Thursday, January 28, 2010

Rekndling the Prospects for a New National Democratic Constitution in Kenya

A Digital Essay from Onyango Oloo in Brazil

Like most of my compatriots, I have been following the meandering shenanigans of the Parliament's Select Committee on the constitutional review process with mounting despair and seeping cynicism.

Having watched, for almost twenty years now, the half-hearted measures by the Kenyan political elite to cobble a version of a national constitution that moves away from the current awful one, I will be a hypocrite if I said that I am disappointed or even surprised at the ongoing impasse and the seeming somersaults on party positions among the grand coalition partners in ODM and PNU.

Adongo Ogony, one of my close friends and veteran comrades, from his base in Toronto, Canada, penned something just a few hours ago expressing his red hot ire, not at PNU but ODM, a party that he has been quite supportive of. He is not the only one who appears to be quite livid at the attitude of certain sections of Kenya's largest party who on the surface at least could be accused of selling out their very constituents and mass base.

I prefer to take a more sanguine view, tempered by an ideological analysis predicated on the balance of forces clamouring to control the Kenyan state.

In the first place, we must contextualize the constitutional review process against the backdrop of a much larger, and much longer protracted struggle for national independence, democracy, equality and social justice.

From this perspective, the kind of constitution a given country comes up with is diretly connected with the role, ideological clarity and popular strength of the democratic forces fighting for change.

To give two African examples.

Rwanda today is lauded for her constitution and her institutions- with the poignant pointer that this small land locked eastern/central African country boasts the highest number of elected FEMALE MPs in Africa. It has outlawed manifestations of tribalism and xenophobia and seems to be on track in tackling grand graft.

Yet this did not just happen.

There was first the brutal, vicious and violent pogrom which left almost one million Rwandan women, men and children slaughtered after barely three months of a state-supported militia campaign of carnage based on ethnic hatred.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)

spearheaded by General Paul Kagame transformed itself from a guerrilla army into a political movement that eventually wrested control of the state and begun implementing its minimum programme of action.

That programme of action included carrying out campaigns to improve the inter and intra-ethnic interactions; normalizing relations with neighbouring countries; flushing out thousands of suspected genocide perpetrators; jump- starting the battered economy and very importantly putting in place a new democratic constitution which in turn led to new multi-party elections and other reforms.

Further down south, the Tripartite Alliance led by the African National Congress and co-anchored by the South African Communist Party and Confederation of South African Trade Unions wrestled the weakened apartheid monster to the ground and

elected the celebrated Nelson Mandela as South Africa's first popularly elected President after guaranteeing a level playing field for a plethora of opposition political parties, big and small.

The elections in turn could not have taken place had the South Africans not gone through a very comprehensive, consultative and thorough national consitutional making process which led to the promulgamation of one of the most comprehensive constituion in the whole world.

In other words, it IS NOT AN ACCIDENT that the South African and Rwandan constitutions are progressive, democratic and viable.

It is because they come out of a national process of resistance and struggle and therefore were fueled by the sweat, tears and blood of contingents of patriots past and present.

What do we have in Kenya at the moment?

A caricature of Rwanda and a burlesque of South Africa.

In 2002, flying high and euphoric on the wings of the Unbwogable Spirit, Kenyans rose up to defeat the 39 year old dictatorship of KANU, first led by Kenyatta and then by Moi.

While applauded ourselves heartily for this dramatic shift in our national politics, we remained in the hazy den of convenient political amnesia by electing with a landslide, Moi's loyal and long serving deputy Mwai Kibaki who had once quipped that removing KANU from power was a gargantuan task, akin to cutting down the sturdy fig tree armed only with a rusty razor blade.

Our disappointment in 2004 when Kiraitu Murungi and Martha Karua led the pro-Kibaki walk out at the conclusion of the national constitutional conference at the Bomas of Kenya was therefore willful self-deceit and self-delusion because we should have known that Kibaki and his cronies (including the "reformers" of yesteryear) were instrinctly part and parcel of the KANU ancien regme in terms of temperment, ideological grounding and class background.

Our disappointment in 2010 is once again a schizophrenic freak out because we ought to know that the Grand Coalition Government is a monstrous outrage against our national democratic consensus which in 2007 gave the political mandate of governance to Raila Odinga as President-Elect and ODM as the incoming ruling party.

Thanks to Mwai Kibaki's December 30th Civilian Coup and the ensuing state terrorism and widespread civilian violence that followed, the Western powers, through their hand-picked Headman/Likuru Kofi Annan cobbled together a political settlement aimed more at soothing the concerns of the Western powers about geo-political stability in Kenya to safeguard their interests rather than a need to deal with the pressing challenges of Kenyans and their democratic aspirations.

Why should we be surprised that the pro-Kibaki cabal would want to fight with every ounce in their bodies against a genuine national constitutional transformation?

Why should we be shocked to find ODM working hard to protect their positions within the Kenyan state?

At the moment, we are NOT dealing with any deep democratic transformations in our country.

We are spectators cheering on PNU and ODM as they fight for dominance over who will manage the corrupt Kenyan neo-colonial state on behalf of imperialism.

In fact, we only have ourselves to blame because we have CEDED control over the constitutional review process by remaining largely UNORGANIZED and DISORGANIZED outside parliament, outside the executive, outside the judiciary and outside the state in determining the pace, the content and the timing of a new national democratic constitution.

As the late Trinidadian born Pan-Africanist revolutionary, Kwame Toure aka Stokely Carmichael used to exhort some of us in North York, Ontario, when he came over for those memorable African Liberation Month lectures in Canada those many years ago:

Don't Agonize. Organize.

We need to remember our traditions of militant democratic national struggles- overt and covert; above ground and clandestine; inside the country and in the spaces of the scattered diasporic Kenyan communities around the world; among women as well as men; by the youth and also the grey haired senior citizens; across a multiplicity of ethnicities; transcending party affiliations and regional idiosyncracies.

We need to build a massive national formation aimed at ensuring that this final push for a new democratic constitution will ultimately shift the balance of forces so decisively that nothing PNU-or for that matter ODM, does will derail the demand for a new national democratic constitution.

Onyango Oloo

January 28, 2010

Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The WSF Is 10 Years Old and Counting...

A Dispatch from Porto Alegre, Brazil

Text by Onyango Oloo; Photos by Hilde Stephansen (Norwegian volunteer with Ciranda)

I arrived in Brazil on January 24th via Johannesburg aboard a South Africa Airways flight which deposited us- we are
here with at least two Kenyan colleagues, Catherine Wanjiku of Radio Koch, a community based radio station serving the informal settlement of Korogocho in Nairobi and

Moses Shaha who as the regional Secretary for The Eastern and Southern African Small Scale Farmers Forum (ESAFF) is coordinating a an activist network of small farmers from his base in Kilifi- first in the Sao Paolo megapolis before we got a connecting flight to Porto Alegre.

This city which is the capital of the southern most Brazilian region (equivalent to a Kenyan province) of Rio Grande do Sul was the birth place of the World Social Forum hosting the very first event way back in 2001.

Porto Alegre is the city where

Ronaldinho, the famous soccer dribbling magician who now plies his trade in the Italian fashion capital of Milan, was born and raised. Rio Grande do Sul is also the regional home of Dunga (I do not know if Brazilians know that in Kiswahili “dunga” means to stab; but I understand it was his Portuguese nickname after "Dopey" one of the Seven Dwarfs in the familiar fairy tale- although his real name is Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri), the current coach and former international star.

This year the organizers of the global event that brings together social movements and other progressive left wing tendencies and causes has embarked on a twelve month celebration of the WSF process which kicks off here in Porto Alegre this January and concludes with another global forum in Dakar, Senegal, West Africa in January 2011.

I am in Brazil courtesy of an official invitation from the Paulo Freire Institute and the Ciranda progressive news network.

Yesterday, January 25, 2010, was the official opening day full of fiery speeches and militant exhortations.

But that is not what I want to talk about.

I want to share with you something that happened in the afternoon, evening actually.

The highlight of each opening day of the World Social Forum is the MARCH- a procession and celebration of the power of social movements, progressive politics and militant causes snaking through the streets.

It happened in Mumbai, India in 2004; Bamako, Mali in 2006; Nairobi, Kenya in 2007 and has been a hallmark of Porto Alegre since 2001.

It is a direct counterpoint juxtaposed against the heavily fortified, closed door cloistered affair of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an event which unfolds simultaneously with the World Social Forum.

The two events underscore the contrasting class contradictions of the two globalizing tendencies- on the one hand at Davos, at the World Economic Forum, you have the globalization of finance capital, the globalization of state fortifications in the West against Third World immigrants, the globalization of the market.

On the other hand during the World Social Forum, whether it was in Kenya, Guinea, Pakistan, Venezuela, India, Brazil or Senegal you have the globalization of solidarity, the internationalization of social justice, the universality of gender equity and the shared dreams of world peace and a planet without nuclear weapons.

Yesterday was no different.

Brazil is a vibrant society, brimming with a diversity of peoples, not least of whom is the largest single bloc of Black people outside the African continent- a legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the demands of primitive accumulation and mercantile capitalism over the centuries.

In Brazil you will find powerful trade unions- there are at least three major trade union confederations- CUT,

CBT, UGT all linked to left leaning political parties from the communists to the social democrats.

Speaking of political parties there is a whole range on the ideological spectrum.

MST, the landless peoples movement is probably one of the largest and most organized social movements in the whole world.

Women's groups are deeply rooted and have contributed to democratizing Brazil and deepening the culture of social transformation in the country.

Apart from strong social movements representing people of African descent in Brazil, one finds very sophisticated formations representing the various Indigenous communities, in this, the largest South American country.

Long before climate change become a buzzword on CNN and BBC, the environmental groups in Brazil had for decades been warning the world about the devastation of the rain foreests and the dire consequences for the ecosystem, climate change and the sustainability of the human species on this endangered planet.

Yesterday all of this was on display, alive, moving and bobbing, weaving its militant, optimistic path across the avenidas of Porto Alegre.

One could see the fusion of political action, social justice fervour with art, with culture through the booming music from the giant speakers atop the big trucks hired by the workers movements;

through the vociferous chants

of teenage high school students demanding the democratization of education and denouncing the privatization of academic access; one could witness

it in the vigorous samba moves of the women clamouring for gender equality and hear it in the beautiful songs of transgendered, gay,

lesbian, bisexual and intersexed Brazilian people waving their banners and feel it in the rhythms of the zonked out campaigners who were arguing that marijuana should be legalized because it was NATURAL, unlike the toxic concoctions trapped in Coca Cola bottles.

I could sense the triumph of social movements and progressive forces for having over the years, liberated the streets and spaces of Porto Alegre- a city where the political leadership not just at the municipal, regional and but even federal level , saw that it was in their economic, social, cultural, commercial and even ideological interests to embrace the spirit of the World Social Forum which made sense even at the BUSINESS level.

Porto Alegre is a city where events like the Opening March of the World Social is an opportunity for the police and security contingents to showcase their skills in marshalling trafffic and providing legal protection for constitutionally guaranteed democratic rights like freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience.

Porto Alegre is a city very much UNLIKE Nairobi where barely a fortnight ago I witnessed heavily armed cops unleash tear gas and live bullets on peaceful protestors in the heart of the Kenyan capital downtown hub.

I could go on and on and on yammering and jabbering about Porto Alegre this, Brazil that, but as the clichĂȘ goes, an image is more valuable than a bouquet of words.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Brutal Crackdown of Peaceful Muslim Demo Turns Ugly

Brutal Crackdown of Peaceful Muslim Demo Turns Ugly

A Commentary by Onyango Oloo

I am writing this piece at around a quarter to five in the afternoon today, Friday, January 15, 2010, here in downtown Nairobi.

About three hours ago I finished a meeting with my friend Zahid Rajan, editor of the Awaaz magazine at the Steers cafe (formerly Afro-Unity for old University of Nairobi hands) opposite the historic Jeevanjee Gardens along Muindi Mbingu Street.

As we went our separate ways-Zahid walking towards Nairobi University where he had parked his car, and I strolling down in the opposite direction ambling towards the Jamia Mall, across the street from the famous Mosque bearing the same name, I heard a burst of gun fire, and soon after that my nostrils snared wisps of smoke.

Being a veteran of street demonstrations, it was obvious I was witnessing the familiar Government of Kenya knee jerk response to peaceful, legal, constitutional protest action- tear gas, live bullets and other brutal acts by the riot police.

Looking down the street I could see a clutch of mostly young men clad in Kanzus, Muslim caps with their tasbih prayer beads running helter skelter.

And then I saw the phalanx of Kenyan robo cops marching resolutely up the same street releasing bursts of gun fire and exploding tear gas not just on the demonstrators but on anybody- the shoppers streaming from the Tusky's supermarket; the terrified motorists; the tourists caught unawares as they were exiting from the City Market and other curio stores in the area.

I quickly detoured from Muindi Mbingu Street branching into Biashara Street before making my way down a narrow side lane onto the street below, making a left turn towards the Jamia Mall.

I met a very traumatized twenty something Somali lady screaming that the cops were firing live bullets.

Everyone around me looked very scared, even as shouts of "Allah Akbar!" and "Takbir!"rang from down Muindi Mbingu with the rising angry voices of the young Muslim demonstrators holding their ground even as the armed to the teeth robocops made their advance.

On the ground floor, security guards were busy boarding and shuttering the entrances of the shops in the mall.

I managed to dash into the mall and went to the first floor where I found my friend's shop closed. Shoppers, store attendants and shopkeepers were thronging the balcony observing the unfolding grim drama on the streets below and across.

Now we could hear volleys from all directions- from Kimathi Street near Ranalo's and the Nation Centre; from Muindi Mbingu and even seemingly from as far away as Chester House and the notorious flesh spot, Florida Mad House on Koinange Street.

Soon another phalanx of riot cops marching down Muindi Mbingu Street.

Feeling uncomfortably boxed in, I walked down stairs and went out in the direction of Biashara Street hoping to make my way either towards the University or the General Post Office.

As I was walking, I heard further bursts, this time the unmistakable sound of gun fire with some people screaming, "They are firing live bullets! Be careful ! Be careful!"

Also the sights and sounds of ambulance vans converging near the Jamia Mosque and already, the presence of news photographers with their humungous cameras slung over their shoulders, doing what all journalists around the world do- running TOWARDS the action for a closer shot.

To cut a long story short, I eventually reached the intersection of Koinange Street and Kenyatta Avenue and just as I was crossing the latter avenue to make my way to the other side, I spied a truck load of riot police halting near the Emperor Plaza at the very junction where I was standing a few seconds earlier.

At the sight of the ubiqituous menacing presence of the police, civilians going about their business- from motorists to pedestrians- panicked and started running in all directions with a grey haired middle aged man almost being knocked over by an equally rattled City Hoppa bus driver in the ensuing melee.

My instincts told me it was unwise to walk in the direction of the 680 Hotel and the adjoining Simmers Restaurant so I kept walking on the sidewalk opposite Teleposta Towers towards the Catholic Bookshop before I turned towards the Hotel Intercontinental and walked further on in the direction of Parliament Buildings.

When I was opposite the Kenyatta International Conference Centre a hooving and hovering sound in the sky automatically made me look up to gaze at a police helicopter dashing towards the Jamia Mosque.

Something told me to go back towards City Hall and the 20th Century on Mama Ngina Street.

Outside Salama House near the Nairobi Java House I stopped a young Muslim man and asked him fervently for an update. Without stopping he said breathlessly that the police had already shot dead one man and that there were at least four other civilians with serious injuries.

And that was just one eye-witness.

A later news update sent to mobile users across Kenya via the Safaricom network put the number of dead at five-and counting.

What was all this about?

From what I am now gathering, there had been a demonstration which erupted outside the Jamia Mosque after the mid day prayers- an action called for by the Muslim for Human Rights Forum to protest the continued incarceration of the controversial Jamaican born cleric, Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal who the Kenya government had unsuccessfully tried to deport, first to neighbouring Tanzania and then to the tiny West African nation of Gambia only to be brought back to Nairobi because the Nigerian authorities had declined to allow Sheikh al Faisal to board the flight to Bangui from Lagos.

Back in the Kenyan capital, the controversial Muslim preacher had been flung into the filthy and congested Nairobi Industrial Area Remand Prison before being locked up incommunicado in detention without trial at the police cells located at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Friends and allies of Sheikh al Faisal including human rights lawyers and members of the Muslim faith quickly rallied in solidarity, calling a press conference to denounce his incarceration and violation of his human and civil rights. They soon filed a case in court challenging his detention without trial and a few days ago, a Kenyan High Court Judge, Ms. Jeanne Gacheche, gave an order stopping the imminent deportation of Sheikh al Faisal pending an appearance in her court.

In an earlier media press briefing a few days previously, Kenya's Immigration Minister Otieno K'ajwang admitted that the Jamaican born Muslim preacher HAD NOT broken ANY Kenyan laws- otherwise the local authorities would have hauled him to court and charged him with an offence.

It also turns out that Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal had entered Kenya quite legally by showing up at the Tanzania-Kenya border towards the end of December 2009 with his genuine identification papers and travel documents upon which Kenyan immigration offficers duly issued him with a valid two months visitor's visa and waving him into Kenya.

There are no reports that during his abbreviated stint in the country Sheikh al Faisal had gave any incendiary speeches or incited anyone to commit any criminal, illegal or terrorist acts in Kenya. No one-not ordinary Kenyan citizens or even any of the state authorities- had filed any complaint against him.

Instead it became apparent that the pressures to deport the controversial cleric were orders emanating from external Western sources- whether it is the United Kingdom or the United States or the broader NATO alliance it is not immediately apparent.

But acting on this Islamophobic paranoia which labels almost every Muslim a potential terrorist, the Kenyan authorities, acting as lap dogs of their former colonial masters bent over backwards to kick Sheikh Abdullah al-Faisal out of the country, citing his seven year jail term after being convicted in Britain for hate speech against Jews and other communities.

Without holding brief for Sheikh al-Faisal for his abominable comments targeting other ethnic and racial groups, it should be pointed out that Kenya is a safe haven for Italian mafioso gangsters, convicted North American and European paedophiles, apartheid era South African arms dealers, fugitives and leading suspects from the Rwanda genocide and other global hoodlums the most notorious being the East European thugs dubbed the "Magaryan Brothers" who in 2006, strolled past heavy security at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport totting heavy arms and other expensive goods and trinkets that they REFUSED to declare through Kenyan customs officials. These infamous crooks were to be heavily implicated in a state organized raid at the offices of the Standard media group- a raid later praised by the country's then Internal Security minister as being justified because the the privately media house had "rattled a [state] snake" and should have been forewarned of a serpentine bite in retaliation.

These same hoodlums from foreign countries are known to be open business partners with members of Kenya's ruling elite some of whom are connected to drug smuggling, money laundering, grand theft and other serious crimes. In the case of the Magaryan brothers they were coddled by senior police officers before being spirited out of Kenya by forces close to the powers that be. A report from a Commission of Inquiry into their activities was promptly suppressed immediately upon being delivered to President Kibaki.

It is in this context that I want to strongly CONDEMN the Grand Coalition government without any reservations for the actions of its police agents today.

The brutal armed attack on peaceful demonstrators exercising their constitutionally sanctioned democratic rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom of expression and freedom of conscience and religion is yet another sad paragraph in the ongoing blood stained chapter of state terrorism against the Kenyan citizenry.

It is odious that a government presumably in power because of a reform agenda is behaving in a fascist manner far more repressive than the worst excesses of the Moi-KANU one party dictatorship.

By invading the Jamia Mosque, which like most holy spaces, is considered a place of sanctuary, to flush out terrified Muslim youth seeking refuge from live police bullets, the Kenyan authorities, through their robocops, have committed sacrilege and an atrocity that must be denounced by all Kenyans of conscience.

In this context, one wonders at the thunderous silence of Kenya's leading human rights organizations in this matter.

The fact that some ordinary Kenyans, whipped up by anti-Muslim frenzied propaganda, actually JOINED the police in stoning their fellow Kenyans is indeed a sad commentary about the role of far right Christian evangelical bigotry in driving a wedge among Kenyans who have co-existed for a very long time in ecumenical multi-faith harmony.

The Kenyan state authorities should not be surprised if their unprovoked assault on peaceful Muslims converging near their house of prayer on Friday, one of the holiest days in the Muslim calendar, will not lead to a deepening of hostilities and precipitate a radical transformation especially among the younger Muslims to veer towards more militant positions.

State terror and fascism are the best recruiters for suicide bombers.

Is that what we want in Kenya in 2010?

PS: Today the world celebrated the birthday of one of the most enduring icons of peace, justice and inter-community harmony- The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya

Friday, January 15, 2010