It is your constitutional duty to protect votes and lives this period

Published first in the Sunday Standard, August 6, 2017

The helicopters have stopped flying. The music has stopped blaring at us and the rallies are no more. The time has come for us to be still, reflect and prepare to vote for the leaders we want to serve us for the next five years.

Against the clock and under difficult circumstances, political candidates, civic educators and journalists have crisscrossed all 47 counties looking for votes, informed voters and election stories. Some came to serve themselves, others to serve the public.

Their campaign trails have thrown up a dust of uncertainty and fear behind them. Anecdotal reports of working class voters leaving their homes for Western, Eastern and Mount Kenya counties and the middle class buying up the supermarkets do not reflect a confident people ready to elect their leaders.

The brazen night raid on NASA’s election coordination center on Friday contradicts the public assurance by the Interior Ministry and the IEBC that our public service and law enforcement machinery will not be used in the interests of Jubilee.

The seeds of a violently contested election result are sown in moments like these. They are also sown in the moment we discovered Chris Msando and Carol Nyandu had been killed.

Tragically, the IEBC ICT Director will not get to see our votes captured by the Kenya Integrated Elections Management Systems technology. As we head to the polls, their families and the families of others that have died in this election remain bereaved. May they have the courage to come out and vote on Tuesday. We on the other hand, must come out and vote in honor of all those that have died. The violence, bribery and rigging requires our personal response as fellow voters.

It is often said, without the darkness of night, we would never see the beauty of the stars. It is true with society also. The darker and bleaker it is, the more heroes and sheroes come into our view.

Last week, I interacted with forty young and old citizens under the #ResponseAble campaign. They spent five days in matatus across the hotspot counties of Kajiado and Nairobi talking to voters. Like other voter educators, their efforts are under-resourced and come late in the day.

93 % of 3,000 people they met are registered to vote suggesting we could see a high turnout on Tuesday. Many were not ready to vote effectively. Questions on whether the County Women’s Representative is the same as the National Assembly Women’s Representative (they are), how to fold the ballot paper to ensure no smudging, whether we need our voters card (only the ID or passport you are registered with is needed) and how to check their status (SMS 70000) were asked repeatedly.

There was outrage also at the death of Chris Msando and predictability of no closure on who and why he was killed (valid). Fear of violence (57%) and rigging (34%) tops their concerns. 96% found the matatu mjadalas (dialogues) useful and committed to come out and vote.

They further committed to act non-violently and report any election offences by both the state or communities. This type of civic education is a critical pre-condition for active citizenship, credible and peaceful elections.

The next few days are critical to credible and peaceful elections. In remains to be seen whether Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta will jointly attend the same Sunday mass service today.

The National Police Service must build liaison bridges and rules of engagement with community and party leaders, deploy women police officers as requested by women’s rights organisations and exercise reasonable restraint. No amount of military hardware can match civic-police trust and open relations.

The IEBC must assert its authority over this election and side-step any attempts of undue influence and intimidation. Community leaders and mediators must ready themselves to interrupt the outbreak of the senseless violence we saw in 2008.

We did it in 2013, we can do it again.

For those households writing evacuation or emergency shopping lists right now, my advice to you is, write another list as well. Write the list of the six candidates you will vote in. It is your constitutional obligation and the only practical way you will get the leaders and the future you deserve. For those of you who can do more, help others to vote and have their votes count.

Protect all our votes and lives over the coming week. See you at the polling station.

Irũngũ Houghton writes in a personal capacity. You can engage him on @irunguhoughton


Ensure all Kenyans vote, all votes count and all Kenyans remain safe

First published Sunday Standard, July 30, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

The General Elections are now less than 240 hours away. 92-year-old nationalist and writer Muthoni Likimani will be among 19 million eligible voters likely to make their way to the polling stations. She has voted in every Kenyan election since independence and vows to make her way there in a wheel chair if she is not able to walk and cast her vote. She will be among nine million young voters, a third of whom are voting for the first time. All their votes and indeed the foundation of our democracy, depends on how #ResponseAble our state, political class and citizens are this coming week.

Elections in Kenya generate the heat and expectation of a full-term human pregnancy and the campaigns are almost as long. Four concerns have driven this election for us. Will the electoral management systems deliver credible elections? Will the nation remain cohesive and non-violent? Will we elect leaders who are a match for the aspirations contained in chapter six of our constitution? Will we elect leaders who reflect the full diversity of our peoples and especially our women, youth and people with disabilities?

For the last year, political parties and citizens have thrown more clean and dirty legal punches at the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission than a Floyd Mayweather heavyweight fight. Our courts have also become electoral arenas. We have discovered gaps in our laws that need closer interpretation and the IEBC has been forced to make institutional changes to retain the confidence of all the political players. The publishing of the voter register last week was a critical step in restoring the public confidence so lacking in 2013. The IEBC has also done better this year in communicating its preparedness and how voters need to prepare.

The lack of leadership integrity has brought us here also. One after another, the 80 or so candidates named by the #redcard campaign and the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission have displayed the vice of corruption, hate-crimes and dishonesty over their academic qualifications. Next week, we must reject these tainted helicopter passengers who seek our vote to maintain their lucrative lifestyles and the grip of cartels over our country’s resources.

The race for 1,600 seats is also slowly locking out women, youthful leaders and people with disabilities despite their demographic majority as a bloc. Next week, there will be very few women on your ballot paper. Consider electing clean and inspired leaders that carry these constituencies. Inclusive politics is important if we are to keep our 47 million people engaged in public life.

Unresolved inequalities and violent conflicts are also at the source of our elections. 62% of the country’s wealth lies in the hands of 0.02% today. We have had 2,500 violent conflicts since the 1984 Wagalla massacre. Many of these historical and current injustices remain unaddressed. Violent outbreaks in Marsabit, Lamu, Kisumu, Siaya, Muranga and Kirinyaga have left many worried and intimidated. Our political candidates have done little to reduce temperatures and reduce the hate-speech and violence leaving it to religious, civil society, media and diplomatic leaders.

The National Government’s disruption of civic education in January has been costly and that price can be seen in the violence and uncertainty facing many voters today. However, with 240 hours to go, there is little value of going back there or anywhere else in the past for now. There is also little value in continuing the peaceful versus credible elections debate either. Rigging and violence are two sides of the same coin. Both betray the promise of free, fair and non-violent elections in Article 81 of our constitution.

What we must now practically understand are the eleven key electoral offences and the actions we can take to safeguard our leadership choices. We must record and generously share IEBC, Police, commissions, Witness Protection Agency, media news desks and our political party’s hotlines. We must also discourage voters from misdirecting any other frustration and outrage at other innocent voters. Exercising electoral choices requires us all, the public official, politicians and the voter to act #ResponseAbly.

This week, we must act to ensure that all eligible Kenyans vote, all votes are counted and all Kenyans remain safe. Only then will we honor Muthoni Likimani and the millions of others who have agitated for decades for our right to vote freely and safely.

An independent mind is no longer dangerous

First published Sunday Standard, July 23, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

I am dying. We all are. No-one escapes this life alive. With this certainty, we can all turn to the legacies we want for ourselves and our leaders. The deaths of Joseph ole Nkaissery, G.G. Kariuki, Nicholas Biwott and Bethuel Kiplagat over the last few days have generated national mourning and derision in equal measure. Although all four were State Officers for most of their lives, they left very different personal and public legacies. Their demise illuminates the important choices before us on August 8.

Leaders cannot be separated from the context of their time. Kenya was a dark place of despair before 2003. The state was incapable of protecting its own public resources. The judiciary cannibalized laws at the whim of the Executive. While Biwott and Kariuki were architects of this system, the legacies of most State Officers remain tainted by their silence or complicity with human rights abuses. Many chose not to confront the violence, suffering and destruction that came with the one-party system. Dissent and acting in the public interest was a dangerous path to take. Only the few that stood up against this tyranny will be completely absolved by this history.

Thankfully, the conditions that gave rise to the fear and sycophancy of the eighties and nineties are no longer with us. Our leaders can no longer claim it is dangerous to have an independent mind. They cannot argue that laws prohibit freedom of expression and the right to association. Quite the reverse, leaders are required to bring honor, dignity and public confidence to the office. Combine this with the principle of “command responsibility” and leaders can also now be held responsible for their failure to act. We can be grateful for Nkaissery’s assertive leadership style in this regard. It reversed the divisions within the intelligence and military communities that left us vulnerable to the extremist militants.

A decade ago, I was asked by a very uncomfortable State Official how he could remove incriminating articles from showing up every time his name was searched on the internet. The answer then, would be the same now, “take full responsibility and do lots of good.” The mark of great leaders has been the humility to declare errors of past judgement and a willingness to be held accountable for them. We are not our past actions or inactions unless we stop evolving. Having spent long hours with Bethuel Kiplagat in 2008, I know he understood this. It was fundamental to his beliefs as a peace-mediator and a mentor to young men and women.

Leadership is also boldness. Let me be specific before I am challenged that Idi Amin of Uganda too, was a bold leader. Bold and ethical leaders are also easy to spot. Values rather than vices distinguish them. They are the ones that have courageously taken personal risks to advance the interests of others. They do not need a public title or salary to act in the public interest. Behind them are followers who produce results and see their lives change.

Legacies therefore are not constructed from a series of past incidents. They are our entire body of work. Painted on a wide canvas with many colors, moments of brilliance and darkness sit side by side. Only those making small and safe choices have the luxury of perfect and unblemished legacies. Leaders do stumble and we must catch them in these moments also.

In this way, our leaders’ legacies are much like our lives, a collection of both good and bad habits. Vicious and violent leaders have simultaneously been loving fathers and thoughtful husbands. This may need clarity for some. We wouldn’t put a recurrent drunk in charge of a bar or a serial rapist in charge of a school however good a father he was. Why would we elect a habitual thief to manage our taxes? We would if we were intentionally sabotaging our future.

Forty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr advised us to measure a leader by the positions he or she took in times of controversy and the acute challenges facing society. It remains as relevant today as it did then. Silence in the face of huge inequalities, impunity and theft of public resources is complicity whether you are a leader or a citizen. In two weeks’ time, we get to vote for who will lead us. All the candidates will have legacies. Study them carefully before you allow them into our public offices.

What could the South Sudanese sunrise generation do next?

First published Sunday Standard, July 16, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

In the shadows of every conflict, men and women carefully move to repair their societies. Collecting and re-assembling shattered pieces of the national mirror they work until the nation can see itself clearly, again. Last week, I met a group of young South Sudanese leaders who are committed to healing Africa’s youngest democracy.

The meeting was fortuitous. South Sudan has just turned six but there is little to celebrate. Four million men, women and children are in flight. They flee abductions, rape and death by several armed militias and armies. Fear has replaced hope. The Equatorial region is now called the killing fields and women there, see safety only in death. Controlling access to food is a weapon of war. Today, it leaves 1.7 million severely hungry. With the rains, cholera looms for thousands. Calculating their chances, nearly 2 million South Sudanese have left for exile in East Africa and elsewhere.

Yet, South Sudan was born unified and rich. 98% of the country declared their preference for national independence from The Sudan. Today, the Government controls tremendous oil reserves. In the next couple of months, it plans to hold an international oil and gas conference. Despite this, corruption and impunity ensures that this wealth is enjoyed by very few men and women. The gap between the promise and current reality of South Sudan grows wider daily. This gap brings the leadership and governance crisis to Kenya’s doorstep in several ways.

Firstly, a humanitarian and human rights disaster on our doorstep offends our national sense of human dignity and pan-Africanism. South Sudan also represents an opportunity for regional trade and Kenyan business to sell goods and services to the emerging economy. As we have found with the four Kenyan Click Technologies businessmen now imprisoned after an unfair trial, the current situation makes this a risky venture. We also now require decisive non-partisan mediation in the revitalization process declared by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. Is it time to bring General Lazaro Sumbeiywo back to directly engage this process?

Ultimately, the destiny of South Sudan lies in the hands of its 12 million people. Three generations – the sunset, noon and sunrise – contest to lead them. The sunset generation are typically in their sixties, fought or supported the fighters in successive wars and negotiated the Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The noon generation are between 45-60 and include those that are unwilling or too frightened to disrupt the political status quo. The sunrise generation are under 45 years old. They are tired of a country that is militarized, held hostage by the generals and without a future. They come from 70% of the population that have typically been the child-soldiers but also the emerging professional classes.

“Sunrise” men and women have played a central role in the history of all successive movements for independence, human dignity and justice across Africa. Winnie Mandela, Patrice Lumumba, Julius Nyerere, Samora Machel and Thomas Sankara were revered sunrise leaders of their time. Behind them were countless other “sunrisers”. Like those that have done so before them, the sunrise South Sudanese leaders must build the bridges again to create a country that is a match for the dreams of 2011.

Knowledge is power, it is said. Imagination is even more daring. The sunrise generation of South Sudan must have mastery over both. Building a new society requires new values to replace old vices. Values are not the preserve of any generation, they are the glue that could bind the three generations together. Similarly, being overly pre-occupied with being at the upcoming national revitalization talks may be short-sighted. These are spaces that the sunrise generation will be invited into. They are not spaces created and owned by this generation. The sunrise generation are best placed to create new spaces and public campaigns among their people at home rather than presenting positions and papers in neighboring capitals.

Our role as their neighbors is to offer counsel when asked, safe passage and havens when required and a firm voice and action against violence and repression from any quarter, rebel or state. A question could be asked of our Presidential aspirants, how will your Government help restore peace and justice to the people of South Sudan?

Peace mediator Ambassador Bethuel Kiplagat died on July 13, the day this was written. He would have been very supportive of the sunrise generation. I dedicate this article also to his forty years of mediation attempts across the continent and during the Post-Election Violence of 2008 in Kenya. The leadership of Dekha Ibrahim and Bethuel Kiplagat during this period is well captured in

Caught in a storm of fake news, inflammatory comments? Here’s what you could do

First published Sunday Standard, July 9, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Kenyans could borrow a lesson or two from the late Amilcar Cabral. The Guinea Bissau leader often rallied the independence movement with the phrase, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories”. Kenya is caught in a perfect storm of personal integrity, commercial and political interests. Fake-news, misinformation and disinformation leaps out at us from all outlets. With just under five weeks to go to the elections, it is difficult to know what is the truth about anything political. If this wasn’t bad enough, emotions are also high.

We have mastered the blood sport called “politricks” and become experts in the art of disinformation. In the last 90 days alone, we have discovered no less than five sensational stories were untrue. Our opinions are increasingly becoming untrustworthy. It seems to me that there are three reasons why this is happening.

Firstly, we don’t verify and own the information we are passing on to each other. Once we type the magical words “sent as received” we then proceed to share dozens of sensational half-truths, innuendos and downright lies. We get some laughs at the expense of our targets but in so doing, we cheapen our own credibility. The greater cost is we also distract each other from what is really going on.

Secondly, fake news and websites are being generated by e-hustlers in search of advertising and communications contracts and media outlets in search of sales. All they care is that you click on the links, forward their posts and buy their news. They then sell that to the advertising companies for contracts worth hundreds of thousands of shillings. The national vice here is lie sensationally, it pays.

Thirdly, the politricians and their communications teams want you to get mad, literally. Mad enough to come out, campaign and vote against their opponents. The formula is simple. Watch your opponent very closely. Ignore the issues, just focus on their identity. Find something that undermines their personal credibility, exaggerate it into a major character flaw and pull them down in full view of the public. The practice is literally assassinating characters on all sides and scorching the political landscape.

In fact, it has got so inhuman that humans are not really needed anymore. Just before Christmas, I noticed 300 new twitter followers. Most accounts had no photos, had never tweeted and had roughly the same number of people they followed and followers. My ego told me to ignore them, the more followers the better. My soul argued otherwise. Even cockroaches in our kitchens are a sick form of flattery. Keeping them would turn out bad, my sixth sense argued. They were all deleted.

I had discovered web based robots or bots as they are called. Oddly enough, these software applications resemble the botfly. The larva of a botfly is a parasite that lives in animal stomachs. These algorithm created bot accounts on the other hand, are artificially created to parasitically flood your timeline and falsely boost your followers. There are companies that specialize in this. Politricians globally have also discovered that lying on a mass scale is not that expensive. Last year, over 60% of North Americans believed made up news about their elections. It’s got so bad, that two months ago, the inventor of the World Wide Web Tim Berners-Lee warned the world about its dangers.

Neither autocratic state control or citizens tuning out and leaving groups will be effective in this context. We can all do better by looking more closely at the authors, sources and dates of stories, reading beyond the headlines, reviewing our own biases and verifying the stories with authoritative individuals or agencies.

Stopping a human or technological bot in your community is easy. Reflect on all the people in your life that are regularly posting inflammatory, divisive and misleading comments. We all have one or two in our lives now. Take a pen now and write down their names. Challenge them by simply saying, “Lies or half-truths are no longer acceptable my presence.”

The wise ones will tell us, real blindness is in the mind, not in the absence or presence of our eyes. Protect your sight people.

End the cynicism surrounding party manifestos

First published Sunday Standard, July 2, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from Standard Group

Declarations have no power in the presence of resignation and cynicism. If we are honest, most of us paid too little attention to the launch of three major party manifestos – Jubilee, NASA and Third Way. Marriage ceremonies bring out the same in us. When at weddings do you detail the bridal party outfits, distract yourself with social media and then wait for the kiss and a piece of cake? Or do you reflect on the meaning and commitment in the couple’s vows? I suspect you were probably the same around party manifesto launches last week.

I believe in declarations. The source of the word manifesto comes from “to manifest, to reveal or make known your intentions”. In this sense, this week’s manifesto launches have come late in the day. With the primaries already behind us and the voter more or less certain who they will vote for, it is unlikely the vision, values and programmes contained in the manifestos released this week will drive our electoral choices. This would be a mistake.

The party manifestos released this week represent real choices for the Kenyan citizen. Most observers and analysts have attempted to argue that they are too similar, photocopies of previous manifestos and merely rituals without commitment. I disagree. Whether it be Jubilee’s emphasis on prosperity and jobs or NASA’s focus on social and economic rights, the manifestos represent options for the nation and each of us individually.

There are real issues facing the country. Spiraling debt and living costs, unemployment, expanding inequalities and violence, social and economic rights denial, corruption and a growing disillusionment with public institutions. The parties manifested themselves on these and more issues this week. I have my own views but I leave it to you to read the manifestos. After this, you can make an informed choice to support the party that speaks best to your own values and the vision of the Kenya you want.

My focus is on what could happen next. The parties could simplify the pillars and communicate them in ways more interesting for the average citizen than the PDF downloads. Party leaders could organize events for their local leaders and supporters to internalize the party vision. Civic organisations could convene academics, professional associations, unions, religious communities and other key constituencies to discuss. Voters could ask their candidates how they will scale their party vision down and deliver in the ward, village and neighborhood. Parents could have discussions with their children and especially the first time voters.

The lack of a powerful call to action to citizens and communities is still missing for me in the manifestos. None of the parties have really called us into action or given us license to act within their vision. Without this, how will any of the visions be understood, deepened and protected?

The tenderpreneurs and cartels that stalk our public finances don’t have public manifestos but they do have carefully designed plans. Like our parties, they too, are awake in this season. If there is one lesson we can learn from the last five years, active vigilance and agency by citizens is a precondition for advancing any future vision. Our parties and 47+1 Governments alone cannot survive the onslaught of the cartels that walk the corridors of our Ministries and Courts.

We must drop the resignation and cynicism surrounding manifestos. A friend teased me this week saying the inclusion of a manifesto pledge to create more unemployment among the political class would probably be a more effective appeal for votes. Elsewhere in world, the launch of party manifestos are decisive moments not just to harvest votes but also to establish the Government’s post-election agenda.

Evolving our democracy requires all – not just the party leaders – to create and debate policy choices. What’s clear, regardless of who wins the presidential elections, the country will be governed based on two or more manifestos. We must scale down and hold the visions in our neighborhoods and workplaces with the tenacity of the cartels. To do less, is to lose the moment of the ceremonies that happened last week.

Meet Reverend Frank Chikane, Kagiso Trust

Got to meet a leader I have always admired this week at the #KCDFat20 #DurableDevelopment conference. His personal and professional life has always demonstrated activist love and commitment for people. Reverend Frank Chikane was expelled from theological school and later defrocked for his commitment to bring apartheid. He was one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement, helped build the United Democratic Front and then joined Government as Chi. He is now the Kagiso Trust Chairperson.

Here are some of his thoughts paraphrased this week when he was in Nairobi.

“Apartheid was very destructive. We needed to build new values that could oppose racism, injustice and inequality. We did this knowing that saints would emerge. The United Democratic Front only had one indisputable leader but it didn’t need Mandela to tell it what to do next. Leadership must always ask itself. Are our people enlivened and confident or polarized and fearful? This is a question for leaders.

South Africa’s past was about human dignity and respect; it is now about economic empowerment. Today, South Africa has leaders who loot and then seek to retire. (Can’t resist interrupting this, but Kenya has a few leaders who loot and then seek to occupy the state).

Kagiso Trust approached the South African Government and agreed on the quality of education as a national problem. We offered to match Government finances to resolve them.

By creating a self-supporting organisation, we could build a replicable model for others. We have learnt that creating value-based spaces challenges corruption and inefficiencies. Challenging those that benefit from corruption and inefficiencies also produces new tensions.”

To read more on, see
Frank Chikane
Kagiso Trust twitter @Kagiso_Trust
The KCDF @ 20 conference twitter #DurableDevelopment #ShiftThePower