Monday, August 26

Let's Talk About Celebrities and Africa

I have been following the spectacle of the race to a million followers on twitter between Ashton Kutcher and CNN since very early Wednesday morning (or very late Tuesday night), depending on where you’re located.

I first caught wind of it when Kristie Lu Stout reporting on CNN from Hong Kong announced that Kutcher was looking to beat CNN to the 1 million followers mark and that when he did, he would pull a prank on Ted Turner. Soon after, Larry King threw back a taunt, and an appearance on Larry King Live entered into the bargain. There was mention, also, of a prize for the millionth follower. I don’t have a sense of how much buzz all this created.

Somewhere along the line, however, probably an hour maybe two after this announcement was made, suddenly, he added the Mosquito Nets for Africa angle. Even that evolved. First he said he’d provide 1,000 Mosquito nets if tweeps helped him cross the 1 million follower mark before CNN. Then someone told him he really should be donating 1,000 nets anyway, which he promptly conceded and on account of which he raised that number to 10,000 nets. That finally seemed to win him the kind of attention he was looking to garner and today, as I understand it, the race is tighter than it was on Wednesday and the tape at the finishing line is in sight.

So, it’s official: Africa trumps pranking Ted Turner, a head to head between Larry King and Ashton Kutcher and a mysterious prize to the nth follower for garnering attention. Because, let’s face it, it’s about the publicity. The race to get to the one million mark came first. The mosquito nets for Africa were an afterthought. It was about figuring out, by trial and error, what would move the tweeps into action. He tried this, he tried that, and finally, he hit on the magic formula.

As @remarkabletweet succintly put it, it’s “Classic PR Genius.” Which @itsjustmimi heartily agreed with, tweeting enthusiastically: “The man's a business/pr genius.”

Oh but we already had a clue about the power of Africa to sanitize a reputation or a cause. Remember Lindsay Lohan announcing her post-rehab plans a couple of years ago to go on a humanitarian mission to Africa?

My only response is to harken back to this post from my past. And point you, also, to the thoughts of fellow afrophiles.

Thursday, February 2

Book Review: It's Our Turn to Eat by Michela Wrong

A New Beginning?

Kibaki’s inaugural declaration: “corruption will now cease to be a way of life in Kenya” made to roaring applause one hot December day at the tail end of a dramatic election year back in 2002 now reads like a line of pure comedy penned by a cynical scribe scripting the great African leadership farce. If they replayed that clip on television today, you would likely choke on a chortle for how far the present reality is from that lofty ideal to which we attached our national hopes.

This was not always so.

Once upon a time, we were true believers, high to delirious on hope.

Michela Wrong begins by reminding us of that time, a time when we polled as the most optimistic people in the world.

I remember the time. I remember the feeling. There’s a word for it: euphoric. We were euphoric.

Enter into this euphoria a relatively young man, a couple of years shy of his 40th birthday, invited to be a part of shaping the new Kenya by taking up the position of anti corruption tsar. His name: John Githongo.

It was a momentous task to be sure, but in the end, there were a number of reasons that compelled him to take the job. One, he was an idealist, understandably seduced by the opportunity to be the change he hoped to see. Two, his acquiescence was practically taken for granted by the men who nominated him, his father’s contemporaries, men he held in high regard, men he trusted. Three, we were in a state of euphoria, remember?

So he took the job.

It was an auspicious beginning.

During his confirmation interview with President Kibaki, Githongo had been forthright with his future boss:

“Sir,” he had said, “we can set up all the anti-corruption authorities we want, spend all the money we want, pass all the laws on anticorruption, but it all depends on you. If people believe the president is ‘eating’, the battle is lost. If you are steady on this thing, if the leadership is there, we will succeed.”

He was certain he had been heard.

Same Old, Same Old
There was every suggestion of 180-degree change in direction in those early days. As Permanent Secretary in charge of combating corruption, his office was located within State House, down the corridor from the president’s office giving him unprecedented access to the president and making him extremely powerful in the scheme of things. He formed his team, drawn for the most part from civil society rather than from the ranks of the civil service. He said ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the dark-blue BMW assigned to him as an official car. He set to work enthusiastically, participating in the new government’s effort “to carry out a detailed public tally of Kenya’s corruption problem.”

He immersed himself into the system and applied himself wholeheartedly to the task as he envisioned it. He grew fond of his new boss, President Kibaki, might have been star-struck even.

Alas the honeymoon was doomed to be shortlived.

Soon, he became painfully aware of an ethnic polarisation taking place around the seat of power. Whereas Kibaki had won his handy election victory surrounded and supported by people from diverse parts of Kenya, slowly his inner circle distilled into one constituting mainly fellow Kikuyu and their allied tribes. The State House became increasingly mono-ethnic. Although Githongo was a Kikuyu, he was young and urban-bred, his ethnicity was far from his primary identity and this scenario discomfited him greatly.

Further, it dismayed no end that this new grouping was almost singlehandedly responsible for delaying the process of drafting a new constitution, despite a clear election promise to deliver a new constitution to Kenyans.

Then, persistent rumours of “new graft, of dodgy procurement contracts and lavish spending by members of the NARC administration,” began to waft his way, corroborated by a sophisticated network of informants he had cultivated. It turned out that the high level operatives within the NARC government were responsible for the signing or approval of 18 procurement contracts which would cost the taxpayers three quarters of a billion dollars, easily outstripping aid to Kenya in that year which was pinned at circa half a billion dollars.

Valiantly he tried to do his job—to identify the culprits and help bring them to book. Miserably he failed. Sensing resistance from his boss and fearing for his life, he fled.

Anti Corruption Tsar Turned International Fugitive

On 6th February, 2005, he showed up at Michela Wrong’s doorstep in Camden Town, London, lagging a load of luggage, come to stay a while. The anti-corruption tsar had turned international fugitive.

He had determined to resign. His life, he felt, was in danger. He had with him a secret arsenal of documents, diaries and recordings meticulously accumulated in the course of duty. They were highly damaging to the government in general and to specific highly-placed individuals in particular. They were also his reputation insurance policy. If he had attempted to make the claims he made about what he had seen and heard without this indisputable evidence, he would have been dismissed a madman.

This book, “It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower” turns on these somewhat dramatic events, hovering over them broodingly, occasionally darting backward a generation or two in an attempt to gain perspective and forward a few years to show context and consequences.

All the while it forces us to retread painfully familiar, garbled territory: the “unbridled greed” that comes accompanied by an irrational sense of personal entitlement at the expense of all others and what it has wrought in Africa and why it has wrought it in Africa. The central theme as suggested in the book’s title, then, is the politics of consumption. To hold the reins of power in Kenya is to be custodian to the key to the national pantry. (I wonder whether Amartya Sen meant a double entrendre with his assertion that “no famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy,” or that’s just the way the chips happened to fall.)

In the end, in this book, tribalism and corruption stand together as two vices that hover ominously over Kenya’s future, threatening her wellbeing, indeed shaking her very foundations. We always knew that these were our most pressing problems, but what Wrong has succeeded in illustrating is the way in which they are inextricably intertwined. If we create a system in which equitable access to national resources is guaranteed regardless of any form of affiliation, then people will no longer feel the need to fall back on these affiliations either defensively or offensively and political leaders who then seek to exploit our differences for their own ends will find themselves without followers. If the system is fundamentally flawed, malevolent, then people will be forced to look for crutches to help them navigate its turbulent waters. One such crutch is tribal patronage.

The Man Behind the Drama

I had always wondered what made Githongo tick, why he chose to do what he did in exactly the way he did it. This book attempts to provide answers to these questions.

The Githongo depicted here is hardly all saint and no sinner. He may be the hero, the protagonist, but he is humanised by his flaws. For prominent example, he has the irritating knack of overpromising himself and then under-delivering—he is well-known for standing people up. So much so that in his circles, the synonym for being stood up is being Githongoed. He is also, per Wrong’s description of him, an “inveterate conspiracy theorist intrigued by tales of plots and subterfuge.”

Wycliffe Muga, a journalist, disparages him a coconut, black on the outside, white on the inside, while, David Ndii, prominent in the Kenyan civil society, muses in retrospect that, he was patently unsuitable for the role to which he was assigned by dint of his personality: “he probably didn’t have the right character for the job,” and “he went in with a lot more idealism that I thought warranted.”

Opinions abound about how Githongo should have responded to the circumstances in which he found himself. Perhaps he should have persevered, been more pragmatic—African politics are what they are. How did his dramatic exit serve, in the end?

On the other hand stand those who wonder at how long it took Githongo to catch on to the fact that he was being used.

It is on this side that Wrong appears to stand. At the outset, the portrait of Githongo that she paints gives off more than a whiff of the naïve. We read a barely concealed incredulity in the subtext:

“Tracking John’s itinerary, there’s something mystifying about the sheer time it took him to recognise the obvious. The dossier he eventually produced can read like a log of a year-long refusal to face the truth. How many times did John Githongo, a man of no mean intelligence, need to be told that his closest colleagues had hatched Anglo Leasing on the pretext of election fundraising before he believed it?”

This bent is particularly striking because not more than six months before Githongo showed up at her doorstep, Wrong had written an article for the New Statesman brimming with her own enthusiasm, celebrating a new Kenya. The ugliness that came to blight the NARC administration was already bubbling to the surface, and while she acknowledged these flaws, her tone was determinedly optimistic. She too had embraced this notion of ‘a new wind blowing.’

I mention this to lead into the fact that I too was duped, in the beginning. Many of us were. And perhaps on account of the high hopes that we held, we were frozen in a particular place of disbelief for a moment too long.

Like Githongo, as things fell apart at the beginning, I too was reluctant to lay the blame squarely at Kibaki’s feet. He was not himself, following the accident and the stroke, I rationalised. In my mind, therefore, someone else was taking advantage of his weakened state, to wreak havoc on the country. Wait till he got better, I told myself, reminiscent of my adolescent days when the do-gooder’s last resort was always, “wait till daddy comes home.”

So I read with a sense of resignation Githongo’s damning indictment made in retrospect: as he (Kibaki) got better, things got worse.

Soon enough, Githongo had to bow to a different wisdom:

“If a leader is surrounded by shifty, money-grabbing aides and family members, it’s because he likes it that way. These are the people he feels at ease with, whose working methods he respects. Far from being an aberration, the entourage is a faithful expression of the autocrat’s own proclivities.”

I reach back in memory and have to concede that certainly things did not get better.

So, again, why did it take him so long to jump ship when at last it dawned on him beyond reasonable doubt that the government for which he worked was hopelessly dirty? The answer, we find, is twofold:

One, it is about the circumstances he was in.

He “had been too close.” As Wrong paints it, once he was in his job, he became a prisoner to it. He could not do his job, but he could not easily quit it. So the option available to him was to stay as token, “a pet monkey performing tricks to reassure the regime’s critics,” or to flee as he did.

Two, it is about who he was.

In this instance, character proved to be destiny. “When John trusted someone, he did it completely. And when he was disappointed, he flipped completely.”

And then when he finally admitted to himself that something was horrible wrong, he procrastinated, but then again, “John was always ready to admit that procrastination, which follows on from the need to control events as night follows day, was one of his character flaws.

The Swing of the Pendulum

Once, however, a certain bridge had been crossed, there could have been no doubt that he was going to leave. David Ndii describes Githongo as having a “conviction” type of personality, one prone to “emotional volatility” and prone to the “melodramatic.”

Githongo’s style, it appears, harkens unto Obama. He confessed of himself: ‘I try and dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. I do this excessively, it’s been my style throughout. And then, when I move – BOOM!’

His initial inaction could be attributed to a propensity to over-examine. Mwalimu Mati, another civil society luminary in his own right explains it with: “No mistakes are tolerable to him, and that accounts for the inaction.”

But when at last the pendulum swung the opposite direction, it was a dramatic and complete swing. He burned his bridges as he advanced. There was no going back.

No matter if you think it took inordinately long or he was too quick to judgment, there can be no diminishing the significance of what he did:

“I thought for a bit, but couldn’t recall a single occasion in which a government official of John’s stature had blown the whistle on an African administration,” Gitau, Githongo’s brother remarks to Wrong. Wrong agrees. Not that she can think of, there isn’t.

In my experience, earth has no torment like an idealist disillusioned.

Wrong puts it this way:

There is such a thing as “the fury of frustrated zeal,” and unscrupulous persons seeking to misuse the idealist to achieve their own ends ought to be very wary of its manifestations. When at last he was done with the NARC government and all its cheating ways, he was done with it, he was furious at it and he was bitter.

Judging the Book by More than Its Cover

The story itself is definitely worth telling, and Wrong has proved a worthy custodian.

I approached the book with a defensive scepticism, antennae up, mind braced, expecting a predictable caricature of an African nation in broad strokes of pitch black and sparkling white. She makes no sweeping indictments in the tradition of Kapuscinski and Naipaul before her. Where she feels a need to cluster, and a number of times she does, she goes to reasonable extents to corroborate, to defend, to illustrate. I do not always agree with her, but I recognise the effort she makes to deliver nuance, and applaud her effort. Except that one time when she ruefully remarks: “Working in Africa, I’d grown accustomed to compromised friendships, relationships premised on wilful ignorance on my part and an absence of full disclosure on my friends’.” But I chose to forgive her that.

This does not mean that I did not find much that was wince-worthy. It’s hard to read about all the different ways in which a thing that you cherish is broken. Even when you know full well that it is broken. To think that Kenya, in the early days of the NARC government, was the first country to ratify the UN Convention against Corruption. Irony of the highest order. Irony that ought really to be feted and knighted. Maybe even crowned.

Sometimes, I bristled. As against her contention that tribe and tribal affiliations define the Kenyan landscape and predominate. But I concede that she is justified and that in light of recent of events, it is hard to argue now: we as a nation do suffer from “an acute ethnic self-awareness”.

In the end, Kenya’s recent political history can be summarised thus:

The ethnically-based white settler tribe was kicked out (or reluctantly relinquished power, depending on who’s writing the history) to be replaced by a Kikuyu president who inherited a system and abused it to serve his own people, and then when he died, was replaced by a Kalenjin president who promptly followed in the footsteps of his predecessors and so on and so forth. What saddens is that everyone plays this as a zero sum game in the name of “restoring balance” by overcorrecting past partisanship.

While she’s at it, Wrong finds the time (and space) to insert her voice into the aid debate, appearing to side with Dambisa when she notes that “Western donor governments, their media and their expatriates, had become the ultimate, trusted arbiters of Kenyan reality.” By this she means that aid was a stick that western governments had and they could use it and that their money bought them the right to an opinion that could be heard whereas “ordinary Kenyans, thinking the same thing, with a hundred times more intensity, could do nothing about it, and there lay their ultimate emasculation.”

Wrong also contends that aid is self-serving. Realpolitik. It is not free. There are reasons that funds flow to certain coffers. But then she turns the corner, perhaps in a quest for balance, and suggests that there was also the case of the gaze trained brutally on the long term, because instititutions, checks and balances, civil society, etc, take time to build.

There are other questions that arise around aid in this particular story that should give us pause. For example, how, even after Githongo’s damning dossier had been made public, the aid for the most part, kept flowing:
“Demonstrating a truly remarkable sense of timing, the World Bank chose to announce $145 million in new loans to Kenya – the first credits approved by the executive board for fifteen months – just three days after the leaking of John’s dossier, signalling that, as far as this institution was concerned, a $750-million procurement scandal was no grounds for querying the wisdom of re-engaging with the Kenyan government. The same emollient message came from DfID, which had announced a £58-million grant a few days before John’s leak, and saw no reason to reconsider.”
I sent a text message to one of the people I do life with who also happens to work with a World Bank affiliated institution asking her what she thought of how the World Bank had been portrayed in Wrong’s book. She responded by conceding that oftentimes, they murk up implementation and they end up botching things seriously, but nonetheless, the people she works with are some of the most idealistic people she knows, and they are honestly committed to make our world a better place.

(Which echoes a rising sentiment in me: it’s not the heart that is in the wrong place, it is the hand that is responding in the wrong way. In this respect, aid idealists and aid sceptics ought really to dialogue as on the same side, wanting the same thing, giving benefit of doubt, assuming goodwill unless proven absent. But that is another article, for another day.)

As for the writing: on occasion she gets mired in descriptive terrain but most times, she moves the narrative along at a brisk lyrical pace, drawing you into the vortex of the story. Her language is elegant and her imagery vivid, as when she writes that “centralised systems of power are like onions: each layer faithfully mimics the core,” or when she describes those who “belong to an international elite that automatically turns left on entering a plane.”

To her credit, she is astute at sending subtle signals that are bound to alert the Kenyan reader as to her intimacy with the context. She sprinkles her book with familiar anecdotes: I relate immediately to her description of how we Nairobians drive at nervous speed past the woodland on Ngong Road on our way to Karen for fear of carjackers. I smile as she remembers to me the first escalator in Nairobi, at Yaya Centre, in the eighties. (I remember taking two buses to get there to ride it.)

If these particular signals do not resonate, the book is replete with others, I am confident you will find ones that do. This is the detail, but it speaks volumes, as I’m sure she knew it would. (I was amused that she baptised South C as scruffy as against the more pristine parts of Nairobi, of course, Muthaiga and Runda for example). The message is clear: she is foreigner, but she is not stranger. She has reported on Kenya for a dozen years. She worked, once, at the Standard Newspaper.

Is There Only Elijah Left As A Prophet in Israel?

You will have to judge for yourselves, on the reading, whether indeed the forces shaping John Githongo were “calculated to produce the perfect whistleblower” as is Wrong’s contention. I for one am uncomfortable with the notion that some among us were predestined to blow the whistle, that there is a specialness, a set-apartness, a one in every ten million-ness about Githongo.

It carries a faint echo of Elijah’s episode of self-pity in the desert, cast as sole crusader in a world where Jezebel’s tentacles reach wide and deep and she had sworn to kill him.

For those not familiar with the story it goes like this:

Elijah had long been standing up against King Ahab for all his injustices against the people of Israel and finally Queen Jezebel, had had enough. She swore by all that she knew that she would kill him if it was the last thing she did. Elijah fled to the desert, with a death threat from no less than the King’s wife hanging over his head and in the days that followed, he became increasingly depressed. When God came by and asked him what the matter was, he was quick to grouse. He was being zealous for God, doing what God wanted him to do and everybody else had either abandoned the task or been killed on account of it but here he was, sticking with it, and now look, he too was in danger of being killed. God gives him a long answer, but the part of that answer that interests me is the “hey look, you’re actually not the only one left, there are seven thousand others out there.”

Talk about putting things in perspective.

The point I make is not that Githongo does not deserve our admiration, respect and applause. He does. I mean, he really does. He stood up against a formidable system that tried to bring him to heel. He chose to do what was right when there was tremendous pressure to do otherwise. In a country, indeed a continent, that suffers a dearth of political heroes, he stands out, and for good reason.

The point I make, though, is that we need to make every effort to identify Kenya’s seven thousand, to encourage them to continue to be strong and not to give up the good fight and to empower them to rise up and make their difference. That in the end should be the skew of this story at the re-telling. If there is an Elijah there must be seven thousand. The country that raised Githongo could not have raised Githongo alone. Ergo, there is hope.

Tomorrow Has Come

What has become of John Githongo? Well, these events have changed him. Life has happened to him. He has developed the cynicism of a jaded idealist. Words such as calculating and ruthlessness and self-serving pop up in Wrong’s description of the latter day Githongo, and indeed, are implied in his own evaluation of who he has become. Perhaps it is a good thing, a necessary thing.

But the idealist in him continues to lurk just beneath the surface. He has been back to Kenya for a visit since. He is considering relocating back to Kenya, to live in Mathare, to interact with the young people who are the country’s future and maybe to run for political office.

In the meantime, he has become the global courier of a sobering missive: “systemic corruption, is the most efficient poverty factor on the continent.” Like it or not, if they do not pay it heed, it is a message that threatens to ground the ship that ferries Bob, Bono and Blair’s determinedly sanguine Make Poverty History campaign, not because their hearts are not in the right place, but because they fail to diagnose the underlying condition correctly.

UPDATE: You can now buy a copy of the book at The Kenya Shop

Tuesday, February 1

Why I Blog About Africa

Mwangi made me think. And think and think and think.

He wants to know why I blog about Africa.

I really did try to come up with something intelligent and profound.

But, the truth trumps it all. In the end.

It’s, plain and simple, a congenital condition. Hardly terminal, but not curable.

Africa is under my skin. Africa is the voices in my head. Africa is the itch on my back that I can’t quite reach.

Africa is my “I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me.” She’s all over me like wet on water.

When one day I began to experiment with blogging, naturally she tagged along and so here we are.

She’s beautiful and she’s strong and she’s got so much to give, she inspires me and I love her truly madly deeply.

She’s battered and bruised and sometimes broken and I love her even more.

She’s always on my mind and in my heart.

It’s not so much, then, that I choose to blog about Africa. It’s that I can’t not.

I really wish the world would see in her all that I see in her.

That’s another reason why I blog about Africa: To make this wish come true.

Here are a range of bloggers whose thoughts on the subject I think would be interesting (and varied) to read:

J.K. whom I’ve only just discovered
Ben Byerly (although I’m suitably sheepish about tagging him because I owe him a meme, I know, which I’m still working on, I promise).

Monday, June 28

Ode to the World Cup version 2010

I'm not a rabid football fan, but I am a World Cup enthusiast. 

That is to say that between World Cups, I keep an eye on what's going on in the football world in a general able-to-make-a-decent-contribution-to-conversations sort of way. I have a foreign team or two whose fortunes I follow closely. (One of which has a very dusty trophy cabinet, I am sad to say.) And I have begun to follow, from a respectable distance, the stirrings taking place in Kenyan football. 

But during the world cup, I become a sort of amateur fanatic. I let go and let myself get caught up in the highs and the lows and the wows and the arghs. The whole shebang. I immerse myself in the beautiful game and let myself get carried away by the tide of the times. 

It's a very conscious, very self-aware participation in a ritual. 

All the while, I wonder what sets the World Cup apart from club football. Sometimes I tell myself that perhaps it is because here, national pride holds sway over personal fortunes. But I'm not certain, even of this. Maybe it is the idea of sharing this moment in time with so many disparate people from diverse political, social and economic backgrounds in a space where all our differences appear to shrink and what we have in common is amplified. I confess that I can be a romantic that way. 

And, think about it: whereas there may be other sports that boast deeper degrees of fanaticism in certain pockets of the world, there's none that draws enthusiastic devotees from all over the world quite the way football does. That should count for something. 

Whatever the reason, every time the World Cup comes around, I take off my shoes, lift my skirts and wade in with both feet, jumping and screaming and groaning with the best of them.

I let myself be fascinated by the sheer breadth and depth of skill, grit and determination on display. I watch with wonder as personal brilliance intertwines seamlessly with meticulous team work to manufacture historic moment after historic moment. I am in awe of the will and discipline that it must take to keep going, to keep pushing forward, to not give up when your team is two, three, four goals down. And I am reminded that sometimes, you can win a much more highly ranked opponent simply because you are hungrier, you want it more. 

(This is a lesson that I want to carry with me through life. To keep hungry in order to keep winning.)

Lesser instincts are on display as well, of course. Like nations that turn viciously on their own, mauling them and devouring them in full view of public for not living up to their expectations, unrealistic or otherwise. And players who expend more energy feigning injury and putting on a show than on playing. Or when a fit of temper grips a player so that he forgets how far he's come, what obstacles he and his team have had to overcome to get there, and in an inexplicable moment of gross self-involvement, he does something that sends the fate of his entire team spiralling downwards. 

Then there's yet a handsome helping of human error to toss into that mix, to deliver just the right amount of tension. Like referees and linesmen who make calls that bring the groan up from the deep. And what. And not. 

There's so much more. Club football played at the highest level is ruled ruthlessly by the bottom-line. Big football is big business. At a certain level, FIFA notwithstanding, the World Cup provides momentary respite. It allows a legitimate retreat into the more primal sphere of national identity and the re-emergence of intricate subtexts in the football story. There is the potential for a clash of civilisations for example, when North Korea plays its way into the finals. Or there is the opportunity to settle scores, old and recently spilled over when Iran encounters the USA for highly-charged example. There are encounters that recall to us the biblical tale of goliath and David: the minnow takes on the political or economic giant on the playing field, and triumphs. An economic, political and even cultural consciousness scrolls just below many games. We watch, and read, transfixed.

All this and more is the World Cup. 

When it is over, many will face disappointment where once they had dared hope and a precious few will achieve to their wildest dreams and beyond. And then July 11th will come and July 11th will go. We will mourn and we will celebrate, as the case may be. (Africa will be particularly proud of South Africa for its resounding success in hosting the World Cup.) 

And then we will get back to the daily grind of our lives and look forward to Brazil, 2014. 

*this post is dedicated to the friend who thinks football is about nothing but hot air wrapped in polished skin. 

Monday, March 22

Citizen Journalist: Some called him a hero, others called him a heel

Citizen journalism got a fair bit of mention during last week’s Pan African Media Conference, I understand.

I look forward to seeing how that attention translates into concrete actions and policies within traditional media houses and whether it changes how they go about harnessing new media channels as they source, curate and distribute news.

Not being a big fan of the either or debate around the question of traditional media and citizen journalism, I read with a quirked eyebrow Lee Mwiti of the Nation Media Group quoting the newspaper group’s former editorial director and veteran journalist, Wangethi Mwangi, as saying that “It all boils down to the quality of information and on this, traditional media is still ahead.”

Disclaimer: I was not at the conference so I may be suffering from a lack of context. 

But. If that is what was said in defense of traditional journalism, it strikes me as an oddly sweeping indictment that begs qualification on multiple fronts.

A question of quality

For example, what was his working definition of quality and what is the nature of the information whose quality is in question? Are we talking language/grammar or accuracy or ethical considerations and therefore trustworthiness? Are we talking all blogs, most blogs, some blogs? What about citizen journalism channels such as and Maneno: were they top of mind or not in question?

What if a blogger is sitting at her window watching a mob wreak havoc, burn things, throw stones, and she blogs about this as she sees it, as it happens?  What if another blogger attends a highly publicised tech event and records his firsthand experience, peppered with anecdotes that situate the story within the wider, larger narrative of tech in Africa and because he belongs in the story and knows the actors better than a journalist, his account is richer than the story that appears in the newspaper that week.  What then?

Having worked briefly in a media house, I understand what is meant by editorial standards and editorial policies.  Still, I suggest that it is more a matter of the nature of information rather than the quality when  you’re comparing the best of traditional journalistic fare with the best of citizen media.
Ultimately, the breaking news orientation of today’s fast-paced environment have completely altered the role of print media in the scheme of things.

Now, by the time the morning paper gets to you,  you know what the stories are going to be because you received a text message when the news was still steaming hot, you checked the story online and you watched it’s rendition on primetime news. If it is a hot item, you have been watching snippets every half hour packaged as ‘breaking news.’ You can pause for breathe in perfect rhythm with the TV journalist. 

Naturally then, if you’re going to buy a newspaper, you want more. You want indepth analysis. You want the backstory. You want context. You want every link you can get that threads that story into a wider narrative. This is why major news is hardly ever served raw in the paper any more—it is heavily editorialised to justify its existence.

To the extent that traditional media houses have the people and financial resources to commit to chasing the story deeper and further than the individual blogger on his own might be able to, they have an important role to play in the scheme of things.
Who's not indispensable now?

Yet even here, traditional media need not delude itself that it is indispensable. One blogger on her own might not be able to tell the whole story, but many bloggers each one working on their own little piece of the puzzle might yet build that picture to high degree of accuracy.

A caveat: this will become increasingly the case as the tools that enable citizens to gather and disseminate information become widely available because as long as these tools remain only in the hands of a privileged digital class, the picture will remain unwhole even if not untrue. Which goes some way to explain my current infatuation with the mobile phone and the possibilities it delivers far and wide and deep in my native Kenya and in Africa as a whole.

But in the meantime traditional media have a vital role in leveraging their resource advantage to ensure that those who do not have yet have a tech-assisted ‘microphone’ of their own have the opportunity to be heard. (which mind you, is not the same as speaking for them).

In the meantime, the rise of citizen journalism itself surfaces myriad questions. Questions such as: what is news to who anyway; when do common definitions matter and; when don’t they matter?

Because citizen journalism is as much about the stories people choose to cover and why they cover them as about the fact that those who participate do so outside of the traditional media structure.

Not every bit of news that a traditional media house gathers is published. Some of it is edited out for perfectly good reasons, key among them, that it cannot be verified. And this is as it should be.

In bed with the news

But some of it is censored out for other reasons not so pure and noble.  Censored for example because the media owners or the media managers are in bed with the subjects of the news either politically or economically and there’s political capital or advertising to be lost in telling the truth such as it is.

It is when the latter reasons prevent traditional media from publishing what ought in fact to be published, what the people have the right to know, that citizen journalists are best placed to make the difference, to be the difference. Especially when they are less invested in and indebted to the system in general and to specific stories in particular.

Because let’s face it: if you own or run one of the biggest media properties in the country and also happen to own a significant stake in a corporation that is suddenly hit by a crisis which, if it becomes widely known, will cause great damage to your personal bottomline, you’re not going to be fence sitting.

It is in these instances that citizen journalists play their most crucial role in advancing freedom of information.  Which is not to say that there are no bloggers out there who are rush and biased and judgemental and of fluid morality posing as bona fide citizen journalists. There are citizen journalists with special interests all over the place, I’m certain.

But, by virtue of the law of averages, not all citizen journalists share the same special interests all the time so, eventually different stories are bound to find their way into the public domain through different routes.

I hail the advent and rise of citizen journalism. As Niti Bhan so eloquently put it: “Only local voices, consistently heard can share the story of a location.”  I would only qualify that statement by noting that location no longer has only a geographical dimension. Location can be physical but it can also be social, economic, demographic, cultural or demographic.

In the end, citizen journalism is about people telling the stories of their location. And of finally having a say in what stories get told about their location.  

Tuesday, March 2

Why Must Obama's Cousin Bribe for a Job?

It's very curious to me the way everyone who's a fan of Obama (such as I am), tends to behave as though they're about to fall off the earth's edge when suddenly they find that they disagree with him on a thing.

Just because we admire someone doesn't mean we will automatically agree with them. (I most certainly hope.) I for one reserve the right to criticise Obama as and when I feel it is necessary, even while I continue to admire him and consider him a great man and leader on the whole.

That said, once Mutuma Mathiu gets past the puzzling “I disagree with the man so the sky is probably going to fall on my head” introduction to his Sunday column, he makes some valid points about nuance and back story.

The contentious issue is what Obama, whom I count among the precious few public figures able to apprehend and communicate nuance on the global stage, said in Italy about his cousin in Kenya not being able to get a job without paying a bribe.

I agree with Mathiu that we’ve been standing at this corner for way too long and we need to move this conversation along already.

According to ABC News, Obama told African leaders who attended the latter part of the G8 summit in L'Aquila, Italy that, "his cousin in Kenya can’t find a job without paying a bribe, and that’s not the fault of the G-8. And when companies can’t operate without paying, in some parts of Africa, without paying the 25 per cent fee off the top in bribes, that’s not colonialism."

Mutuma argues that whereas the anecdote is open to the (stereo)typical interpretation that Africa is steeped in corruption and that this is the explanation most western commentators (well-meaning or otherwise) will arrive at, there are other more accessible explanations.
"Why must young Africans pay a bribe to get a job? One possible explanation is that Africans are bad, corrupt people who cannot rule themselves. That is the subtext of international discourse on "governance" in Africa.

The more accessible explanation is that families pay bribes simply because there are too many people and too few opportunities. The reason for that is that our economies simply aren't growing. And, yes, part of the cause of that is corruption and stupid leaders."
He then goes on to say that:
“If you reduce the competition for jobs by creating more opportunities, you reduce corruption exponentially, and you can take that to the bank.”
I even take to heart his indignation with
“these Kenyan generalisations of how corrupt and tribal we are,” and ask alongside him, “what about me who has never taken a bribe, who puts in many hours every day, loves my country and desperately wants to fix it? What about the many Kenyans who are like me, are not in it just for money but because we want to build a country we can take pride in?”
I’m not asking that we as Africans (or our leaders) be allowed to abdicate our responsibility, you understand. I’m just engaging in some wishful thinking here, I suppose.

I wish that when the world tells Africa’s story, rather than confine it to the briefs where complex issues are simplified into attention-grabbing anecdotes, it would assign it adequate column space, so that there would not need to merely be a squeaky clean Ghana and a murky messy Kenya, but there would be room to discuss the range of nuance, to grapple with the back story and the complexity of it all.

With the Saturday speech in Ghana, I was pleased, for the most part. Maybe I’ll get around to blogging about that, but not today.

Tuesday, October 20

Up in Arms: Some Follow-up Thoughts on the Arms Trade Treaty

I spent a decent chunk of last week skirting around, hovering above and peering into the subject of calculated self-interest. While I was at it, and, perhaps because my antennae were up, I stumbled upon two articles that considered how that very idea may play out on the global stage.

The one was an article about world hunger in which the argument was advanced, with qualification, that it is ultimately in the self-interest of the developed world to combat world hunger and that this is the case that should increasingly be made to the citizens of the more developed nations because framing the fight against hunger as a social justice issue has failed, in large part, to galvanise them. I’ll leave you to make of that what you will.

The other was a critical piece in Time magazine about why this was so not the year to award Obama a nobel prize. I borrow a line from that article in Time magazine by Nancy Gibbs to lead you to where I’m standing:

“peacemaking is more about ingenuity than inspiration, about reading other nations' selfish interests and cynically, strategically exploiting them for the common good.”

Calculated national self-interest then, is at the heart of every negotiation on the global stage. In diplomatic circles, it may well be considered coarse to call it what it is, but that doesn’t alter its essence.


Now that we’re here, where I’ve been standing these past few, let’s usher the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) into the room, shall we?

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying that which stubbornly defies simplification, I see three major trans-national groupings based on standing in the arms trade which then cluster somewhat differently based on their current stance toward the ATT.

Based on standing in the arms trade, those major groupings are:

• those a control arms report refers to as “the big five arms exporting countries” namely Russia, the UK, the US, France and Germany, which, per 2005 data, accounted for 82 per cent of global sales in conventional weapons;

• the emerging players in the arms export market including countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Israel, China, Brazil, Singapore and South Africa, each competing to secure a slice of the conventional arms export market and;

• the rest of the world. (Of course, in the space marked ‘the rest of the world’ it bears noting that there are currently some 92 countries producing some component or other for the small arms and light weapons industry, including my native Kenya. But the major players in the export market, which is the domain which the ATT is seeking to influence, are those outlined above.)

Clustering based on stance towards an ATT as demonstrated in how nations voted on the 2006 UN General Assembly resolution to work “toward an Arms Trade Treaty” yields a slightly different map, although most places where the boundaries fall are familiar.

There was one outright nay. There is no prize for guessing that it came from the US.

An overwhelming majority of 153 states voted in favour of the resolution, including three of the big five conventional arms exporters, namely Germany, the UK and France (indeed all of Europe excepting Russia voted in favour of the resolution), a number of the emerging exporters including South Africa, Singapore, Brazil, plus sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Caribbean, in the main.

Those who abstained included most of the middle east, some of north Africa, the Indian sub continent and Russia. Plus a few other countries whose abstention rings contrarian more than anything else, like Zimbabwe and Venezuela.                                                                  

Complexity unveiled

This is where it gets interesting. (Read: complex).

Three of the major small arms and light weapons exporters namely France, Germany and the UK stood right along some of the countries worst hit by the proliferation of illicit weapons, many of them in sub Saharan Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America in calling for work to begin towards an Arms Trade Treaty.

In fact, the UK, along with six other nations, last week presented a draft resolution to the First Committee calling for negotiations on the ATT to begin forthwith and be completed by 2012. Emerging exporters such as South Africa, Singapore and Brazil also voted in favour of the resolution.

I’m going to go out on that shaky limb and reiterate, here, that everyone brings self-interest to the table.


I’m not student of diplomacy or international relations, but as I’ve observed it, positions at the international stage are arrived at based on a sophisticated template developed and improved over time for calculating national self-interest. Nations choose from a long list of available components the exact mix of factors to combine in order to arrive at a position on either side of the aisle or to decide to sit, once in the odd while, stark in the middle.

Strategic national interests such as self-defense or the desire to position themselves as a force to reckon with may be a strong consideration. Political survival may come into play for some and not for others, and may incline some strongly one way and others strongly in the opposite direction. The national bottomline is almost always a consideration. And where there is little or no impact on it, then a nation’s self-interest may be swayed by a desire to support a key ally in the clear if unspoken expectation that when the time comes (and the time always comes), the support will be reciprocated in kind.

This is the raging whirlpool into which the ATT will be flung, the one side cheering it on, the other willing it drown and die a quick death so that life might return to an acceptable kind of normal.

So we’re at the negotiating table. We’ve acknowledged that nations bring diverse interests to the table. It’s the way of the world. How does this play out in the ATT context?
As far as I can see, the interests at the table fall in three broad categories that are complicated by an age old twist.

First up are the ‘big five’ traditional exporters of conventional weapons who still control a big chunk of the global trade in arms and come from contexts where the rules of the trade have been tightened significantly in a bid to minimise the sale of weapons to groups who would use them to violate the rights of others, such as guerilla groups and terrorist groups. 

These high standards that have been imposed either nationally or regionally have had the effect of leashing the companies operating within their borders to a standard, which has had a direct impact on these companies’ bottomlines.

At the same time as they have been subject to these internal restraints, they have watched as emerging arms exporters roam about relatively free, supplying the demand for conventional arms in the ever expanding war zones of the world with seemingly little or no thought at all as to the consequences thereof. 

Highly profitable industry

Naturally, then, the arms industries in these countries where strict rules now apply want the same stringent requirements to apply to the rest of the world so that balance may once again restored to the trade. (Read: so that they can once again secure their leading position in the highly profitable industry.)

Second are the newly emerging arms exporters. As you can imagine, new players in the export of arms would, all things being equal, be inclined to recoil against an ATT. If you view it through your pragmatic lenses, you can very well see why. The present scenario plays clearly in their favour.  

As I’ve come to understand it, manufacturing weapons is an expensive undertaking, requiring significant investment. Nations who nurture the industry for strategic national defense and security reasons, and because, in order to be a force to reckon with on the global stage you have to be a player in the war industry, soon find that, in order for such a venture to be financially feasible in the long term, they need to grow their market beyond their borders, to become arms exporters.

This leads us to the space where the arms trade debate converges with the climate change debate. The newly emerging players could well accuse the traditional players of bringing rules to the table at this specific time in history simply to rein in the emerging competition, to keep it in check.

They might argue also, that by virtue of their geography and history as well as diverse political and economic considerations, the new markets into which they can sell their arms are likely to attract more suspicion on the global stage than the more established nations into which the big five would sell their arms and that therefore they would be the bigger losers in a new stringent global ATT environment. And they might have a point.

Into these muddy the waters, toss in another twist in the form of longstanding distrust and other issues long simmering, yet unresolved. Between the west and the bulk of the middle east for example. In doing so, you may begin to despair about an ATT ever being able to swim to shore while retaining a decent amount of robustness.

Illicit trade, devastated communities and nations

But, let’s set all that aside for a minute and consider the third interest cluster comprising Africa, the Caribbean and parts of Latin American where the impact of the illicit trade in conventional weapons has been, in a word, devastating.

Long debilitating wars across the African continent from Sierra Leone to Liberia, DRC to Sudan, have been fed by a steady, unrelenting supply of illicit weapons to rebels who have wrought havoc on entire populations. The loss to lives in the past decade alone is counted in the tens of millions. And then there are those who have been wounded, those who have been bereaved, those who have been raped and otherwise violated, and those who have been brutally robbed of their livelihoods.

The internal discord and intercommunity tensions that flare up into open conflict in these war zones are often home grown, but easy access to weapons prolongs them unnecessarily and aggravates their effect multiple-fold. I need not paint a picture. You have glimpsed it over and over again.

Take the DRC for prime example, where in the last decade, 5.4 million people have lost their. Consider what havoc small arms and light weapons have wreaked there, in the brutal hands of unscrupulous gangs and militia who have little regard for human life and are only concerned with selfish personal gain.

Take Jamaica, across the world from Africa, for slightly different example, whose murder rate is 61 per 100,000. The police are fighting a losing battle there to restore the peace against heavily armed gangs who are holding the country at ransom with illicit weapons. Its proximity to the politically unstable Haiti, from whence a good proportion of its guns come, according to Novelette Grant, is the bane of its existence. But its gun trade is intricately tied also, with its drug trade, the one feeding off the other, and vice versa.

Take also my own country Kenya. According to a recent report by the BBC, rival communities in Kenya’s Rift Valley province, the epicentre of the post election violence that nigh brought the country to its knees in 2008, are rearming.

Except the word rearming doesn’t tell it quite as ominously as it is. In fact, what they’re doing, per the report, is upgrading their weapons.

Last year, the crimes were in large part committed with crude weapons: bow and arrow and machetes. This year, machine guns are all the rave.

As one man is reported to have told the BBC’s Wanyama wa Chebusiri:
"Before we were using bows and arrows to fight the enemy but changed to guns following the post-election experience because we realised, compared to guns, the arrows were child's play."
Supply is high, the article says, and the price is low.

In his brief address at the launch of Oxfam’s Dying for Action report just over a week ago, Mutuku Nguli, CEO of Peacenet, a Kenyan grassroots organisation, tagged the price of an AK-47 in the Rift Valley at a very accessible $230.

Why is supply high?

Partly because Kenya’s borders are porous and controls are weak. If people with criminal intent want to smuggle weapons into our country, they likely can and they likely will.
Partly, also, because neighbouring states such as Somalia are unstable. Weapons are getting from there into Kenya even though there’s a UN embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to various warlords and warring clans in Somalia.

To hear it from the horse's mouth, in this case Florella Hazelely, an activist with the Sierra Leone Action Network in Small arms, as she is quoted in the Control Arms report, Arms Without Borders,

“We don’t manufacture these guns, yet they end up in our country, erode our security and have terrible consequences for our development.”

Human imperative

This is nothing short of a gross injustice on a global scale. It will not do.

But, before I climb onto my soapbox, allow me to make a comment about the US position.

Per intelligence I’ve gathered, the US’ reluctance to wholly embrace an ATT is not so much driven by economic considerations as by strategic ones. US arms sales have historically been closely aligned with its national strategic interests and its foreign policy objectives. Consider for example how it recently supplied 40 tons of weapons to the fragile Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia in a noble bid to strengthen it against increasing attacks from militia groups in the country. 

Now, you’ve probably read that there’s a brisk arms trade in Somalia, complete with a specialised market where guns can be bought off the shelf or ordered in bulk. It’s a lucrative business, is what it is, and if you’ve got money in your pocket, it’s as good as a gun in your hand.
I read, also, that some of the weapons supplied by the US to the Somalia TFG found their way to this market through unscrupulous means. It is not inconceivable, then, that some of the weapons on sale in Kenya’s rift valley may be these very weapons, supplied by the US to a legitimate government in Somalia.

In its brief address to the First Committee, week before last, the US insisted that no nation had done more than it had done to stem illicit trade in weapons. I have no reason to dispute this. But, by the brief illustration above I mean to advance the argument that more is needed than a unilateral effort—a comprehensive global standard is necessary.

Which is what brings me full circle, to that thing I was going on about, about the world really needing an Arms Trade Treaty. (Or hadn’t I gotten to that already?)
Well then, climbing atop my soapbox now, thanks much.

As the negotiations for an Arms Trade Treaty begin, it is clear, nay inevitable, that there will be posturing.

The stakes, after all, are extremely high. There are national strategic interests on the line. And national bottomlines as well. There’s prestige, also. And ego. Not to mention old scores yet unsettled.

But over and well above all this, there are human lives at stake, and human lives are the highest stake of all.

There is, as Debbie Hiller of Oxfam International so compellingly put it, “a humanitarian imperative,” and that red card, legitimately pulled out of whatever back pocket, silences all other considerations except those equal to it.

So if the way you calculate your self-interest yields a negative value in the event that an ATT comes into force, while I sympathise with you, I urge you to consider the humanitarian imperative. For those who had rather say no and who, in glancing across the aisle, have just cause to call into question the underlying motives of some of the aye-sayers, I should like to sympathise, but I’m compelled by a humanitarian imperative.

Oxfam International and the Control Arms coalition have put a number tag on that humanitarian imperative: 2,000 people. Every day. Meet their death through small arms and light weapons. 2,000 people.

It will not, it cannot, it must not do that in some lofty political somewhere, old bulls and new bulls lock horns in a power struggle while 2,000 innocent people lose their lives every day.

Do we need a global, legally binding treaty to minimize the extent to which small arms and light weapons are used to fuel conflict and human rights abuses?