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.


Neither civilians and police officers are safe from unlawful police killings

First published Saturday Standard, November 10, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Barely sixty days after the President announced sweeping police reforms, a sharp spike in police killings gives the Government and National Police Service its biggest test. In the last ten days, at least twenty-two deaths across six counties have been reported. What is not happening?

Most of the recent killings appear to violate our constitutional right to a life. Preliminary reports do not seem to suggest that the officers had complied with the National Police Service Act (2011). The Act states that the police may only use lethal force in self-defense or where there is an imminent threat to the lives of the public. Young men have been found brutalized or executed in Kerugoya, Migori, Yatta, Kiambu, Mombasa, Malindi and in Nairobi’s Huruma, Mathare and Dandora neighborhoods.

Evans Odhiambo, a 25-year-old mechanic, is the most dramatic of these cases. Initially wounded in a crowd by a stray police bullet, he sought medical attention in Mathare North Hospital. Police officers arrested him at the hospital and the next morning, he was found in the City Mortuary with six additional bullets in his body. This week also, Constables Benjamin Changawa and Stanley Okoti were found guilty for unlawfully killing Administration Police officer Vitalis Odongo and two other people in Kangemi, Nairobi four years ago.

If both civilians and police officers are not safe nor are non-Kenyans. Last week, the Nigerian President demanded a full investigation and autopsy from Kenya Government into the case of Bamiyo Ashade. The 28-year-old Nigerian was allegedly brutalized to death by officers after he refused to give them a bribe while they were checking his valid immigration status.

Very different reactions from affected families, communities, human rights organisations and the Police Service Inspector General have accompanied the killings. They range from cheers, tears, denials to outrage. The Inspector General’s public admission that he is aware of extra-judicial killings committed by his officers is an important starting point. This admission needs to followed up by decisive action on the current spate of killings.

There is no doubt that a few of the officers the Inspector General calls “rogue” are popular within their communities for breaking the law. Frustrated and frightened that a corrupt and ineffective criminal justice system will not protect them, some citizens support “uniformed lawlessness”. In this perverse context, fighting crime within the law takes leadership.

A month ago, Administration Police Officer Joash Ombati earned himself a commendation by the Deputy Inspector for staring down a public crowd who urged him to execute two criminals he had apprehended. He bravely chased the two using a private taxi, immobilized their vehicle without harming the public and proceeded to make his arrests. He has been described by his superiors as “disciplined, selfless officer who upholds the law with minimal or no supervision.”

This country needs more officers like Ombati. Despite facing the same level of personal risk as the rogue officers, he is upholding his oath and the law. His choices bring us closer to effective policing, public accountability and the rule of law. The very different choices being made by rogue officers take us to the brink of lawlessness, impunity and more violence.

The inaction on the rogue officers makes it unclear which type of officer is valued in the Police Service today. The silence in the face of claims by human rights defenders that they are being threatened by officers in Mathare and Mombasa gives permission to so-called rogue officers to further break the law.

Both the Independent Policing Oversight Authority and the Internal Affairs Bureau need to complete their investigations. The Commission of Enquiry announced by the Director of Public Prosecutions needs to visit the affected stations and their commanding officers. It is time the Government accepts the request by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions to visit us. Human rights organizations now need to accelerate their support for communities to understand why the law must be respected and how they can report to and work with the police to secure firm convictions. There is no short cut here

I was reminded this week of the wisdom in Proverbs 2:21. Paraphrased, it calls on us all to keep the company of good men and women who walk straight and have integrity. For it is they, that will settle this land not the corrupt and the dishonest. It is worth us all remembering this.

Between the writing of this article and its publication, the Interior Cabinet Secretary announced a Distinguished Service Award for AP Officer Joash Ombati.

Hard questions no one is asking about cancer

First published Saturday Standard, November 3, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

By Irũngũ Houghton

Having watched two dear ones succumb to cancer in the last sixty days, this public health challenge just got very personal. Cancer stalks us with the aggressiveness of HIV/AIDS in the nineties. We must move beyond understanding to making some deliberate health and lifestyles choices if we are to survive.

Like all life-threatening diseases, our understanding of cancer is obscured by many myths. Is cancer contagious? Will my smart-phone or my moods place me at risk of getting cancer? Is cancer a death sentence?

No is the answer to these three common questions. Yet, 48,000 people are diagnosed and 33,000 die of cancer annually. The disease is now the third highest cause of death affecting Kenyans and especially, women.

Cancer occurs when normal cells in our bodies mutate into malignant cells and invade the body around them. While scientists are still searching how to stop cells from mutating in this way, there is no major debate among them on what causes cancer anymore.

Smoking, excessive alcohol drinking and poor diet cause cancer. So too, do biological drivers like obesity and exposure to environmental carcinogens like polluted air and certain viruses such as hepatitis and H-Pylori. If these are the causes, the drivers of death are poor public awareness, late detection and the high cost of treatment.

While rates are dramatically increasing in Kenya, the numbers of deaths in the United States of America have dropped by 25 per cent since 1991. Two million lives have been saved as a result. Reducing smoking, early detection and advances in treatment have been central to keeping more Americans safe from cancer.

Detected early, most deaths caused by cancer are preventable. Whether it be breast cancer, cervical, throat or prostate, catching the tumor before it has time to overwhelm tissue and key organs is the only way to survive.

The problem is, fearing high medical bills and unaware of the danger cancer poses, too many Kenyans prefer to just take antacids. They only approach medical centers when fatigue, unexplained swellings and infections have set in and their organs are failing.

Like elsewhere in the world, women, poorer and remote communities are most at risk. They are less likely to have health insurance, recreational facilities or time to go for regular checkups.

First-line chemotherapy treatment can cost at least Kshs 500,000 per session. This treatment does not discriminate between good and bad cells. The body’s immunity to opportunistic infections is the first to go. For many, terrible side-effects soon follow, jeopardizing the patient’s life further.

Cancer poses a direct challenge to every-one of us. It also directly challenges Article 43 of the Constitution that states that every person has the right to the highest attainable standard of health. All over the country, there are families struggling to pay the costs of expensive treatment and financial catastrophe.

The question we all should be asking is how do we reduce the costs of treatment? How do we enforce anti-smoking laws and accelerate treatment for tobacco addiction? How do we bring detection testing closer to all Kenyans? Can pap smears and other tests be available in all primary health centers? How do we improve the use of first line treatment and reduce the toxicity of chemotherapy?

Is it time doctors recommended the combined use of homeopathic approaches and more controversially, the Government legalized the medical use of cannabis oil?

Shujaa Jane Kiano joins a countless list of brave Kenyans who took on cancer. She died at the age of 74. She didn’t get to realize her wish to live longer than her father who died at 78. We need to approach cancer, with this in mind. Unless we address the challenges it poses, many of us will not live as long as our parents did.

National poet and cancer warrior Mῖcere Githae Mũgo wrote a poem for Jane Kiano. The words are for all whose lives have been claimed by cancer. She writes, “The monster cancer has robbed us of your earthly presence, but it can never rob us of your unperishable life, for human beings will always triumph over the ugliness of ogres.”

One day, with the right level of public health investment and behavioral change on the part of citizens, we will win. Until then, we need to protect ourselves with regular testing, health insurance and safer lifestyle habits.

Do not awaken the demons of our past

First published Saturday Standard, October 27, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

The disruption of the referendum debate by the African Union Commission announcement on Raila Odinga this week should sound alarm bells. The momentum towards a referendum on our system of governance had been nicely bubbling up to this point. The question ordinary citizens must directly ask their leaders is how the proposed referendering will positively affect their lives?

The calls for a referendum to amend the constitution have been simmering for the last five years. It is being driven by the dysfunctionality of our elections, a bloated system of representation and an elusive search for inclusive politics. It is also being shaped by strong political personalities, propaganda and elite self-interest.

The thirteen proposals being discussed by politicians contain arguments that range from how we can fix the 2017 elections, control public expenditure, streamline devolution  accommodate all ethnic communities and resolve the gender two thirds representation crisis we face. The “Putin” proposal and the Punguza Mizigo seem to be the most distinctly clear options before us.

The Putin option proposes a ceremonial President and an executive Prime Minister. Both positions would have a range of Deputies chosen from different regions of the country. The Senate would be scrapped and the National Assembly reduced by creating 49 constituencies with no special seats for women or people with disabilities. The 47 counties would also be amalgamated into twelve going forward.

The fifteen-point proposal by the Thirdway Alliance cuts the number of constituencies, makes Wards the primary units for devolution, sets ceilings for Parliament and State Officers’ salaries and proposes to reinforce Chapter six principles on leadership integrity as well as gender representation among others.

There is no doubt that the concerns with our political system are valid. The real question is whether the referendum will fix a political culture that seeks to change rules and institutions whenever they conflict with elite interests. Having said this, there are some areas that need addressing.

It is no coincidence that the position of a Prime Minister is discussed in at least eleven of the thirteen proposals being discussed. Our current system provides no avenues for continued engagement by candidates who lose a Presidential election. Like Uganda, the costs of losing an election for a national politician are simply too high. Locked out of Parliament and with no real national platform to provide public service and leadership, losing a Presidential election is a short step to political oblivion. I will leave it to the constitutional lawyers to confirm whether a referendum is our only option to fix this.

The turn taken by politicians after Raila Odinga’s appointment as Special Envoy of the African Union Commission Chairperson is revealing. So is Deputy President Ruto’s proclamation that like the 2017 elections, he too, is ready for the referendum. In its current form, the thrust of the “referendering” across our constituencies is primarily driven by the search for a power-sharing deal before the 2022 General Elections. Political parties are using the issue to rally their supporter bases. In effect, pre-election campaigns just started again.

If the referendering does not move beyond this, it has the power to predictably distract the delivery of services, governance oversight and compound an impending national census and review of constitutional boundaries in 2019. It will also add yet another cost to our ballooning public expenses and runs the risk of further dividing the country along political supporter lines.

Replying to a great question by an MPESA Academy student, President Kenyatta declared ensuring national cohesion and slaying corruption are his two legacy issues. If these two bigger issues are at the heart of his legacy, the proposals being debated within Jubilee need to take a radical shift. If NASA’s push is beyond securing jobs for NASA principals, they too need to sharpen their proposals from a public interest perspective.

Referenda are a direct democracy tool to secure the mandate of the people on constitutional matters. Britain, Hungary, Columbia and Italy are also currently exercising this tool. We know from Germany and Italy under dictators Hitler and Mussolini that referenda can be used to disguise populist agenda that have nothing to do with the public interest.

In the absence of strong constitutionalist culture, this ndebe (ballot box) must be brought before the nation with caution. If we misjudge this moment, we may awake the demons the constitution was created to kill.


Impunity and indebtedness fuels our fiscal crisis

First published Sunday Standard, October 20, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Safaricom’s data and call price hikes announcement this week fuels anxiety at the rising cost of living after new taxes last month. As Government rams deeper into our pockets, we face a period of austerity in our homes, county and national economies. Our lifestyles are not the problem, the problem is we have allowed others to budget for us. A mashujaa day reflection.

A battery of public taxes and levies have driven up the costs of essential commodities and services by between ten and fifteen per cent. The cost of living may have gone up by 50% from last year. Fuel, electricity, telephone and internet data, banking and money transfers and foodstuffs are spiking all around us. While this affects us all, it will have a distinct impact on poor families, the gap between the rich and poor will widen and the bill of rights could be placed on hold.

The impact of household budget cuts, job redundancies, out of school and under-fed children and unmanageable health bills is showing up in our homes, extended families and given that we all live 5 kilometers from an informal settlement, in all our neighborhoods. Most of us are now going into lifestyle adjustment mode.

We are getting real serious about the places we eat and what we eat. We are considering new ways of getting to and from our workplaces and the schools our children can go to. Deal-making and side-hustling is the new national sport. These lifestyle adjustments might make minor financial sense, but in this period of austerity, it is like opening an umbrella in a torrential rain storm.

Our lifestyles have not caused the current rain storm. Nor has the costs of devolution and political representation, heavy as it is. Impunity and indebtedness is at the center of the current financial crisis. The lavish salaries and benefits of elected leaders cost tax-payers just under Kshs 24 billion annually. This is 1% of the annual budget. Compare this against 30% of the budget that is estimated to be routinely stolen and stuffed into mattresses, magunia, banks and tax havens all over the world and we can see where the real gap is.

Before the Jubilee administration came to power in March 2013 there were 3,355 corruption cases. In 2018, this figure has swollen into 8,044. Many of these economic crimes are responsible for the Kshs 5 trillion in illicit and untaxed income that is currently sitting in bank accounts outside the country.

This year, the Government plans to take 45% of the budget or Kshs 658 billion and pay back both domestic and foreign creditors such as the Chinese, the World Bank International Development Association and several European creditors. At current trends, the national debt will expand from Kshs 5.1 to 5.6 trillion by next year. Unless this is interrupted, alongside the instruments of power President Kenyatta will hand over to his successor in 2022, there will be a demand letter worth kshs 7.1 trillion tucked firmly in front of Article 1.

The primary reason for the existence of national and county governments is to realize the fundamental rights and freedoms spelt out in the national constitution. They are also obligated to manage public finance and the economy in an open, participatory, prudent, accountable and fair manner. As citizens we need to ask how we let our Government deviate from this purpose and what we need to do next.

Only a fraction of us have taken any interest in county and national budget-making and oversight processes. We have left the whistle-blowing to the Auditor-General and the National Integrity Alliance and the demonstrating to movements like #StopTheThieves. When the Motorist Association of Kenya told us to park our cars in non-violent protest, we chose to drive in earlier. Too busy chasing the shilling, that shilling has proved to be very costly to us all.

Budget cuts and tax hikes that undermine any of our political, social or economic rights directly violate the constitution. For Kenyans to be truly free from fear and want, it will take more than we have done to date. Our businesses will have to size up to the crisis. Smaller “kadogo” products like “coke mwala” and others will not fix this. Our Government will have to aggressively pursue and recover corruption proceeds, freeze borrowing, rationalize its parastatals and start doing human rights assessments of the future impact of reforms. None of this requires a referendum or am I missing something important?

Moi Day left us conflicted. Our national holidays need rethinking

A redacted version of this piece was published in Saturday Standard, October 13, 2018.

The abrupt announcement of Moi Day as a public holiday this year left the nation deeply conflicted. The former President’s followers celebrated, constitutionalists groaned and the majority simply enjoyed the day off work and school. Wednesday was frankly, awkward. Coming barely ten days before Mashujaa, perhaps we could spend a moment reflecting on the purpose of our national days.

Justice George Odunga caught the Executive napping a year ago. Seven years after we had voted for which national holidays we wanted to celebrate, two successive administrations had failed to update our Public Holidays Act. One year on, the Act still hadn’t been amended. However, Odunga’s reasoning is not beyond fault either. A more judicious position would have been to have rendered any Act of Parliament that was not in harmony with the constitution invalid and void. Both actions and inactions has confused the country and cost our economy millions.

National days matter politically and economically. Internationally, countries celebrate specific days to symbolize significant historic moments, religious events and iconic leaders. Freedom from colonialism and oppression are the purpose of most non-religious public holidays globally. The Nepalese (36), Indians (21) and Filippinos (18) have the most public holidays in the world.

It is not only in Kenya that we have days of national awkwardness. Americans and the Spanish annually argue that Columbus Day in America and Spain celebrates the genocide of indigenous peoples.

Unless used to drive consumerism and tourism, public holidays cost economies. The United Kingdom for instance, loses over 2 trillion shillings annually, the equivalent of two thirds of the Kenyan Government’s current budget, as a result of its holidays. Schedule 5 of our constitution provides for twelve public holidays. Our Labor Act also guarantees most workers 21 days off a year. Each of these days cost the economy millions.

There are other reasons why we need to go beyond our personal joy with Wednesday’s day off to challenge our public conscience. Simply, Moi did not provide Kenya with its finest leadership. Hundreds of families of those that died and those that survived the torture, detention without trial and state executions will tell you Moi days were not happy days. His successor Mwai Kibaki famously stated at his inauguration, “I have inherited a country that has been ravaged by years of misrule”.

Regardless where we each stand on former President Moi’s role in our history, we must all face an inconvenient truth, most of us don’t know what to do with national holidays anymore. Stripped of state organised festivities, children and parents stayed home, shops closed and some rushed upcountry to check on relatives. Those that took the day off, didn’t know how to celebrate the day beyond a few social media posts and uncomfortable jokes. None of this greatly honored Moi or deepened our sense of a nation with national values.

Our religious holidays are no different either. Non-Christians take a day off on the day Jesus Christ was born but few understand the gospel. Non-Muslims take a day off for Idd-ul–Fitr but even fewer understand the power of Shahada or Zakāt.

We set aside October 20 as Mashujaa day to combine Kenyatta and Moi days. In voting for this day, we chose also to include all the heroes and heroines who have sacrificed for a free, dignified and safe Kenya.

Let’s set aside the pretense this year and get creative this year. Let’s spend the day really honoring the fallen and those who continue to stand up for those that cannot. Could we invite a police-officer, a military veteran, human rights defender, a para-medic or another favorite hero to lunch and listen to them tell stories of courage? How about we plant a tree for a hero and read a history book to the young?

Perhaps the national museums and monuments could offer free access for the day. Perhaps we should organize a movie day in Uhuru Park. Taking a cue from our national poet Aleya Kassam, could we organize a viewing of award-winning movies Super Modo, Watu Wote, 18 hours, Silas or Rafiki among others?

Public holidays may be popular, but popularity does not always have purpose. Let’s bring some purpose to Mashujaa day this year and profoundly celebrate our heroes and heroines.

We must transform criminal justice system

First published Saturday Standard, October 6, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Coming a week before the World Day Against the Death Penalty, my recent conversation with U.S Judge Victoria Pratt will inspire me for a while. As we mark the day on October 10, she may have a few simple ideas that could transform the Kenyan criminal justice system

From the overcrowded jails in Africa and Asia to the prison-industrial complex of the United States, thousands of young men and women find themselves locked into courtrooms with only one exit, prison or a death row.

According to the National Council on the Administration of Justice, police officers and county askaris arrest four million people every two years. 70 per cent were arrested on petty offences such as drunk and disorderly, trading without a license, commercial sex, fighting, petty theft and fraud. Over 85 per cent of those who are remanded and imprisoned do not have legal representation.

Depending on the speed of that conveyor belt we call the criminal justice system, they then stream into already saturated prisons. 55,000 inmates cram into prisons with a capacity of 30,000.

Criminal justice runs on the assumption that you and I fear punishment. This assumption is also behind the tough language of the Education Ministry’s attempts to stop exam cheating and destruction of property. The signs that this is not working is evident in our crowded jails, repeat offenders and our overworked judges. Judge Pratt has a different approach. It is one that we could learn much from.

Based in Newark near New York, her court serves about 250,000 people. Many of the offenders who come before her are under-educated, unemployed, poor and people of color. 85 per cent of them have substance abuse addictions, mental health challenges or both.

Spiraling gun violence and crime in communities, schools and shopping malls has provoked zero tolerance policing. The criminalization of an increasing number of youth and even children is the result. Former President Obama put it even more starkly, the U.S. has 5 per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of the world’s prisoners.

Judge Pratt believes in the emerging theory of procedural justice. She starts with the belief that all who come before her court are also persons in crisis. Courts should not be places of punishment therefore, they are places for correction.

She engages defendants in dialogue with the intention that they be left with her sense of fairness, respect for them and a real interest in them turning a new path. People will obey the law not because they fear it but because they accept that its authority is legitimate, she argues.

With this approach she has found that her authority, court orders and the law are more likely to respected. The community service orders she issues are completed with fewer violations and she now writes far less warrants of arrests and jail sentences.

These simple ideas have the capacity to transform criminal justice systems all over the world. Rather than judges and magistrates that sit in high chairs, peer down and often mumble legal-ese before passing formulaic judgements, there is now the possibility of court-rooms that leave individuals transformed and out of our jails.

Some of the ideas Judge Pratt holds underpin our Community Service Orders Act. Routinely, a combined taskforce of the judiciary, prisons and probation services led by its Chairperson Justice Luka Kimaru recommend the release of petty offenders serving sentences of three years or less.

If mass incarceration will not dramatically reduce levels of crime, then punishment by death will not either. The death penalty also offends internationally agreed human rights standards.

This week, 24-year-old Zeinab Sekaanvand was executed by Iranian authorities for killing her husband. She was only 15 when she was married to him. Her husband was often violent and her brother-in-law raped her repeatedly. Her many requests for protection were ignored by the authorities. In her trial she argued she had been coerced to plead guilty to the murder. Despite all this, they executed her anyway.

Her story sadly echoes across the 23 countries in the world that still practiced this barbaric practice in 2017. Most people who end up on death row are young, marginalized or damaged by neglect and violence in their communities. Most are poorly legally represented. Some have been found to be innocent after death.

As the world marks the International Day Against the Death Penalty, we must move now to abolish the death penalty and construct new and more effective models of crime management and justice.