Leadership neglects mother nature’s lessons at their peril

First published Sunday Standard, September 24, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

This extended political season has just offended several of our eco-systems. The clearest evidence of this happened during the reading of the Supreme Court ruling on the Presidential Elections. As we unraveled the irregularities and illegalities of 34As and 34Bs, an aggressive attack of 34Bees took over the streets, scattering heavily armed security officers, placard carrying protesters and pedestrians. Given the toxicity of our recent politics, nature has just sent us a sign that not all is well.

The last week saw a toxic tongue-lashing from our politicians that left nothing spared. Political leaders and their followers in six counties hurled abuse and demonstrated against our Supreme Court, our electoral commission and each other. Ironically, this didn’t stop our newly elected and very divided legislators from uniting to demand higher salaries and benefits. From recent memory, we know they inch towards danger. While the Supreme Court is protected by bees, pigs have rallied to defend the Salaries and Remuneration Commission and the tax-payer in the past.

Elsewhere, a closer look at some of the nominated Members of County Assemblies suggests that all one needed to become an MCA is to be married to, related or friends with party lords. It will be interesting to see how the National Cohesion and Integration Commission exposes this further in their strategic petition before the High Court. This development must dismay the EACC even further. They, too, this week expressed disappointment that the IEBC had cleared 106 candidates with dirty hands to run in the August elections.

Allow me to return to that very unprecedented act of bee aggression. What could have angered the 34Bees to commit suicide by stinging every person in sight? Stinging is the final act of a bee. Once the sting is embedded in its target, it disembowels itself and dies. It is what suicide is to a human being.

Toxic abuse and violent politics is poisonous. Its venom secretes within its host, infects their closest confidants and then enters the air for all to breathe. Leadership that openly threatens constitutional offices, media, civic organisations and their political opponents pollinates ungovernability.

There are lessons we can learn from the barricades and armored vehicles trespassing the avenues leading to the Ugandan National Parliament this week. Police raided politician’s homes and NGO offices, beat and arrested students and councilors to stop them expressing their opposition to the #NoTermLimits clause. These events just left a few more indelible stains on Yoweri Museveni’s thirty-one-year-old legacy. Should Museveni get his wish to be proclaimed President for life, he will join the long gone, deposed and now deceased Idi Amin, Jean Bokassa and Habib Bourguiba and the unrest will only grow louder and more intense.

Recent studies now cite the abuse of power and state violence as a more powerful accelerator than religion in the journey to extremism. It may also cost politicians votes. Fifteen million Kenyans voted in the August election. That was nearly 80% of all registered voters. Second round elections tend to lose 30% of the turnout. Given the next election is only for the Presidency, it is possible the turnout could be even lower this time round.

The main significance of the Supreme Court ruling this week is that neither numbers nor processes matter more than the other. The integrity of both are important for electoral democracies. It is now time to place the Supreme Court ruling behind us and concentrate on how a badly dented IEBC can credibly count and reflect our votes on October 26.

NASA and Jubilee ran issue based campaigns before August 8. In this current toxic atmosphere, who can remember, hear or connect with what both Principals stand for? Vendettas now drown out manifestos. Without a refocus back to the issues affecting our lives, why should we come out and vote in large numbers.

Bees are defensive creatures. When building a hive and a safe environment for their Queen Bee they take a long-term perspective. They methodically distribute authority and assign roles. The authority of the Queen Bee rests on the consent of millions of worker bees. Our leadership neglects nature’s lessons at their peril.  First came the pigs, then the bees, what will mother nature throw at us next to cause us to wake up?

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Have we just abandoned our bio-safety?

First published Sunday Standard, September 17, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Oversight is a muscle that requires intensive and regular exercising. Prolonged preoccupation with the Presidential elections may have distracted the Cabinet from a matter of national interest. While they have been away campaigning, the cats may have given the mice a playing ground.

This week, National Bio-safety Authority Chief Executive William Tonui unilaterally approved the Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation to start national performance trials of genetically modified MON810 maize across the entire country. The September 8 approval is significant in two respects.

Allow me to get little distracted before I discuss this significance. Our bodies and all the plants and animals around us are made up of billions of individual cells or genes. Each of these genes carry instructions that determine the color of our eyes, texture of our hair and our resilience to disease and aging.

Knowing this, humanity has been selective breeding to get the best genes from the very beginning of time. When they were dating, our parents were doing it. All successful farmers have their prize bulls and cows. Those of you who are single and seeking to mingle, you do it every time you look a potential significant friend in the eyes. Selective breeding is not where the controversy lies.

The real controversy lies in the science of modifying plant organisms for agricultural production and consumption. In signing the approval, Tonui has inched open the door wider on one of greatest controversies of our time, bio-technology and the genetic modification of living organisms (GMOs).

Since the 1980s, scientists, politicians and a US$40 billion global industry have argued that rapid biotechnology is the only way Africa will feed itself through drought, pests and a hungry population. Most African Governments have tended to disagree. Only a handful of countries including Burkina Faso, Egypt and South Africa have approved the production, consumption and sale of genetically modified crops.

Burkina Faso recently abandoned this small group of countries after genetically modified BT cotton proved to be of low quality fiber. Rejected by national and international markets, it has been a costly policy and economic misadventure. Evidence for more caution is also drawn from the experience of North America, one of the early adopters in the 1990s. Failure to stop crop cross-pollination, bio-diversity loss and the rise of chronic illnesses such as cancer, food allergies and reproductive health challenges have raised widespread public concerns.

This weeks’ notice of approval is significant in another respect. To date, Kenya has insisted on rigorous testing to ensure GM technology does not harm either citizens, animals, plants or the environment. Kenya currently has a cabinet ban on GM seed importation. A national taskforce put in place to generate bio-safety guidelines has not submitted its work to the Cabinet.

Both Health and Agriculture Cabinet Secretaries Bett and Maillu are emphatic that there are real dangers that come with uncontrolled cross-pollination. They have maintained that no national performance trials will be conducted without appropriate environmental impact and risk assessments. This has not been done prior to CEO’s approval. In addition, importing GM maize seeds without a reversal on the Cabinet GM seed ban would also be irregular and illegal.

Without completing the environmental impact assessments, there is no way of knowing whether the distance between GMO trial sites and the neighboring farms is sufficient to avoid cross-pollination. This potential lack of isolation renders the exercise irrelevant. The Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organisation will have just contaminated maize farms in places like Kitale, the breadbasket of our country, without knowing what is going to happen next.

Within this context, it is unclear why the National Biosafety Authority Chief Executive with one month left on his contract is throwing caution to the wind and reversing a ten-year national policy at this point. With two applications before the NBA for MON18 maize and BT cotton (the same variety now abandoned by the Burkinabe), is it only a matter of time before the NBA gives license to BT cotton trials in the Western counties as well?

More importantly, it is not clear whether the NBA position is supported by our National Cabinet, the National Taskforce or the Council of Governors. These bodies and the public regulator The National Environmental Management Agency needs to urgently review this development. It flagrantly contradicts national policy. It also, endangers the public interest.

Time to revisit the role of citizens and Governments in disasters

First published Sunday Standard, September 10, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

The recent spate of accidents, fires and building collapses reflect a country caught sleeping at the wheel. Listening to the conversations after the horrific fires in Moi Girls and Sigoti Secondary schools and the terrifying Thika road accident we seem caught in reactionary blame-games that finds fault either in Government or the public. Is it time for us to revisit the role of citizens, civic organisations, public and private institutions in law enforcement, fire-services and health emergencies?

A quick glance at disaster related data reveals a fragile country. Over 1,000 students were arrested last year for 483 incidences of school unrest. Three fifths of these incidents were arson related. At least twenty buildings have collapsed over the last five years, many of them high occupancy buildings. Over 1,500 have died in road accidents this year alone. Behind these statistics lies pain, disability and lost potential.

Behind these statistics also, lies the heroes who act in what para-medics call the “golden hour”, the moment of danger. Contrary to what Hollywood would tell us, these guardian angels are the ordinary men and women who comfort and rescue others from danger. We now know they live and act in all corners of the Republic. They are not segregated by age, gender, ethnicity or sexual choice. Young Moi Girls Secondary school student Mary Jengo was one of them. Rather than flee and leave her students behind, she acted promptly to save lives and lost her own.

Crises produce guardian angels and we can be grateful for them. But can we collectively do to remove the conditions that make them necessary? To do this we will have accept some painful truths. We currently value infrastructure over the people who will use it. Public and private investment in roads, buildings, security and educational institutions dramatically outstrips investment in building civic competencies in law enforcement, fire and health emergencies.

Marginalised Kenyans know and resent this. Feeling no sense of ownership over that school dormitory, pavement or kiosk, they are very content to burn down what’s around them. They know that their destructive action will get the attention of authorities. Reactive governance trains the public to act in very predictable ways and our leaders need to wise up.

Secondly, we excel at post-disaster panic responses and suck at scenario-planning and compliance monitoring. If you are someone who manages disasters and hear excessive criticism, don’t, I am a committed complainant. I am only interested in exploring new ways of keeping us all safer.

Why is it that nyumbi kumi, civic education, public participation and disaster prevention and management programmes are so badly funded? Why aren’t disaster management manuals handed out to every employee? What don’t our homes, markets, matatu stages and schools have signs on what to do and who to call in the context of an accident? Why don’t families train at least one member on first aid responses?

Why did the courageous first-time responders to Moi Secondary School and Thika road drive past 4-5 private emergency centers to get to Kenyatta National Hospital? Perhaps we do not yet see our private emergency management centers obligated by Article 43.3 to be places for emergency treatment and care for all.

The National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) have a lovely phrase, “every pedestrian is important to someone.” It reminds us no-one is alone in this world, we are all connected and we can look out for each other. The sooner we can start viewing our safety comprehensively the safer we will all be. Internalising safety standards, regularly practice drills and update contingency plans in all our public spaces are easy places to start.

In the aftermath of this week, can we hold Counties and National Government accountable to effective crisis response and future prevention? Twenty-four years ago, secondary school student Wanza Kioko was arrested by the Special Branch for writing and posting a letter to President Moi. She accused him and his Government of repeatedly failing to protect her community against famine. The story was captured by the media and she was promptly released to protect the Government from further embarrassment. She had made her point.

Perhaps, we need more Wanzas in the Republic right now.

Court ruling is victory for all who believe in the power of the ballot

First published Sunday Standard, September 3, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

There is nothing like a Supreme Court Presidential election ruling to simultaneously give tens of millions of people whiplash. Dancing in happiness or staggering in shock has followed the unequivocal ruling that the IEBC mismanaged our August 8th Presidential elections. Regardless of our preferred candidate, it is incontestable that the constitutional revolution we voted for in 2010 just showed up again.

This week, NASA lawyers James Orengo, Otiende Amollo and Pheroze Nowrejee and the team delivered a detailed and spirited argument that massive irregularities and illegalities had manipulated the transmission of the results before the Supreme Court. Nevertheless, they seemed to be up against the weight of history. Only in a handful of countries internationally and Kenya is not one of them, has a court nullified a Presidential election in the presence of a sitting President.

It is extremely rare for legal petitions to overturn Presidential elections. It is this that has informed the cynical common argument; “Show me one election in which an incumbent lost”. It is this that has fueled elections as a zero-sum violent exercise.

Led by Chief Justice David Maraga, this Supreme Court ruling is a victory for all who believe in the power of the ballot and the independence of judiciary. It also drives the final nail into that coffin called “the President is above the law”. It can only renew a confidence in the Kenya’s democratic institutions. NASA’s tactical change from appealing to the court of public opinion to the Supreme court vindicates their strong protests that the process was rigged. It also marks their place in global electoral history. Constitutionalism has triumphed. Our only regret is that Maraga will turn 70 and retire one year before the 2022 elections. All understudies need to sit up. The standard has been set.

The ruling may also upset the newly sworn in National Assembly and Senate in at least two ways. A rash of election petitions and by-elections based on this ruling could cause the two Houses of Parliament to spin like revolving doors in the coming months. Secondly, it will be interesting to see what impact this would have on the dominant Jubilee majorities in both houses.

Early in the week and prior to the ruling, confident Jubilee leaders had argued that their new dominant majority would allow them to push through the Executive’s will. There are now reasons to suggest this may be premature but this position also lacks an understanding of the primary role of Parliament as a check and balance to the Executive, any Executive.

Like many, I watched the diversity of men, women, persons with disabilities and professionals with pride as they were sworn in. Aged between 23 and 74, former small traders, university students, lawyers and NGO leaders now sit alongside veteran politicians in both houses.

Together they must focus on providing principled oversight of national and county Governments, especially now most of the newly elected Governors have signed integrity codes and are demanding independent corruption audits. Reviewing all the leadership integrity legislation that created loopholes for corruption would be a starting point. So too would be enforcement of the leadership integrity code.

Our legislators must urgently address the legal gaps in enforcing the two thirds gender rule, meaningful public participation and the right to health and food security. Could this Parliament be the one that makes public the records how the legislators contribute and vote not only on the floors of the houses but also in the committees? It would be useful to include Mzalendo Trust, a parliamentary watch body and their new online Dokeza platform in the orientation of all legislators.

Recently endorsed by both Houses of Parliament, Dokeza seeks to radically change public participation by providing an online platform to engage your legislator. Before Dokeza, citizens had to rely on newspaper advertisements to know which bills were before the Parliament for debate and enactment. This is no longer the case. Citizens can now use this easy to use platform to engage their leaders and upcoming bills

IEBC must be reconstituted and restore public confidence to manage the re-election. Let us set aside calls to secede or burn our voters’ cards and clear our calendars once again to come out and vote. We now know vigilance stops election offences. Let us also guide our new national and county legislators so they can work for us and not for themselves.

If we do all of this, we could just be a match for the Supreme Court’s fidelity to our constitution.

Bid to overturn SRC pay is an act of corruption

First published Sunday Standard, August 27, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Coming a week before our National Parliamentarians take their oath of office, Kiambu Women’s Representative-elect Gathoni wa Muchomba touched a live wire by rejecting the salary scales published by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission. Faced by one of the fastest recall petitions and public uproar, she has sensibly apologized and reversed her position. The incident and subsequent debate offers insights into our leadership, the possible character of the 12th Parliament and what citizens and leaders need to act on next.

Misreading the moment, other MP-elects have argued that without higher salaries and allowances they will be unable to recover their heavy campaigns investment, meet their constituent’s insatiable needs or maintain their “Mheshimiwa” appearance and lifestyle. The three arguments tragically betray both a lack of basic salary negotiation etiquette and poor self-awareness.

Anyone who has been interviewed for a job knows that salary negotiations are always uncomfortable. There are some basic errors you can make. Introducing one’s personal needs is the first no no. Your potential employers are not interested in your mortgage, student loan repayments, entertainment preferences or cars you drive and must maintain. We did not ask you to spend 40 million on your campaigns or our emerging helicopter mini-industry either. Place these arguments in the broader context and we have a right to be very worried.

Perhaps we stepped over some basics in our community and media election debates. Before we got to the manifesto promises, we should have started with the question, “Do you accept the salary package for this position?” It is not too late for this. Ahead of the swearing in ceremonies, all elected representatives can internalise the salary scales, reconcile their personal budgets and if it doesn’t work, decline the opportunity to serve voters. This would have integrity.

For those that continue to want to serve us (current terms and conditions apply), it is time to let go of the excessive self-interest. Any act by our Parliamentarians to overturn the SRC salary scales is undeniably an abuse of power for personal interest. It is an act of corruption. Corruption has significant political, economic and social costs. It is also the basis of grossly unequal and unstable societies. It undermines the rule of law and fuels organized crime. It is also the primary source of the public lack of confidence that fueled the high leadership turnover we saw in the recent elections.

To have between 60-90% turnover of elected national and county representatives reflects a failing leadership culture. Like Muchomba, leaders can save themselves from public recall and certain self-inflicted humiliation in 2022 by reading the signs of an assertive electorate. It is significant that Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, Jaquar, Yusuf Hassan and Mohammed Ali Mohamed have spoken firmly from the same script to condemn the growing chorus of “we want more” before it got louder. Value-based bi-partisanship will be critical in the next parliament.

The party parliamentary groups must squarely address leadership integrity on the floor and in the parliamentary committees. Party leaders must continue to lead. Anyone who challenges the SRC guidelines should be dropped from parliamentary committees, censured and denied a party platform to run in 2022. For those hurting from campaign costs, let them fast track legislation to cap future campaign financing or consult Boniface Mwangi. For those hurting from meeting the costs of others’ school and hospital bills, let them legislate the manifesto policy promises and help their constituents optimize the benefits of the Constituency Development Fund, National Health Insurance Fund and other available facilities.

The failure of the IEBC and the parties to apply and raise ethical leadership standards before the elections has left us with mixed bag of leaders with very diverse levels of integrity, experience and ambition. Predictably, we can expect a range of integrity violations. They will range from genuine mistakes, extravagance, sly greed and outright fraud. Before our leaders find themselves at the sharp end of public criticism and action, we need rapid training programmes on what constitutes conflict of interest. We also need citizens and civic organisations to remain vigilant and engaged.

A last word for Sarah Serem and the Salaries Remuneration Commission. Thank you for so publicly introducing these guidelines prior to the elections. It leaves no respectable leader with any credible excuse for opening this self-interested conversation now or in the immediate future. It also leaves public interest activists no need to go in search of pigs and rats.

Our continued mistrust for public institutions produces no sense of obligation

First published Sunday Standard, August 20, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

With the drama of a high stakes chess game, Raila Odinga has just checked Uhuru Kenyatta. One week almost to the hour the IEBC announced the winner of the Presidential election, the game is now wide open again. NASA’s 25,000-word petition closes a tense week in which the country has swung dangerously between impunity and accountability in the pursuit of power and control.

The week left a stain on all of us. Instinctive mistrust overwhelmed sensible judgement. We relished in creating and sharing fake news. In so doing, we lost at times the ability to discern what was really happening and needed to happen next. Our electoral management body, the security agencies, media, international and national observers, political parties and even the voter took a public bruising. Worse still, at least thirty families were left preparing for the burials of their loved ones. We got attached and in the process, we temporarily lost our commitment to our national values.

In the wake of the IEBC announcement against their candidate, NASA seemed split on whether to follow the rule of law or agitate mass street action. Two distinct and contradictory calls were issued simultaneously. Mass action, boycott national news and a stay away on one hand, and public restraint, no violence and legal petition on the other. Voices of reason appealed for NASA to go to court and make their case before the Supreme Court and the nation.

Despite the official assurance that no protestors lives had been lost, the truth seeped from Mathare, Kibra, Kisumu and Migori. The security forces used live bullets and excessive force in quelling both political unrest and criminal behavior by opportunists. Impending investigations by the Independent Police Oversight Authority will probably increase the number of 85 prosecutions currently before the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions for election related offences.

The decision by NGO Coordination Bureau to summarily de-register and seek Central Bank and Kenya Revenue Authority support to close The Kenya Human Rights Commission and The Africa Centre for Open Governance escalated an already volatile situation. It is widely suspected that fear of the organisations petitioning the presidential results, not their tax, financial and immigration compliance informed the Bureau’s action. It is bizarre that after a week of the Government and Jubilee Party encouraging NASA to take its complaints to court why the Bureau felt it needed to block this legal avenue.

A court judgement and the 90-day suspension by Interior Cabinet Secretary Matiang’i has temporarily restored order and respect for fair administrative action. Whether the proposed committee and the Commission for Administration of Justice will shed more light on this and the broader future of NGO-State relations remains to be seen.

Both Uhuru Kenyatta, Raila Odinga and their followers faced a similar leadership test this week. Their test was how to compete for control of the State within the boundaries of the Constitution and elections laws. Citizens too were tested this week. Some of us created half-truths, attacked others based on their political choices or ethnicity and even resurrected Congolese ancestors and killed them again in Dandora to make political points. Most of us shared this confusion without restraint or criticism.

We can be inspired by the citizens, community leaders and police officers who urged non-violence while facing insults, rocks and bullets. We can be proud of the media houses and especially NTV who continued to broadcast NASA rallies while being publicly criticized. We can acknowledge the Governor-elects who called for patience and restraint. We can also salute the religious leaders, diplomats and lawyers who prayed, counselled and reminded us, that we have a country with a constitution and laws to protect all without fear of favor. Their actions protected the Republic this week from the horror of 2008.

It is worth remembering, the same attributes define the maturity of adults and societies. Human beings are born with no sense of responsibility for themselves and others. Young children exercise only an instinct and a love for constant stimulation. Only a growing appreciation of the consequences of their actions and discipline instills responsibility. It is the same with national accountability. Our continued mistrust and disrespect for public institutions and the rule of law produces no sense of obligation or respect for a higher authority.

For this reason, I welcome the decision by Odinga to go to the Supreme Court and Kenyatta’s support of his right to do so. May the Supreme Court act judiciously with no fear, favor or interference.

The issues raised around the enabling environment for NGOs and the media was the focus of August 20 several opinion editorials.

Strengthen democracy, promote integrity post elections

Published first in the Sunday Standard, August 13, 2017

I stress, at the risk of boring you, this is yet another provisional opinion. Having braved a day of floods, polling station delays and long queues and four days of tense tallying, our six level elections are now over. If the elections filled you with anxiety, the post-election period should be even more worrying. It is about now that 99% of the country goes back to sleep. Having been whipped into a frenzy of political events, most citizens and the 12,000 aspirants who didn’t get elected will quietly slip into a state of deep unconsciousness for the next five years. We can call this, Post Elections Sleep Syndrome (PESS).

Disappointment, demonstrations and legal petitions will continue to dominate the thoughts and actions of those who feel aggrieved. Political analysis and electoral campaign reviews will preoccupy the academics and campaign strategists. For the rest of us, we must now turn our attention to how we can practically strengthen our democracy, promote the integrity of our public offices and create an inclusive society and economy that works for all, not just the 1%. To not do this, is to intentionally sabotage all we have gone through.

President elect Uhuru Kenyatta and the Jubilee Party will govern nationally and in 29 counties. They will have a majority in both houses of the 12th Parliament. NASA, the smaller parties and the Independents have to devise ways of working together to create an effective opposition. Together, we must hold all the winners accountable to the policy priorities of their campaigns and how they will directly address corruption, high living costs and social and economic rights.

Barring lengthy disputes and petitions, Assumption of Offices laws and procedures for the President and the Governors determine that they shall be sworn into office within fourteen and ten days respectively from Friday 12th August. We must resist the natural impulse to celebrate or regret only in this interim period. Under the same procedures and the Access to Information Act (2016), citizens can request information on the public assets, liabilities, financial accounts and corporations being handed over to the incoming administration. Incoming leaders could consult publicly on the focus of their leaders’ inaugural speeches and actions they must take in their first 100 days. By doing this, citizens will maintain the high degree of public participation seen at and after the ballot box.

Voters in Kitui, Kirinyaga and Bomet have led the country in electing women as Governors. The three elected women Senators and 22 Members of Parliament combined with 47 women representatives provides us with record numbers of women in oversight positions. While we have reason to celebrate their success and even as we wait for a final breakdown of the gender, age and disability of the elected members, we are not going to meet the constitutional two thirds threshold. Political parties must now identify and nominate competent women, youth and persons of disabilities to meet the principle of inclusion and diversity.

This election revealed our fault-lines as a divided nation once more. Without a pro-active strategy for national cohesion, these divisions will persist long after the horrific violence in places like Kondele and Mathare. Dusting off and implementing community policing reforms, Devolution Ministry public participation guidelines and investing in community leadership training for accountability and governance offer quick wins for us all. As Samar Al-Kindy wisely notes, the cost of the most expensive peace is by far cheaper than the cheapest of wars.

The new 25 Governors face the same challenges and temptations of those returning for a second term. Several county corruption risk assessments completed by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission identify personnel recruitment, procurement, poor programme design and the lack of transparency and public participation as corruption hotspots. Without a clear public demand for new systems of accountability, we may find ourselves again saying, “same crap and toilet, different flies”.

Post Elections Sleep Syndrome (PESS) is a rather common illness that damages the production and functioning of our civic blood cells. It is caused by the trauma of seeing leaders neglect to provide quality services, repeatedly abuse their offices and public resources being wasted in broad daylight. There is only one vaccine. Citizens must remain engaged in the public interest and leaders need to keep their doors and ears open.