• Irũngũ Houghton

Common-ground not battle-grounds are what we need to build now

Updated: Dec 23, 2018

The boil just burst. Like most boils, these presidential elections are a hot mess and have left a gaping wound. With at least ten dead, scores injured and 86 arrests, our nation’s fault-lines have deepened in the last 72 hours. Ethnic profiling, police brutality, anti-IEBC violence and a divided leadership pull us further away from a political resolution. Yet like all other boils, there is an anti-septic treatment for this condition if we are all prepared to listen.


Rigid political interests fueled this current crisis. JP wanted to retain power at all costs and NASA wanted to win power at all costs. The fear of losing the national Presidency has loomed larger in the parties’ minds than any person’s death, even that of poor baby Pendo. In the process, our public institutions, laws and minds became their battle-grounds.  Now that we have some lives on the line in Migori, Siaya, Kisumu, Homa Bay and Kawangware, is it time to revisit the call for building common causes? Now that we know the elections, massive police presence or new laws will not heal our country, is it time to build a common ground?


The fear of the “other” and conflict generates a very real feeling of being in an abusive relationship. The noise it creates can make it impossible to listen to your opponent’s good-will or those voices of reason to dialogue with. Hardliners listen and respond only to other hardliners. Their script is predictable. Watch them call for arrests of leaders, more elections, more laws and “robust” military action. In an unintended way, when they act like this, our leaders are like bald men fighting over combs.


As @JKNjenga wrote this week, we have not yet learned from 2008. Some of us only changed sides. I might add, some didn’t even change sides. I wasn’t born in the state of emergency of 1952. I wasn’t an adult at the beginning of the one-party state in 1969 but I was there in 1994 when the country raged from ethnic cleansing and political intimidation. This feels different, deeper, more pervasive and could be more difficult to come back from. We must approach the coming week with a deliberateness of purpose.


The elections will continue to be messy. As predicted in this column two weeks ago, the turn-out will not give Uhuru Kenyatta a popular mandate. What other options exist for him beyond the predictable knee jerk reaction to grimace, grin and move on?


Kenyatta can publicly call on his leaders to reach out to their counter-parts at the constituency level. He can declare his support for calling off the elections in the four affected counties. Like Johnson Sakaja in the PanAfric Hotel incident, he can bravely calm the youth militia in Kawangware and elsewhere before they plunge the country into further violence. He can also declare his support for an enquiry into the way that the security has managed these elections and the NASA protests. Denied news by his advisors, Kibaki lost his voice for four days as the country burned in January 2008. Kenyatta has a new opportunity to show up.


Raila Odinga and the National Resistance Movement must go beyond asking their followers to stay at home. Their leaders must come out to the road-blocks of Kondele and Migori bridge and dialogue with the angry electorate. They must publicly call for active non-violence and coordinate peace corridors and safe spaces for ethnic minorities. Summarizing @JKNJenga again. Militias are like snakes. You can keep one in your home to scare away thieves but your children may be the first to be bitten.


NASA must also look beyond active non-violent disruption to building inclusive and accountable governance model in the counties they control. A more powerful political strategy than mass “whatsapp lefting” (succession) would be to demonstrate a better governed set of counties and watch the population move to live and work in NASA counties.


By playing to an extremist gallery, politicians are slowly eroding the institutions that give them legitimacy to govern us. Citizens must continue to raise their voices in the spaces we can. Some of us must also create new spaces and narratives that do not inflame the nation. As Van Jones would say, we must move from the battle-ground to building common ground and quickly.

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First published Sunday Standard, October 28, 2017. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

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