Chair of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission.
Kenyan writer. He is the editor of Pambazuka News and a political commentator for the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine. He is also a published poet and essayist.
Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga calls for a general strike and boycott of some of Kenya’s largest companies to continue his protest against last month’s presidential election. More than 600 people have been killed so far, hundreds of thousands displaced. We go to Nairobi to speak with Maina Kiai, the Chair of the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission, and we speak with Mukoma wa Ngugi, a Kenyan writer and activist in the U.S. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: In Kenya, opposition leader Raila Odinga has called off further street protests after accusing the police of killing at least seven of his supporters at a mass rally on Thursday. Odinga leads the Orange Democratic Party, or ODM. His supporters were protesting the contested results of the December 27th election that gave President Mwai Kibaki a narrow victory.
Following three days of mass rallies, ODM spokesman Salim Lone said the opposition was switching tactics and would launch an economic boycott of companies and business interests affiliated with the government.
Riot police armed with tear gas and live bullets confronted hundreds of Odinga supporters on Wednesday and Thursday. Odinga said Thursday that more than a thousand people had died since the elections and accused the police of turning the country into a "killing field."
RAILA ODINGA: Under the orders of the government, the police are executing innocent citizens at will, while the world watches and talks about dialogue. How do you dialogue with killers and thieves?
JUAN GONZALEZ: The United States and former colonial power Britain have called on Kibaki’s government to allow peaceful protest go ahead. They, along with eleven other nations, have also threatened to cut aid to Kenya if the situation deteriorates. But government spokesman Alfred Mutua dismissed the threat on Thursday.
ALFRED MUTUA: We have said that these foreign missions and foreigners are here as development partners. As partners, you assist in development. You’re not here to give as a lifeline, and you’re not here to threaten us. You’re here as a development partner. And we have said we will not allow ourselves to be blackmailed.
AMY GOODMAN: Maina Kiai is the chair of the Kenyan National Human Rights Commission. He’s joining us on the phone from Nairobi for an update on the latest developments. We’re also joined by Kenyan writer and activist Mukoma wa Ngugi. He’s in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s the co-editor of Pambazuka News, a weekly electronic forum on social justice in Africa.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s begin with Mukoma wa Ngugi. Talk about the latest in your country, Kenya.
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Well, I think, actually, the call by the opposition not to have any more protests is the right decision. I think the call for dialogue is also a correct position. But I think we also need to look back on the beginnings of the violence and lay blame squarely on both parties. Now, the shooting of unarmed people, as we have seen — there’s actually a very disgusting video on YouTube of a Kenyan policeman shooting an unarmed protester — is definitely wrong. But we also need to go back and look at the role the opposition has played in fueling this violence. It’s not fair for Raila just to blame the government on the violence, while we have had what most people would consider — what most people would consider organized massacres of innocent Kenyans by ODM supporters.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Maina Kiai, the chair of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission, the situation there on the ground? Your sense of the government’s willingness to halt some of these attacks on the population?
MAINA KIAI: Well, you know, it seems to me that — and I happened to go out to Rift Valley and out to Nyanza, where the different types of killings is that there actually is a very small force and very limited security force out in the Rift Valley, where there are militias or organized groups of citizens killing others who are perceived to be supporting Mwai Kibaki. On the other side, we have got police in Nyanza, in Kisumu, Kakamega and Migori, parts of Kenya, using live ammunition, shooting to kill, for sure, because we came across at least 300 people who had gunshot wounds in Kisumu following the protests that started off from the election.
So we’ve got a state that seems to be putting its emphasis on stopping violence — or stopping protestation, rather — in Nyanza and then not providing enough security to people who are victims in the Rift Valley. But it just seems to me that there is a serious omission and commission on different levels by the state with the crisis [inaudible] in today.
AMY GOODMAN: Maina Kiai, what are the numbers of people you understand — so far 600 people dead, at least, hundreds of thousands displaced? What is happening?
MAINA KIAI: We have — that’s about the figures we’re working with. We don’t have accurate figures, because we’re still trying to get to the bottom of it. And every day we hear of more death and more displacement and eviction.
So what clearly needs to happen is a dialogue needs to happen between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga, because what we have now is clearly a political crisis and has been a political crisis. And it cannot be solved by courts. It cannot be solved by — it’s not an election issue anymore, nor is it a legal issue; it’s a political issue that has deep, deep roots and that has exposed the cleavages within our society. If we don’t address them now, we will get into further trouble.
So what’s happening now is that there have been mass protests in Mombasa. We have reports of about one or two people shot dead in Mombasa. We have got cases in Nairobi over shootings again by the police of protesters.
And part of the reason this violence is going on — and as somebody who has been involved in mass action and in peaceful protestation, myself, before, is that protestation — protesters generally always start off peaceful, until the police intervene. The police have given this blanket ban against protest, which is illegal. They cannot — they don’t have the power to do so, but they keep doing it and just using the force of arm, of the force — the use of force to stop them. And when you close off peaceful, nonviolent spaces for expression, then ultimately you get illegal spaces being opened.
So it’s really incumbent and necessary on the state to allow peaceful protest and charge those people who want to have a protest with maintaining peace and law and order. It’s been done before; we’ve succeeded. It’s not anything new in this country.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what about the efforts of leaders from either other African nations or outside of Kenya to try to bring the parties together? Have any of those borne fruit at all?
MAINA KIAI: Well, we haven’t yet borne fruits that we can see, but I think we need to welcome all these mediation efforts as they come, because I think anything that can help move these processes forward to a peaceful political solution, then the better it is for us. So we’re hoping that the prestige and the credibility of Kofi Annan and Graca Machel and Benjamin Mkapa will make both sides see sense.
But the first part of it, of course, has got to be that Mwai Kibaki has got to accept that there’s a crisis in the country. He’s acting like nothing is wrong, and that’s not the way to do it. And it’s not about selecting a team led by the vice president to do this; it’s got to be he, himself, accepting this and moving it on.
AMY GOODMAN: Maina Kiai in Nairobi, we’re also joined by Mukoma wa Ngugi, a Kenyan writer in Cleveland, Ohio. He’s a commentator on BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine. Mukoma wa Ngugi, you are very critical of Raila Odinga and the Orange Democratic Movement.
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Yeah, I think — well, first I should say that, you know, most of the things I’ve been critical of ODM can also apply to PNU.
What I’m trying to argue and I’ve been arguing in my writing is that we need — first we need to name things, we need to call things what they are. We need to realize that the nature of African politics for the last fifty years has been changing. So we find that people automatically assume that because somebody’s in the opposition it means they’re good guys, because traditionally that has been the role of the opposition. Now we’re in a situation where the government in power in most African countries is neoliberal, and the opposition party is equally neoliberal. This is to say that both parties in power, or once the opposition gets into power, we shouldn’t expect a people power, a revolution, if you will, or progressive politics. So, essentially, that’s my first criticism of the way we’re approaching African politics. Certainly, things have changed. You know, we can no longer assume the opposition automatically means they’re good guys.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You also make the point in some of your articles that Odinga is actually a multimillionaire and with a company, a family-owned company with ties to multinationals, as well. Could you talk about that?
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Yeah, certainly. OK, what we have seen in Kenya is two elites, you know, two elite leaders. We have Mwai Kibaki, a very wealthy Kenyan, and then we have Raila on the other side, a very wealthy Kenyan, using ethnicity on both sides to mystify, to mystify their servicing of international capital, if you will. So we end up in a situation where you have a large majority of poor Luos and a large majority of poor Kikuyus fighting each other, but not realizing that indeed they are proxies to maintain these two leaders in power.
So, yes, Raila cannot put himself as a people power president. And I think that’s something that we are seeing in the whole of the opposition. I mean, certainly, the opposition has a spectrum of people — you have very progressive individuals — but at the same time you have very, very retrogressive individuals. So I think we need to have a nuanced, a nuanced approach in dealing or in analyzing ODM or PNU politics.
AMY GOODMAN: Maina Kiai, do you share that analysis? You’re chair of Kenya’s Human Rights Commission.
MAINA KIAI: Yes and no. But I think — yes and no. And I think that there is a lot to criticize on both sides, but I think there’s something else here that I wish Mukoma would consider, and that is the fact that no matter what we think individually of these two people who are leading us or who are leading different factions, the fact is that the vote in this country was irregular and fraudulent. The fact is that we don’t know who was elected as president of this country.
And the fact is that no matter how wealthy either of them is, you’re representing different sides of their campaign. For Kibaki, it was business as usual. His slogan was “kazi iendelee!” — “Let business go on as usual.” For Raila, it was change. So I’m not saying that change would have happened with Raila, but I think that we need to be also a little bit more frank about these things. And I don’t think you can ever have a situation where politicians — I don’t know any situation where politicians have been dirt poor and are the peasants. I think we need to be realistic about what goes on. That said, again, I think we all need to look at the PNU, and looking at the government’s side. And I struggle to find a reformer within that group. So this issue is not about whether Raila Odinga is an alternative to Kibaki or a suitable alternative; it’s about the right to vote having been stolen, in a real sense, and being compromised in very many ways, without — and to the extent that we don’t know who won.
The other thing that we’ve got to be careful — and it’s good to be blunt, as we are now. There has been a lot of wording. The use of language has been very, very provocative and very, very alarmist in this crisis that’s going on. And you hear people on both sides [inaudible] that genocide is happening. The PNU side say that Kikuyu are being genocided in the Rift Valley. The ODM side say that the Luos are being genocided in Kisumu. We’ve got to be careful with that, because I think we are going down a path that we cannot — that we don’t know where it’s going to end. But more important is the fact that in every declared genocide in the world, there has either been state complicit in or there’s been state collapse. So if there is genocide — and the first obligation, whenever there’s a sense of genocide, is that the state must move and stop it. So in this case here, if the PNU side is saying that there’s genocide in the Rift Valley, the first obligation is for them to stop it, unless they’re saying they cannot do it or they’re complicit. And I think it’s important for us to keep that, because part of the reason why the grievances and the cleavages keep getting deeper is the use of this language that we are hearing in the country today, and it’s something that we need to tone down as much as we can.
Let’s get the facts. Let’s get an enabling environment. Let’s ask — let’s ask and demand, in fact, for Mwai Kibaki to meet with Raila Odinga. Raila Odinga clearly needs to meet Mwai Kibaki, because he has no — doesn’t control the instruments of power. And Kibaki needs to be —- to go on the table so he can carve out a political solution that, among other things, must look at the presidential powers in this country so we can move forward. I’m not sure that -—
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Maina Kiai —-
MAINA KIAI: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you, when you talk about an enabling environment, what do you see as a potential solution? An annulling of the elections and a new election, or some kind of a power-sharing agreement between the sides? What would be the way out of this situation?
MAINA KIAI: The way out of the situation is simple. Kibaki meets Raila. They agree, first of all, that the election, as conducted and as announced to us, was irregular. They work a concession that it was -— they had many, many things that were irregular about it. Then they agree that the Electoral Commission of Kenya, as it’s formed, must be disbanded. And then they agree on a process of investigation, so we can have closure on this past election. Investigate what exactly happened, where did it go wrong, who is responsible, so we can have accountability for that. And one of the things we have been very good at in this country is forgiving and forgetting, slipping things under the carpet. But in this case, we have to have accountability. What the evidence we have at the National Commission on Human Rights points to a serious conspiracy to subvert the election, with at least the Electoral Commission of Kenya. So that whole thing needs to be found out.
And then we agree on a process within an amount of time, where power is shared clearly into the transitional arrangement between Kibaki and Raila and their people with limited function of the state. And then lead us either onto — either onto a retallying or recounting, or retallying, which means re-adding up of the votes, or recounting, or if that’s not possible, then they can do a rerun of the election.
But within that whole specter of the election, then we must address the question of presidential powers. One of the reason there’s so much animosity is that the presidency in this country is an imperial presidency. It’s a monarch, and he can do anything. He can make you rich, he can make you poor. He can marginalize you, he can include you. He can exclude you, he can give you land. And part of it is that — is therefore people do not want to be away from that power, at the elite level, because they want to use that power to enrich themselves; at the masses level, so that — because they feel protected when their own is in power. So this fear of exclusion is what’s driving a lot of the animosity, and we must address it by looking at the presidential powers. Our president has got — there are limited checks and balances. He can call parliament to sit any time he wants to. He can send them home any time he wants to. He can give you land if he wants to. He can give you citizenship if he wants to. He can give you property if he wants to. He can do anything. He can appoint you to any job if he wants to. So it’s the whole mess of it that’s led to a crisis, and because this power has been abused seriously for the last forty-four years in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Maina Kiai, do you think that he won — Kibaki won the election?
MAINA KIAI: Sorry?
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he actually won the election?
MAINA KIAI: The facts at our disposal and information at our disposal does suggest that we do not know who won the election. It is impossible to tell.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask Mukoma wa Ngugi.
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Obama, Barack Obama, the senator, presidential candidate, called Odinga, said that all parties have to resolve this peacefully. You have the Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist Wangari Maathai writing in the Wall Street Journal, “I appeal to the international community, including the African Union, the Commonwealth, the European Commission, the United Nations and other friends of Kenya like the United States and Japan, to put [strong] pressure on [Messrs.] Kibaki and Odinga — before this crisis escalates into an even greater tragedy.” Do you agree — international pressure? And what do you think the US can do?
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Well, certainly, I do believe that we need to have friendly mediators. You know, it’s certainly — first, I agree with Maina Kiai on very, very — on the points he has raised. There were irregularities on both sides. Or at least we don’t know who won. At the very, very best, is we can say that we don’t know who won. So the most logical thing is to find a democratic process that actually solidifies democratic institutions. And anybody, any mediator who can come in to aid in that process is certainly welcome.
Now, we have to be a little bit skeptical of a United States role, because of the role it’s playing in that region anyway. We are seeing the US in Somalia helping Ethiopia attack Somalia and playing a very destabilizing role. The whole war on terror — if the approach to Kenya is the same approach used to make friends or define enemies, as in the war on terror, then that cannot be welcomed. But somebody who comes in and says, “Well, we’re here, first and foremost, in solidarity with the Kenyan people,” those efforts should be welcome.
AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you both for being with us. Mukoma wa Ngugi is joining us from Cleveland, a Kenyan writer, activist. He’s editor of Pambazuka — how do you pronounce it, exactly?
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Yeah, it’s Pambazuka.
AMY GOODMAN: Pambazuka News —-
MUKOMA WA NGUGI: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —- and political commentator with the BBC’s Focus on Africa magazine. And joining us from Nairobi, Maina Kiai, he’s chair of Kenya’s National Human Rights Commission. We’ll continue to follow the developments on the ground in Kenya.