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Maina Kiai speaks to Kwamchetsi Makokha

cc. Maina Kiai, a former chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, was a driving force behind

Kwamchetsi Makokha: Are you happy with what Kenya got in setting up the coalition government last year?

Maina Kiai: We wanted a limited coalition based on an understanding of the players. We wanted a limited time span for the transitional coalition government. The idea was very clear in our mind that if it was open-ended; you would lose the energy to reform, because people would begin playing politics with everything else. We wanted a maximum of two years – to put these guys in a room and say to them: ‘You must reform, and you only have two years.’

So it was a huge disappointment when the coalition period became open-ended. It was the beginning of the end for reform. We all saw it when the cabinet was formed. The [negotiating] team stopped meeting at Serena [Hotel, venue of the mediation process]. There was no more interest. They got what they wanted and it was a huge setback. We had no control over it.

The second indicator was when [President Mwai] Kibaki and [Prime Minister] Raila [Odinga] rejected a small lean Cabinet despite the fact that everybody, including their own supporters, wanted one… Again, the message was very clear: they are here to eat, and it is about replenishing stocks for the next competition, which is in 2012. So it is not surprising to hear about the scandals in government. In fact, I believe that if we could ask an internationally reputable investigator to come and look at the books of every single ministry in three months, you would find more scams than we are seeing now – and it cuts across both sides.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What do you think KPTJ achieved last year?

Maina Kiai: There is nothing as effective as organic movements, and KPTJ was completely organic. Nobody planned it. We all gathered to try to figure out what to do. Even at the first meetings, it was clear we were all for peace but we were also not naïve to think that calm is the same as peace. Calm without truth and justice would only lead to redoubling of the issues that caused the fighting in the first place. Yes, we got a lot of flak from people saying, ‘Why aren’t you focusing on peace?’ We focused on peace but we understood that if we wanted to have real peace, then we could only have it through truth and justice.

Everybody came out and made a big difference because we were clearly leading the only group that seemed to address every facet of the crisis. Some groups were trying to meet for peace or calm – that was driven, in my view, by a desire for money from the donors. Even the donor community was so interested in calm that they forgot that you cannot have calm without peace. Unless we address these things, our agenda is not finished.

KPTJ reenergised civil society in the country. It had been struggling to find its feet but now, civil society is reawakening in a way that most of us are happy with. The comments about civil society being dead or collapsing are not heard any more. From the taxation of members of parliament to fuel prices, all the activities that have happened since have more ordinary people speaking up and coming out. It rejuvenated the sense of empowerment in the country. One of the things this country needs is for Kenyans to stand up, speak to power, and not be intimidated by it. I think KPTJ showed that very well and it is an important contribution. You cannot measure it in milestones and indicators, but its impact has been apparent over the course of the year.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What strengths did KPTJ bring to the crisis last year?

Maina Kiai: KPTJ was good in analysing issues and presenting fact-based evidence. When KPTJ released its election data, it made a huge impact because it became clear that something was wrong. It was KPTJ’s work that has led to Kriegler’s work being questioned: you cannot convince anybody that you do not have evidence of rigging at [the tallying centre]. He did not bother to look for evidence. Of course, you will not have evidence if you do not bother to look for it.

KPTJ put issues in a manner that made people understand what was at stake. Of course, those clinging to power saw KPTJ as working for the other side, but I can tell you for a fact that even ODM was not happy because we were not saying they should take over the government either.

KPTJ was very clear – it was not about ODM [Orange Democratic Movement] or PNU [Party of National Unity], it was about us Kenyans and so the solutions we put forward were in terms of a 50–50 deal. So you end up in a place where you have to take a principled stand and you are accused because someone’s interests are harmed by a principled stand. It is like apartheid. You cannot say ‘I don’t like apartheid but I am not against it either.’ I am sorry; you have to be against it.

Civil society must be very clear that never should it be in a position where it actually feels that it needs to be neutral. You cannot be neutral about evil or wrongdoing. The consequences of that are that once you are firm against wrongdoing, those who are doing wrong will see you as an enemy.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: The American ambassador endorsed the results at first. What do you think happened to change his view?

Maina Kiai: I think the way it blew up shocked a lot of people. For whatever reasons, not even the international human rights organisations had anticipated what came to happen. I think in a sense the country and the world had been lulled to sleep by the 2002 elections and the referendum in 2005. We did those fairly and peacefully but fell asleep and imagined that we would do the 2007 elections. But the signs were clear.

I was particularly pleased to see [American ambassador Michael] Ranneberger turning around because what he did was clearly unconscionable and wrong – more so because he was in possession of the exit poll results. He could at least have been equivocal, but in his case, he was very categorical. I am not sure if that was an agenda from him or from the US government. I think it still needs to be interrogated. The fact that as Kenyans we stood up to the American ambassador and said it does not matter – we will take you on – on principle, on what is right and wrong, that was very important.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What were KPTJ’s shortcomings in the past year?

Maina Kiai: We are best in a crisis, for sure, but we are not as well organised as we would want to be. We do not fit together adequately and I think there are things that hopefully between now and the next few years we can reform. Maybe we can reorganise properly. It is a lot of hard, dirty work. It is unsung; it is unheralded and it is quiet, but we have to get going. There are many disparate movements today that must be brought together, otherwise our impact will never be felt the way it is supposed to be. Right now, if you look at the past year, in a sense it has opened everybody’s eyes about the real nature of the political class. There is anger and frustration out there. If it is not channelled into a social movement that people believe in and can see will lead to something, then the alternative is more of the same – if not worse.

Our work has barely started. The work we did in 2008 was barely the beginning of the hard work that lies ahead. We have to be organised; it is a difficult and enormous task and you have to have the time, the skills, the courage and the funds to organise.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: Are there any lessons from last year’s engagements?

Maina Kiai: I think the international linkages that KPTJ engaged were critical. The backdoor channels KPTJ opened with the Kofi Annan group were critical too. But the lesson is that not just one approach is sufficient. It is not just press conferences; it is also the back channels no one hears about. It is about keeping doors open, opening up to ideas. One critical lesson is that if you keep to this work, you open yourself to receiving information you would otherwise not get. That is a wonderful thing.

The only thing we did not plan for was the security situation – that people could go to jail, the frustration that the state would find KPTJ a threat. I have done human rights work since the 1990s throughout [Daniel arap] Moi’s years and you always felt at any time, you could be either be shot or arrested. After the 2002 elections, I felt that that era had gone. One of the things I said about Kibaki’s tenure was that finally I could work in peace without having to watch my back or worrying about security, being shot or arrested.

The year 2008 brought back the same feelings of Moi, of worry about what is going to happen. You had to be careful and because of the stakes there, I think the level of threat was way higher. One of the lessons we have to take at a broader level is we have to spend more time understanding the personalities of those we are stacked up against – the values that we push because a lot of the issues in this country, whether security or politics, are really about economics and are personality driven.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What has been the cost?

Maina Kiai: Among civil society, differences have emerged based on ethnicity, which I think is good. I think it is important that we know who we are. For many people who were speaking out, it shook a lot of our relationships with each other, and with our relatives and friends. That is part of the price you pay when you stand up in very heated circumstances.

But of all the costs, the security cost was the highest. Even at a monetary level. We added extra security and began to do things we never did before. So there is a financial price to pay and it also limits your independence. You start limiting your time. You cannot hold meetings in the evenings because you do not know what is going to happen after that.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: You were a target of numerous death threats. What was going through your mind?

Maina Kiai: You know, you do not do this work to be a martyr. Anybody doing this work wants to live as long as possible. I cannot pretend there was no fear. Fear is a good emotion. You take fewer risks and you are not reckless. But what is going through your mind is, ‘Have things come to this, to the extent to want to kill me? What is it? What is holding them?’

When they target people like you, that it reveals the extent of the problem. It must be very huge, and you have touched a raw nerve.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: Why you?

Maina Kiai: Clearly, I was being targeted for three reasons. For a while, I was the face of KPTJ. Secondly, I am a Kikuyu and there is a sense that Kikuyus must stick together because we have to. Thirdly, I was a public servant and there is a sense among the political class that public service means sycophancy.

I also knew that I had irritated them for a long time and clearly that is an important thing to do because those irritations were having an impact. It felt good that our work was having an impact. I am clear about my work though. I do not want to be taken out. This is not about dying, it is not about heroism either. You need to be alive to fight another day. I believe that you are more effective when you are strategic rather than reckless.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: How do you assess the implementation of the long-term issues of the mediation process?

Maina Kiai: The politicians got what they wanted. Part of the weakness of this is that the structure brought up by Annan gave no opportunity for non-state actors to carry the people’s agenda to the table. It was clearly between two protagonists – it is the way it works when you have a conflict. The structures he built? When he left, the balloon deflated. It is a pity that the people he chose to take over from him have not been able to hold the attention of the political class. There was no timeline and no threat for failing to adhere to it.

It would have been good to have a timeline, so that if it does not work, something else happens. Once they formed the coalition, that was it. The good thing for us is, looking at the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the post-election violence, Judge Waki wrote his report in a way that forces action. Because of him, even the Kriegler report had to be taken seriously.

If he had done a nondescript report, we would have forgotten it and moved on. He also has the benefit of history. Had this been before the International Criminal Court, there would have been nowhere to go. It helps to have someplace larger than the country. It took control away from political hands. A lot of the anger is that you can’t influence, you can’t bribe them. It was interesting… lots of wananchi would like to skip all these and go to The Hague. What it tells you is the utter lack of faith in institutions. For me, 2008 said we have no institutions in this country. ECK collapsed, the judiciary collapsed, the police, name it. We had paper institutions and 2008 was a good slap in the face to remind us that we are banana republic – we speak good English and have a good coast – but we are a banana republic.

What needs to happen?

A number of things have to happen for us to approach the next elections with confidence. One is [implementing the recommendations of] the Waki Report. Impunity must end and the political class must understand finally that there is a price to pay and it is a serious price. We are not looking for a thousand people to prosecute; we are looking for the key players to understand that this is it. The ‘good’ thing about the Waki Report is that it touches people across the political divide, which is great for us because there is no victim, and there is no vanquished. So if we do not do the recommendations in the Waki Report and do them right, we are inviting disaster in 2012.

Secondly, the electoral boundaries commission and the independent electoral commission and how they are formed or work will be critical. It is not enough to bring names into the electoral commission that have served in places. This country does not have confidence that there are people who are strong, independent and competent. The big trigger for our violence was the elections, so you must make sure that process does not invite any doubt whatsoever. The process and the people responsible must have competence, integrity, independence and strength of character. I am not sure if we have these people yet.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What do you think should happen to the dichotomy of vision in civil society?

Maina Kiai: The beauty about KPTJ was its organic structure. The people and the organisations came together on their own and agreed on the agenda. I think that in a sense a similar effort has to come up where people say why are we doing these one-agenda things. Where can we go with it and what is going to be the result? We also need to look at some people proactively going out to these movements to bring them together. Some things happen organically, others have to be initiated.

The people to do so must have the time, space, momentum and energy, come from across the ethnic divide, and show a national face. This group needs to be composed of completely new people, people who have never been politicians saying, ‘We are here and this is the face of alternative leadership in Kenya.’ We can then raise the standards and raise the stakes of what we get.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: What obstacles or opportunities do you see ahead?

Maina Kiai: The openings are stark and the country is ready for change. Obama’s impact is unbelievable in this country. What he did was to demonstrate that anything is possible. He has made a huge impact on the world.

There is anger with the political class. I am no longer at the level of reform. I am at the level of change, which is much more radical than reform. We want to get rid of what is there and put in new things.

The biggest obstacle is ourselves, the limitation of our own possibilities. If we can release and open that up, we will be fine. Given the people, and the time, focus, energy, resources and the organisation, this country will change.

It is about having a long-term agenda. We have to stop this business of making compromises and choosing the lesser evil. Let’s have a complete change.

Kwamchetsi Makokha: How should civil society navigate the difficult relationship with politicians?

Maina Kiai: You need to have relationships with the political class because it is a reality. But you have to always be on guard and to understand. It is easy to push for alliances. We can have a coming together of interests, but we are not allies.

* Maina Kiai is the former chair of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.
* A progressive writer, journalist and communications consultant, Kwamchetsi Makokha is the founder of Form and Content Consultancy, and a member of KPTJ’s steering group. He can be reached at [email protected].
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