A country or chaos, choose.

First published Saturday Standard, December 29, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

It is exactly fifty years since Martin Luther King Jnr wrote “Community or Chaos: Where do we go from here?” Re-reading it in the closing days of 2018, I am always struck by the relevance of King’s reflection and prophetic vision for Kenya half a century on.

2018 will be remembered like 2008, the year of another post-electoral handshake. Both moments saw our political elite attempt to repair the damage of a bruising electoral season with new administrative arrangements that accommodate those left out of state office. Past their line of sight, growing inequalities, displacement and discrimination continued to fuel public despair, bitterness and the sense that all is not well.

52 per cent of Kenyans no longer believe that Kenyans are equal under our constitution and laws. Our inability to arrest corruption and close the wealth inequality gap conspire to keep opportunities skewed in favor of the minority. A woman who had lost everything in the Kibra demolitions put it more bluntly in July, “Are we children of a lesser God than others?”

How then does this country hold in the face of this sense of discrimination, neglect and hopelessness? Why do we still retain confidence in the various arms of Government, religious leaders, the mass media, civic agencies and communities? There is something enduring in the Kenyan spirit that is not far from the courage and conviction of the civil rights communities that MLK wrote about.

From the family of baby Pendo to the 22 families of young men killed in our informal settlements, Kenyans continue to believe in and seek justice through our law courts. Stepping past the personal comfort of “just moving on”, their courage reminds us that unlawful policing endangers us all. Their courage and the combined action of law enforcement agencies like IPOA saw an unprecedented ten officers convicted for killing civilians or other police officers this year.

Tragically, the terrible death of Kibra resident and Leeds University student Carliton David Maina this week indicates that not all our officers have understood fully the lessons from the ten convictions this year or the promise by Directors of Criminal Intelligence and Public Prosecutions to hold them individually culpable for human rights abuses.

Communities have continued to protest, re-build their homes and seek justice for forced evictions and displacement from forests and urban informal settlements. Parliamentarians, civil society activists, journalists and some state officers have found ways to work together to find humane alternatives to the demolitions in Kibra, City Carton, Kwa Jomvu Mombasa, Embobut and Mau forests. They do so, knowing that displacement without the option of resettlement or compensation abuses our national values and undermines any progress on the right to adequate housing.

Sexual minority communities also pressed their legal case for same sex intimacy and sexual orientation to be decriminalized this year. As arranged marriages die out in many heterosexual homes, perhaps we should drop the idea that society should arrange relationships for others also. While some still seek comfort in the idea that sexual orientation is unimportant, it worth noting that more people watched the lesbian love story “Rafiki” than Black Panther in the week it was unbanned. There is still no evidence that it converted the sexuality of those that watched.

Rising teen-age pregnancies and the dangers of unsafe abortions flooded our public conscience towards the end of the year. Concerted efforts by reproductive health rights organisations managed to persuade the Medical Board and the Health Ministry to lift the ban on post abortion emergency life-saving services by Maries Stopes International. While our girls remain at risk from sexual violence and involuntary motherhood, this reversal remains an important one for us all to celebrate.

There is perversely something to celebrate also in the endless headlines of corruption scandals, arrests and court cases. Behind every one of them are women and men who refuse to live in a society of sleaze and selfishness and are taking a stand. We must do more to support them. The scale of our involvement in this contest for our country also matters.

It is these deeds and others that underpin our cautious optimism in Kenya. Keeping our society open, tolerant and non-violently activist on the issues that matter to us, is what will have us choose our country over chaos.

Happy activist new year all.


Deliver housing plan with public participation

First published Saturday Standard, December 22, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Christmas is almost upon us and the fact that Jesus was not born in a home doesn’t deny our right to a home. Two isolated events namely, the court stopping the 1.5% housing tax and the demolishing of at least 600 homes in Kayole, reinforce the feeling that the foundations for Jubilee’s housing pillar are not deep enough yet. Until it is, our constitutional right to adequate housing will remain elusive for millions.

One of the most important moments in the bible is the birth of baby Jesus in Bethelem. Born to Mary and Joseph, Jesus was not born at home or in the hotel they had sought a room. He was born in a shelter for animals. Theologians have described first century Palestinian houses as small, dark and with wooden shutters not glass to cover their windows. Shockingly, these types of homes continue to persist across our urban informal neighborhoods of Mukuru, Mathare, Kondele and elsewhere twenty centuries later.

Earlier this week, the indefatigable Nairobi women’s representative Esther Passaris earned her salary in one single action. She rallied to protect the rights of 2,000 residents whose 600 homes were being demolished across 20 acres of Nyama Villa estate, Kayole.


The destruction of property, police tear-gas and the tears of residents also caught the eye of Nairobi Governor Sonko. He declared a stop to all demolitions across Nairobi as an act of humanity during this festive season. True to the word he gave on International Human Rights Day, he stood firmly to protect Nairobians against any further forced evictions.

The land has reportedly been at the center of a long dispute between landlords and the Muthithi Investment Company owned by Mike Kamau Maina, proprietor of Marble Arch Hotel. While the legal battles will no doubt play out in court, the episode is another one in our ongoing urban land woes.

Elsewhere, Employment and Labor Relations Court Justice Hellen Wasilwa temporarily suspended the 1.5 per cent housing tax for salaried workers set to be imposed in January. The Central Organisation of Trade Unions has argued that there was insufficient public consultation and support and the move amounts to double taxation. Without the fund, the vision of the housing pillar lies shattered.

The intention behind the housing pillar is both noble and flawed. At least 500,000 houses are the immediate target of Housing Cabinet Secretary Macharia’s team. They have laid out plans to unlock land for affordable housing development, reduce construction costs, expand mortgage opportunities and re-design existing public housing. Making house ownership affordable especially younger and elderly Kenyans, is critical. Mortgages are out of reach for the majority leaving most, including the lower middle class and working classes facing a future of being perpetual tenants.

Process however, matters. Even before the Court pronounced itself on the matter, the housing pillar has suffered from poor consultation with the public. Fatigued by run-away corruption and debt, most citizens have viewed this latest head-tax with a mixture of dismay and outrage. For those of us worried about the most marginalized of our society, key questions have remained answered.

Are we only targeting the lower middle class or will we also see an end to the type of houses Jesus grew up in? Will the houses target the thousands we saw forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for roads in Kibra and other settlements over 2018? How does the Ministry safeguard our public investment into private homes, so they don’t end up being sold back onto the private market?

There must be a way to safeguard against privatization and housing market speculation. I wonder if the state had offered the Muthithi Investment Company incentives to develop both public and private housing, would this week’s events have been different. As the Ministry turns back to the drawing board, perhaps it could look at India’s system of transfer development rights and give new incentives to landowners to support the noble vision of adequate and mass housing for all.

Making our cities inclusive for all requires a specific focus on our most marginalized. Borrowing a leaf from the President’s Jamhuri speech, perhaps the Ministry could consult Akiba Mashinani Trust, Muungano wa Wanavijiji, Slum Dwellers International among others on how best to deliver this vision with public consent and participation.

Happy Christmas all.

Ways state commendations can go beyond being a tool for patronage

First published Saturday Standard, December 15, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

This Jamhuri, the Presidency awarded 401 commendations to men and women. With few exceptions, the list again failed to powerfully connect emotionally with the public. Being honored by a Head of State is not a light matter, what are we missing in this national exercise?

Head of State commendations are guided by the National Honors Act. Any member of the public, business, civic organization and Government agency can nominate an individual by downloading and submitting a completed form from the Office of the Deputy President. Three Advisory committees of National and County Governments, Judiciary and the Parliament study nominations and make recommendations to the Office of the President. There are various categories but to earn one, you must demonstrate sacrifice, bravery and excellence that brings honor to the republic.

Although the Act gives power to the Head of State to suspend and revoke a commendation this has never happened in Kenyan history. It is also unclear whether public objections to the proposed list of nominees that must be published prior to the awards, have ever resulted in the withdrawal of names.

The names of who sits on the advisory committees and their meeting minutes and decisions are also not in the public domain. As per the Act, Kenyans should also be able to easily see a national register of all recipients to date. This is not the case.

Forgive me if I step over the criticisms of specific individuals from the last few years – the relatives, friends and business partners of the powerful, the corruption suspects and the meme and the digital team that created him – I think there is a bigger problem here.

Rather than a public exercise that powerfully recalls the service of individuals serving higher than themselves, the exercise seems to be stuck between a graduation ceremony and a tool for patronage and influence.

On the list his year were some obvious leaders who have distinguished themselves. Director of Public Prosecutions Noordin Haji, Director of Criminal Investigations George Kinoti and Administration Police Constable Joash Ombati are three of my personal favorites.

However, lists of names without full citations have no power to inform our public imagination. Most of the recipients are digital ghosts. An online search of their names produces only their name on the commendation list itself.

Without public citations, it is impossible for us to learn and be inspired by their sacrifice and leadership. It also fuels the inevitable debate on the merits and demerits of each case and who was left out.

More fundamentally though, how do we bring impact against poverty, corruption and leadership integrity into the center of this process? Should an award go to a State Officer whose county, ministry or agency remains at the top of the corruption chart of the Auditor General or Parliamentary reports or is making minimal performance in terms service delivery to Kenyans?

Rather than provoking a temporal debate on his level of seriousness by wearing military attire, perhaps the President should announce that his next list will not include any leader whose county, ministry and agency has failed to correct their performance against adverse reports of the Auditor General and National Assembly. Further, that he is suspending past commendations for Officers currently before our courts and revoking those found guilty of gross misconduct.

There are no less than 8,044 cases of corruption and economic crimes currently being investigated or prosecuted. A cursory look at some of them will find men and women whose business cards still carry various categories of the Order of the Burning Spear and the Grand Warrior of Kenya. Stopping this would be one antidote for our cynicism.

Understood powerfully, honorary awards are less a statement of our accomplishments than an obligation to do even greater things.

I had the pleasure to watch Advocate John Dudley Ochiel receive the Public Interest Jurist of 2018 Award this week. He received the award for successfully litigating cases that upheld the rights of arrested persons, freedom of expression and freedom from forced evictions in his first year of litigation. He just turned 32 and someone to watch.

All those honored in the various Head of State Commendations, Human Rights Defenders Awards and Public Interest Jurists Awards over the last week now have two obligations.

Firstly, they must not dishonor the recognition conferred on them. Secondly, they must now use this recognition to take on greater challenges that bring further honor to our Nation.

Be the generation that protects and advances the gains of the last

First published Saturday Standard, December 8, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Two moments simultaneously inform our sense of history and poke our current conscience this week. It has been at least two generations since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the All Africa Peoples Conference resolutions were adopted in 1948 and 1958 respectively.

Given their impact on all areas of our lives, it is almost tragic that most people may miss their significance. Why are generations so bad at transferring their victories to the next generation and why is it so important that we must change this?

The United Nations only had 58 sovereign leaders when they met in Paris to debate and adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Those that met were preoccupied with preventing European facism and Second World War atrocities from happening again.

The Declaration’s preamble and thirty articles set the international standard for the equality, dignity and rights of all human beings. The preamble states that it is the duty of all to work for the freedom of belief and speech and, freedom from fear and want for all.

This was the first time that the term “rule of law” was used in international law. Declaration has been since translated into over 370 different languages and dialects, making it one of the most translated documents of all time.

Forty-eight UN Members voted to adopt the Declaration. Only two African countries participated with Ethiopia voting in favor of the Declaration. South Africa abstained and then returned home to implement apartheid and formal racial segregation for the next six decades.

200 million Africans, approximately Africa’s population at the time, did not get to choose who would represent them in Paris. Their exclusion and what happened next in Africa sowed the seeds of the All Africa Peoples Conference.

In the case of Britain, the imperial state criminally proceeded to execute one man or women every day to defeat the Kenya Land and Freedom Army and deny Kenyans the very same freedoms contained in the UDHR between 1952-1956.

300 delegates led by the elected Chairman Tom Mboya, Kwame Nkrumah, Patrice Lumumba, George Padmore and others met in Accra, Ghana. The Conference demanded immediate independence, denounced white minority domination in Southern Africa and proclaimed citizenship and equality of rights for all.

The impact was swift. Kenyatta walked out of Lokitaung Prison a year later and Kenya achieved independence within five years. Within the next four decades, Mandela would be free and President of a democratic South Africa.

Stop reading this for a minute and turn to the five closest people next to you. Ask them what they know of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the All Africa Peoples Conference. I suspect you will be dismayed by the responses.

Generations create sharp historical moments. For the majority, it is not always clear what their specific generational challenge is. Most of you live in the world of “jisort”, hustling and adapting to the now. Most of you like to keep it small and manageable.

It is often the task of a small minority to define their generation. They set out to purposely create memories and leave legacies within a longer view. They are also comfortable with the discomfort, uncertainty and personal risk.

Polled through the Better but Unequal: State of Human Rights Survey this week, most Kenyans feel Kenya is a much better place than 1948. However, one in two Kenyans feel that wealth inequality and corruption are two key obstacles to our equality under the law.

Until we can create a respect for democracy and human rights as mainstream popular culture and boldly inspire our youth to lead us, the rights violations, corruption and abuse of public office will sit out there for the next seventy years.

Whether we are personally affected by discrimination, neglect and unjust violations or not, we must find ways of deepening care, compassion and rights in our communities and all our public spaces.

Over this week, you can join other Kenyans to take a set of simple actions and attend the national celebration in Nairobi on December 10. For more on how to celebrate 70 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights follow #StandUp4HumanRights.

To do less would be to allow the gains of 1948 and 1958 to relapse. We cannot be remembered as that generation that failed to protect and advance the achievements of the generations that came before us.

Denial will perpetuate deadly poll violence

First published Saturday Standard, December 1, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights report on sexual violence during last year’s elections is distressing to read. Released in the first week of the global campaign on 16 days of activism, it reminds us we have much more to do to ensure the safety of our women and girls during elections. Ironically, it was released on a day that at least 130 Members of Parliament declined to show up to work and vote for or against a bill that would have enshrined equal gender representation.

Most Kenyans generally agree that the 2017 General Elections fell short of the aspiration of free, fair and non-violent elections promised in Article 81 of our constitution. What has not been comprehensively undocumented to this day is the gender-based violence it unleashed.

Within hours of the August 11 announcement, the KNCHR hotline 0800720627 began to receive distress calls. Frightened male and female callers reported their neighborhoods had turned into battlegrounds between party supporters, civilians and police officers. Over the next 150 days, the Commission recorded 201 cases of violence, rape and sexual harassment across nine counties.

More than one incident of intimidation, assault, rape, sodomy, defilement, assault or intimidation took place every day for the next five months. Neither streets, farms, market-places, schools or even personal homes were safe spaces. Over 30% of the victims were married women. Neither pregnant mothers or minors were spared. Many of them were gang raped or defiled in full view of husbands, family-members or children.

Frightened and in hiding, 80 per cent of the survivors of sexual violence were unable to access timely medical care including Post Exposure Prophylaxis or complete a P3 form within the 72-hour window. Over a year later, many of the survivors are still dealing with effects of stigma, guilt, HIV+ and sexually transmitted diseases, broken marriages, businesses, physical deformity and the loss of loved ones. The oldest victim was seventy years old. Tragically, she would have been born a year one year before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

Reading the individual witness statements, you can be forgiven for thinking these were accounts from a country in armed conflict, a war zone or a place where the rule of law didn’t matter. Now introduce the fact that 56 per cent of all these incidents were perpetuated by police officers from our regular and administrative police.

The reaction of the National Police Service to the report this week was swift. In four tweets, they have rejected the 156-page report. They accuse the Commission of “sensational, preposterous and generalized allegations without actionable evidence” and urged survivors to report to Independent Policing Oversight Authority. If the report findings into the conduct of the police was disturbing, the first reaction of the Service is horrifying.

The Commission is a Government body established under Article 59 of our Constitution and an Act of Parliament. It doesn’t come more official than this. The scale and horror of the violence documented in the report deserved a more responsible reaction from the Office of the Inspector General of the Police. At the time of writing, the National Executive had not commented. Given the speed of the Executive Order to have those eight Ambira High School students arrested, one would expect an emergency Cabinet meeting to discuss the report’s ninety recommendations to the Executive, law enforcement agencies, Judiciary and NGOs among others. This would be a proportional response.

To casually address the report to the IPOA is to deflect where the responsibility primarily lies, the leadership of our National Police Service. There are a number of easy wins for our Police Service if, they would go beyond the four tweets. A clear declaration of zero tolerance, establishment of a special team to study the findings, human rights training and the deployment of both women and men in public disturbances.

Denialism will perpetuate the dangerous pattern of electoral cycle, violence, amnesia, rinse, repeat. Unless these recommendations are acted on, like the post elections violence of 2008, impunity and violence will go unpunished. This time we will have opened a door to violent officers to dishonor their police uniforms by raping civilians while on official duty. For us citizens, we just got the strongest argument to extend the current sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence to a 365-day commitment. If you don’t believe me, read the report for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Sex education will stem teen pregnancies

First published Saturday Standard, November 24, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

It’s been a while since we had a serious national dialogue about adolescent and adult sexuality. Teenage pregnancies among our KCPE candidates, the arrest of unlicensed doctor and alleged serial rapist Mugo and the ban on Marie Stopes Kenya just tipped our private thoughts into the public.

Let’s be honest, sexuality discussions make most of us uneasy. Add adolescence to this and many of us just become very uncomfortable. Our discomfort may suggest the subject is obscure and most Kenyans don’t have much experience in it. The facts speak very differently.

At least 14,000 candidates sat their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examinations while pregnant this year. There is probably no better excuse than the one used by twenty girls to say they cannot sit exam because they needed to safely deliver their baby. Tragically, comprehensive sex education was neither on their curriculum nor an examination paper before them.

Every day on average, over 1,000 girls between the age of 10-19 years have unprotected sex and fall pregnant, 35 drop out of school and one dies in pregnancy related complications. 1,200 abortions are performed on women and girls each day of the year. About a third of them take place to save the lives of mothers. 45% of these abortions will occur in the lives of girls between the age of 10-19 years.

I am sure by now that your mind as the reader has shifted to family members, class-mates and acquaintances by now. Let me invite you to come back to this article. Regardless of what we think about abortion we must first recognize what is happening in our homes, counties and the nation. Denial that there is an absence of comprehensive sex education and a demand for safe abortion services in the face of such statistics is a form of simulated insanity. Not yet convinced?

Look beyond the horror of NTV Dennis Okari’s investigative story about the unlicensed clinic of James Mugo Ndichu alias Mugo wa Wairimu to the recent admission by the County Government of Nairobi. Nearly one third of Nairobi 2,400 medical clinics are unlicensed according to them. Many of them are providing reproductive health services and I suspect, unsafe abortions by unqualified or unlicensed doctors.

Which brings me to the ban imposed on Marie Stopes International Kenya. Following complaints by the Kenya Film Classification Board and a little-known organization called GoCitizen, the Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board issued seven orders against our largest and oldest sexual, reproductive health and family planning organization. The November 11 orders instruct them to shut down all public sex information and abortion related services. The Health Ministry Director of Medical Services has subsequently warned Marie Stopes that must comply or have all their programs shut down. GoCitizen are now seeking the prosecution of Marie Stopes directors.

The order to cease all abortion services is patently illegal. Under our Constitution, The Health Act (2017), and the National Guidelines on the Management of Sexual Violence (2014), all licensed medical professionals and facilities have legal duties and rights. They must inform a woman when she qualifies for safe abortion and perform it where she is eligible. They have the right not to be harrassed when offering or referring safe abortion services.

The Medical Board’s ruling does not overturn the constitutional right of women to abortion where the pregnancy poses a danger to their lives, mental and social well-being or results from rape, defilement or incest. Their orders could also lead to hundreds of legal suits against doctors who are now too intimidated to provide lawful emergency abortion services. Given the reality facing most girls and women, the cost of letting this ruling go is simply too high. It will I hope, be challenged in court.

This year, Amnesty invited 280 students to write essays on irresponsible sexual behavior. National Human Rights Essay Competition winner Scholastica Justine Ajode (17) put it best, “The Government, parents and teachers must end irresponsible sexual behavior. The Government should introduce compulsory life skills and sex education. Parents should talk about irresponsible sexual behavior. The choices we make are ultimately our responsibility and it is not too late to change our mind-set.”

We must rally behind Justine’s vision and not hide under the sheets on this one. The real danger facing our nation will not go away. Comprehensive sex education and the right to safe abortion services are the only way to bring down unwanted adult and adolescent pregnancies, school drop-outs and involuntary motherhood.

Amidst the chaos, how we can keep our heads

First published Saturday Standard, November 17, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Several experiences ran through my head this week. A depressed Police Officer who committed suicide, a human rights defender who is on the run from another Officer and a young widow bravely rebuilding her life after an unlawful police killing. Then there was the television panel that got upset at the state of Africa’s basket-cases, a fake news conference and the Government Donor Forum that spoke about zero tolerance to corruption and then allowed a suspect of economic crimes to speak to it. How do we remain confident that a better day will come?

Kenya tests us personally and publicly every day. If it isn’t the rising cost of living, it is the blatant lies and lack of care for Others. Too many of us are on shut down mode, a tactical retreat from the people and the news that annoys and depresses us. There is some bad news and good news here.

The bad news is we are living in an age of rising social intolerance, huge economic inequalities and crumbling legitimacy for public institutions. The withdrawal is simultaneously an act of self-preservation and a step towards the life of the hermit crab. Hermit crabs are fundamentally lonely creatures, preoccupied short-term and stealing the shells off other crabs. The good news is the rest of the world is struggling with this and we can learn from there too.

In Brazil, newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro has declared his intention to evict thousands of indigenous people and deforest the Amazonian forest. Donald Trump’s administration is laying miles of barbed wire to stop Central American migrants from seeking employment and refuge. Battered by rising anti-migrant sentiment, one of Europe’s remaining democrats, Angela Merkel has declared 2021 will be her last year. Even Aung Suu Kyi, Nobel Laureate and past beacon of human rights and democracy in Myanmar was called out for failing to protect the Rohingyar.

Our world is not in a good space. Many of us are now loudly muttering that the easiest thing is focus on our personal lives, avoid the politricks and wait out the present unpleasantness. That would be a mistake.

Whether in our homes, counties, Kenya or the world, what all demagogic leaders have in common is the use of fear as the currency to influence us. Fake news is not just lies, it is a way of shaking our confidence in the truth and those who tell it. Exercising fear and lies, these leaders want us to stay in our crab shells. As we mutter in our whatsapp groups, twitter bubbles and WI-FI hotspots, they can tax, divide and rule us. If we do want a better future for ourselves and our world, we need to think and behave differently.

I am often asked the question how I stay hopeful and optimist. The answer is simple and three-fold. I choose my emotions, my emotions don’t have a license to choose me. I don’t allow my reality to define my ambition. Lastly, I don’t entertain complaints much. There is a degree of rational madness here. Remaining unattached to how I feel and the negativity around me reduces the number of upsets and allow me to focus on what needs to get done.

This week, 1,000 matatus were impounded for failing to meet Public Service Vehicle standards. Catalysed by NTV’s investigative story, quack doctor Mugo wa Wairimu was also arrested in Kiambu County after he was exposed on our screens, sedating female patients and sexually assaulting them. Enforcing the rule of law to protect citizens is critical for deepening our faith in public institutions. So too, is demanding this of our leaders and ourselves.

This week, Caroline Gikunda went to lengths to prove this point. She insisted her truck be escorted to and then weighed by two other weigh bridges to prove that the KENHA Mobile Weigh Bridge was calibrated two tonnes higher. Imagine the number of truck drivers that may have been intimidated to bribe their way out of their “mistake”.

In two weeks’ time, the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders shall bestow annual awards on ordinary citizens who have acted in the public interest. They come from all parts of the country, professions and causes.

Among them are photographers, artists, accountants, religious and community leaders who are working against discrimination, extremism, violence and indignity. They and Caroline are the ones that will settle this country and we can do more to support them.