Impunity allows different laws for the rich and poor

Reading between the lines of the conversation last week, Nairobi Senator Johnson Sakaja successfully disappointed many people. The set of incidents and the way he handled them offer life and leadership lessons. 

Arrested on Saturday night at the Seraph Ladies Lounge well into curfew hours, the senator threatened law enforcement officers with transfers while in overnight custody and declined to obey the following day’s summons. Returning to the police station on Monday, he made a public apology and one day later pleaded guilty before the Kasarani Stadium special court and paid a Sh15,000 fine. 

There are public and personal reasons for the backlash against the senator. Sakaja is different from most of the political class. He has no prior convictions or major scandals to his name.

A former Lenana School prefect, Student Organisation of Nairobi University chair, The National Alliance founding chairman and Young Parliamentary Association chair, he has been a leader for two-thirds of his 35 years. Now senator of Nairobi, he has also authored nearly 10 important Bills and ably chaired the Senate Ad Hoc Committee on Covid-19 over the last three months. 

The second reason is timing. Two weeks before the Seraph saga, President Uhuru Kenyatta partially lifted Covid-19 lockdown measures and appealed for personal discipline from all Kenyans. The statement was interpreted as “you are now on your own” and at the mercy of our own levels of immunity.

The virus is airborne in 44 of the counties with more than 16,000 infections and 300 dead. Friends and family are declaring they are positive and Covid-19 is viciously hunting those of us with hypertension, diabetes, lung diseases or cancer. We are, justly so, primed to condemn those that break public health guidelines. 

The third reason is that the Seraph saga was not just about Covid-19. It poked another public nerve. A decade of arrogance and impunity has left us convinced there are laws for the rich and influential, and yet others for the poor and voiceless. If we are powerful, we will be exempt from following the same laws or facing the same consequences for our actions as everyone else. This is not a Kenyan phenomenon. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro saw nothing wrong being photographed with two suspects in the killing of councillor Marielle Franco or blocking a graft probe into his son Flávio allegedly associated to a gang accused of carrying out her execution.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte saw nothing wrong with publicly bragging that as mayor he used to ride around the streets executing suspected drug smugglers, and now president, he sometimes takes the same narcotics to keep himself awake at international summits. 

Obstruction of justice

This week, US President Donald Trump wished Ghislaine Maxwell well. Ms Maxwell faces charges for allegedly recruiting, grooming and ultimately enabling Trump associate and late Jeffrey Epstein to sexually abuse girls. Last month, he pardoned another friend, former lobbyist Roger Stone from a life sentence after he was convicted of seven charges, including perjury to Congress and obstruction of justice. 

By not getting involved in the Seraph saga, our president avoided this virus last week. By insisting that public health guidelines be upheld, deputy police sub-commander Adan Hassan upheld the law. While it may be more comfortable to continue to condemn the senator, we should also ask if we all are upholding the public health guidelines in all our spaces.

Wearing masks on our chins, necks or only when approaching a police officer, threatening or bribing police officers, hosting or attending large house parties, funerals and political parties, and organising cross-county trips are also acts of impunity. 

Sakaja’s decision to resign as committee chair and plead guilty before Chief Magistrate Roseline Oganyo has to be acknowledged as an act to restore his integrity. It is also a powerful statement that he, and us all, must respect law enforcement officers acting lawfully. 

A Seraph, or plural seraphim, are the highest-ranking of angels in Christian and Islamic literature. We know from religious teachings that angels also fall from grace. We know from sociology that human beings slip and err. The real question is if we get up differently. The Seraph saga has lessons for us as individuals, leader and the line that has to be maintained in a pandemic. May we never normalise either disregard for public health guidelines or impunity from anybody. 

- The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. The views are personal. Email: [email protected]

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