Lessons Learnt – by Doreen Baingana

Focus: Kenya view.

Like many Ugandans, I have watched recent events unfold in Kenya in shock, but also with vague discomfort because of the familiarity, to us, of the images of violence, especially that unleashed by the police and army on fellow citizens.  We Ugandans, unfortunately, are also too familiar with the mockery our leaders make of democratic processes, as with the rigged Kenyan election, and the surreal swearing-in ceremony that followed. 

What is one to do?  Some Kenyan writers, whom I am lucky to call my friends, have put pen to paper to communicate their frustration, anger and shame, to try and sort through this calamitous mess, to reach for explanations as a way to find solutions out of it.  Their writing, thank God, provides a deeper and more succinct perspective on the events than the three-minute foreign news items plugged in before sports and business news that churn out tired clichés of yet another African nation gone wrong.

The writers have taken action using the skills and opportunities they have.  What about those Kenyans who cannot express their frustrations and views in this or any other legitimate way?  Those poor, marginalized millions who have been callously ignored by their leaders for generations?  Last year they were persuaded to vote, they were told an election was one way to speak and be heard, to take action to change their circumstances by throwing out ineffective leaders.  And vote they did, in millions.  But, it was the election results that were thrown out.  This was a huge, public slap in the voters’ collective face, including those who voted for Mwai Kibaki, because he has now completely illegitimatized himself.  And so the scorned populace reacted publicly, vehemently, but extremely unwisely, by turning on their neighbors, attacking and killing.  It is the worst form of expression, the worst form of action to cause change, but perhaps the one that was most easily available, as years of simmering anger burst forth.  Many others have tried more legitimate forms of expression, protests, but even they have been thwarted; we have all seen the horrific images of protesters being beaten and shot at by the military police.

The question remains in what legitimate, sane and safe way can the majority of Kenyans express themselves politically and be heard, and have their concerns acted upon?  The Kibaki clique insists that there is no problem, while answering violence with violence.  It is also not clear, so far, that opposition leaders are genuinely acting on behalf of the frustrated and angry citizens, or are looking after their own butts and pockets.  The two concerns rarely coincide.  Disregarding the peoples’ grievances will only continue the crisis and resultant death count.

What strikes me about the Kenyan writers’ views is the genuine shock that what is happening now is happening in Kenya.  In neighboring Uganda, Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, okay, but not Kenya.  Also expressed is the sincere belief in Kenya as a fully formed nation, not an ungainly collection of tribes, that Kenyans love peace (who doesn’t?), are intrinsically democratic, in short, Kenya is not your average CNN banana republic smoldering in chaos.  That this lovely thing called Kenya is suddenly and strangely crumbling to dust.  There is shock expressed that Kenyans, Kenyans could turn to violence, as if it hadn’t happened before (e.g. the attempted coup of 1982, the clashes in the Rift Valley in 1992),  as if the daily violence in Nairobbery doesn’t count because it is normal.  It is now starkly clear, and cannot be ignored, that the underlying long-in-the-making causes of this crisis are not much different, except in degree, to the conditions among Kenya’s neighbors: the highly centralized power structure, the tribalism, the acute economic inequality, the huge masses of frustrated poor.  Something was bound to give, sooner or later, and the blatant rigging burst the fragile seams that seemed to be holding the nation together.

I am not condemning this innocent view of Kenya that the middle and upper classes have been privileged enough to have.  In fact I applaud it, if it is not completely blind, because an idealistic belief in one’s country and the democratic process is necessary for idea of a nation to become a reality.  It is the belief in Kenya’s democratic institutions that lead millions to vote, and in fact the voting itself was said to be, on the whole, free and fair.  The tallying, or lack thereof, is another matter.  My fear is that the rigging will have a more searing effect on the nation’s psyche than this deadly chaos we now see; it will completely erode the idealistic belief in the democratic process and institutions, and then there really will be nothing left but machetes and guns.

I say this as a Ugandan who has absolutely no trust in our leaders, and no reason to trust them.  Cynicism is the Ugandan’s default position when it comes to politics.  When you grow up with public executions as entertainment on TV, and any walk outside shows you that army men rule the streets, and wield their power brutally, the first thing you learn about politics is that the state is an instrument of terror.  We learnt this lesson not just during the Idi Amin era, but had it harshly repeated, as if we did not get it the first time, by government after government that followed.  No generation has been left behind.  As we watched adults do anything to put food on the table, bribe, beg, spy, steal, or become politicians, and we learnt that this is what you do to survive, and right or wrong is not the issue.  I dare not imagine what lessons those who have grown up in the IDP camps in northern Uganda these last twenty years have learnt, stuck between bloodthirsty rebels and a government army that for baffling reasons has been unable or unwilling to protect them.  Let not the rest of Uganda think it is any more free than those children are from the consequences of this still ongoing calamity.  One lesson deeply ingrained in every Ugandan is that our security forces exist to attack us, not to protect us.  Lest we dared forget, lulled by campaign talk during the presidential elections of 2006, the government graciously ordered the “Black Mamba” paramilitary unit to storm the courts as opposition members tried to seek legal recourse.  We were rudely reminded that those in power would not let go simply because of this game called the elections. 

What lessons are the newly minted Kenyan refugee children learning right now, before they can learn anything else?  That if you hate someone or feel cheated, kill.  If not, burn down their property, chase them away, and if they are lucky enough to get to refugee camps, try and poison their food.  The protesters in Nairobi, Kisumu and elsewhere, and all who have watched the police beat and shoot at unarmed protesters, now know without a doubt what the police exists for.  And what have all those children who watched Kibaki’s swearing in ceremony learnt?  That if you steal quickly and unashamedly in public, go through the motions, pretend to be legitimate for long enough, the lie could morph into solid fact.  That the way to deal with a huge crisis you have caused is to keep insisting, with a straight face, that there is no problem.  That the law serves the state, not the people.  That the democratic process exists to be abused.

After learning these lessons, the best most of us Ugandans can do is avoid trouble and bullets, shrug our shoulders and try to survive.  Others become the politicians they have been taught to become.  We watch our leaders, sorry, freedom fighters, steal and plunder with hardly a note of protest.  It makes absolute sense that President Museveni is the only national leader who has congratulated Kibaki for his act of daylight robbery.  We do not expect more of him.  We wonder why he even bothers to explain that it was a diplomatic gesture.  Oh, but of course, he is the only leader in the world aware of diplomacy.  We are not surprised by rumors that the Ugandan army is in Kenya assisting in the attacks against the opposition.  That is what our army does.  It went to Rwanda, to Congo, why not Kenya?  We react with jokes: the head of our Electoral Commission was sent as a consultant to Kenya, it must have been to teach the ECK how to rig.  He obviously did a terrible job.  That the Kibaki steal was so clumsy it now makes us look good in comparison.  That this should teach the Kenyans, who thought they were better than we are.

Kenyans, please don’t go down our cynical road: it leads to nothing but more violence, victims and a victim mentality, and it is self-perpetuating.  But it is not too late.  That human rights activist (Omutata?) who chained himself to the police gates in Nairobi this last Thursday is to be a powerful counter point to the images of killers with pangas and police with guns.  He proved to you, to us and the world that some Kenyans still have faith in the possibility of a government that exists to serve the people, and thus are brave enough to challenge this fake one.  The young must be given a chance to cultivate this faith and idealism; they must not learn their political lessons from even more of the images and events witnessed these last terrible weeks.

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2 Responses to “Lessons Learnt – by Doreen Baingana”

  1. Bookend and Three More Things « Ugandan Insomniac Says:

    […] More:  Liberation Lit is a blog of interesting writing and analysis by people you know.  Doreen Baingana (who I soooooo want to be my friend) and Kalundi Serumaga are featured giving their take on […]

  2. Dennis Matanda Says:

    Read Breathlessly. Read with knowledge that I know not anything … Read to understand another painful stab in this African heart. Left after reading with another heavy soul. How much further can I walk with this in my bones?


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