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The unending story of this vast canopy that was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1954 is yet to end.

One of the most important obligations of political leaders is accountability; the cornerstone of a well-functioning democratic system.

For accountability to prevail, impunity, which reigns when individuals believe they have money, power and can therefore willfully ignore the law or other societal norms, must end. This has been Kenya’s challenge for a long time.

Take the Mau Forest complex issue, for example. For decades, the country has been and still is, grappling with finding a lasting solution to save the forest.

The unending story of this vast canopy that was gazetted as a forest reserve in 1954 is yet to end.

Impunity, corruption and self-gain have persisted, spanning successive governments despite public statements by the political leadership, and government in general, trying to address what led to the Mau problem.

Yet we all know that the Mau Forest complex has long-lasting environmental and security issues that affect local and regional communities. This is because the Mau complex is a source of many rivers that feed Lake Victoria. This lake is the source of River Nile on which Egypt is dependent.

In short, the importance of the Mau Forest lies in the eco-system service it provides to the country and the region as a whole, including river flow regulation, flood mitigation, water storage, reduced soil erosion, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, carbon reservoir and micro-climate regulation.

Fight against

That’s basically why the Kenya government formed a commission of inquiry to look into irregular land allocation and, in 2004, the famous Ndung’u Report termed land allocation around the Mau complex illegal and recommended revocation of title deeds. However, this was never effected because of lack of political accountability. Today, we are paying a high price for it.

The fact that the Government formed a team and never followed up on any of its recommendations speaks volumes.

However, with a strengthened fight against corruption and impunity by President Uhuru Kenyatta and allied institutions, there is a glimmer of hope. Then there is also the issue of political intervention. Is there a way that politicians can constructively intervene to ensure accountability?

The nature of political accountability means that when issues come to the fore in public debates, politicians should naturally intervene to respond to the public’s reaction, taking ultimate responsibility for fixing the issue.

However, the problem with political intervention in Kenya has always been to politicise issues.

Worse, such intervention seldom takes place within a structured set of rules and escalations become the norm. This has been the case in the Mau Forest where some Rift Valley politicians have always resisted efforts to evict people from the forest.

Perverse incentives

This explains why the affected people see themselves as victims of bad politics or why the evictions are related to elections; post-2002 and 2007 elections. And now, politicians are hell-bent on making the whole issue look like a 2022 election issue.

The other challenge is that we focus too much on blame than improvement in seeking accountability. However, the response to failure can’t simply be a hunt for someone to blame. Such an approach leads to perverse incentives, such as the temptation for those delivering public services to foster defensiveness and risk-avoidance.

Government failures naturally force themselves on to the political agenda. The media plays a key role in this, often serving as an alarm, raising public awareness of issues. And the game continues.

Unfortunately, media coverage often focuses on blame and sanction. This is probably inevitable – stories about the alleged mistakes of particular individuals simply make for better copy than ones about the complexities of decision-making and the lessons that need to be drawn in this case.

This skews the balance of risk and reward associated with accountability. In the end, just like in the Mau Forest issues, the hope of resolving complex underlying issues fades as accountability suffers too.

Blame game does not help accountability, which the Government of the day shoulders; instead, it hampers improvement. But to change it requires a new culture of accountability – a worthy but intangible aim. New cultures can only be built over the long term, mainly through tangible changes to structures and processes. We can only learn from past mistakes on this Mau Forest complex issue and improve.

Prof Mogambi, Communication and Social Change Expert, teaches at the University of Nairobi. hmogambi @ yahoo.co.uk

Mau Evictions Mau Forest Crisis

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