Saturday, March 26

Conversations with A Freedom Fighter

On the wall directly opposite the door, above a fireless fireplace, is a china plate embedded with the ubiquitous image of Dedan Kimathi. He lies stiffly on what appears to be a makeshift stretcher, hands in chains, head in dreadlocks, bare chest, defiant eyes. On another wall, to the left, is a framed reproduction of a black and white image that has graced the pages of Kenyan newspapers often since Independence: Field Marshall Muthoni at the Ruringu Stadium in Nyeri on December 16th, 1963—almost 40 years ago—where some Mau Mau had gone to give up their weapons after the declaration of Independence 4 days previously. Her chin is up, her jaw is tight, her eyes are hard. Dreadlocks flow untidily onto the middle of her back. She is clad in a cloak of animal skin.

Forty years later, we are seated in her house, suitably awed.

We are grateful for the opportunity. We had hovered outside her gate anxiously for a few long drawn out minutes while our more savvy companion went in to persuade her to give us audience.

Field Marshal Muthoni does not speak English, she did not go to school. She speaks a smattering of Kiswahili. We, on the other hand, are Kikuyu challenged. We can understand it, for the most part, but we are wary to speak it. So we pose our questions through an interpreter and then listen to intently her answers. Her intelligence strikes one immediately. She has an unquestionable air of authority about her. It is not difficult to understand why she rose up to the rank of Field Marshal in the Mau Mau Movement.

With customary African hospitality, she offers a cup of tea. In customary African fashion, we accept, thank you very much.

The interview begins tentatively: Why did she go into the forest? To fight, of course. Then she elaborates: My father worked for a settler. I was brought up in a settlers’ farm. Once you had lived with them, you knew you had to fight. And also, ‘we felt it was better to die in the forest fighting them, than to live without our freedom. We wanted our land, and we wanted our freedom, that is what we wanted.’

Slowly she warms up to our interrogation and begins to carry the story. We interject less and less. When she mentions Dedan Kimathi, her eyes cloud over. There is depth of feeling there, one can tell. When she talks about the fate of freedom fighters after independence, there is a choke in her throat. She paints a haunting analogy. ‘It’s like a competitive match she says. We were the team. We played valiantly, sacrificially, against the opposing team. We sweated. We gave our lives. Then, at the end of the match, when we had won, the spectators ran away with the trophy. ‘

This is a familiar theme among the Mau Mau ex freedom fighters still living today. Their bitterness with their treatment in independent Kenya is nigh palpable. Forty years on, Field Marshal Muthoni is still incredulous about the turn of events. The former freedom fighters around her, (and there are many), appear to still be reeling from the effects of what happened forty years ago. But she is by far the most eloquent. We listen, enthralled, to her account:

We were in the forest fighting for our freedom. Our fellow black man was not our enemy, not even those who collaborated with the white man. Those who collaborated we knew did so because of their ignorance. The white man was not our enemy because of the colour of his skin. No. It was because of what he had done. He had come and taken our land and was oppressing us in our own land. That is what we fought for: Our land and our freedom.

While they fought in the forest, another strategic war was taking place in the political arena. Parties were being formed after the fashion of western systems to fight for the rights of Kenya all the way to Lancaster house. Educated Kenyans were agitating for the rights of the black man in the legislature, through constitutional means. There was a parallel non violent movement campaigning rigorously for the end of British rule. Their goals were the same, their methods, starkly different. Nonetheless, there was a hazy overlap. Some Mau Mau we spoke to said their inspiration was Kenyatta. Kenyatta himself, although he later strove to distance himself from the Mau Mau, was allegedly arrested on account of their activity.

In her view:

Come independence, 1963 is when the injustice of the system began to set in. Mau Mau readily gave up their weapons and returned to their villages. The struggle, after all, had been won. Reality proved somewhat less than ideal. They found that, while they were in the forest fighting the enemy, land consolidation had taken place in 1960. Those who were absent had had their land taken away from them and given to others. They found that, while they were fighting, those they had left in the villages had been educating themselves and educating their children. The fledgling government needed this educated cadre as it began to establish itself. So therefore, it was the children of those who did not fight who were offered positions of influence in government on account of their experience and education.

The Ex Mau Mau, who at this time were an outlawed terror organization under Penal code Cap 108 (whose repeal may I add is long overdue), trickled back into society and found themselves in the Emergency Era Villages. These were villages constructed in the emergency era, after 1952 when the Mau Mau guerilla warfare had wreaked havoc in colonial circles. They were designed to bring people into enclosed, restricted spaces so that their movements could be more easily monitored and they could no longer help the Mau Mau with provisions and ammunition. At independence then, people went out to the farms that had been allocated to them during the land consolidation and the ex Mau Mau went into the villages and awaited their fair share of what they had fought for. For the most part, they are still waiting and waiting has bred in them a bitterness to the core.

Major Gray, one of Field Marshal Muthoni’s myriad visitors, personified that bitterness most starkly. Her eyes were bloodshot, her face hard, her expression unyielding. She spat out her words and hissed more than she talked. General Karangi vocalized it most virulently. In his anger, he almost managed to dissuade Field Marshal Muthoni from speaking to us. ‘What is in it for us?’ he asked repeatedly in a thinly veiled allusion to monetary compensation, and, ‘Where is the land we fought for?’

Muchemi, the soft spoken journalist who has his finger on the Nyeri pulse and who has been an invaluable source of background information told us, later, about trouble in the ranks.

Another group of ex Mau Mau fighters we met was hostile to Field Marshal Muthoni and her posse. Their explanations were fuzzy and inconsistent, and I was tempted to conjecture that it was inspired by some level of envy-she managed to fashion a decent living for herself after independence.

She recounts how she approached Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta and managed to secure a license to trade in ivory on account of the fact that while they were in the forest, they used to kill elephants for food and hide the ivory and she knew where they had buried it. After that supply was exhausted, she traveled the breadth and depth of the country, looking out for elephant carcasses where she might reap some ivory. It was back breaking work, but she did it. She also transported farm produce to Nairobi to sell. Slowly, out of sheer force of willpower it would seem, she empowered herself economically. When Moi’s government came into power, he helped her set up a security firm in Nyeri. In her compound in a posh surburb of Nyeri Town are two cars parked, an old Mercedes Benz, and a Peugeot 504. Compared to those ex Mau Mau fighters squatting on government land in Emergency Era villages, she is living the American dream.

It is these rival groupings within the Mau Mau that are apt to say that she went into the forest in the first instance because her husband got into some trouble in the village and risked severe punishment. Muthoni in her ingenuity is purported to have suggested that they join the armed struggle at that juncture. Once in the forest, they stirred some rancour. In order to protect her and her husband, she sought favour with Kimathi and received it. She rose to be second to none but Kimathi.

That is the alternate version of her story, the path that we did not follow, this time around.

Muthoni pauses often in her account, cringes, and shuts her eyes tightly as though battling with tears. She invokes the name of God on behalf of those who have been cheated of their rightful place in history. God, she says, will surely do them justice someday. Even when they are dead and buried, their bones will cry out to him and he will arise in his time and serve justice on their behalf. God pops up surprisingly often in her discourse. When they were in the forest, they cried out to God for their land. When Dedan Kimathi died, they prayed to God and knew that they must continue with the struggle, even if they deeply felt his loss. And she is not the only one. As we prepared to interview another group in Nyeri, they called a pause for prayer. On the face of it, it was a Christian prayer, crying out to Jehovah for help and provision. There was one stark difference: they all turned and solemnly faced Mt Kenya.

Of Field Marshal Muthoni we ask, to which God does she refer so often? She answers us with a question laced in incredulity, ‘isn’t there only one God? Does that God belong to any one person and not the other?’ Her question leaves us tongue-tied. For an unschooled person, she is possessed of superb understanding. Life has endowed her with knowledge and understanding that a university could not.

She speaks of president Kenyatta’s compensation to settlers for the land they were leaving with disbelief. They snatched the land from us, they got paid. We to whom the land belonged were not given back our land, and we were not compensated. How can this make sense?

(In President Kenyatta's defence, the compensation of settlers was financed by the British government on a willing seller willing buyer basis as agreed in the lead up to independence.)

Kenya, Muthoni says, will be judged for the way it treated its heroes. That Kimathi has lain buried in a prison cemetery for so many years after independence is beyond comprehension.

General Karangi has a controversial word to put in here. He acknowledges Kimathi’s role in the struggle but wonders why we celebrate only those who died and ignore those who are alive. He is hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught. His question about about Dedan Kimathi’s eminence is echoed in other quarters for other reasons.

Recently, an article in the Daily Telegraph indignantly vilified those who would celebrate Dedan Kimathi when the Mau Mau were terrorists. How dare anyone celebrate terrorism? We put this challenge before our erstwhile hostess. Muthoni sees it somewhat differently. Who is the terrorist, she challenges. Is it the one who fights back for his land and dignity through whatever means are available to him, or is it the one who forcefully takes that which belongs to another and treats them like dirt?

Nonetheless, her feathers are not unnecessarily ruffled by a ‘white man’ calling her a terrorist. They lost the war, she says, almost indulgently, what else do you expect them to call us? And then she smiles a triumphant smile and shrugs. But she is less forgiving toward her fellow Kenyans. How can they take on that definition of us? Don’t they realize that we laid down our lives for this country? How is it that we when the struggle was over, we got nothing? Not a needle, nor a handkerchief, nor a piece of land the size of a stool? Does that make any sense to you?

New York New York

I draw in a long, nervous breath. This is New York. I expect to be, well... intimidated.

Although, enroute, the dilapidation, the trash littered along the highway, humanized it. Shrank it from larger than life to ... life.

First things first, New York has characters. Or. In other words. Every native New Yorker is a character. All over. All sorts.

I find that I stop. I stare occasionally. I can't help it. No one minds me.

Also, New York is one big ego, and we have all flocked here to stroke it. This is a city in love with itself. I'm just saying. Not necessarily a good thing. Not necessarily a bad thing. Just a thing.

From now on, in my vocabulary, love of self will be spelt, NYphilia.

And, I understand why New York is so written. It's bulging with stories. They are leaking messily out of it.

I could write New York.

I loved the T-Shirts, razor sharp with sarcasm. Now that's the New York of the movie director's imagination. I however, bravely resisted the temptation to buy one at Time Square. Those prices are criminal. Or tourist. Or both. No way am I going down like that.

Speaking of which, that's a thing this city is highly skilled at. Sneaking its grubby little fingers into your pockets and greedily, gleefully, emptying them.

Ahem. I did not appreciate walking around for circa half an hour looking for a public restroom. (Earth to Mayor Bloomberg. Do your read me?)

Also, FYI, I did not appreciate being stashed into a corner at TGI Fridays.

Gasp. (Is this not the capital city of the Solo Act? C'mon TGI Fridays. C'mon.)

Or is mine a determined case of East, West, Home Best?

(Give me my Nairobi
Give me my Java
Give me my own booth

(imagined to the tune of Video by India Arie)).

People say you can get lost here, but me, I stick out like a sore thumb.

First, someone who looks vaguely familiar boards the tour bus I'm on, smiles and says hello. She sits behind me and we chat a little. She's Kenyan. We know we've met but we can't figure out where, how, courtesy of whom. We run through the list-high school, primary school, uni, neighbourhoods, nada.

Pleasant enough, as conversations in a tour bus with an overzealous tour guide labouring to drown you out go.

And Then. And Then. And Then.

On 46th and 8th, in crowded Manhattan, this guy stops me and asks me if I'm Kenyan. Gobsmackerationization. How how how? He's not even Kenyan. He's, wait for this, Togolese.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I can run, but apparently, I cannot hide.

I'm what Kenyan looks like.

(Once, way back, in Pretoria, I walked into a Hair Salon and one of the hairstylists broke out in animated Kikuyu in my direction.

Another time, in Cape Town, I'm standing at a bus stop in Rondebosch (I think), when all of a sudden this Mini Van Taxi draws to a halt right in front of me and the tout proceeds to address me in Kiswahili.)

Kenyan is a look. And, tag, I'm it.

Sigh. If you can't beat it, you might as well try to milk it for all the money it's worth.

I should probably approach the government to use me as a Postergirl for some Quintessential Kenya advertising campaign. Or some such. I wonder how much I'd get paid.


Something else I love about New York: how it unabashedly imagines itself into being. It will be whatever it wants to be and you can have your cow if you want. And milk it.


God is Not Yet Dead

The Guardian has an article on the recent tidal wave of books breaking violently against the God domain.

There's the God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, End of Faith by Sam Harris, and most recently, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens.

People are burying God all over the place, and gleefully sending flowers.

Thing is, I think they're bombing the wrong building. God doesn't live in people's minds so much as He lives in people's hearts and souls and experience. God is not dead as long as He lives in people's hearts.

That is not to say that I refuse to grapple intelligently with religious questions. That is not to say that I cling foolishly and blindly to unsupportable beliefs. That is to say that when I wrestle with the issues, and I do wrestle, I wrestle with something that is alive inside of me, something that is an inextricable part of me because it is a real (not imagined or imaginary) part of my experience. It is my faith.

I know: such an intangible thing FAITH. So 'how do you keep a wave upon the sand' like.

I should probably concede, at this juncture, that it is very unfortunate that some have used religion in recent times in the public domain in such a manner as to bring it into disrepute. OK, I will concede, I do concede. But, I must also add that, before I point the finger outward, my particular brand of believing obliges me point it selfward. And selfward tends to silence.

All this reminds me of a story I stumbled upon, a while ago, that really hit the switch that turns on the squirming: the blasphemy challenge story on ABCNews about a website where non-believers were encouraged to express their non-belief by cursing God.

The numbers of those who do not believe are swelling in certain parts of the world. I think I get that.

I see an upside. I see that the label Christian has fallen into disrepute there. As a result, people are more and more unwilling to wear it. It is no longer a label that they pick up and drop absentmindedly, randomly, as they go about the business of defining who they are. Instead, they think about it a little more. A lot more. And, when they do take on that label, it is because they know what they believe and why they believe it. Certainly they need to believe it enough to stand being accused of being stunted on the evolutionary chain because they still need to believe in a God.

I don't think that's altogether a bad thing, as things go.

Democratic Republic of Congo:Blood Minerals, the Reality Show

I got this link in the mail, and I felt a little guilty as I've been skirting around the news of the outbreak of violence in the DRCongo, somewhat reluctant to write about it because the thought of writing about the DRCongo deflates me and depresses me and makes me wonder how so much can go wrong for so long in a country with such potential.

The New York Times is running a series titled Buried Treasure, Broken Nation which rehashes an old theme in a new and necessary way. Waiting to be uncovered in the first article in the series are these sombre assessments which ring depressingly true:

This is Africa’s resource curse: The wealth is unearthed by the poor, controlled by the strong, then sold to a world largely oblivious of its origins.

The bloodshed and terror have always been driven in part by the endless global thirst for Congo’s resources...
At the Tandaa Content Conference, Ian Fernandes suggested that if Africans were more proactive about telling their own story, we'd be talking about projects like the Inga Dam Project, a plan to build the world's largest and most powerful dam yet, projected to begin in 2014, rather than rehashing the same old story about conflict in the DRC.

I understand where he was coming from with that, and, on a normal day, I would heartily agree. But right now, all I can think is, we'd like to, we really would, but how can we when the likes of Laurent Nkunda are all up in our faces, rubbing our noses in all that can go so horribly wrong in Africa and, unfortunately, so often does?

Do not get me wrong: I do not believe that the people in Africa are any worse than the people elsewhere in the world. I think every country and every place on earth has its share of potential Laurent Nkundas. It's just that some other parts of the world seem to have been more successful in creating the kind of systems, structures, institutions and controls that tend to limit the unfettered expression of the basest form of humanity that almost inevitably leads to atrocities committed against fellow human beings than we have.

I wonder why? Where were we when this lesson was being taught in class? Why is it that we keep failing the exam?

Sigh. I knew if I got into this I'd sink into the doldrums. Oh well. Go on over and listen to what Shashank Bengali has to say. If you will.

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, 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?


Wednesday, October 7

Who Needs an Arms Trade Treaty Anyway?

Does the world need an Arms Trade Treaty?

There is no doubt in my mind that Africa does, and because Africa does, the world does.

In fact, if I had it my way, we would set in place an effective, transparent global mechanism to regulate the entire conventional weapons supply chain, not just the distribution end of the arms trade continuum such as is the current focus of the Arms Trade Treaty. We need it strong, we need it binding and we need it now.

There is no getting away from it: unfettered access to illicit small arms has wrought great suffering on Africa. Few have suffered the social and economic cost of the flaws in the current system as Africa has.

Tens of millions of lives have been lost and millions more have had their lives and livelihoods shattered in protracted armed conflicts across the continent. Certainly, access to weapons is not the whole story—conventional weapons do not in and of themselves cause conflict—but, it is an important part of the story because these weapons aggravate conflict multiple-fold.

The centre spread photo montage in the western magazine of red-eyed African boy soldiers barely into their double digit years posing for the camera with deadly weapons slung nonchalantly over their shoulders may draw the wince out of the depth of us, but we cannot afford to look away: it’s our mirror and it’s on our wall.

In his submission to the First Committee yesterday, the Kenyan representative made two thought provoking statements: one, illicit weapons and the heightened state of insecurity they cause forces governments to divert funds that would otherwise be applied to development projects towards securing itself; two, there is no development without security and no security without development. All which doesn’t augur very well for us, does it?

And when you consider that 95 per cent of the weapons most commonly used in conflict in Africa come from outside the continent, you begin to see how patently unfair it all is.

It brings to mind the very colourful Assistant Commissioner of Police from Jamaica, Novelette Grant, who’s frustrated no end by the devastating effect access to illicit weapons by criminal elements continues to have on her country as guns slip in through the island nation’s porous borders and lead to a murder rate of 61 per 100,000—alarmingly high for a country that has never been in conflict.

The police force does best it can, but it is increasingly overwhelmed.

Oftentimes, the illegal weapons they seize are a trickle compared to the flood coming into the country and their efforts are complicated by the fact that there’s a symbiotic relationship between the narcotics trade and the illegal trade in firearms. The gangs they encounter, she says, are often much better armed than they are. What’s a police force to do when this is what it comes to?

Efforts such as these at the tail end of the supply chain where human and capital resources are in limited supply are a little like standing in knee-deep in water in a flooded house and trying to drain the water with a tea cup while the taps responsible for all the flooding are in somebody else’ house and are still turned on to full gush.

Somebody do something at the tap already. That’s all we’re saying.

It’s not that we’re resting on our laurels in Africa, mind you, waiting for our knight in shining armour to come to our rescue. Far from it. Three regional blocs in West, East and South Africa, already have in place legally binding agreements that seek to control the proliferation of small arms within their borders. The problem is that their success in this regard is limited by the fact that their outermost boundary,wherever it might be, is porous and vulnerable to undetected illegal penetration of arms.

It’s the way of the world. We’re connected. We have to deal with it.

Ergo, a global solution for an increasingly globalised world.

The good news is, the stars may be lining up. As John Duncan, the UK ambassador for multilateral arms control and disarmament said in a conversation about the Arms Treaty, “We are at a shifting point.”

It’s an interesting “shifting point” this, no doubt. Because the world is shifting in its perception of itself and its conception of power, this is an auspicious time to embark on negotiations on the arms trade treaty. Because the world is shifting in its perception of itself and its conception of power, the negotiations on the arms trade treaty will likely be more complex than they might have been at another point in history.

But, we are at a shifting point. What we’re going to do with it is what remains to be seen.

Tuesday, October 6

Talking About Guns in New York

So this slackvitist has rocked off her chair, donned her bright red bata moccasins and made the trek across seven time zones to New York to participate in a series of events around the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations beginning at the UN this week.

It’s about time and whatnot.

In December 2006, an NGO-led movement that began agitating in the 1990s for a treaty to regulate the global arms trade based on universal principles scored a significant victory when the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming majority for negotiations to begin on what would be a legally binding universal Arms Trade Treaty.

Fast forward to this, the week when the negotiations begin.

The devil, as we well know, often crashes the party late, making a grand entrance just when the details are being served up.

This is what I have come to see and hear, ever so briefly, firsthand.

I’m very curious to witness, up-close, what major interest clusters have formed or will emerge to coalesce around which different positions and why. And to learn a little more about who’s got their foot on the accelerator and who’s got their foot on the brake and who will bring more pressure to bear to win the day.

As usual, I make a commitment to listen and engage with all sides of the debate, but I make no claims of neutrality on this issue.

States may have the right to produce or procure arms for self-defence and law enforcement but with that right comes the responsibility of ensuring that those arms do not slip out of the legitimate channels of distribution and cross porous borders so that the next thing you know there’s a story on my national television about heavily armed cattle rustlers in northern Kenya making away with thousands of heads of cattle, leaving a trail of death and destruction of livelihoods in their gun totting wake and; there are scores of teenagers wielding deadly weapons running around Nairobi in gangs, wreaking terror on our night life.

Yes, what the raingods conjure up in these lofty parts rains down in torrents where I live. Often with devastating effects.

This then, is personal. (As are most things, in the end.)

So, here I am, to listen and to learn, to ask and to blog.

Let the negotiations begin.

Thursday, May 8

So, About Hillary Clinton

I’ve been pro-Obama in the US presidential race. I will continue to be overwhelmingly pro-Obama. Not that it matters, of course, because I do not have the right to vote in the upcoming elections, being a Kenyan citizen, resident in Kenya. Still an opinion is an opinion and I have one.

But I have to say that I’ve developed a healthy respect for Hillary Clinton. She is a very intelligent, very formidable woman. Such grit. It is not easy to be her right now but she’s doing it with courage and dignity. I cannot remain unmoved when I watch her stand wearing her best smile before a crowd on whose faces she can read a sense of resignation, of futility. Here, where the clichéd rubber meets the road, this woman has substance, is substance.

Hillary Clinton is an incredibly gifted woman, and no one can take that away from her.

Besides, I cannot 'do a moving hope speech to galvanise a generation in the tradition of Obama' to save my life, not to mention the lives of my (yet unborn) children. In the public space, I would come off, in many ways, a lot like Clinton. I see me in her. I cannot help but empathise. (I also see my challenges of identity in Obama’s struggles, but that is not here.)

It’s been hard for me to distil the thought processes and feelings of African American women during this prolonged nomination process. Because they’re the point of intersection between Clinton and Obama. I think there’s been a lot of churning going on in the private place that hasn’t poured out into the public space. Or perhaps I just haven’t known where to look.

It’s been interesting to see African American women who are “women’s women” like Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison throw their weight behind Barack Obama. What does this mean? Is anybody talking about why it is and what it means? You get the strong sense, (especially in Oprah’s dipped ratings), that there’s a sense of betrayal in some quarters. Is this being tackled squarely or is it being sheepishly swept under the carpet?

I can't wait for this stretch to be over, and for women (especially African American women) to begin to narrate their stories retrospectively, as they slowly come to terms with what this historic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has taught them about themselves.

And I agree with the Clinton supporter who said the nomination race is "a marathon and she should be allowed to finish." Even if she isn't going to be the first to cross the finishing line. Let her finish. That's the kind of woman that she is, and I admire and respect that. Because that's the kind of woman I'd like to be.

Space, people. Let the woman do this on her own terms.