Friday, 24 February 2012

Kenya at War

[In late 2001, following the September 11th terrorist attacks in the US, I wrote the following article reminding Kenyans that we too were under attack and calling on us to mobilize all our forces to defend ourselves and our beloved country. Things have moved on somewhat since 2001. Moi is no longer President, neither is George W. Bush. Kenya has a new Constitution, but fundamentally, there are still existential threats that confront us, and the warning contained in this article is as applicable today as it was 11 years ago. ]


Kenya is at war

By Njonjo Mue
19 November 2001.

Kenya is at war. 

It is a startling statement to have to make and I know it does sound alarmist, but hear me out. No, we do not go to bed with the sound of gunfire ringing in our ears and we do not see troops marching on our streets or bombs falling from the sky. But Kenya is at war.

Those on Ground Zero in Nairobi, our villages and small towns have been living on a war footing for so long that they have come to accept it as normal; to grin and bear it; and to declare to themselves and to others that it is their fate; that God ordained it for the black person to suffer. Besides, we all know that society has to make sense and so whatever evidence we come across that ours doesn't make sense has somehow to be internally denied – by government, by the media and ultimately by ourselves.

We have come to accept that somehow all those children living rough on our streets surviving on sniffing toxic substances are a normal part of living in an urban society; we have come to accept that all those young 
mothers sending their toddlers to beg money from hungry and angry passers-by are a normal part of city life; we have come to accept that all the thousands of workers who are turning up to work for a normal day only to find a thank you note and a terminal dues cheque are a normal part of capitalism at work; we have come to 
accept that the scenes of our alienated youth burning down dormitories or taking to the streets is a normal part of the 21st Century academic experience. We have somehow convinced ourselves that terrorism is defined as a couple of passenger jets flying into a couple of flashy buildings on a clear autumn morning in a faraway 
land of opulence, while overlooking the real terrorism that we daily encounter on the street, in our homes, at the hands of our government, the police, our public transport operators, our spouses, our partners, our parents and each other.

Kenya is at war. 

A significant minority of us have access to the Internet, so it is not inappropriate to ask you to follow me to another battle zone. Take a moment to visit Kenyan websites – Kenyaonline, Rcbowen,,, and a host of other discussion groups frequented by our angry brothers and sisters and you will be horrified by the amount of verbal violence that you will find there. Few meaningful discussion takes place before quickly degenerating into a tirade of verbal abuse. We seem to have lost our ability to engage each other on issues without descending into tribal name-calling and sectarian victimisation. And these are the educated among us! Even living abroad (most participants are Kenyans in the Diaspora) hasn't quite exposed us to new ways of thinking, of solving our problems. It only seems to have given new life to our worst sin. 
Unrestrained by the civility imposed upon us when we meet face to face, we have become cyber-tribalists, quickly labelling each other –"Kikuyus are this, Luhyas are that!" There is little engagement on the myriad challenges collectively facing us. Our country swings in the balance, yet the children our parents sacrificed their all to educate and send abroad have become warmongers in cyberspace, offering nothing but hatred and petty prejudice against the tribal "Other" and against women. What betrayal!

Kenya is at war. 
We have privatised the coercive forces of the state as powerful individuals have mobilised unemployed youths into private armies. Mungiki and Kamjesh fight it out on the streets; the police cower behind garbage heaps coming out during breaks in the fighting to collect the bodies of the dead. The young men are fighting over 
Matatu routes, we are told, over who will extort what from PSV owners. In these violent Summit Talks, the matatu owners are represented, powerful politicians are represented, the government is represented, but who, pray tell, is representing the hapless commuter? No one. The poor mother has to walk long distances through the battle zones to get to work while the combatants sort out the crucial question of how they will share the spoils.

No, you don't have to go to Kabul, Jalalabad or Kandahar to find terrorism. We have plenty of it right here at home. For terror is not about what they do to buildings and aeroplanes, it is about what they do to our minds. And government, Mungiki, Kamjesh, and a host of other unworthies have wormed their way into our craniums and lodged fear in our souls. They whisper violence and thereby paralyse a whole populace into pitiful complacency as thugs and murderers take over our streets. It is they, rather than the Son of Laden, who have changed our way of life. September 11 really has nothing to do with me, despite what the media and would have us believe. What happens on Matatu termini in Dandora does have everything to do with me! I do not fly from the East Coast to the West Coast on American Airlines, I commute from Town to Umoja on a Matatu. And before the President goes calling on George W Bush to discuss the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, let him call on David Mwenje and Fred Gumo to sort out our own matatu madness. That is what we elected him for!

Kenya is at war. 

And all around us, the vanguards of justice have abandoned their posts and fled, leaving hyenas to look after lambs. Look at the shameful behaviour of so-called learned friends in our highest courts. The evidence must be denied, you see, but it is clear that even our be-robed and bewigged men and women of the Bench are running out of ideas. First it was the Constitutional Court decision that terminated the operations of the Anti Corruption Authority last December. What a travesty! And just as we began to think that we had seen the worst of it, the judges struck back again early this week, when the Constitutional Court terminated corruption charges against Minister Kipng'eno Arap Ng'eny saying that it was unfair to try him nine years after the offence took place. The court suddenly remembered that there was a bill of rights, which was there to 
protect individuals such as the minister against harassment by his cabinet colleague, the Attorney General. Two points to note here: first, there is no statute of limitations on criminal cases and anyone can be charged at any time as long as evidence is available; secondly, this same court has denied the protection of the bill of 
rights to thousands of citizens who were detained, tortured and killed by the State. What happened in court this week is a shameful travesty. I shall copy this article to the Chief Justice and the Attorney General and I challenge them to charge me with scandalising the court. This judiciary doesn't need any help scandalising itself. It is already doing a spending job of it without any outside assistance!

Kenya is at war. 

Not just with its present, but with its future. It is said that if people start to doubt your sanity, then persist in your madness and they will start thinking that perhaps it is not madness after all, but is a special kind of genius. Our government seems to have caught on. For why, pray tell, would any government decide to excise 10% of 
our miserable forest cover when we have so recently experienced the havoc caused by a lack of clear environmental policies. Minister Nyenze gazetted a notice in February that he intended to degazette 170,000 acres of forest and asked for public feedback. Predictably there was an outcry, which the government characteristically ignored and last month, his successor, Minister Katana Ngala, confirmed the excision. There is absolutely no logic in this; indeed it is a looming tragedy. I am quietly hoping that it is all part of a ploy in the succession game to give the President a chance to intervene personally and overrule his ministers and thereby score some points – forgiveness points – so that when we eventually judge him for his many sins, we shall at least remember that he saved our forests. But this I know is wishful thinking.

Back overseas, where the great and the good do dwell, fear has swept across the land as a number of the sons and daughters of the soil have been apprehended and are threatened with being brought back to the soil, falling from grace to grass as it were. You see many of the children we sent abroad to study never stepped inside a classroom – except perhaps to wash it before quickly proceeding to the supermarket, the hospital or the fast-food restaurant to do similar menial jobs. Many have overstayed their visas and become undocumented migrant labourers. I am not saying that there is anything wrong with that. Our parents fought for independence so that if I wanted to do a cleaning job, I could do it without anyone's permission. 

What disturbs me is how we carry on the lie that the places of our sojourn abroad are a land of milk and honey. We slave away our lives and project the image of comfort and opulence to those we left behind thereby enticing our younger brothers and sisters with the lie that America is the land of the free and the home of the brave. How many of us tell the whole story to our friends and family back home? We prefer to send glossy pictures of ourselves washing our car, relaxing in our tastefully furnished living rooms, or playing in the park on a warm summer evening. Few speak of the crippling credit card debts, working impossible hours, months of loneliness and years of alienation; leave alone the heartache of trying to proclaim your humanity to a racist society where the glass ceiling is so firmly embedded above you that you can only go so far no matter what your talents and qualification. 

September 11 continues to reverberate in the hearts of many of our countrymen and women not because one of these days they might be travelling on an unlucky plane or that they might be working in a hapless skyscraper on a clear Tuesday morning but because the Immigration and Naturalisation Service has suddenly woken up from a long slumber and is likely to come knocking and asking for papers. I do not mean this in any malicious or condescending sense, but in July 2000, I spoke to Kenyans in California and asked them to get more involved in solving the problems of our country because their comfortable abode would not remain comfortable for long. My dismal foreboding has been vindicated. It is time for Kenyans abroad to do their part in fighting the war against the terrorism at home; for like it or not, we have no other home but Kenya.

Back at Ground Zero - the City in the Sun - the war is raging on. We started out fighting the three enemies of poverty, hunger and disease, but when that war started looking unwinable, we simply turned on each other. They lied to us when they said that Kenya was a peaceful country. What they meant was that we were all so scared of causing a scene in public that we never stand up for our rights. The problem, you see, is that we do everything we can to avoid confrontation. When a Matatu tout pushes me about, arbitrarily increases the fare, blasts my eardrums out with his music or suddenly changes the route to suit himself, I tell myself, well, it is just a 20 minute ride anyway, or it is just a 5 shilling difference, or I shall just be five minutes late getting home today. No big deal. 

But it is a big deal, for human dignity is a zero sum game. If I don't demand my rights and dignity in public, I shall take it out on my wife and children in private. If I just take it when that man jumps the queue at the post office, it shall come out against some innocent person at a different time. It is called justice; it is an intricate part of our make up. And when I am dehumanised in one place, it comes out in another place. So let us not fool ourselves. It is not the magnitude of the indignity that matters, it is the affront to my humanity which is caused by any form of injustice or violation, however seemingly minor. For you see, we are all rational beings and anything we go through must be rational or it shall provoke an irrational reaction, delayed and against people who had nothing to do with the initial injustice. And it will fan the flames of war that engulf us.

Kenya is at war. 

Our generals have by and large abdicated. They no longer give guidance as to how we are to fight this war to win. They are busy sharing the spoils – no, not the spoils, but our supplies; those meager resources we carried with us to the battlefield. Our generals have divided the garment that covered our nakedness amongst themselves and are now inviting their sons to help themselves to the dregs while there is yet time before the whole edifice comes crumbling down. We have been abandoned, are ill equipped and outnumbered. But we must regroup and fight on, for this is a war that we cannot afford to lose. It is a war for our survival as a people, as a nation and as a race.

Kenya is at war.

But who shall silence the guns? Who shall nurse the wounded? Who shall feed the orphan? And who shall help us find the way to peace; not just peace but a lasting peace with honour?

Ourselves. Each one of us must start considering ourself a volunteer in the army of ordinary people for peace. The terrorists in our midst seek to intimidate us into doing nothing about our pitiful situation. Their greatest weapons are not planes flying into buildings. Their most lethal weapons are deception and fear. But we must refuse to be slaves to fear. We must live our humanity with dignity. We must take the time to be rational in all our deeds, to explain our actions to ourselves and to each other. We must make sense of our society, interpreting events for ourselves as we see them and in the context of our lived experience. We must stop letting politicians or the media think for us – we must think for ourselves and for them and guide their action! We must stop being judgemental, for in a very real sense, we are all victims - even those who wound and maim us, those who steal from the mouths of babes and those who let them go scot-free in the name of justice – we are all victims of structures and systems that we found here and that we faithfully serve without 
question. We are captives of our own insecurity, realising that things have gone dreadfully wrong but lacking the wisdom or the courage to start reversing the decay.

And what can we learn from September 11 and all that? 

We do not know what exactly happened on those four jets on that clear Tuesday morning; we may never know. But if the account of events is true a number of angry young men got completely fed up with their lot in life and decided to sacrifice their all to do something about it. This is what we Kenyans must do. We must become completely fed up with being pushed about and laughed at and being treated as children of a lesser god. We must put our lives on the line for our cause – the rebuilding of the soul of our nation. We must be totally committed and totally focused and we must use everything at our disposal to reverse the decay. 

The only difference between us and the principal actors of September 11 is that where they were willing to die and to kill for their cause, we must be willing to live and to heal for our own; while they were willing to destroy buildings to make their point, we must be willing to rebuild a nation to make our own; while their project took months to prepare and minutes to execute, ours must take minutes to conceive and years to execute. For we must get to work right away. Every moment of delay pushes us ever closer to the brink.

I would like to pretend that if we heed this call it will mark the dawn of a new era for Kenya. But vested interests don't so easily give in to a new dispensation. I have to be honest and declare that we are only just approaching the midnight hour. Things will get worse before they get better. Many gallant fighters will fall. But we shall get through our midnight by focusing relentlessly on the vision of a new Kenya – one where justice becomes truly our shield and defender. 

This vision will be the magnet that will draw us to our enduring freedom as we embrace one another and as we work and rebuild together. Then we will become eyewitnesses to the miracle of our rebirth as the dark days of despair slowly begin to give way to our season of hope

Amkeni ndugu zetu!

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