• Irũngũ Houghton

Let apologies come with new actions

First published Saturday Standard, May 5, 2018. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group

Working with pastoralist communities several years ago, I was astonished to find a bridge in the middle of the desert. Baffled, I asked a local leader what was the reason for the bridge? He explained that the seasonal river had meandered soon after the bridge was built leaving it standing all alone. Listening to the 2018 State of the Nation address, there are insights for those that seek to heal us and build bridges for a vibrant, ethical, non-violent and democratic culture.

Geologists call the phenomenon of meandering rivers an avulsion. It is what happens when the river rapidly abandons its original course and forms a new channel. Combine this knowledge with the current anger of the swollen Tana river and nature offers us another lesson how not to fix last year’s toxic politics.

The apology, declaration of a political ceasefire and the call to all leaders to lead the entire country were the most powerful parts of this year’s State of the Nation address. There is always power in apology. To say, “I betrayed your trust and seek your forgiveness” does not lead to a loss of status or indicate inadequacy and incompetence.

I for one accept the apology, if this does not mean that this is the end of the conversation. Those who apologize often know that making an apology is always a good way to have the last word.

This is not the first national apology. The 2015 State of the Nation speech took responsibility for historical injustices, human rights abuses and exclusion. It was backed by a call to implement the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation report and establish a Kshs 20 billion restorative fund. The fact that these promises have not been kept by State House and both houses of Parliament three years on should concern us. So, what needs to happen next?

To fix what ails us requires an honest reflection. Last year, party electoral campaigns demonized opponent’s supporters, State Officers illegally tapped public finances and pierced the integrity and independence of our key public, civic and business institutions. Consistent calls for dialogue to replace grandstanding and hardline abuse were ignored for seven months. We literally allowed our constitution to be raped.

Back to today’s bridge-building exercise. Bridge construction is based on science. This is especially so when the waters below them are deep and destructive. Still missing from the President’s speech or the announcement of the national dialogue team is how many bridges do we need and where do they plan to lead us?

The silence since the March 9 handshake has left the national village confused. Predictably, the same narrow political arguments fill this void. Calls to change the constitution to remove presidential term limits or create the position of the Senior Cabinet Secretary (code for Prime Minister) seem to be testing the waters. Changing the constitution at such a low moment is unwise.

The lack of respect and enforcement for the constitution and not the constitution was the problem last year. These calls are an attempt to extend the electoral season by other means. Sadly, once again, the nation is being distracted from what really ails us.

Another sign on what kind of bridges to expect comes from the choices made in the National Dialogue Team. Thankfully, the two Principals excluded the hardliners that pressed us to the brink last year. However, the absence of young male and female professionals with demonstrated experience of deep social listening, election-management, security sector reform, mass communications and inclusive economies is an obvious weakness. Rather than relying only on personal emissaries, the sponsors also needs a technical team embedded in national professions, labor and community associations.

Apologies and handshakes between politicians are no substitute for a national dialogue and action strategy that promises change for those affected by political violence. This road is clear for several of us. Let hand-shakes and promises start happening with those families also. Can Kenyatta and Odinga jointly visit some of those homes? Can we see their new team publicly listening to whistle-blowers, journalists, judges, doctors and communities on what needs to happen before 2022?

My best apology this week was the Energy Cabinet Secretary’s belated admission that Kenya Power and Lighting Company has been inflating our bills and their promise to give relief to affected customers.

If apologies without new actions are meaningless then new actions without an apology have no integrity. Our leaders must do both to ensure they don’t build bridges over rivers that have moved on.

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