farcical Head of State commendations, Kenya is a state that was built on, and that is largely sustained by, lies and deceptions.

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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