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With just two years and no poll reforms, we’re in a fix

By Irungu Houghton | October 17th 2020 at 00:00:00 GMT +0300

Our first pre-2020 electoral violence victims were buried yesterday as President Uhuru Kenyatta personally led consensus building within Cabinet and Parliament on the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

These two moments and the release of an award-winning movie about the life of Boniface Mwangi offer another sharp reflection point on the quality of party politics in Kenya. 

The deaths of Chris Kariuki and Peter Mbothi are a brutal reminder that politics remains a zero-sum exercise. Death and tragedy are sadly synonymous with General Elections. While Kenya had relatively democratic and non-violent elections in 1966 and 2002, most elections have fallen short of the aspiration in Article 81 that our elections will be free of violence, intimidation, undue influence and corruption. Further, the youth remain collateral damage in the campaigns of some politicians. 

This weekend’s constitutional consultations precede the release of the still secret BBI report. Powerful politicians seem determined to lead the country into its’ third Constitution review moment in 15 years. The stakes cannot be higher for the 2022 elections but also for the legacy of the current Jubilee administration. 

The structure of the presidency and the government, a controversial proposal in the 2005 referendum, is widely said to be on the BBI policy plate. This and other issues landed the Narc administration a substantial defeat as the “No” voters carried the day. It took five years for a second referendum to usher in the current constitution. As the Narc administration and more recently, the Senate found with the revenue sharing dispute, success is dependent on how the issues to be voted on are framed and secondly, how to build national consensus around them. 

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The nation can probably agree that our elections are still too corrupt and violent. Elections drive indebtedness and corruption, locking out leaders that could serve beyond their own self-interest. With less than two years to go and with no signs of a breakthrough on the electoral commission, executive-judiciary tensions and toxic campaigns, a major political, institutional and cultural reboot is desperately needed. 

The local release of “Softie” movie next week could not have come at a better time. The documentary traces the experience of photojournalist and first time 2017 parliamentary aspirant, Mwangi. It is probably the best depiction of what it means to be an advocate for justice in contemporary Kenya. Without spoiling the movie for those yet to see it, the movie reveals the darkest and brightest parts of Kenyan political culture. 

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Themes of public protest, personal risk and family sacrifice vividly interweave with the 2008 post-election violence, 2017 General Election, anti-corruption and police brutality campaigns. Ironically, the film has been classified as 18+ by the Kenya Film Classification Board allegedly for the violent scenes of police officers and protestors clashing. There is tragic comedy in a State agency declaring a documentary can only be watched by adults because of the conduct of another State agency. 

Mwangi is no stranger to state violence or ethnic clashes that brought the country to its knees in 2008. Born and grew up poor, neglected or abused by state agencies from correctional homes to the police service, his voice has consistently reminded the State that poverty, violence and neglect stalk millions. 

Over the last 12 years, he has bravely documented violence, organised public protests and demanded justice for poor and marginalised communities. Starting his career as a Standard photojournalist, he has gone onto to win several international awards including the CNN Photojournalist of the Year. Brash and often directly conflictual, his core message that all deserve dignity and safety regardless of their ethnicity, gender and poverty, is often missed by those not listening carefully. 

His 2017 electoral campaign for the Starehe parliamentary seat may have been unsuccessful, but Boniface broke some bad political habits. He ran a financially transparent campaign with a clear policy manifesto that sought to appeal to a diverse constituency without bribery. In so doing, he hopefully sowed the seeds for a next generation of aspirants to earn rather than buy their political seats. 

Brilliantly produced by Sam Soko, “Softie” has already won awards at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and Durban International Film Festival. It now qualifies for consideration by the Oscar Academy.

It remains to see whether those who watch the movie or those exorcising our electoral demons will be sufficiently moved as voters and leaders to make different choices. A new future for Kenya may depend on whether we learn from the experience of Boniface “Softie” Mwangi. 

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


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