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In our disunity, we failed to honour fallen heroes

COMMENTARY
By Ken Opalo | January 23rd 2016

Last Friday Kenya suffered its worst military disaster on foreign soil in history. As a country we mourn with the families of the fallen heroes. We also celebrate and honour our military, and express our gratitude for their bravery and commitment to the Republic.

But while our soldiers paid the ultimate price in our name in El Adde, the public discourse in the aftermath fell short of what one would have expected. Immediately after we got the news accusations started flying in all directions. There are those who accused the government of a cover up. Others accused those who asked important questions of being unpatriotic. The government then reacted by unconstitutionally criminalising free speech. Distrust was thick in the air. Forget that this was the worst military disaster in our history, with some estimates suggesting that close to 100 were killed.

This was unusual. In well-ordered societies a collective rallying around the flag and re-affirmation of national values often follow the loss of any number of soldiers. This past week was supposed to be a time of mourning with the families of the fallen while at the same time affirming our commitment to the cause for which they died.

But we bungled both. We must admit that as a country we failed to honour our fallen soldiers in the proper manner.

It emerged that the Ministry of Defence does not have a protocol for timely dissemination of information to the public regarding such disasters. Even worse, there appears to have been no guidelines or channels of communicating with families of those killed in action. Family members were asked to call in to determine the fate of their loved ones. This is how, as a country, we chose to express our gratitude to the relatives of those who died in our name.

A more serious civilian leadership of the military would have relayed the tragic news in person or via phone from senior officials. Instead the Ministry of Defence reacted like death in the battlefield was as a complete surprise.

Why does it seem like there was no prior planning on how to deal with battlefield casualties? Why are we always caught flat-footed by events like these?

These specific organisational failings at the Ministry of Defence were then immediately recast in political terms. We were reminded of just how much we do not trust the government. Even before officials had time to know the extent of the El Adde disaster we were already accusing them of maliciously hiding information from the public.

 

A tragic event that was supposed to bring the country together was quickly turned into an opportunity to re-litigate the many issues that divide us as a society. The fact that there might have been prior intelligence of an impending attack — which was, characteristically, not treated with the seriousness in deserved — added salt to fresh wounds. One of the most tragic moments in our nation’s history had failed to bring us together.

As I have repeatedly argued in these pages, building a nation is hard. It also must be done deliberately. Just because we share borders and call ourselves Kenyans does not make us a nation.

We must consciously work to build a national identity and commitment to specific national ideals and values (and here I am not talking about faux values espoused by a section of churches and the Kenya Film Classification Board).

It is only then that we will begin to develop the habits of a well-ordered society. It is only then that we will build trust in core our institutions and ensure that certain issue areas — like how we prosecute the war in Somalia — should be beyond reproach.

State must change approach to public communication
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