Lately, as I have engaged in the transitional justice agenda in Kenya, I have been reminded of an article that I wrote in Johannesburg in October 2007 pleading with Kenya to seriously address the history of abuse and human rights violations before it came back to haunt us. We did not and we all know what happened. Below, I reproduce that article for those who find time to read it because I think it is still relevant to the struggles of our time...
Don’t Heal Lightly The Wound of My People
It is always such a delight for me visit Johannesburg. This is because I lived here for almost five years between 1997 and 2001, when I worked as Head of the Africa Office of the freedom of expression watchdog, ARTICLE 19. It was during the same time that many Kenyans relocated to Johannesburg in search of opportunities, many fleeing from an increasingly troubled motherland.
The period of my sojourn in South Africa was a time of great transition. I arrived here during the third year of the Mandela presidency and left two years after Thabo Mbeki stepped into his big shoes. As we were busy setting up our modest office on 87 Juta Street in Braamfontein and as I was settling into my little flat in Montgomery Park, the ANC was just getting its feet wet on the driving seat of government, after decades of being an outlawed movement trying to overthrow a racist regime in a blatantly unequal contest. Desmond Tutu and his truth commissioners were helping the country to come to terms with its horrid past, and black people were beginning to enjoy their place under the sun after four hundred years of colonial domination and apartheid rule.
Back home in Kenya, 1997 was also a year of transition. The Kanu government was still standing menacingly in the way of a new people’s constitution and intimidating anyone who thought they might have a new idea on how their motherland should be governed. I remember participating in public rallies, declared illegal, in Kamukunji in early March and at Uhuru Park on the eve of Madaraka Day, alongside thousands of other young Kenyans demanding change under the slogan, “No Reforms, No Elections!” We were beaten and tear-gassed, vilified and jailed, but we would not relent in our chorus of disapproval against the cabal of kleptocratic lootocrats who went by the name of the government of the day.
It was the year of saba saba, nane nane, tisa tisa, kumi kumi. These were all demonstrations held with ever increasing public support in Nairobi and elsewhere in the country, demanding fundamental changes in the governance of our country. They were all violently broken up by Moi’s security forces. Then, just when change appeared imminent, the politicians, who were our erstwhile comrades in arms, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by abandoning us when Moi dangled the carrot of IPPG before them. They did not even bother to entrench in law the few concessions they claimed to have won before running off to look for votes when the election was called. Ten years later, we are still staring at the fog of the promise of a new constitution, no nearer to our goal than when we first began.
Many of us in the civil society felt betrayed by the IPPG deal cobbled up by politicians to enable them to share our chicken before it was cooked, but this is not the place to recount the long tale of lost opportunities on the road to a new constitutional dispensation in Kenya. The reason I bring up these momentous events of 1997 in both Kenya and South Africa is that they mirror our present struggles in two important respects.
First, as we all know, it is election season once again in Kenya and politicians are out on the beat promising us all a piece of the moon. It is time for the country to make important decisions that will determine the direction Kenya takes for the next five years and beyond.
Second, the South African transition from apartheid, especially the truth-telling process aimed at helping uncover and heal the wounds inflicted on the majority by the minority, still offers an object lesson for Kenya at this time. For no matter who wins the election, there is much unfinished business on our psycho-social landscape that will not go away until we have the courage to face up to our sometimes painful history. It is this aspect of our own transition that I would like us to take the next few moments to reflect on tonight.
Over the last 44 years of our independence, successive governments have studiously refused to undertake and lead a process of dealing with painful periods of our past and to bring perpetrators of gross injustices to account. Year after year, we have continued to celebrate our achievements while failing to acknowledge the very real pain and suffering unjustly visited upon our sisters and brothers by people who hitherto lived side by side with them as neighbours.
Survivors of ethnic cleansing, like children of a lesser god, continue to roam landless in our towns and countryside scavenging for food; women who have no platform to speak of the sexual violence they endured during the clashes in Molo, Burnt Forest and elsewhere, bear their pain silently, with only bitter tears shed quietly to avoid spoiling the party, as they are casually invited by the government spokesperson to juvunia kuwa waKenya; families of assassinated politicians still wait for official acknowledgment that government agents actively took part in the demise of their loved ones and the subsequent elaborate cover-up.
We have also decided that bringing to justice the perpetrators of gross economic sabotage through the massive looting of the public purse and the misappropriation of public land by a well connected few is a luxury that Kenya cannot afford.
It is natural to feel anxious about the effect that addressing the past might have on our national fabric, especially since lawlessness, looting and pillaging of public resources for private gain was at some point regarded as unofficial government policy. It is also the case that it is virtually impossible to find anyone among our political elite who is untainted by the corruption of the past. And so we continue to pretend that the past did not happen.
But the poet Maya Angelou has some comforting words for societies such as ours that hesitate to come to terms with their past. In her moving poem during the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993, she reminded us that “history, despite its wrenching pain cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”
And this is precisely what we need to do in Kenya as we contemplate the next five years. We must face our history with courage. The current government attempted to go down that road early in its life when it appointed a task force on the establishment of a truth, justice and reconciliation commission. But it seems to have developed cold feet despite the findings of the task force that the Kenyan people were overwhelmingly in favour of some form of accounting for the past.
And yet, whether the next government – whoever heads it – offers the needed leadership on this issue or continues to bid us bury our heads in the sand, this is an issue that just won’t go away. A casual look around the world, from South Africa to Liberia to Chile to Argentina, shows that people are refusing to allow history to be silenced. Succeeding generations refuse impunity and demand moral accountability for past criminal acts and a modicum of justice to ensure it. Kenya will be no different, and the longer we leave our issues unresolved, the more complicated they are likely to become. We should not forget that the perennial troubles in the Balkans can be directly traced to the battle of Kosovo fought in 1389!
Perhaps the reluctance by the establishment to ask people to account for the past, results from ignorance of why the process is necessary and what it would entail. This ignorance breeds fear and paralysis. I remember a story that appeared in the Daily Nation of 27 June 2003, reporting on submissions to the task force on the Truth Commission. It screamed, “DON’T OPEN UP OLD WOUNDS, TRUTH TEAM TOLD.” There were also mixed interpretations of what accounting for the past really meant. While one body of opinion wanted to legislate a national amnesia of forgive and forget, another wanted criminals identified, prosecuted and duly punished.
But it is still important even in the midst of this confusion to find a way forward. We must open up old wounds if they did not heal properly in the first place, in order to air them and let the puss out. For as philosopher George Santayana cautions us, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our country is badly in need of reconciliation. But there can be no reconciliation without forgiveness and there can be no forgiveness without truth.
But many have asked, what is truth in this context? Simply put, truth entails giving a right and a forum for those who have endured suffering in silence to tell their stories and an opportunity to know and understand what exactly transpired in the old dispensation – what led to their suffering, in what context it occurred, and who was involved. As one survivor told the Truth Commission here in South Africa, “We do want to forgive, but we don’t know whom to forgive.”
Truth in the context of reconciliation expresses itself in acknowledgment of injustice committed during violent conflict or oppression. It includes full disclosure of misdeeds; publication of accounts of formerly hidden injustices and violence; and storytelling by victims in the context of therapy.
Truth telling is also important in order to establish an accurate record of a country’s past, and lift the lid of silence on particular periods or incidents that we are ashamed to face up to. In seeking the truth, victims and survivors are not driven by mere curiosity. The massacre of helpless villagers on the runway of a remote airstrip in the North-East; the torture endured at Nyayo House; the flight by night to makeshift refugee camps in the Rift Valley; the loss of a loving father to hired assassins outside a pharmacy, in Ngong or on a lonely hill in Koru. These are all now an indelible part of the identity of the survivors, and denying that these atrocities happened is denying an integral part of who these people are.
Miroslav Volf puts it poignantly in his book, Exclusion and Embrace:
“By wanting to know “what happened” they are wanting to insure that the insult of occultation is not added to the injury of oppression; they are seeking to restore and guard human dignity, protect the weak from the ruthless. The truth about what happened is here often a matter of life and death.”
Tutu brings it closer home. In his book, No Future Without Forgiveness, he explains why forgetting the past is wholly unacceptable:
“Accepting [national amnesia] would have victimized the victims of apartheid a second time round. It would have meant denying their experience, a vital part of their identity…. Our nation sought to rehabilitate and affirm the dignity and humanity of those who were cruelly silenced for so long, turned into anonymous, marginalized victims. Now through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they would be empowered to tell their stories, allowed to remember and in this public recounting, their individuality and inalienable humanity would be acknowledged.”
In some cases, victims already substantially know what happened but they still need an official acknowledgment from the perpetrators and the state, where it was involved. As Juan Mendez points out in an article in the New York Law School Journal of Human Rights, “Knowledge that is officially sanctioned, and thereby made ‘part of the public cognitive scene’…acquires a mysterious quality that is not there when it is merely ‘truth’. Official acknowledgment at least begins to heal the wounds.”
I remember having tea recently with the daughter of a popular politician whose murder has never quite been resolved. She confessed that as a child, she grew up believing that her father must have been a very bad man since, in her innocent imagination, only bad people got killed. To such a person, official acknowledgment would go a long way to providing healing.
Truth is also important in ensuring the reform of structures that facilitated the abuses. The truth must be placed on the public record to enable society to take a long hard look at itself and ensure that the violations of the past do not recur. This is the only way that the truth will lead to transformation of society.
As Janet Cherry reminds us in a chapter in Looking Back, Reaching Forward, “Personal and individual histories of suffering or evil-doing are usually intrinsically related to systemic conditions. Provision should therefore be made for a comprehensive socio-ethical approach when dealing with the past.” We in Kenya must ask ourselves, what sort of value system would lead us to construct a building whose name means ‘Peace, Love and Unity’ with a basement designed for the worst forms of torture known to humanity?
“Forgive and forget,” is the famous mantra of the morally lazy. We must forgive and remember because the process of reconciliation depends a great deal on how we remember the past. We have just come out of celebrating Kenyatta Day and there would be no point in doing so if we bought into the conventional wisdom of sweeping our past under the rug; after all, the events of 20th October 1952 are not in themselves a cause for celebration. As John De Gruchy points out in Reconciliation, “Memories can return with a vengeance unless they are redeemed and become a way of transforming the future.”
But we should not go excavating the past for the purpose of inflicting revenge upon our fellow citizens. There is a healing way that can bring hope for the future along with our sorrow for the past. We must collectively find this way.
This more excellent way involves forgiveness. This is at the core of the reconciliation process. Many commentators are agreed that this is the most difficult part of the process. Revenge is the most natural reaction of a human being when unjustly treated.
The trouble with revenge, however, is that it enslaves both the victim and the perpetrator in a vicious cycle. What to one is a justified act of vengeance is to the other an unwarranted injustice that calls for counter-revenge. This dynamic has led to some societies being caught in a spiral of violence for generations.
Forgiveness breaks the power of the remembered past and transcends the claims of the affirmed justice and so makes the spiral of revenge grind to a halt. But it must not be cheap forgiveness that does not acknowledge the hurt visited upon the victims. True reconciliation, according to Tutu, “exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the degradation, the truth…. Spurious reconciliation can bring only spurious healing.”
And so we arrive at this threshold in our history with three choices to make regarding the injustices of the past: impunity; trials and punishment; or reconciliation.
We have already seen that impunity threatens the social fabric because it undermines justice which is the essence of organized society. Impunity prevents the full rehabilitation of victims, reconciliation and the building of genuine democracy. Impunity is the option normally favoured by members of an outgoing autocratic regime who would rather that their record while in power remained beyond scrutiny.
In Latin American countries such as Chile and Argentina, outgoing military dictators in the late 1980s passed laws granting themselves and their supporters blanket amnesty from prosecution for human rights abuses as a condition for agreeing to hand over power to democratically elected governments. But as Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet found out in his last days, and as his family continues to find out today, you cannot silence history. Our leaders and their families would be wise to heed this lesson.
Trials and punishment of past criminals are also not a practical option. In the first place, in most cases there would not be sufficient evidence to convict those suspected of human rights violations. Some of the violations happened in the 1960s and most witnesses would be dead by now. Even after the Second World War with the evidence of Nazi atrocities still relatively fresh, less than 6,500 of the 90,000 cases brought to court resulted in convictions.
Secondly, even if sufficient evidence could be found and considering the pervasive culture of corruption that gripped our country during the time in question, bringing to trial all the culprits would overwhelm the judiciary. Many of the key perpetrators have enough money to keep their cases tied up in the courts for years. Also, criminal trials are not the best placed for seeking a comprehensive truth about the past. Many facts are kept out of court by strict rules of evidence.
It is important to avoid the two extremes of impunity and punishment, and find a ‘third way’ that deals with the past in a manner that will promote a new political culture and a shared vision for the future. That ‘third way’ should balance the requirements of truth, forgiveness, accountability and the restoration of justice leading to national healing and reconciliation.
Reconciliation can take many different forms. As a Christian, I naturally turn to the Bible for guidance. The biblical concept of Shalom (wholeness) is the image that comes closest to expressing the complex and multifaceted reality of reconciliation. There has to be wholeness resting on a balance between Truth and Mercy, Justice and Peace. In the language of Psalm 85, this is where ‘truth and mercy have met together, justice and peace have kissed.’
Wherever the social fabric has been ruptured by conflict, dictatorship or autocratic rule as happened in Kenya over the last four decades, most people agree on the need for reconciliation between victims and perpetrators of human rights violations, but they have different understandings of what reconciliation entails.
For some, it involves contrition, confession and forgiveness (i.e. mercy); others call for ‘peace in the land’ through the improvement of people’s social and economic conditions (i.e. peace); yet others call for justice through the prosecution of perpetrators and the establishment of a culture of democracy and human rights (i.e. justice); lastly there are those who say that there can be no reconciliation without public acknowledgment of crimes through a truth- telling process (i.e. truth).
Reconciliation in action, in my view, is inclusive of all aspects of Shalom: justice, peace, truth and mercy. A successful reconciliation process should integrate all these key elements.
In August 2000 while I was based here in South Africa, some friends and I proposed just such a model with regard to Kenya’s public wealth stolen and siphoned abroad by corrupt leaders and their unscrupulous friends. We launched the BOMB -‘Bring Our Money Back’ - initiative whose key proposals were to set a time frame within which anyone who had money illegally banked or invested abroad was to publicly declare and account for it. If they did so and told the whole truth as to how they acquired it to enable the sealing of loopholes, they would be granted amnesty from prosecution and even allowed to keep 15% of the money, provided they invested it at home and returned the rest to the public purse.
We drafted a Bill to create a framework for tracing and repatriating such moneys, which unfortunately did not see the light of day, as the new government subsequently chose to engage Messrs Kroll & Co to prepare a glossy report to tell us what we already knew without giving us a clue as to how we would ever get our money back.
In conclusion and contrary to what our political elite would have us believe, the crimes committed against the people of Kenya in the past cannot be simply forgotten. To carry on with business as usual while ignoring the walking wounded in our midst would be, in the words of the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah, to “heal the wound of My people lightly, saying ‘peace peace’ when there is no peace.”
We have to build a culture of respect for human rights and democracy in our country. There has to be a genuine commitment to break with the past, to heal the wounds, to forgive but remember in redemptive ways in order to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. This way, we can build a shared vision of the future; a vision of a great nation at peace with itself, for the sake of ourselves, our children and our children’s children.
God bless you and God bless Kenya.
I thank you.