By Maina Kiai

Monday, July 26, 2010

"Clearing the Air" in Mombasa

July 19 - 25th: We were in Mombasa showing our new film ‘Clearing the Air’. We’re working with our partner Muslims for Human Rights (MUHURI) in doing civic education. MUHURI has also been showing another InformAction documentary “The Challenge of Change”, a good background to the long struggles for change in Kenya.

How gratifying when someone came to greet me in a kiosk in Ukundu to tell me he’d seen “Challenge of Change”! And then in traffic in Mombasa (traffic is fast approaching Nairobi-jam like status!) two young men gave me the thumbs up out of the window – “thanks for the DVD Maina Kiai!”. So the DVDs really are getting around… People have told me they are particularly happy that politicians are not included in the film, and that they know the battles ahead will not diminish simply by voting in a new constitution.

And it was great to have about a thousand people attending the screening in Likoni - all so full of questions and comments in the discussion after the film that I left completely tired but inspired! Good questions on implementing the draft if it passes. Questions on what it could mean for the political class that wants to continue with ‘business as usual’... Questions on how the draft can help nationhood and link up the poor across the country to be united as poor rather than divided by tribe and religion.
“Clearing the Air” is a different sort of documentary for us, being a civic education tool, rather than the usual journalistic, human rights/social justice analysis type of films we make. But it is a direct product of the work we are doing screening films across the country and was a response to audiences in the Rift Valley and elsewhere. People were peppering us with questions on the Proposed Constitution, and repeating falsehoods, showing how quickly the lies had been created and disseminated.
It was a complex film to make since every one of us has a view—whether based on facts or not—on the Proposed draft. But we had to make it as objective as possible, and try and get as much into it as we could. So we decided to focus on the Bigger Picture; the rationale and reasons why Kenyans have been struggling for a new constitution for decades now, and put into context the role of politicians and the political class. So at its heart, the film aims at expressing the continuation of the struggles of ordinary Kenyans against the power, greed and insidiousness of our political class that has either resisted change, or used change as a slogan to capture power with no real intention of actually changing things in Kenya.

We printed thousands of copies of the film in English and Kiswahili and spread them around like leaflets, hoping to get to as many people as possible – hoping they will be played in video clubs, homes and restaurants to bring perspective to the debates. On top of this, we’ve been doing public screenings using our massive mobile screen - THE BEAST - and our Field Directors have been showing ‘Clearing the Air’ across Kenya in halls, prisons and universities. Field director Japhason Lekupe took the film as far as the shores of Lake Turkana, to the El Molo community, who said they had never been shown a film for civic education before.

What strikes me the most is the need for civil society and others to quickly engage if and when the Draft is passed to take advantage of the spaces that the draft provides. There are spaces and opportunities to use the courts once a new judiciary is passed, to ensure the implementation of the draft. There are spaces to use the Bill of Rights to organize, mobilize and empower Kenyans to make demands on leaders. And there are spaces for us to begin changing the mindset of our public officials so that if their actions are not in the interest of the public as required by the Proposed Constitution, they can be challenged in various ways.

There are also opportunities to start preparing for new alternative political leadership that can actually deliver the promise of the Proposed Constitution through the various layers of leadership and governance that are provided for.
But these spaces will mean nothing if we don’t grab them and use them…

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Old Bad Habits Die Hard….But We Must Force the Change We Want and Deserve

It’s the same old illegal, impunity-laden script that ridicules and insults Kenyans. It’s the “uta do?” culture at its best.

President Kibaki illegally dishing out districts as bribes on the eve of a historic vote, even after court rulings that clearly state that he can’t do this. Francis Muthaura instructing civil servants to campaign—using our tax money—knowing full well that this is illegal and against the provisions and spirit of the Public Officer Ethics Act just as he did in November and December 2007 under the guise of “popularizing Vision 2030” and leading to serious frustrations within the electorate that one PS car was stoned in Kisii.

And Prime Minister Odinga criticized this in 2005 and 2007 so his change of mind is incredulous!

MPs holding the country to ransom so that they can—in full unity and despite political differences—increase their perks and income even when they are the best paid MPs in the world, coming from one of the poorest nations in the world…

It’s insulting, unacceptable and wrong, no matter what the objective. Yes, civil servants can vote and have rights to expression, but not on our time and not using our money!!

And it sends a clear message to Kenyans about what to expect if the referendum passes on August 4th: The political class and the powerful elite will try to continue with “business as usual.”

They don’t see that passing a new constitution is symbolic of a break with the past. They don’t see that this should be the start of a new beginning, a new Kenya that makes them accountable to the people, rather than to themselves. They don’t see this as a step towards liberating Kenyans so that we have the space to think for ourselves and determine our own future politically and economically. No. The political elite see this as a contest and a game that may not change the rules that much.

In a sense this period and these sensibilities are quite similar to Moi/KANU in 1992. They passed the amendment allowing for multi-parties but continued to run the country like a one party state, without regard to anyone but themselves. And that opened the floodgates for one of the biggest episodes of corruption that the country has ever seen. It’s similar to 2002 when Mwai Kibaki was elected on a platform of change, zero tolerance to corruption, and reducing tribal divisions, but then slumped back to the old bad habits within months, crushing our hopes and aspirations.

It took the crisis in 2007/2008 to put us back on the path that we should have been on in 1992 and 2002!

And so they think they can continue doing the same old bad things, in the same old bad ways. So we Kenyans must stop them, for they can’t do so themselves.
How to force them to change? First, by preparing now for tough struggles in the immediate post referendum period, whichever way it goes. We must not give them a honeymoon and should send strong, firm messages, as early as possible, that we, unlike them, believe in the spirit of the Proposed Constitution and we intend to make it live and breathe for us, ordinary Kenyans. We must prepare to challenge the MPs and make them pay taxes as a first step to rationalization of the huge salaries that the top levels in “public service” take from us rather than earn it. We must get ready to force accountability for the offences during this referendum, beyond the Agenda 4 Commissions declaring that it is illegal for public servants to campaign. We must be ready to take up issues that increase the dignity of Kenyans, true to the rights that are in the Bill of Rights of this Proposed Constitution, especially breathing life to the right to protest and demonstrate against the political class.

It won’t be easy, and there will be obstacles and hitches. But we must test it and bring it to life. That is the challenge. They are not willing to change their habits, so it’s up to us to teach them that we will not accept the old bad habits anymore. And the sooner the better.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Taking the Talk Out of Nairobi

It’s one thing to hold press conferences to pressure leaders to make decisions for the public good. It’s another thing altogether to get out in the field and work with ordinary people, and give them the tools, the confidence, the information and the strength to rise up for themselves on the issues that they care about.

For the last 6 months, I’ve been part of a unique experiment - using public screenings of our documentary to spur public debates and discussions. We’ve been touring the provinces and the places where people are least likely to be heard and seen. Yes; “Getting Justice: Kenya’s Deadly Game of Wait and See,” was broadcast on prime time national TV (NTV) 4 times in 2009. Yes; our documentary had been shown in film festivals in Kenya, Norway and Holland. And yes, it did the round of ‘specialized audiences’ in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and London. But taking it out to ordinary Kenyans is where it counts the most. Showing the film on a huge mobile screen – we call it ‘The Beast’ – and having community discussions with the audiences, has been totally different. It’s an uplifting and very intense experience.

Each screening is a challenge. You wonder if the mobilization the team has done will work. Will enough people show up to a screening held at night, in crime-burdened Kenya? Will the weather hold up and allow us to use the projector and mics and talk outside? Will the authorities try and stop us? Will the people who turn out get bored by a ‘talking heads’ documentary – will it move them? And will they speak up and be frank?

And then, the biggest question of all, if it does fire them up - what next?

These are questions that always come up, no matter how many times you screen, no matter how much mobilization is done. Regardless of how prepared you are for it all, each screening is different. It helps to have a dedicated and committed team who understand the experiment and always work to have the best show possible.

As an experiment, it’s been a success, that’s for sure. Often the level of emotion is palpable among people watching and speaking. These are people who need to be heard. Sometimes, there is barely enough time to hear everyone who wants to speak. Ideas that flow are direct and clear; you feel the empowerment when people speak out and are heard. But other times, the audience is small. Sometimes people are shy, beaten down, and cynical. And the cold and the rain make you feel beaten down with them…..

Yet, as Kenya enters a new phase, efforts like these need to increase. For too long, the process of change has been a line drawn from Nairobi out to the rural areas —the top-down approach. The time to reverse this trend is now. It’s time for rural and marginalized areas to lead and set the agenda. Nairobi needs to catch up. Those of us in the pro-reform pro-democracy movement need to take change on board and be part of this dynamic. It is not a new idea or approach. We have talked about it since

When I started this work in 1992, we were talking about it. We have tried it in various ways. Some have worked, some not. We have faced serious obstacles including arrest, teargas, beatings, and exclusion, especially in the 1990s. But the time is now, and the space is available. This must be the case whether the Proposed Constitution passes or not.
If it does pass, the need for more work at the grassroots will get greater, not less, we must make use of the tools it provides for ordinary Kenyans. Above all else, passing the Draft can level the playing field. There has been a consistent struggle between the political class - who aim to dominate the people of Kenya for personal benefit and control of resources - and ordinary Kenyans who demand space, respect and accountability. It is a struggle that we must all engage in, now, or we’ll lose the promise and potential that the Proposed Constitution offers.