Thursday, January 24, 2008

Q&A with BBC: Githongo on Kenya violence

John Githongo, formerly in charge of rooting out corruption in the Kenyan government, gives his views on the political turmoil that has engulfed his country.

More than 650 people have been killed and 250,000 more have fled their homes since the disputed presidential poll on 27 December, 2007.

Mr Githongo lives in self-imposed exile in the UK. He resigned when threats were made to his safety after he uncovered a massive corruption scandal involving several government ministers.

Q: Previous elections in Kenya have been accompanied by a certain amount of violence, but nothing on this scale. What is different this time?

The elections were always going to be problematic. The outcome was expected to be very close, but in the end the vote was characterised by blatant rigging. This, in a situation where both sides had mobilised their supporters along ethnic lines, created a tinderbox situation.

The state's response in some parts of the country has been unjustifiably brutal

As you say, there has always been some violence around elections. This time what was shocking was that in less than a week, hundreds were killed, hundreds of thousands displaced and, perhaps most troubling, ethnic polarisation deepened into a kind of self-perpetuating reality that Kenyans have not seen before.

One percent of the population has been displaced in an alarmingly short space of time. That has structural consequences - political, social and economic.

Q: To what extent was the violence orchestrated? Do you feel the party leaders should be held responsible for the violence?

Some of it has been clearly orchestrated - the gangs are too well organised. We have a grim history of this, and the leaders who perpetrate these atrocities have never been held to account.
Some of it, however, now seems spontaneous and localised.

It is also clear, however, that the state's response in some parts of the country has been unjustifiably brutal, leading to suspicions that certain communities are being 'broken down'.

So on the one side, we have what are clearly pre-meditated attacks on an ethnic basis, and on the other, we have police treating demonstrators in the western part of Kenya quite differently from those in the capital.

The country's leadership is responsible - not just the political leadership but also the cultural and religious leaders. Among intellectual leaders, there are those that have allowed their parochialisms to overwhelm their better judgment.

As a result, terms like genocide have been used in a fast-and-loose manner, clearly without an appreciation of their inflammatory implications in the short-term, and their legal implications in the long-term.

Q: The word "ethnicity" comes up a lot. What does ethnicity mean to Kenyans, and to what extent can ethnicity help us understand recent events?

Ethnicity is a mobile and nebulous concept. It means different things at different times, and sometimes matters more than at others.

Today, ethnicity in Kenya means politicised kinship more than it does anything else; a kind of overpowering identity informed by grievance, a sense of being wronged, of being under siege.

Fear and anger drive it more than other factors because of the unique circumstances.

There is a struggle for Kenya underway

Politics caused the violence, and the violence has deepened the politicised ethnicity - but the politics came first.

This is driven by fear and anger, and is deepening in part because it is self-perpetuating in an environment where political institutions do not offer solutions, but are actually expressions of the fundamental contradictions in society.

It is not a cycle that cannot be snapped out of - some sections of civil society are particularly robust and are seeking clarity and a way forward. But rationality has been put on the back-burner for a while by the political class.

There is a struggle for Kenya underway. As Kenyans, we are afraid and confused for our country. What is happening is disconcerting and appals the majority of right thinking Kenyans. All the alternatives proposed by hardliners on both sides are isolationist, destructive, backward and horrifying.

Q: Kenya supposedly has a democratic constitution with checks and balances to ensure fairness in the democratic process. Where and how did the system fail?

The fact that the presidency appoints electoral commission officers and the judges that hear electoral petitions is an important constitutional failing.

Q: What have you thought of the reporting of the crisis by the Kenyan media, and by the BBC and other foreign media?

The Kenyan media have had a rough time - on the one hand wanting to report the truth, but also wanting to avoid inflaming the situation. They have done very well under difficult circumstances.
That said, the polarisation that has affected the rest of society will afflict the media as well.

The foreign media tends to oversimplify issues - but that's not unusual.

The BBC has been good in giving Kenyan voices valuable space to speak. But it has also been weak in questioning whether some the responsibility for the reversals in Kenya may also lie here in the West.

What has been thoroughly incompetent is the comparison of Kenya to Rwanda.

In Rwanda, a small group mobilised a community and state agencies and institutions using state resources to seek the extermination of an entire community. This is not what is happening in Kenya. There has been a very reckless use of words like ethnic cleansing and genocide even by respected Kenyans. This only serves to inflame the situation.

Q: What are your views on Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga's responses to the crisis? Is there a way out?

They are both now prisoners of their respective political positions. Retreat seems as if it would herald their political unravelling. There is very little middle ground, and even this is shrinking.

But at the end of the day, unless people sit and talk we are not going anywhere and this crisis will consume both its primary protagonists.

Story from BBC NEWS

Published: 2008/01/23 17:11:41 GMT

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