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The East African : Sep 1st 2014
22 The EastAfrican OPINION AUGUST 30 - SEPTEMBER 5, 2014 Fou≥ yea≥s down the line, Kenya’s new Constitution is still st≥uggling to be bo≥n the degree we had hoped. First, take the example of the Is our model of devolution the only way to have devolved government?.” Tee Ngugi L ast week, Kenya’s liberal Constitution had its fourth birthday, a milestone that affords us an opportunity to reflect on the health of some of its most revolutionary creations and provisions. One of these was the abolition of the requirement that Cabinet ministers be members of the National Assembly, thus upholding the doctrine of separation of powers. This was not just a matter of prin- ciple; it was also intended to have a functional role. It was hoped that people not beholden to political constituencies would manage their portfolios purely on the basis of professional standards, thus revolutionising service delivery and expediting the development process. And yet this has not happened to Internal Security Ministry. For a number of years now, the country has been under siege by armed criminals, acts of murder, carjacking and kidnapping now being permanent features of our social landscape. Then there are the unending in- cidents of politically instigated ethnic killings, the latest episode being witnessed in Mandera. The government has no political will to bring the inciters to book, perhaps for fear of losing their considerable political support. The most damning indictment of this ministry, however, is its failure to prevent audacious terrorist attacks that claim the lives of hundreds of Kenyans. If the handling of the terrorist at- tack in Mpeketoni is anything to go by, then Kenyans are in for a long season of death. Despite survivor accounts pointing to Al Shabaab as the attackers, and the claim of responsibility by the terrorist organisation, the government blamed the opposition for the attacks. This is akin to Barrack Obama blaming the Republicans for the Boston Marathon bombings! But this is Kenya, where lives of people are fair game in our anarchic politicking. Second, let’s take the example of the Agriculture docket. Each time experts warned of a possible famine in Turkana, the ministry had a stock response — the country has enough food. That is until people started dying, and the smug response changed to: We have enough food but transporting it is the problem. As if those afflicted would die happily, knowing there was enough food, only a lack of means of transportation! The idea of having contingency plans is to be prepared in any number of ways to respond to emergencies. You can bet that no one will answer for this failing. Another important feature of the Constitution is devolved government. The fundamental question our experience of devolution raises is whether the hierarchical structure of county government — governors, deputy governors and county executives, and the bureaucracies around each one — is the most efficacious in bringing development to the people. In other words: Is our model of devolution the only way to have devolved government? Clearly, the wastage and theft of funds by those supposed to bring development to the grassroots, and their ostentatious displays and megalomania suggest a need to rethink, not devolved government, but the way we have conceived and structured it. We may have adopted a model not appropriate to our particular socio-political and developmental situation. Finally, the Constitution identi- fied national values around which to organise our individual and national efforts. The idea was to adopt ways of thinking and behaviour that would be complementary to the high demands of our constitutional aspirations. The Kanu dictatorship had turned the country’s value system upside down. Wealth, even when illegally acquired, had come to be seen as a virtue (that is why those linked to past corruption are either our leaders or seek to lead us). The idea of public office as a means to change lives became confused with self-aggrandisement (a former minister famously boasted that the only use of her ministerial flag was to help her escape traffic jams!). We voided the The Constitution’s most promising creations are proving impotent; instead of radically changing our society, it is imprisoned in an outdated culture concept of personal responsibility of any meaning so that no one took responsibility for anything. Today still, this Kanu culture per- sists. The verdict is that the Constitution’s most promising creations are proving impotent. Alas, the Constitution that was supposed to radically change our society is imprisoned in an outdated culture. ishment in Kenyan law and tradition. Proposed by the Republican Liberty Party, the Anti-Homosexuality Bill seeks “to protect the traditional family” and “to protect the cherished culture of the people of Kenya.” In claiming to “protect . . . culture,” the Bill attempts to embed itself within traditional Kenyan practices. Consequently, the Bill requires that we pay close attention to how Kenya’s traditional cultures understood punishment and, where applicable, how they punished homosexual acts. According to philosopher John Mbiti, “In traditional life, the individual does not and cannot exist alone.” Instead, the individual is “simply part of the whole.” As he explains, “Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual. The individual can only say, ‘I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am.” A collective ethics emerges grounded in the notion that each individual exists for the self and for others. This collective ethics is grounded, first and foremost, in valuing continued life. Mbiti’s emphasis on “I am” and “we are” affirms the importance of living together, of solving problems collectively, of imbuing life with value and worth. Indeed, within the frame Mbiti provides, actions that demean and devalue life, such as arbitrary Punishment and homosexuality in ou≥ ‘che≥ished cultu≥e’ A recent proposal that those convicted of aggravated homosexuality should be publicly stoned raises important questions about the role of pun- Actions that devalue life unmake the the African worldview.” Kegu≥o Macha≥ia killings, unmake the ethical frames on which an African worldview depends. The notion of justice in traditional Afri- ca was guided by the premise of affirming life’s importance and fostering a collective ethics. Scholars of punishment in Africa such as Florence Bernault have emphasised that in many African societies restitution was valued over punishment: the goal was to reintegrate the offending individual in- to the community. Among the Kikuyu, for instance, intricate rituals were designed to purify those who committed offences. Within the vast ethnographic literature, one finds an elaborate system of fines paid by the offending party to those offended. In many cases, when an individual did not have the required resources, the fines were paid by a family or a clan. The goal was to restore harmony by affirming life. While capital punishment was not absent from African societies, it was carried out in extraordinary circumstances against those whose practices endangered and devalued life — sorcerers, witches, and murderers, for instance. Those who poisoned others or issued debilitating curses were punished for devaluing collective life. The ethnographic literature on homo- The goal of the law and punishment should be to affirm the value of life and to enhance collective responsibility. We have faced these questions before sexuality in Kenya is relatively thin, and focuses, for the most part, on acts between men. Jomo Kenyatta claims it did not exist among the Kikuyu. Writing on the Kamba, DJ Penwill claims that a fine of a goat or a bull was imposed on offenders. GS Snell writes that among the Nandi, individuals could be beaten by their age mates and held in social ridicule. JG Peristiany, writing on the Kipsigis, argues that some branches of the Kipsigis claimed others practised homosexuality. In general, we need to question whether most of these colonial-era sources can be trusted to tell the truth about African lives. Indeed, as anthropologist Maxwell Owusu reminds us, most of these writers did not even speak the languages of the people they sought to describe! This lack of fluency is clear when they use terms such as “unnatural offences,” which are clearly taken from English frameworks. To some extent, Mbiti’s vision of a col- lective ethics is grounded in an ethno-nationalist world that no longer exists. It’s one thing to enforce a collective morality within an ethnically homogenous village. It’s quite another thing to enforce the same rules within a multi-ethnic and multiracial state. And while we can look to past ethnographies, they share the same limitation. Yet, we can continue to learn from the broad philosophy Mbiti endorses: The goal of the law and punishment should be to affirm the value of life and to enhance collective responsibility. Simultaneously, we must ask how we should encounter and address intimate diversities. We have faced these questions before, as our rainbow of interethnic, inter-racial, and inter-faith schools, workplaces, and households demonstrate. We have faced them with courage, willing to learn new customs, adopt new languages, and traverse new geographies. We are the better for it. Any vision of Kenya that advocates kill- ing Kenyans should give us pause. If, following Mbiti, to damage an individual is to damage the whole, we might consider, instead, how we might enhance liveability. Our vision of collective ethics should value life.
Aug 25th 2014
Sep 8th 2014