A recession in democracy in Kenya and beyond

 In truth across Africa and many other parts of the world the situation vis-à-vis basic human rights has been in decline. A democratic recession has gripped entire parts of the African continent even as we celebrate the narrative of ‘Africa Rising’ that is driven by consistently high levels of economic growth over the last two decades; a growing vibrant middle class; a massive bulge of educated energetic, healthy and globalized youth with the potential to power our economies to unprecedented levels. Africa’s tremendous wealth in natural resources and the world’s huge hunger for them has been a major factor in creating potential confluence of positive factors. Add to this the fact that most of Africa democratized in the early 1990s then on paper the conditions are beginning to come together that would create for a situation of countries that are stable and governed via systems of that have the principles of social justice embedded in them.

Unfortunately over the last two years we have endured the reversals in human rights in some areas and the current Kenyan government has often made it clear that some of the rights Kenyans have come to take for granted are at best an inconvenience and at worst a risk to national security. While the messages are often mixed and confusing it would seem that there are those within the regime – a minority it would seem – determined to craft Kenya into a militarized authoritarian state wrapped in the national flag and all the rituals and propagandised narratives of a kind of a kind of proto fascism.

 And so there are specific reasons why we should be concerned about the general environment with regard to rights and freedoms in Kenya.


i.      Apparently dissatisfied with the ability of the police to get things done the government has increasingly militarized its response to what is now widely acknowledged as a dramatic deterioration in the security situation since 2012. Hundreds of policemen have been killed since then and the number of Kenyans who’ve been killed, maimed or displaced in the security operations number in the thousands. It would not be an exaggeration that in fully half the country even a Cabinet Secretary cannot simply climb into their car and drive there without special security arrangements being made. In some of these security zones ordinary citizens are being subjected to colonial type counter-insurgency operations. In Lamu for example, it is as if a decision has been taken to punish an entire community causing further alienation and resentment in an already volatile part of the country. 

ii.    What started as a soft insurgency in large parts of the country after Jubilee took power has hardened in those parts of Kenya and among those communities that have borne the brunt of the government’s war against terror. The chasm between Muslims and the government has never been wider. Even in mature democracies, the war against terror feeds on the basic rights of citizens in a manner more widespread and to a depth unprecedented since the Second World War. Kenya’s open ended military adventure in Somalia has not helped. 

iii.  Both media and civil society have seen their democratic space shrink. Disassembling of the media has been subtler with commercial and political interests sometimes coinciding to create for a situation where Twitter is considered the more reliable purveyor of truth than some traditional news outlets. The attack against civil society has been full frontal and unrelenting. That said, the leadership of the governing Jubilee party – with its roots in the tradition of the old governing party Kanu, have no history of productive interaction with civil society.

iv. Their credibility damaged by taking political sides in the 2007 and 2013 elections, unsurprisingly, the mainstream churches have caught a flu that has caused them to lose their voices of the poor, marginalized and downtrodden in our society. Cynics argue, much of their energy is expended on investing in the real estate sector.

v.    Extrajudicial killings by state agents has now become so commonplace its been normalized. Indeed, ‘disappearances’ no longer cause an outcry. If you are a Muslim preacher your life expectancy has been shortened by several years. Almost a year ago a State House official disappeared. It was discussed for some time then forgotten. The capacity to normalize the absurd is a very Kenyan thing.

vi. The ruling elite blow hot and cold and seems divided with regard to rampant corruption. With the discovery of oil the potential for the toxic mix of graft, tribalism and both organic and state-engineered insecurity to blow up in our faces has never been higher. 

 It does to keep in mind that Kenya is about to become an oil producer and across the world generally speaking oil producing countries are allowed a lower standard when it comes to human rights, transparency and equity in governance than others. If you have oil the tolerance levels by the international community for authoritarianism rise.

The real challenge facing Kenya is employing the 1 million youth who enter the job market every year. This month the first batch of the Free Primary Education students (half a million of them) did their form four exams. Another 800,000 sat their standard eight exams. 

 All in all Kenya will keep Human Rights Watch and the rest of us very busy over the coming few years but I can only join other Kenyans in wishing well in your work.

 This speech was delivered an the Human Rights Festival in Nairobi in November 2014.

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