"Show me a man's friends, and I'll tell you who he is," said American essayist, lecturer, and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. And this week, the Jubilee administration has shown us who its friends are.
“Civil society, media and leaders from across our political social spectrum have come together and made their views known and in the hearts of every Kenyan we know that we must win this war [on corruption]” declared President Uhuru Kenyatta when welcoming Pope Francis on his maiden visit to Africa. At The Hague and in New York, however, his minions were using very different language.
At the former, the government, with the support of the entire political establishment, was engaged in an effort to get the Assembly of Parties to the Rome Statute to dictate to the International Criminal Court how it is to interpret the rules of evidence. The fuss was brought on by the Court’s decision to apply rule 68, which allows for the consideration of recanted testimony, to the cases facing Deputy President William Ruto and journalist Joshua Sang.
Setting aside for a moment the merits of the government’s argument that it was assured this wouldn’t happen (for which there appears some justification) and that the use of recanted testimony is inherently unjust (much more dubious), the fact is that this issue is still under active consideration by the court, the accused having appealed the decision of the Trial Chamber. Like the dictators of Kenya’s past, the government wanted to decree the outcome of that appeal.
Now, Kenya’s famously vocal civil society wasn’t about to let this travesty happen without a fight. So, it too sent a team to make representations to the ASP. They were seemingly quite effective as very soon the government side, which was spending over Ksh 100 million in public money on what President Kenyatta in 2013 assured us was “a personal challenge”, slipped back into its old habits of demonization and delegitimization. Talk of “evil society” and threats to brand legitimate Kenyan NGOs as “foreign agents” suddenly resurfaced.
However, this time the regime went a little further. In what has to be an all-time low for Kenyan diplomacy, at the United Nations General Assembly the government teamed up with the likes of North Korea, Myanmar, Iran and Sudan in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to shoot down a UN resolution recognising and protecting the role of human rights defenders. Kenya was among only 14 countries, the vast majority of them brutal dictatorships, to vote against the resolution. It was a thinly disguised attempt to scare local human rights activists, and perhaps to punish them for their opposition to the Uhuru administration’s agenda at the ASP.
By rejecting a resolution adopted by two-thirds of Member States and that calls for accountability for attacks on human rights defenders and their families as well as urging states to release defenders who have been arbitrarily detained, the Uhuru regime has once again let its mask of civility slip. The pretense of tolerance, of fidelity to the constitution and the rule of law had already been badly undermined by unending corruption scandals and the government’s own penchant for scapegoating entire communities, dissenters, media and civil society under the guise of fighting terrorism. But its fangs are only truly bared when it comes to the cases before the ICC.
The government has only ever been interested in getting these cases lifted, not injustice. That much is clear to anyone who cares to look. Its indifference to (and likely collusion in) the disappearance, intimidation and bribery of witnesses as well as its sustained campaign to delegitimize the Court proves as much. Anyone who stands in the way is fair game. Thus it is the civil society groups that were at the forefront of the demands for accountability for the 2008 post-election violence have borne the brunt of the government’s assault.
It is to their eternal credit that the likes of Africog’s Gladwell Otieno have refused to be cowed in the face of this onslaught. However, it is undeniable that the space for dissenting opinion is rapidly shrinking. The vote at the UN, coupled with the recent arrest of journalists for daring to report on queries by the Auditor-General into suspicious procurement at the Interior Ministry as well as the President’s assertion that any media reporting on corruption allegations would be required to provide evidence of the same, illustrate the government’s determination and increasingly brazen attempts to roll back the freedoms guaranteed by the 2010 constitution as well as to crush any prospects for accountability, not only for the deaths, injuries, rapes and displacement of 2008, but also for the continuing looting that impoverishes Kenya.
And given the crowd that their government is now running with, Kenyans would be prudent to prepare for the coming storm.