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Internal energy and external fire

cc. In March 2008, I was asked to deliver a “Kenya Bulletin” at South Africa’s Time Of The Writer Festival. In that bulletin, I identified the seven factors that were key to pulling Kenya back from the brink of civil war.

1) The progressive stand taken by the African Union at its January 2008 summit, bolstered by the intervention of the AU chair, President Kikwete of Tanzania.

2) Senegal’s advocacy to put the Kenya Crisis on the agenda for the AU summit.

3) The European Union’s willingness to take its lead from the AU, and offer consistent, concerted support to Kenyan civil society.

4) The deep patience and extraordinary skill of Kofi Annan and the Panel of Eminent Persons, in the face of the intransigence and belligerence of the Kibaki / PNU camp at the negotiation table. A belligerence that shamed all Kenyans, particularly when it reached the paranoid extreme of bugging Annan’s hotel room.

5) The mobilization by the Kenyan Left of progressive Pan-African networks built over decades of organizing.

6) The strength of Kenyan civil society, both domestic and diaspora.

7) The unanimous resolutions passed by the US Senate and Congress, calling for, among other things, sanctions on PNU and ODM leaders, such as travel bans and freezing of assets.

I put it on the record that no one on the Kenyan Left will ever forgive Kibaki and the PNU for placing us in the skin-crawling position of having to petition the Bush regime to intervene in Kenya. And then, having to be grateful for that intervention.

Or for making Kenya the new global hotspot for crisis entrepreneurs - flocks of UN careerists looking to make their CVs off the Kenya Crisis.

I skewered the despicable maneuvering of Uganda’s President Museveni to manipulate the crisis for his own East-African-Empire-Building agenda.

Finally, I broached the most painful topic of all: the complicit silence and blatant partisanship of a generation of former giants of radical struggle in Kenya – most notably, writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Nobel Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai – on the murder of Kenya’s democracy. This silence grew to deafening proportions as Kibaki’s coup was followed by the suspension of civil liberties and waves of extra-judicial killings of Kenyan civilians. It was a silence which colluded with the ethno-fascist elements of the Kenyan Diaspora. A silence that became heartbreaking when this faction launched death threats against the new generation of human rights defenders, deeming them “Gikuyu traitors” for taking a public stand against the state-sponsored violence. A silence unbroken to this day.

Stories of movements do not make good film scripts, or even good headlines. We are conditioned to seek individual heroes, visionary leaders, personalities. That is why this story has not yet been told – how the Kenyan Left saved our country.

It is a necessary tale. A picture of a net, and how it works. A narrative that must be recorded. Because we on the Left need to remember our victories when the odds seem insurmountable. Because the chattering classes of Kenya still ask, in all seriousness, “Is there a Kenyan Left?” Because the ignorant still assert blithely that “civil society did nothing while Kenya burned”.

Read on………

* * * * *

On the morning of December 31st, following Mwai Kibaki's civil coup in Kenya, 23 members of Kenyan civil society convened an emergency meeting in Nairobi. All longtime activists, they represented a spectrum of legal, human rights, and governance organizations, as well as individual Kenyans.

Within hours, they had released a statement which:

denounced the credibility of the electoral process, demanded the ban on live media coverage be lifted, urged full disclosure of presidential tally results, offered hotlines for electoral commission whistleblowers, and appealed to the international community not to recognize Kibaki as president.

This group would become Kenyans for Peace, Truth and Justice (KPTJ), the voice of Kenya's "people power" that would pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

Kenyan bloggers across the world swung into action to fill the gap left by the ban on live media. A few days later, the pan-African social justice network, Fahamu, set up an Action Alerts page for Kenya, a comprehensive, real-time, globally-accessible information and resource base for activists and civil society. Fahamu is now playing a similar role in the Zimbabwe crisis.

During the intense the 48 hours after that first meeting, KPTJ created three working groups – legal, violence-monitoring, and direct action. In subsequent weeks, the legal and violence groups would generate information, backed by verified data and professional analysis, to underpin reasoned positions and messaging for diplomatic efforts. The direct action team would meet daily, defying the government ban on public assembly, providing a public forum for Kenyans across all sectors and ethnicities to channel their outrage into activism.

As an activist and scholar of movement-building, I had the tremendous opportunity to observe from within what made KPTJ so effective. From the start, there was a remarkable lack of ego, an absence of personal ambition, both among the experts who made up the steering group, and in the larger community support base. The KPTJ alchemy was built on:

Chemistry between the members. Not the adrenalin-fuelled instant combustion of response to a crisis, but a professional compatibility tried and tested in the field Experience. All the leaders had been in the movement since the early 90s. Trust. KPTJ leaders had built respect for each others’ skills and capabilities over years of working together. Responsibility and ownership. People stepped up to the demands of the hour with heroic commitment.

From the outset, KPTJ insisted that any resolution of the crisis must address the injustices at all levels - historic, and current -, which precipitated the catastrophe. Prior to the elections, many of its 40-plus member organizations were already ferocious advocates for justice and equity for all Kenyans. KPTJ categorically rejected calls for "peace" and "dialogue" from the camp sardonically labeled “Kenyans For Calm” - those who really sought violent suppression of the poorest and most disenfranchised Kenyans, so that "normal life" could resume for the wealthy.

KPTJ offered an analysis of the post-election violence that traced each strand of violence to its source, and held the initiators of each form of violence accountable. When we said "peace", we meant that the excessive use of police violence, and "shoot to kill" orders, had to stop. We challenged the uneven and selective policing that allowed Nairobi slums and marginalized areas of the country to burn, while police ringed an empty Uhuru Park to prevent peaceful assembly and protest. We named the militia mobilized in Central, Rift Valley and Nyanza provinces, by individual political actors, to evict, loot, rape and terrorize poor Kenyans, and we described their operations.

Meanwhile, across the world, the Kenyan diaspora community was rising. In Minnesota, home to over 100,000 migrants from the East Africa region, it was not just Kenyans, but Somalis, Ethiopians, Sudanese, Ugandans, who lobbied their elected representatives. All had a vital stake in the political stability of Kenya, economic gateway and entry port for the East and Central African region, and the Horn of Africa.

The initial response of the US to Kibaki’s civil coup was a formal message of congratulations on his “presidential victory”. US ambassador to Kenya, Michael Ranneberger, followed this by urging Kenyans to “accept the results of the election.” The congratulations were hastily rescinded when the European Union issued a strongly-worded statement that the “tally results lacked credibility” and called for a new election.

Diaspora Kenyan organizers, Dr. Siyad Abdullahi and Dr. Sam Oyugi, made formal advocacy visits to Washington DC to lobby the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. They found that the State Department’s support of Kibaki was rooted in a simplistic and factually flawed formula:

Kibaki = Christian, Pro-Markets, Pro-US, Pro-War-On-Terror Odinga = Pro-Islam (may even be Muslim!), Socialist, Anti-US

While calling for Senate hearings on the Kenya crisis, they worked to dispel the myths. They also got Minnesota’s Senator, Norm Coleman, to sponsor the Kenya Resolution in the US Senate. Drawing directly on KPTJ’s language and analysis, the Kenya Resolution called for:

1) all politicians and political parties to desist from reactivation, support and use of militia organizations

2) leaders of both parties to engage in internationally-brokered mediation and dialogue

3) a "thorough and credible independent audit of the election results" with the possibility of a recount, retallying, or re-run of the presidential election within a specified time period

4) Kenyan security forces to refrain from excessive force and respect the human rights of Kenyans

5) those found guilty of human rights violations to be held accountable

6) an immediate end to the restrictions on media and rights of peaceful assembly and association

7) an end to threats to civil society leaders and human rights activists

8) all political actors in Kenya to be responsible for the safety of civil society leaders and human rights activists

9) the international community, UN Aid organizations, and neighboring countries to assist Kenyan refugees

10) the President of the United States to:

- support diplomatic efforts towards dialogue between ODM and PNU leaders

- impose an asset ban and travel freeze on PNU and ODM leaders

- restrict all non-essential aid to Kenya until a peaceful resolution was reached.

The Kibaki camp had not counted on the strength and speed with which civil society would mobilize. Nor had it accounted for the intellectual leadership and social capital ordinary Kenyans would unleash, domestically, and internationally. This, as much as Kenya's strategic and regional importance, triggered the African Union's intervention in Kenya.

When a KPTJ team of six met the Forum of Retired African Presidents in Nairobi, Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda noted that this was the first group the Forum had met that was young, ethnically balanced, and gender-balanced (three women and three men). "This gives me hope!" he declared enthusiastically.

Behind the scenes of KPTJ was civil society powerhouse, the Soros-funded Open Society Institute for East Africa. Led by Binaifer Nowrojee and Mugambi Kiai, both human rights activists for decades, OSIEA from the outset took a position as "Kenyan, rather than NGO". Drawing on its global network of OSI foundations, OSIEA facilitated and funded international advocacy efforts for KPTJ in key policy-making centres – London, Brussels (headquarters of the European Union), New York (headquarters of the UN), Washington DC, and Addis Ababa (headquarters of the African Union).

On January 16th, 2008, KPTJ's Gladwell Otieno (Executive Director of the Africa Centre for Open Governance) spoke at the Royal Africa Society in London, and to the Afric All-Party Parliamentary Group of the British government. The following day, the Chair of the Africa APPG drew on her statement of KPTJ's position in his recommendations to the UK Parliament.

In Brussels, Otieno found that EU members were nervous of "coming across as colonial masters". KPTJ's analysis spurred the EU to offer more robust support to the AU for intervention.

The turning point for Kenya came at the AU summit in Addis at the end of January 2008. Kenya was not an agenda item for the summit. But by this time, KPTJ had drawn on decades of progressive Pan-African organizing to mobilize civil society allies across the continent. While OSIEA was unable to get KPTJ accredited to attend and speak at the AU summit, it lined up a plethora of meetings with embassies and policymakers. Senegal was particularly supportive in putting the Kenya Crisis on the agenda. When the Kibaki delegation arrived at the AU, they found the heat on them in a way they had not anticipated.

Across the Atlantic, KPTJ built momentum in its mission to shift the US position towards a mediated resolution to the conflict. Critical to their success was the groundwork already laid by the US Kenyan diaspora. The Kenya resolution had been universally passed by Senate, and was before Congress, when KPTJ's representatives arrived in DC for meetings on Capitol Hill.

This, coupled with the effective presentation of the civil society position by Maina Kiai (chair of National Commission for Human Rights) and Muthoni Wanyeki (Executive Director of Kenya Human Rights Commission), prompted a shift in the previously unhelpful unilateral approach of the US State department. As violence escalated in Kenya, Maina Kiai returned to address the House of Representatives on February 7th. He called for higher-level intervention from the US.

On February 14th, President Bush announced the dispatch of Condoleeza Rice to Kenya. On arrival in Kenya, Rice requested a meeting with representatives of Kenyan Civil Society. The team of six sent to meet her included Gladwell Otieno (KPTJ), Njeri Kabeberi (KPTJ / National Civil Society Congress) and Betty Maina (Kenya Association of Manufacturers / KPTJ). It was clear that Rice was impressed by the majority and impact of strong women leaders in the delegation. Immediately following this meeting, Rice spoke to the press, finally aligning the US with the AU and EU, in requiring Kibaki and his hardliners to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.

"The Diaspora effort provided the external fire," say's OSIEA's Mugambi Kiai. "KPTJ was the internal energy. Together, they brought the water to the boil."

* Shailja Patel founded KPTJ’s Direct Action Training Workshops, to empower grassroots activists with tools and skills for political engagement. The programme was one of seven projects, selected from a global pool, to receive a Ned Grant 2008–09 from New Tactics In Human Rights.
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