It’s time we honoured military veterans

The funeral of Major (Rtd) Joe Kibutu (the giant) has left me wondering whether we understand and acknowledge our military veterans well enough. The last month has seen no less than 14 officers lose their lives in Wajir and Garissa. Kenya has over 40,000 veterans and their truth and experiences have not been told well.

I recently visited the Muhammad Ali Centre in the company of Robert Emerson, a US military veteran. Ali was not just a three-time heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he was also a conscientious objector who refused to be conscripted to fight in the 1960s Vietnam war. My guide on the other hand, had. As we visited the Louisville centre and other tourist spots in Kentucky, Emerson’s veterans’ cap attracted salutary comments like “thank you for your service, sir” and the occasional offer of a drink.

The late Major Kibutu served the Kenya Army for a decade in the North-Eastern Province at roughly the same time. His generosity, wisdom and support for his extended family and the Nanyuki community to where he had retired was cited in funeral tributes and the presence of retired military officers. His and thousands of other personal stories are largely unknown to the public. I wonder why.

Kenya has over 40,000 men and women veterans who served in a range of capacities. From those who served in anti-colonial Kenya Land and Freedom Army “mau mau”, the colonial Kenyan African Rifles to those in our independent army, navy and air-force and international peace-keeping. Each year, no less than a thousand of our officers are involved in civilian protection and peace transitions.

Five years ago, our Parliament discussed the Military Veterans Bill. Introduced by Adan Keynan, the Bill sought to recognise their sacrifices, eliminate disparities in their post-service benefits and compensation packages and provide an avenue for their complaints and concerns. Regrettably, the Bill failed to pass and lapsed. Kenya remains one of the few countries in the world without a law, a department and a public culture that honors those who have served. The Military Veterans Forum is under-supported and underutilised by the public and Government. Post transitional assistance remains weak and we seem unclear how to utilise the officers who leave the armed services.

Until we change the secrecy and narrative around armed services and national security, we will never tell this side of our history well. A comical story is often told about the late and longest serving military General Jackson Mulinge. The young Mulinge had no plans of joining the colonial Kenya Armed Rifles when he went to the market to sell a chicken to buy a pair of shorts in 1942. He was seized and forcefully conscripted. Thirty-six years later, he was a General and had served in Ethiopia and Malaysia. Before Kimathi wa Waciuri or Dedan Kimathi slipped into the Aberdares to fight for our right to own land and vote against a world’s greatest super-power, he was a primary school teacher. Yet the story of Kenya’s veterans is not only the story of Generals but also that of ordinary officers.

To tell it powerfully, we have to lift the historical secrecy around former officers. How many are they, who are they and what are they doing now? Rather than framing their contribution around state security and national borders, we need to clearly see their role in creating and protecting the conditions for our Bill of Rights and national values. Their stories are also about protecting the values of equality, democracy and public safety against coup d’etats, terrorism, war in Africa and internationally. These are not stories only for barracks and funerals but schools and universities.

In our country, there are many counties. Every one of our counties has many men and women who have served us with distinction, discipline and purpose and are still unknown to the public. It is time the Military Veterans Bill was reintroduced in Parliament. It is time we listened to their truth and honored them for their service.

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. Twitter: @irunguhoughton