In January 2008, at the height of the post election violence, I penned a blog post, then at Zeleza Post, in which I voiced my shock at seeing African intellectuals justifying the violence in the country. In that post, I intended to argue that whatever political side we were sympathetic to, our obligation as intellectuals was to affirm freedom and life. For that reason, I said, it was possible to defend life and argue that no election, no matter how flawed, was worth the loss of life.
To my shock, I was attacked for taking PNU's side. One academic, not a Kenyan, even attacked me as a “Kibaki intellectual” and seemed to have been so bothered to find out my ethnicity, but not my gender, because he kept referring to me as “he.” That blog post has entered academic studies on Kenya’s post-election violence of 2007 as evidence of how intellectuals offered “problematic” support for election rigging.
The last 10 years
For the next 10 years since, I have been writing, blogging, speaking on social and mainstream media, and my position hasn’t changed. In everything I have said in print or speech, whether I have talked about love or marriage, or about faith and politics, or education or health, I have stuck to these principles:
- the affirmation of life and humanity, especially African humanity that has historically been questioned
- the affirmation of “we the people,” meaning that if systems, laws and institutions do not work, it is the systems, laws and institutionsthat must change, it is not the people who should adjust to the system. As Jesus said, it’s Sabbath for people, not the other way round
- in the midst of injustice, people with problems are turned into a problem people, yet the obligation of a just society is to study and resolve the problems people face, rather than equate the people to their problems. That means that vices like ignorance and tribalism can be traced to explicit ideological and institutional projects, and should not be seen as naturally African
- the tragic principle: the universe and justice always take the side of the least powerful, and the most powerful must suffer for redemption of society. When the weak suffer, we’re no longer talking of tragedy but of injustice. Even Jesus was not exempt from that rule
- the experience of women as an indication of the oppressive nature of institutions.
- the importance of functioning social institutions, especially to support health and education. I have even said that hospitals and schools are more important than polling stations
- the importance of thinking: thinking, as Lewis Gordon (whom I often quote says), is a skill that involves considering the complexity of reality while affirming humanity. Thinking is a skill that is learned. But under the neo-liberal, post-colonial system, thinking is actively discouraged, especially among African peoples. We’re told that thinking is a luxury when we have no food to eat, or that thinking is not culturally African. We’re basically told that Africans are not human enough to think
But while these principles may not have changed for 10 years, the context has. And so have the implications of what I say. When I mention these principles in relation to education and health, few Kenyans notice. But when I mention them in relation to elections, what I say is called “taking sides.” I’ve even been “accused” of bias, as if bias is an insult or as if accusing me of bias necessarily refutes what I’m saying.
Am I surprised? Not at all. Meaning is determined not just by what we say and do, but also by the circumstances we are in. If it is raining heavily and I say “it is raining really hard,” my words will simply mean that I am making an observation about what is happening. But if I pronounce the same words in the midst of this drought that has browned our landscape, people will ask a range of questions, like about my mental health and what agenda I have in trying to mislead people. The words are the same, but the interpretation is changed by the context.
Same words, different meanings
So it is inevitable that my positions seem to take NASA’s side, and sometimes my positions do explicitly take NASA’s side. But if one really examines my posts, they will see I often argue on larger principles that I have talked about before this election.
For instance, I have argued for the need for more public spaces and institutions, where we can resolve political tensions. I even said that tribalism is a symptom of the decay of robust social institutions, calling it an opportunistic disease in the midst of no social cushions. But it is only when I said that Jubilee is responsible for narrowing our political space to NASA, that people throw all sorts of accusations – like hero worship – at me.
Similarly, the public mentions I make of NASA are usually attached to NASA supporters, not to the politicians. For instance, I once asked what mothers are supposed to tell their children, if the children say they want to become president, since presidency seems to be determined by wealth and connections. I talked of what I liked about NASA’s manifesto, and I later talked of legitimate sorrow of NASA supporters.
But most of all, I have expressed horror at the de-legitimization of NASA supporters. It was not enough for their candidates to lose in what is clearly an un-credible election. Their voices and even their lives are increasingly devalued by the institutions like media, the corporate world, the church, and the political class. These institutions, with support of the international community, have placed the burden of proving the integrity of the election not on IEBC, who was supposed to carry out a proper election. Instead, they put responsibility of proving the lack of credibility of the election on NASA, which has immeasurably less resources, and would need to get some of that evidence from IEBC itself.
And I said in my facebook post on the tyranny of evidence, and even in my post in 2007: if even the loss of life is not evidence enough that Kenya must stop and reconsider the structure of our society, and consciously strive to boost social justice so that elections stop being a do or die event, what kind of country are we? What kind of nation are we, when the lives of citizens are not evidence enough for the need of a major social re-engineering?
And this is not the first time I have complained about this disproportionate demand for evidence, especially when it comes to public institutions. For instance, during #LipaKamaTender, I said that it makes no sense for decisions on healthcare to be made without involving medics and patients. I said the same for education, that there is no genuine education reform without making the classroom – the teachers and students – the center of that reform. I also argued elsewhere that when it comes to public land use, it is the lands ministry that should be looking for schools and issuing title deeds. We should not be asking schools to go to the lands ministry to request for the deeds. I have said the same about wildlife and environmental management, where pastoralists and ecologists are alienated in favor of career managers (often trained in finance) and philanthropists, who have less experience and insight. I have compared the demand for evidence to the plight of women victims of violence who bear the burden of responsibility in proving the crime against themselves. Sometimes, such women are even advised to think of what a trial would do to their own reputation, or they are requested to spare their violator’s family the embarrassment of a public trial.
The tyranny of evidence
All the posts on my blog decry this neoliberal turn of events, where institutional power and wealth increasingly decide what is true, and where, when people suffer, we blame the victims, rather than institutions, for that suffering. As has happened with these elections, the powerless are expected to bear the burden of proving the powerful wrong; it is not those with institutional power who are expected to prove that they have done right.
In fact, Wachira Maina argues that the Supreme Court’s decision on the 2013 election petition exercised similarly poor jurisprudence. He argues that the Court held the petitioner responsible for not only proving that certain actions surrounding the elections were illegal, but the petitioner had to prove, statistically, that those illegalities affect the results. That means that I can intimidate and beat up supporters of my rival on their way to the polls, but even if my rival proves that I did that, the election is only invalid when my rival proves that my actions affected the result. Worse, the court’s decision required the petitioner to produce overwhelming evidence against a government body with immensely more resources, and that is likely to destroy evidence than hand it over to the petitioner.
Once again, this ruling is shocking for me, because it means that to the court, Kenyan lives did not matter enough. The judges ruled not on what the ruling implied for Kenya but on the basis of the technicalities. That tunnel vision echoes Frantz Fanon’s observation about African intellectuals’ curious obsession with detail:
..the colonized intellectual gives priority to detail and tends to forget the very purpose of the struggle. ..he tends to concentrate on local tasks, undertaken seriously but almost always too pedantically. He does not always see the overall picture. (The Wretched of the earth)
It is no wonder that Uhuruto and Western powers, especially the US, are so keen on the court process. Worse, we do not seem to notice the strangeness of Jubilee praising NASA for going to court. It’s almost like a child hiding behind the mother’s skirt and taunting an older sibling who is being scolded by their mother, because the younger child knows that the mother will take the his side. Except in this case, the one behind the skirts is not the younger, smaller one; it’s the older, bigger child, and the one being scolded is the smaller, less powerful one.
Lewis Gordon illustrates the absurdity in this demand for evidence with Ronald Reagan’s assault on social cushions for the poor, and mostly the black poor. I quote (with my modifications):
President Reagan and his tacticians knew that they could simply present any controversial claim before the American public – true or false, though often false – and then leave it up to their opposition to prove otherwise. The problem was that their opposition didn’t have a competitive level of resources, and besides, something sociologically new had emerged on the scene … What the president and his cohorts knew was that once they presented something in a public forum, especially a national or international one, their words took on the veneer of “truth.” Thus, as long as Reagan and his associates never recanted their position, it stood, continuing its life as though true. The Black Welfare Queen was one of those falsehoods, false because it was advanced as a characteristic of black society, and was accepted in America because of the bad-faith presumption of black life as abnormal. (Disciplinary Decadence: Living Thought in Trying Times, p. 13)
And when citizens challenge the status quo, Jubilee and its sympathizers bombard them with demands for evidence, while in the meantime, affirming a narrative of dysfunctional Luo consciousness as the reason for the persistent questions on the elections. Luos, they say, worship Raila and do not listen to reason. Never mind that Raila’s supporters have always been more than Luos. And the same international community that supposedly understands the Luo psyche offers little discussion of the clearly ideological projects of Jubilee and other governments, including oathing, the corporate and international sponsored peace narrative, and the ideology of Uthamakism.
And again, I have mentioned this tyranny of evidence before the elections, in relation to education. Just recently, I explained to someone that the narrative of teachers in this country is that of perpetual crooks, who do not teach, who are digitally archaic and resistant to change, and are always in need of managerialist supervision. That means that whatever problematic education policies are shouted from the rooftops, teachers have literally lost the battle to point out the flaws in the policy. And when those policies fail, and they will, the failure will be blamed on teachers.
For the last 10 years, I’ve repeatedly discussed the same themes. Few paid attention, and equally few accused me of taking political sides. And for the next ten years, I will keep saying what I’ve been saying for the last ten. If our governments and institutions stubbornly refuse to listen to the people, the meaning of what I say will continue to sound divisive. But if the circumstances change for the better, what I say will be like a dance for the ancestors, a psalm of praise to God, a celebration of life, an expression of pride in the republic of Kenya, and a song of love for this great continent we call our motherland.
Mungu ibiriki Afrika.