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November 16, 2018

2016: REALLY BAD YEAR FOR KENYANS

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Queen Elizabeth famously declared 1992 an “annus horribilis”, one which, she said, she wouldn’t look back at with undiluted pleasure.

For many, around the world, 2016 has similarly turned out to be a horrible year. From the deaths of several pop culture icons, to the millions forced to flee senseless killing and destruction in the Middle East, to the political earthquakes that were the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of President-elect Donald Trump, 2016 has been one for the books. For Kenyans, it is ending largely as it begun: In uncertainty, fear and with a sense of foreboding.

We were barely through the second week of January when reports begun filtering through of an attack on Kenyan forces serving in an obscure centre somewhere in Southwestern Somalia. El Adde soon became one of the most familiar Somali place names as the true scale of the tragedy unfolded, despite the government’s best efforts to hide it. With between 140-200 KDF soldiers slaughtered by al Shabaab and another dozen taken prisoner, it was Kenya’s largest military defeat, and made a mockery of the claim to being one of the continent’s most effective armies. Following the incompetence and malfeasance on show during the Westgate Mall attack in 2013 and in Mpeketoni and Garissa University College thereafter, El Adde was the final nail in the coffin of the KDF’s vaunted reputation.

Lately, the air has been thick with more fears, this time of a distinctly homegrown variety. The long-simmering dispute between the Jubilee Party and the opposition over the ground rules for next year’s general election has once again burst out into the open. The ugly scenes and reports of fisticuffs in the National Assembly that accompanied the passage of the amendments to the Election Amendments Act as well as the opposition threat to renew their street protests have raised the political temperature and the potential for politically instigated violence.

On the face of it, these two situations couldn’t be more different. However, a deeper examination reveals that they spring from the same root: Namely the Kenyan penchant for ignoring and postponing problems rather than confronting and resolving them.

At least since Westgate, it had been clear that there was something seriously wrong with how the KDF conducted its operations. Yet, whether it is accusations of being engaged in the smuggling of sugar into Kenya and charcoal out of Somalia or allegations of indiscriminate shelling of civilian villages both inside and outside Kenya, or of bungled responses to terror attacks, the response has been either denial or a deafening silence. There have been no attempts to hold the military top brass to account for the many failures or, at least publicly, to understand and eliminate the reasons for them. What a senior police officer told the Nation is probably true of the military: “The police service has basically learnt nothing from Westgate, Garissa, Mpeketoni and others.”

Similarly it has been clear, since the 2013 election, that there were many serious flaws in our electoral system. From the fact that the IEBC did not know how many voters it had registered, to the proliferation of voter registers, the frozen screens at national tallying centres and the admission by one justice that the Supreme Court might have ruled differently given more time, the signs of systemic failure were clear.

Yet for nearly three years there were no demands for a comprehensive and independent audit of the system to identify and fix the problems. Instead, as the current furore over the electoral law demonstrates, we have allowed the politicians to hijack the discourse of reform, just as they did in 1997. That, unfortunately, did not turn out well a decade later.

Not fixing our problems is what has landed us in the trouble we are currently in. And if we hope to ensure 2017 is more mirabilis than horribilis, then that is a habit we must break.

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