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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

National awards must tap into the vein of leadership and courage

December is the season of salutations and symbolism of national awards. Who gets recognised, who doesn’t, is a fundamentally political process and informs how a nation sees itself. What can we learn from several events that acknowledged extra-ordinary individuals this week? A joint editorial with Chapter 4 Executive Director Njeri Kabeberi.


Nearly 1,000 Kenyans were honoured in the pre-Jamhuri day gazette notice of 16986. Selected by the National Honors and Awards Committee, the Presidential awards include the Elder of the Order of the Golden Heart (EGH), Moran of the Order of the Golden Heart (MGH), Chief of the Order of the Burning Spear (CBS) and Order of the Grand Warrior (OGW). Reading the awardees, it is unclear whether the Kenya Kwanza Administration has adopted a different strategy than its predecessor Jubilee.


With few exceptions, the annual list still reads like a graduation class of the connected and the privileged. Without clear public citations, citizens and the media are left scraping the internet for reasons why the awardees merit distinction. Like the KCSE examinations, there are also few controversies. Senators Sifuna and ole Kina have pointed to possible discrimination as their class “graduated” and they were overlooked. Perhaps, the National Assembly could be more realistic in future and extend the three-day notice they gave the public to give their views on the nominees?


The Interior Cabinet Secretary honoured prison and police officers who died in the course of their service to public. The promise of ensuring families of fallen officers access a medical and education fund must be followed through in 2024. The International Commission of Jurists also awarded Advocate Dudley Ochiel for his strategic litigation efforts.


For the eighth year running, the Human Rights Awards Jury coordinated by Defenders Coalition honoured those who protected human rights over 2023. Among them was the Social Justice Travelling Theatre, Njeri Gateru, Epkaan Ekaale and the Kenya based organisers of the Black Lives Matter Movement. In just four years, the Travelling Theatre have gone from performing in the informal settlements of Nairobi to national platforms. Their street performances interrogate the risks of unlawful policing and gender-based violence and the importance of active citizenship.


Njeri and Epkaan distinguished themselves by promoting the right to association and assembly respectively. The landmark Supreme Court ruling in the case of the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission established that sexual and gender minorities too, have a right to associate. Ekpaan was cited for his work on climate justice, peacebuilding between Turkana and Pokot communities and anti-corruption. Kenyan and American organisers from the global Black Lives Matter Movement also received an award. Their public protests in the streets of Nairobi were recognised first by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner during the funeral service for George Floyd in 2020. Their action at the time made a powerful global connection between Floyd’s murder and that of Hussein Moyo, Vaite, Ibrahim Onyango, Carliton Maina and other Kenyans.


The 2023 Lifetime Achievement award went to Senior Counsel Paul Muite. Muite has been practising law for five of the six decades of independence. His brilliance in a court room is matched only by his courage and love of human rights. It was Muite’s leadership as Law Society of Kenya President that provided the legal basis for dismantling the one-party state, the imperial Presidency, and the restoration of multi-party democracy.


Although not among the awardees this week, the world said goodbye to poet Prof Micere wa Mugo, the legal scholar Prof Shadrack Gutto, freedom fighters Mukami Kimathi and Muthoni wa Kirima among others. Although from different generations, there is a clear line of service to hustlers that centered their lives and legacies.


Perhaps it’s time to pay more attention to police investigators, prosecutors, judges, and magistrates when justice is dispensed fairly and quickly. On Thursday, Justice Stephen Githinji sentenced Naftaly Kinuthia to forty years for brutally murdering 24-year-old student Ivy Wangechi four years ago. In July, Senior Resident Magistrate Christine Ogweno sentenced Baby Sagini’s relatives to jail for his brutal assault. The hearings and judgement were concluded in under seven months.


Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who died this month, famously rejected the British Order of the British Empire twenty years ago. He made the important point then, that not all awards or awardees are worthy. Sometimes awards serve to create blind loyalty rather than bold leadership, complacency rather than courage. Further, the greatest moment is not the point of public recognition but in the bold actions taken to disrupt, transform and inspire others to likewise act for others. Congratulations to all honored this week.

This opinion was also published in the Saturday Standard, 16 December 2023


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