May we never normalise disregard for health guidelines or impunity
Updated: Sep 23
Reading between the lines of the national conversation last week, Nairobi Senator Sakaja successfully disappointed many people. The dramatic set of incidents and the way he eventually handled the incident, have life and leadership lessons for us all.
Arrested on Saturday night at the Seraph Ladies Lounge well into curfew hours, the Senator threatened law-enforcement officers with transfer while in overnight custody and declined to obey the next day’s summons. Returning to the Police Station on Monday he made a public apology and one day later pled guilty in the Kasarani stadium special court and paid the stipulated Kshs 15,000 fine.
There are both public and personal reasons for the backlash against the Senator last week. Johnson Sakaja is very different from most of the political class. He has no prior convictions or major scandals to his name. Former Lenana School prefect, Student Organisation of Nairobi University chairperson, National Alliance (TNA) founding chairman and Young Parliamentary Association chairperson, he has been a leader for two-thirds of his 35 years. Now Senator of Kenya’s largest county, he has also authored nearly ten important bills and energetically and ably chaired the Senate Ad hoc committee on Covid-19 over the last three months.
The second reason is timing. Two weeks before the Seraph saga, President Kenyatta partially lifted Covid-19 lockdown measures and appealed for personal discipline from all Kenyans. The statement was popularly interpreted as “you are now on your own” and at the mercy of our own levels of immunity. The virus is airborne in 44 of the counties with close to 15,000 infections and 300 dead. Friends and family members are declaring they are positive and Covid-19 is viciously hunting those of us with hypertension, diabetes, lung diseases or cancer. We are, justly so, primed to condemn those that break public health guidelines.
The third reason is that the Seraph Saga was not just about COVID-19. It poked another public nerve. A decade of arrogance and impunity has left us convinced that there are laws for the rich and influential and yet, others for the poor and voiceless. If we are powerful and privileged enough, we will be exempt from following the same laws or facing the same consequences for our actions as everyone else. This is not only a Kenyan phenomenon.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro saw nothing wrong being photographed with two suspects in the killing of Councillor Marielle Franco or blocking corruption investigations into his son Flávio allegedly associated to the paramilitary gang accused of carrying out her execution. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte saw nothing wrong with publicly bragging that as Mayor he used to ride around the streets executing suspected drug smugglers and now President, he sometimes takes the same narcotics to keep himself awake at international summits.
This week, US President Donald Trump wished Ghislaine Maxwell well. Ms. Maxwell faces charges for allegedly recruiting, grooming and ultimately enabling Trump associate and late Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse girls. Last month, he pardoned another friend, former lobbyist Roger Stone from a life sentence after he was convicted of seven charges including perjury to Congress and obstruction of justice.
By not getting involved in the Seraph Saga, our own President thankfully avoided this virus last week. By insisting the public health guidelines be upheld, Deputy Police Sub-commander Adan Hassan upheld the law. While it may be more comfortable to continue to condemn the youthful Senator, we must also ask whether we all are upholding the public health guidelines in all our spaces. Wearing our masks on our chins, necks or only when approaching a police officer, threatening or bribing police-officers, hosting or attending large house-parties, funerals and political parties and organising cross-county trips are also acts of impunity.
Hon Sakaja’s decision to resign as committee chair and plead guilty before Chief Magistrate Roseline Oganyo has to be acknowledged as an act to restore his integrity. It is also a powerful statement that he, and us all, must respect law enforcement officers acting lawfully.
A Seraph or plural seraphim are the highest-ranking of angels in Christian and Islamic literature. We know from religious teachings that angels also fall from grace. We know from sociology that human beings slip and err. The real question is whether we get up differently. The Seraph saga has lessons for us as individuals, leadership and the line that has to be maintained in a pandemic. May we never normalise either disregard for public health guidelines or impunity from anybody.
First published Saturday Standard, July 25, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group