Three incidents brought Amnesty International’s 400-page, 159 country report home for me this week. The first was Lancer Achieng and Joseph Abanja bravely appearing in a Kisumu court to demand justice for baby Pendo. In a Nairobi court, gay citizens sought to strike out sections of our archaic penal code that criminalise intimate same sex relationships.
Lastly, thousands of kilometres away in Florida, students from Stoneman Douglas High School demanded their Congress leaders and the National Rifle Association lobbyists take responsibility for the mass killings of seventeen students. Their words “We refuse to be ignored by those who will not listen. We are not going away” could apply to all of those involved in the three incidents.
The year 2017 saw both peril and progress for millions of people. Over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fled their Myanmar homes for safety in neighbouring Bangladesh. A similar number of South Sudanese left one of Africa’s youngest states for Uganda, Ethiopia and Kenya. Imagine the entire people of Nyeri, Kajiado or Bomet being forced to flee en mass by famine, sexual abuse and violence.
That is what happened to the Rohingya and South Sudanese last year. Violent clampdowns by Governments also left many dead, injured, tortured or traumatised simply for expressing dissent or their right to expression and assembly within their borders.
While the cost of standing up has been expensive for many, 2017 saw new energies in unexpected places. #MeToo #TimeIsUp campaigns broke the global silence on sexual harassment in business, entertainment, NGO, religious and Government spaces. American and European citizens directly challenged their Governments’ treatment of Arab and African refugees and migrants. British, Greek and Algerian citizens confronted the silent killer of corruption and public health cuts.
These global trends paint a predictable common future for East African leaders and citizens. That future is restless and rebellious societies, unstable states, inequalities and repression. Another future is possible if we are willing to confront three inconvenient truths.
As the power of digital information continues to grow over our minds, lives and countries, the toxicity of fake news imperils the human rights defender, leader and us, the average citizen. Misleading or polarising each other with lies and half-truths is neither leadership nor citizenship. Human rights defenders have to insulate themselves from party and or Government capture. Political party capture comes at a very deep cost.
We choose our targets and our words selectively not based on constitutional principles but on which side we are on. Inevitably, we find ourselves trapped in the crossfire of party hardliners caught in zero-sum politricks and unable to elevate their thinking.
Too many Government leaders still believe or tolerate the myth that strong autocratic leadership creates regime stability and smooth leadership transitions. If most autocratic leaders were allowed to write memoirs, I suspect the dizzy pre-occupation of stopping this, pre-empting that, would occupy several chapters. More honest tombstones would read, “Here lies a troubled and hyper-tensive failure of a man.
Besieged for most of his rule, he had thought he kept his citizens in check, then he watched it all fall apart.” Simply, trampling on the rule of law and repression breeds instability. New ways of transforming popular dissent are desperately needed. Only by creating value-based and virtuous conversations and institutions can we create stable and inclusive nations. Even jobs, health, housing and food cannot do this alone.
If the political courage to act differently is needed among both citizens and leaders, friends of Kenya need it too now. Donor bashing in Kenya is one of Kenya’s fastest partisan sport. Those that engage, find false comfort in cyber-attacking the diplomatic community. The real cost is that we are not collectively finding new ways to confront inequalities, corruption and abuse of office as well as reforming our electoral system and security sector.
Baby Pendo would have celebrated her first birthday this month. We owe it to her, Stephanie Moraa, Lilian Khavere and many others to act differently. Until we can create a respect for human rights as mainstream popular culture and boldly inspire our youth to lead us, rights violations and violence of 2017 will sit out there in our future as well.
-Mr Houghton writes in a personal capacity. @irunguhoughton