This time, the president was celebrating the completion (I think) of a railway that has raised the country’s debt and sacrificed our environment. But as if we the people have not lost enough, the president promised the death penalty to anyone who causes damage to the railway. The reasoning? That damaging the railway is economic sabotage and life threatening, and so the person who pulls a metal rod, from the snake Syokimau prophesied about, has committed murder.
Such language is unacceptable.
And this is a case that reached the court. Many others are not as “lucky.” Every day, young men in the slums fear for their lives because the police are judge, jury and executioner. The latest of these cases was that of a deaf teenager rummaging through rubbish, who was shot to death because, the police officer said, the young man would not respond to the officer’s orders.
The poor and vulnerable, who already suffer such violence, do not deserve such a trivialization of the death penalty. Especially because the president never threatens the death penalty against suspects of theft of billions of taxpayers shillings, which also sabotages the economy.
First of all, it is not for the president to order the police and the judiciary on how to investigate, try and convict destroyers of public property. The reason we voted for an independent prosecutor’s office and judiciary in the new constitution was precisely so that the wheels of justice would not turn at the whims of the president. It is not up to the president to decide how destroyers of public property should be tried and convicted.
And in this case, I’m not even sure we can call the SGR public property. It feels to me like it is property at the expense of the public, just like the colonial one which the SGR runs parallel to (for God knows what reason).
The first railway was built by Indians and indigenous Kenyans, at a great cost, for the benefit of British colonialists who supervised the construction, and of a few Tsavo lions who had a feast. But as Frantz Fanon explains, the economic model that gave us the railway did not have the “natives in mind. The economy was based on an extractive logic: get the raw materials from the interior, take them to the European metropole for processing, and then return manufactured products to the residents of the White Highlands, who needed to maintain a European lifestyle despite living in the tropics.
None of the colonial infrastructure was meant for us, us Africans. It is no wonder that the colonial railway collapsed into disuse after independence. As Fanon promised us, if a project is built without the people in mind, but plastered from above onto the landscape, it will not help the people at all.
So what has changed with the SGR? I wish I knew. The people along the railway, and especially at the Coast, will continue to watch as goods pass under their noses, but they will get no jobs, no industries, and no significant rise in the standard of living. The best they can hope for is what they’ve always been told to hope for: that some tired middle class Kenyans or Europeans will go swim at the beach and stay in the hotels. Hotels which the local people do not own. As Ndii’s column implied some time back, it would have been cheaper, and fairer to the people, to build factories in the Coast than to build an expensive SGR to Naivasha, import raw materials through Mombasa, take them to Naivasha, then transport finished goods back to Mombasa for export.
The fact that Ndii has been the most prominent critic of Jubilee policies could explain why, the weekend before the launch of the railway, we woke up to an anti-Ndii hashtag. By Wednesday, the pro-Jubilee online blitz on the railway seemed to have worked. The media invited mainly Jubilee sympathizers and token critics to talk about the project. The program I watched with horror was the #CitizenExtra with Anne Kiguta.
The second level was the reference to Vision 2030 as the answer to the economic issues raised. Kibati's basic answer to everything on the SGR was Vision 2030, and he even suggested that anyone who wants to be president should align themselves to it. The thing is, the Katiba 2010 is the paramount vision for this country. It incorporated views of the public. It was ratified by popular vote. Vision 2030 was a boardroom document written by "experts," that is secondary to the Constitution. We can challenge Vision 2030 if we want to. The Constitution affirms our right to do so.
The third level was the very narrow idea of legacy that the three men endorsed. They basically argued Uhuru was following the legacy of previous presidents, and that the person qualified to be president after August was the one whom we could trust to continue what Kibaki and Uhuru did. Of course, it was a veiled message that Raila is not fit to become president because he doesn't fit the profile (every Kenyan knows what I mean) of previous "development" minded presidents.
But Kimunya did not stop there. He reiterated the president’s call for capital punishment against "economic saboteurs." His reference to the post-election violence in his comments on economic sabotage was particularly disturbing:
We saw this [economic sabotage] happening during 2007-2008, during that unfortunate period. You saw the uprooting of the railway in Kibera. President Museveni was up in arms. It was almost getting into a war between Kenya and Uganda...we were sabotaging the economy of Uganda through our own silly politics of uprooting railways. I think on this railway thing, and on all infrastructural projects, I would actually like to see very stern action taken against people who are sabotaging the national project for personal gain.
Yet, if you go back to Fanon's reasoning, is it really surprising that for many Kenyans, and even for our poor wildlife, that the railway feels like a sore sight on the landscape? If it is surprising, it is no wonder that forcing such projects on the Kenyan people requires the language of violence.
We deserve better than threats, especially for projects that are built with our toil and sweat. It is time that we the Kenyan people asserted that the dignity of our humanity, and of the world in which we live, are worth much more, much more, than concrete and steel.