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How our silence emboldens those that hurt people based on identity

Houghton Irungu

The twelve-day countdown to Jamhuri Day has begun. Sixty years ago, 25,000 men and women militarily defeated settler colonialism and the British empire to deliver national independence for six million Kenyans.

This national independence struggle is Kenya’s greatest victory over identity-based discrimination. A recent opinion poll sought to answer the question, how successful has Kenya been in eliminating all forms of discrimination, not just racism?

It has become increasingly fashionable for leaders to associate their parents with the Mau Mau at veteran’s funerals. Family genealogies are re-historicised to downplay relatives who were home guards or colonial administrators in favour of associating with those that courageously went to the forest, organised labour strikes, and occupied all colonial policy spaces to demand our freedom.

While historians might object, this cross over trend is welcome if, it comes with demonstrating the integrity, humility, and extraordinary service of these ancestors and those who are largely forgotten, still walk among us. The central question the crossovers must be asked, is not how they were related to the Mau Mau, but how are they emulating their values in the face of identity-based discrimination today.

2023 has seen increasing profiling, stigmatisation, inclusion or targeting of Kenyan communities based on their identity. Extremism whipped up by populist leaders is devastating communities who have lived in co-existence, further polarising society, and placing innocent people at risk.

3-year-old boys and 80-year-old widows targeted in land succession disputes. Over 500 faithfuls prayed into mass suicide at Shakahola. Young lovers brutally killed by their intimate spouses. Sexual majorities condemning sexual minorities, and families imploding under the cost of living. The list is endless but also, interconnected.

Released this week, the Amnesty International Kenya opinion poll asked the question, is the constitutional promise of equality and non-discrimination (Article 27) under attack? The 3,000 Kenyans sampled in Infotrak and Research Consulting poll offers clear entry points for emulating the Mau Mau to begin.

Refreshingly, the poll finds Kenyans are less split on ethnic, religious or gender lines than we think. 69 per cent assert being Kenyan is most important to them.

However, 39 per cent feel they are discriminated based on their poverty. Kenyans reserved their greatest concern for persons coming from Kenya’s sexual minorities (75%) and northeastern Kenya (62%).

A staggering 49 per cent have directly experienced discrimination based on one or more of their identities. Discrimination is most likely to happen in the workplace (60%), home (15%) and places of worship (6%).

While 76% of Kenyans cite the protection offered by the Constitution and over 70% are aware of laws establishing labour and disability rights, the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission and National Gender and Equality Commission, 51 per cent of Kenyans ignore discrimination against themselves and others and take no action. Only 11 per cent feel comfortable approaching government authorities. Interestingly for those seeking to further criminalise sexual minorities, the poll finds 57 per cent of Kenyans do not want the state to regulate intimate relationships between consenting adults.

Nairobi, Nyanza and Central residents, the youth (18-35) and those living in urban areas and with higher education levels feel this most strongly. Legislators must look again at the laws and actions being taken to carry Article 27 into workplaces, homes, and all public spaces. The spirit of the Constitution is the protection of all from discrimination, not just some identities.

Laws that contradict the bill of rights must be repealed and replaced. Laws not being enforced must be prioritised for budgetary allocation and administrative action. Citizens must also exercise their obligation to protect others from being targeted for any aspect of their identity.

As Gitu wa Kahengeri’s newly released memoir “Msiogope” tells us, it is our silence that emboldens the few to hate and hurt others. Identity-based discrimination anywhere threatens freedom and dignity everywhere and we must speak up. We owe it to those we will celebrate on 12 December.

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