In her subtly seminal work of fiction Dust, the novelist Yvonne Adhiambo Owour names “silence” as Kenya’s third official language, after English and Kiswahili.
Kenya today is a challenging place to live in, especially if you are young, very old, female, and not rich, which is just about everybody.
The country is currently in the grip on an election cycle. This suggests that change is on the way. Or is it?
This article should be about who is saying what to the electorate, and what their chances are.
But, given the grim economic realities for those called “the poor” in Kenya, it would seem that Kenyan elections since the return of multipartyism have been about not who is in the running, but who is not present. More about what is not being said, than who said what. Somebody seems absent from the party.
What happened to the Kenyan revolution?
In just one succinct paragraph written in Kwani 02, Andia Kisia, eschewing the de-personal that data-reciting brings to the matter of “development, tells us the meaning of poverty in Kenya, and the need for change:
“What does it really mean to say that a people are not yet ready for a revolution? A revolution implies change to the status quo and the status quo in Kenya, as in any so-called developing country, is a sorry one indeed: it is poverty of the most life- destroying kind, a situation maintained and defended by a small wealthy and avaricious class. Open any development economics text, and Kenya always merits a mention as one of the countries with the largest disparities between rich and poor. The poor know this not as an interesting fact in a textbook, but as their daily reality: as the ignorance of daily meals, as the death of children from the most innocuous ailments, from medieval life expectancy rates. It seems unforgivably arrogant to say that these people do not want to see the substance of their lives change for the better, that they are not ready for that change. So what does it mean to say that Africans in general, or Kenyans in particular, are not ready for revolution? (p. 311)
Into the breach has sauntered a whole cast of hugely colourful characters, whose activities generate plenty of sound. Given how increasingly lethal electoral politics have become here, perhaps it is better not to name names or point to examples. But we can all think of at least two.
The antic-laden political drama rolling out this election season seems to see nothing of the concerns Andia Kisia describes, and takes place against the meta-narrative of the Odinga/Kenyatta sometimes friendly, sometimes acrimonious almost Lebanese-style feud in which the son of a former Vice President is going to run against the son – now President – of the President to that Vice President.
All our yesterdays
To hear, or rather, to have heard Kenya’s literary giant Ngugi wa Thiong’o tell it, Kenya once was on the brink of a socialist upheaval that was to sweep away the entire basis of post-colonial Kenyan society, and even excavate its settler colonial roots.
This perspective took root among more than a few intellectuals, and many youth, particularly students. It gave rise to heated discourse in the media and led to public demonstrations. The authorities reacted. Riots and other disturbances were dealt with physically. Interestingly, however, there was also an engagement at the level of ideas, in however circumspect a style executed. Ngugi, in particular, acquired a couple of nemeses in the media and academia that seemed to devote much of their energy to tracking and deconstructing his various arguments.
At a more exalted, shall we say, level, even the Kenyan presidency was moved to weigh in. This basically became an extension of the Cold War debates about the best or better ways to organise society. As such, the philosophical dimension of the matter was often brought in.
People were individuals, not “cogs in a machine”, one would hear the president assert at some national function.
That was back in the very late 1970s.
Today is a different picture, to say the least. We certainly don’t hear many –if any – national figures tussling with tenets of Enlightenment thinking.
How did mainstream Kenyan politics move from talk for and against revolution to what we see now? Or more accurately, why is there such a persistent silence around this question, to the point that it never even seems to get asked?
There is a memory hole. One can trace the evolution of radical thinkers such as Ngugi from the days of the December 12 Movement, right up to a certain point, then everything seems to go dark. Why?
A promising beginning
One key factor in Ngugi’s global appeal was the way in which he wove the Kenyan story into the fabric of wider and older struggles for social justice, if not outright revolution.
To South American intellectuals, his analyses of the meaning and impact of settler colonist culture resonated strongly with their own centuries of Portuguese and Spanish settler presences.
He must easily be the first, and possibly only, English language-rooted African writer I have come across who could reference and cite a whole host of Spanish and Portuguese-speaking South American writers and thinkers at will, and even draw parallels with them.
To African diaspora thinkers in the Caribbean, the United States and Europe, especially England, his specific focus on the linguistic and ethnic workings of anti-African racism struck a similar chord.
This did present problems. To match his narrative with theirs, he had to present Kenya as one country.
The 500-year Iberian dominance of South America had produced a political culture that expressed itself in Iberian languages, and framed its vision from within what was considered the most advanced stages of all the European thinking birthed by the Enlightenment: Marxism. A certain homogeneity of direction emerged there. Even Catholic priests in the region espoused a “liberation theology” rooted in Marxist ideology.
Other strands existed. The one of particular significance would be the voices of the indigenous people still present in the South American continent. Sometimes small, often marginalized, these varied communities somehow managed to get through a nearly complete genocide, with memories and critically, language, somewhat intact.
It was Ngugi’s on-the-ground activism that cemented this global reputation. His writing, fiction first, then a series of accompanying essays bedded in some form of critical theory, had given life to his ideas. The fiction often located itself in the politico-cultural experience Ngugi’s own Kikuyu people underwent during the late colonial period in Kenya, and just after, particularly, the impact the eight-year war waged against freedom fighters had on him as a young man from a family caught up in the conflict.
He began by applying his thinking to his place of work, the University of Nairobi. What he did can now be seen as a template for even the “decolonize education” movement in South Africa today. Three things happened: the Department of English Literature became the Department of Literature; the course content began to reach systematically far beyond the original staple of European/English classics; and Ngugi became a marked man.
His next major initiative was the Community Theatre initiative, through a couple of productions featuring peasant folk (a process that began to cement in his mind the question of language: In what language had struggle been taking place? What was to be the language of the new revolution?)
In insisting on the development of a literature in (in his case) Gikuyu, he spoke the language of indigenousness while advancing the politics of the progressive imagining of the European-planted states. With the historical ignoring of the surviving Native Americans in South America, all revolutions could comfortably converse in Spanish or Portuguese. In Africa, the natives, and their languages, sit in the mainstream. So, while the aforementioned homogeneity of language and, therefore possibly also, thought, could comfortably emerge among South American revolutionaries, Africa was to be a different matter. This was a contradiction waiting for explanation, and one that Ngugi’s intellectual critics (state-sponsored or not) seized upon: was he proposing a revolutionary Tower of Babel, or would certain languages acquire a preeminence in the lexicon of revolution?
Nevertheless, such was the giant who landed among the Black and African diaspora of London in the early 1980s. A writer, a teacher, an activist, former political prisoner, and exile.
Modesty on the part of many Kenyan activists in London at the time often leads them to downplay the significance of their presence – with Ngugi at its centre – among the people they went on to work with. Modesty, maybe, or perhaps as a way of drawing a veil on the journey of Kenyan politics from that point, to this, where citizens killed one another, and where poverty and destitution remain national characteristics.
The template for the exile part of their movement seems to have been the long- established anti-apartheid movement, kicking off with the formation of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya.
This I suppose, was a good start. And it seems a decision was made that what the movement did not otherwise have in order to build support in Europe, it was going to have to create. The mining of the anti-colonial, anti-settler narrative was a logical place to start. South Africa had settlers, so had Kenya.
Don’t get me wrong; it must have taken a special kind of courage to decide to take on any Kenyan regime during the Cold War. Many an otherwise safe middle class career was being sacrificed by becoming associated with rebellion; they were taking on one of the (then) better organised police states on the continent, with an unbroken praxis in the matter of breaking rebels, reaching back into the 1950s; they were also standing up to a regime that in the dynamic of the global US vs. USSR confrontation, was seen by Western interests as a critical bulwark.
This was not small thing to be doing.
I was in a position to observe how Ngugi, and the cluster of well-entrenched black activist networks that received him, went on to unfurl the public face of Kenyan resistance to the Daniel arap Moi regime and to imperialism among the diaspora.
It was also an exercise in comparisons. As a diaspora activist on Uganda issues, I was keen to see where our concerns may intersect, and what each learned from similar experiences.
Three things emerged quite distinctly.
First, an antipathy towards engaged debate. This was evidenced in an inability to address the question mentioned already, which was legitimate in itself, but also became a reliable propaganda tool for the Moi regime due to the revolutionaries’ unwillingness to address it.
Specifically: what was the 1951-1958 conflict in Kenya? Was it a war for Kenyan independence? Was it a civil war among the Kikuyu nation between those “in”, and those “out” of colonial favour? Was it a Kikuyu cultural uprising for the reclamation of their land? Would parsing such distinctions matter anyway?
This came out strongly in the way the Kenya Liberation story was presented. As an early activity, a broad group of pan-Africanist youth, from places as far flung as the Caribbean, Ghana, Senegal and, of course Kenya, staged Ngugi and Micere Mugo’s play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi.
Something remained with me from that time.
One particular passage in the staging (and I cannot recall whether it was part of the original text or not) had the actor explain how “the white man came to Kenya and promoted divisions among the people by teaching them that ‘You are Girama, and you Samburu, and you Kamba…’, or words close to that. The point being made was that Kenyans were one people, and that if they stood together as one nation, victory was assured.
But this, and other lines like it, would then be followed by enthusiastic bursts of singing of songs someone had clearly researched well from the era of the Mau Mau uprising, just about all of which were in Gikuyu, not surprisingly.
So (the ahistoricity aside) another question came to mind: was the struggle about liberating a pre-existing nation called Kenya, or about creating one through such a struggle?
But where there was such an aversion to debate, no answers seemed available.
Second, there was a fascination with things military, and particularly the associated secretiveness. Statements like “armed struggle is the highest expression of a peoples’ culture” were often made, but not quite explained. This also expressed itself in an unwillingness to clinically describe and analyse the Mau Mau war with anything like the vigour it would be presented in drama. Outstanding questions like:
How did the war end? Did the insurgents win? If so, why is there still a need for “liberation”? If not, why did the fighting stop?
Third, a woeful naivety about how people managed to remain in State Houses in our region. I recall expressions of genuine surprise among some of these comrades, as well as among the “vague leftists” of the Abdul Rahman Babu variety, about the way the then government of Julius Nyerere had returned to the Moi government the Kenya Air Force officers who had fled to Tanzania after their abortive 1981 coup attempt.
After his efficient inveigling, then swallowing up, of the Zanzibar revolution at the Americans’ behest in the early 1960s, any attentive observer of our region should have known where President Nyerere stood on Empire questions once the chips were really down. And if you get into the business of organising rebellion against a Western-backed regime, you would be well-advised to become a very attentive observer.
For revolutions, failures of theory lead to failures of practice. And bouts of brisk physical activity can often be used to cover up those gaps, or deflect scrutiny from them.
This was the opportunity and circumstance created by the roughly one-year period (1985-1986) during which the National Resistance Army morphed from a rebel organisation into the internationally recognised government of Uganda.
During the greatly under-reported proceedings of the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, a number of interesting puzzle-pieces came to light that certainly help explain a few things about the sudden disappearance of a whole revolutionary movement.
There had emerged a certain mesmerisation, to put it very mildly, at least among the Mwakenya activists I knew, with the NRA, and its ascension to power.
No less than three Kenyan resistance groups received material support in military training and information from the early NRA regime. To ask what happened next, is to stand at the mouth of the memory hole.
Contradictions and their silences
Nowhere does this seem to come through in the politics of the NRA assuming power in Uganda. And nobody seemed less willing to see the NRA for what is was than many among the movers and shakers of the Kenyan resistance.
This led to complications for us in the exile discourse spaces that exile politics caused us to share, as well as raised serious questions about the Kenyan resistance’s actual commitment to human rights, democracy and, in a few cases, simple logic.
Of course, nothing was usually said explicitly in public spaces – that would only encourage a debate – but it was clear that the crop of Kenyan resisters we knew were in awe of the NRM, and clearly lacked an intellectual or political interest in any analysis before that.
The starkest, and in a way worrying, example I saw of this was the sight of one prominent exile activist literally dancing with joy at a remark made by the then very new President Yoweri Museveni who had come to make his first address to the large UK Ugandan community at the Commonwealth Institute headquarters in 1987. This person is now a prominent political personality in Kenya.
The remark itself had been a hackneyed rehash of Kwame Nkrumah’s “we are pro-Africa” declaration of non-alignment. On being asked by a member of the largely star-struck gathering if NRA was “pro-East, or pro-West”, the president had responded, “We are pro-Uganda”. The audience applauded, and the Kenyan danced.
There was more to come.
How come they were happy to defend the then NRA practice of open-air queue voting while condemning the Moi regime when it sought to implement the exact same practice during Kenya elections?
Why did they condemn the Moi-KANU regime as a one-party state, while ignoring the NRA’s 1986 Legal Notice No. 1 that banned all other political party activity?
Why was the near-permanent presence of British soldiers in Kenya a thing to be condemned, while nothing was to be said of the accreditation of the British military attaché to the UK Nairobi embassy, as “advisor” to the NRA delegation at the 1985 Nairobi Peace Talks?
If the NRA was indeed an anti-imperialist organisation, then how should we explain the generous praise heaped upon it by the UK media? Or were they accepting the idea that the UK media were not tied to the task of promoting British interests? If so, what had happened to all the critical theory about race, and representation, and about the media space as a battleground over hidden and open narratives? When the African mind was being “colonised”, did the Western media play no role in this? Is it, in other words, to now be taken as “neutral”?
There were never answers given to these questions, only silence and dismissals. This thinking seemed to stem from an earlier failure to address intellectual contradictions.
The practical effect for anyone else fishing in the same waters was to find oneself permanently doubted by the leaders of black diaspora organisations, and a few white socialist ones as well. “If you are interested in the Ugandan revolution”, they would ask, “why don’t you simply go and join hands with the revolutionaries that have just taken power, instead of trying to fight them?”
Why should they believe your words against a whole, ANC-type organisation peopled by the cream of the Kenyan Left intellectuals?
It became important, therefore, to settle the question of black diaspora views of the emerging and triumphant NRA. And the first step to this would have been to settle the matter with the go-to voice on matters East African in the UK: the Kenyan anti-Moi resistance.
This was not possible, as they showed no inclination towards a principled political stand. I vividly recall one experience where one of their senior cadres, who also worked in a senior post at the good old Africa Centre, simply blocked the proposal that activist groups from the Uganda exile community also participate in the holding of the upcoming Africa Day celebrations, which were to focus on Uganda that year. Instead, an agenda of the festivities to be led by the (now (NRA/NRM-run) Ugandan embassy in the UK was very rudely imposed on the organising committee.
Get it clearly: a political refugee was defending the right of a sitting government to lock other political refugees out of a discourse regarding their own country.
But here’s the thing. The tragedy was not so much that the Kenyan revolution sold the myth of an NRA “liberation” to the Afro-Caribbean diaspora; it was that they also sold the same myth to themselves. My submission is that the subsequent strategic decisions made on the basis of that miscalculation led eventually to the absence of a viable “Left” voice, or even a simple legacy, in Kenyan politics today. Hence the endless Bonfire of the Vanities, aka, election time.
Footnotes to a lingering silence
However, a few years prior to that, I had had my own experience, while I was still active in London. I chance encountered the same prominent member of the anti-Moi resistance, right on the steps of the Africa Centre.
His tune, to which he was not dancing, had changed significantly. Having just come back from a trip to Uganda, he gave me a wholly unexpected response to my polite query as to how his trip had gone.
He had not one kind word to say about the entire NRA project or its leaders. His rant was long and excoriating, as well as very accurate.
This, coming from the same person I had witnessed pirouette with joy at a Ugandan presidential witticism, stunned me into silence. What could possibly have happened?
This is where the silence begins.
I will not speculate. I know of only two things. One, I read in a newspaper, of the Ugandan government’s decision to remove a certain key figure of the Kenyan armed resistance from Ugandan soil to Sweden. This was in the early 1990s.
I read also of a development years later when a small article and photograph showed members of what was being called the February Eighth Revolutionary Army (FERA) being repatriated back to Kenya after standing down, having been isolated in training camps in Uganda for nearly a decade.
It is back to the Kenya War of Independence riddle: How did Uganda’s relationship with the Kenyan revolution end, and for what reasons?
I asked a Kenyan writer, who had been tweeting a running commentary on new Moi-era Nyayo House revelations by former Mwakenya activists who had survived the torture chambers, if any information was coming out from them about how and why their relationship with the Uganda “revolutionaries” ended up? After promising to check and get back to me, I have not heard from her since on the matter. Has she too lapsed into the Kenyan language of silence?
I have lived with this issue for over thirty years, it turns out. I had to become knowledgeable about it because of the extent to which it was damaging our own political work. Now, I want to stop.
Reflecting on it a few years ago for an essay, I had emailed a response to someone I had known to be in the anti-Moi resistance regarding mail he had sent to me about some recent outrageous behaviour by his former friends now running Uganda. Basically, I asked if he was willing to accept his share of the blame in selling this outfit to the global Left, and what the hell had happened to him anyway, to disappear just like that?
“Many factors, global, local and internal to our movements ensured that we failed,” he wrote back. “Lack of discipline, knowledge, greed, dictatorship, sexual violence, lack of proper organisational accountability and so much else. Many young Kenyans perished because of what I think we can call ‘left bourgeois apathy’ and a lack of real political commitment. (Bourgeois envy of the rich was the driver of the ‘revolution’ and once achieved then the revolution for them had arrived). Thereafter, people must continue to justify their existence so they must continue shouting to at least assuage their ‘left consciousness’.”
There can be no doubt that conventional Kenyan politics, like the structure of the Kenya economy itself, cannot provide solutions to the deep-seated structural problems that Ngugi wa Thiong’o so ably began to describe and analyse over 40 years ago.
It is as if time has opted to stand still where the critical issues, like land reclamation, war reparations and workers’ rights, are concerned.
And there can be no doubt that if nothing useful is done, things will only get worse.
If there ever was a need for clarity of discourse, perhaps it is now, and if there was ever a place in need of it, perhaps it is Kenya. Instead, the country remains swamped in the politics of personality and inconsequence, and the very name “MwaKenya”, ends up reduced to a schoolyard slang for exam cheat-notes. An apt tribute, perhaps, to an organisation with too many leaders with a penchant for subterfuge and cutting intellectual corners.
Meanwhile, the last time I checked, a progressive diaspora space known as the Third World Book Press remains listed as the Uganda Chicago Consulate’s contact point for the Ugandan Diplomatic Mission to the United States.
LOST AND NOT FOUND: What happens when people go missing in Kenya
It could be an empty bed or an untouched room. An automated horoscope on their Twitter account or a dormant Facebook profile. All that remains are memories. A family photo no one talks about anymore. Things left unsaid. Spaces left unfilled. Some choose to keep them that way in the hope that their loved one will walk back through the door.
But they don’t always do.
Mohammed Abdulkarim, popularly known as Czars, has been missing since October 2006. The teen heartthrob was barely a week away from his final high school exams and on the verge of what looked like it would be a wildly successful music career. The skinny, light-skinned 17-year-old was a national sensation for his song “Amka Ukatike.” Yet that day in 2006, he took a walk from their family home and never came back. Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade.
For Abdullahi Boru, those constant reminders are embedded in his career after his best friend and former housemate, Bogonko Bosire, went missing in September 2013. Bogonko was a pioneer blogger who ran a popular and controversial tabloid. He went missing at the height of the International Criminal Court cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, and from the little we know so far, probably because of them. “I’ve known Bogonko Bosire since 2000 when we joined journalism school. Then after we were done we shared a house as we fit into our first jobs” Boru says. For him, Bosire is still in the present tense, an unsolved disappearance that will one day have a solution. That same year, in December, a senior State House advisor called Albert Muriuki also disappeared. His case too, remains unsolved.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade
For the family of independence hero Kung’u Karumba, one of the Kapenguria Six, that has been a 43-year-long wait. The freedom fighter disappeared in 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda and was most likely caught up in political upheaval. But there has never been any proof of his death, so his family has kept hope alive. In 2004, 30 years after he went missing, his youngest wife Esther Wanjiru told The Standard “I am still waiting for him to show up in his pickup van, KPD 304.”
Without a Trace
“The reasons why people go missing are almost as varied as the people themselves,” a tracing investigator who requested anonymity tells me. Outside of extrajudicial killings and conflict, other reasons why people disappear include kidnappings, accidents and suicide. Someone can leave intentionally because they decided to, or drifted away. Someone can be forced to go missing because of disease or an accident. Mental health conditions rank highly here.
A close friend’s family once lost her 80-year-old grandmother, who suffered from dementia, for three weeks. She turned up in Dodoma, Tanzania with no memory of how she got there. In an email conversation, a lady called Sharon Johnston who lives in New Zealand told me about the fruitless search for her father, Dr. Tony Johnston who had lived and worked in Kenya for three decades. She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight knit circle.
In the course of a week, I counted at least nine missing persons’ posters placed in different digital spaces, including several news alerts. Eight were kids below twelve years of age, and the ninth involving a teen, was deemed resolved after she was found at a friend’s house. I also scoured through a Facebook page called Kenya Missing & Unidentified Persons, which was set up to help families find their loved ones. Although it has not been updated since 2015, the page gives a small sample size of the people who go missing in Kenya. Of about 30 cases posted in a period of six months, most of them were relatively young (17-30 years old) and from a cursory glance, from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Almost all the cases involving older people, above 60 years of age, mentioned some form of mental illness.
She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight-knit circle.
While Sharon was lucky in a way, most aren’t. Law enforcement agencies do not give priority to missing persons’ cases, and in some of them, are actually complicit. In one recent example, a human rights lawyer called Willie Kimani, his client, and a taxi driver were kidnapped and then killed by police officers. Such extrajudicial killings are at times followed by attempts to hide the bodies, or disfigure them beyond recognition.
Such police brutality and state violence have a long history in Kenya, even before the genocidal ‘50s. In precolonial Kenya, it was not unusual for people to leave and simply never come back. Some died in skirmishes, while others fell sick along the way. Others simply moved and made new homes elsewhere, sometimes leaving even their spouses behind. In the social dynamics of the time, this was not as serious as it is today, but the heartbreak was no less real.
But in that decade of the Mau Mau rebellion, disappearances especially of men from around Mount Kenya became commonplace. This would happen again, in the 2000s as Interior Security Minister John Michuki led a murderous effort to kill off the Mungiki, literally in this case. From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008. He was a young, skinny lad with shaggy hair, and most likely got caught up in the extrajudicial war on the Mungiki.
If someone you know goes missing today, the process goes something like this. You make a report to a police station where a bored police officer records your complaint. Then forwards it to a police station with an investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). If it’s a high profile case then it might get priority, and the digital and physical search will begin immediately. If you are absolutely lucky, and this is rare, then you will never get to hear those debilitating words “investigations are still ongoing” and “the file is still open.”
But more often than not, you will be unlucky. There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark. Access to a telecom company’s data may provide some answers as to the last place a phone was on, as well as the last people the person talked to. A find such as a car or clothes, as was the case with IEBC manager Chris Msando, may hint at a few things, but mostly say nothing. Add to this the fact that the investigation process is so opaque and complicated that it often feels like law enforcement agencies are not doing enough.
Most families supplement this with either searching for the person themselves or even hiring private investigators. A search of morgues is a common go-to solution, but it is often based on the hope that if the person is dead, they would be in the specific morgues the search party is looking into. The same goes for hospitals and hospices, and the search is grueling. At least one independent missing persons’ investigator was described to me as “…someone who walks into morgues the way he would a coffee shop.”
From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008.
There are other avenues. The Red Cross has a tracing department in its offices across the world, including Kenya. The project, called “Restoring Family Links” is designed to help people look for their family members or restore contact with them. Their focus though, is on people who’ve gone missing due to conflict, disaster or migration. Without enough resources to expand this to cover all missing persons cases, even their assistance is limited.
Public appeals for information sometimes work. They can yield information about a sighting or identification of places where the family can start looking. But more often than not, each appeal for information is followed by many false leads. In the search for the teenage heartthrob Czars, for example, one of the earliest seemingly credible leads came from an entertainment journalist. He had gotten it from a source he trusted, and it looked promising at the time. Czars, the intel suggested, was living in Eastleigh, likely in the company of an older fling. That singular statement led to a wild-goose chase with journalists and the musician’s father scouring Eastleigh in vain.
Another infamous false lead example is in the days after Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki was killed. After he disappeared in early March 1975, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi confidently said he had left the country for Zambia. It took a newspaper report to dispute this, and for five whole days, no one knew what had happened to the charismatic MP. His body was eventually found on March 12, 1975, mutilated.
Two decades before, another missing persons case had stood out in a decade of conflict. Mau Mau leader Stanley Mathenge disappeared one night in 1956, and for years the official story was that he had gone to Ethiopia to seek assistance for the cause. It stopped there, never explaining why the freedom army’s most formidable military mind chose to abandon the cause. Years later, in 2003, a stranger from Ethiopia was feted in his place, not only costing taxpayers’ money but also leaving the government embarrassed.
Like JM, its more likely Matheng’e never left Kenya. The most likely scenario was that his compatriot and power rival, Dedan Kimathi, had him killed and then weaved the Ethiopia story to avoid internal strife. Kimathi was himself shot and arrested later that year.
Some leads seem purely coincidental and others outright suspicious. In the case of Bogonko Bosire, that happened to be a terror attack. The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming. So they looked, through the rows upon rows of dead bodies from the mall, to no avail. A few times since, there has been some activity on his social media profiles. The last, at 5:30pm on August 10th 2016, was a new profile picture and name on his Facebook profile. “From time to time I check his Twitter handle to see if he’s back,” Boru tells me as we discuss his hope that his friend is still out there somewhere.
Where do We Go from Here?
Many cases remain unsolved because there is no coordinated effort to actually find them. Even well-meaning investigators are hampered by one thing, the lack of dependable data. While some patterns are easy to see, most of them aren’t. A child who disappears from home while in the care of her nanny has most likely been kidnapped, but not always. An aging man with a mental condition who goes missing on his way home probably got lost, but not always. A young man who disappears on his way home could have been shot by the police, but not always.
There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark.
What Kenya needs is an integrated system that not only improves information flow between agencies and families, but also provides a support network for both. Part of this could be a searchable DNA and personal profile database for missing persons and unidentified remains. In countries like Scotland, for example, the standard operating procedures of policing give priority and resources to missing persons’ investigations.
There is some hope though. Earlier this year, the National Crime Research Center released a report on kidnappings in Kenya. In it, researchers found that you are most likely to be kidnapped if you are female, under 35 (and especially below 18) by men of around the same age. The report also ranked Kenya number 17 out of 19 in prevalence of kidnappings. It also looked into interventions and found that at least 12 different bodies, most of them government units such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are involved in addressing kidnapping cases. Some private organisations include Missing Child Kenya, which provides free resources to search for and rescue missing kids.
Still, there is a long way to go in improving our interventions in finding missing people. In 2008, the US state of New Jersey passed “Patricia’s Law”, a landmark law that describes the investigative process when looking for missing persons. Named after Patricia Viola, a 42-year-old wife and mother who disappeared in February 2001 (her remains were identified via DNA a decade later), the 2008 law was part of a combined effort beginning in 2004 to facilitate communication between agencies to ease the process of finding missing persons. The law not only dictates who should (and must) accept missing persons reports, but also describes stages in the investigation. For example, after 30 days missing, the law enforcement agency is required to take a DNA reference sample from the family. The DNA is run through the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons.
Beyond such a legislative backbone, law enforcement agencies also need dedicated resources and personnel. These can form the core structure to coordinate the effort with other agencies as well as stakeholders such as telecom companies. It would also ease communication with the families and friends, and even ease the pressure on morgues, hospitals and hospices.
The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming.
Dependable data will also help researchers identify patterns, and give law enforcement agencies to investigate. As is, beyond their current training and help from telecom agencies and the public, there is little else to go on. No one knows for sure how many people are currently missing, and without that, it is impossible to actually to solve open cases, and even mitigate future ones. Such patterns can be age, gender, risk, and even location. Disappearances of young women in one specific location, or area, could point towards a serial killer, for example. A string of disappearances of kids could point to a human trafficking ring, or even something more sinister.
Anyone can disappear without a trace. Even people in the limelight like Czars, Bogonko Bosire, and Albert Muriuki. All these cases remain unsolved, but their families and friends maintain the hope that that won’t be the case forever. They are only three in an ever-growing list of people who have gone missing without a trace, leaving behind nothing but memories and a never ending worry. The worry that someone is in trouble, or is somewhere lost, is not easy on anyone. Some families simply seek closure, a body to bury even, or just answers. But they are few and far between, and mostly obtained through sheer luck and at times effective policing.
For some those answers never come. As days become months, and then years, and memories fade, the lingering need to find those we love doesn’t dissipate. The worst, Sharon wrote, is in the not knowing.
A NIGERIAN STORY: How Healthcare is the Offspring of Imperialism and Corruption
As a Nigerian, the greatest scorn often finds you when you argue for Nigeria. Other Nigerians will mock you, denounce you as impractical or a dreamer, when you say that Nigeria is where your future lies. But why?
Nigeria as a heritage that separates the Nigerian from the Black American is awarded a loud (though false) superiority. The Nigeria that is evoked in jollof rice debates is praised. Even the Nigeria that must beat Ghana in the football match is supported. Yet, it remains that the Nigeria that will gain a Nigerian’s abuse is the real Nigeria – with its abusive civil servants, its police haggling for bribes and its megachurches auctioning salvation. This real Nigeria is the child of a mean parent called corruption. It’s useful to trace the family tree of this corruption but also useful to think about the way corruption earns Nigeria scorn to the degree that anyone who argues for that Nigeria is unworthy in some way—or should we say, she who argues for Nigeria is worthy of its corruption?
The Nigeria-corruption association has been repeated so often that it has long since become the small talk of world leaders; David Cameron’s aside to Queen Elizabeth II about “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria is but one example. That corruption touches every facet of life in Nigeria is a banality. As Michael Ogbeidi, a history professor at the University of Lagos, put it so accurately in his article, Political Leadership and the Corruption in Nigeria Since 1960, “Indeed, it is difficult to think of any social ill in [Nigeria] that is not traceable to the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, particularly as a direct or indirect consequence of the corruption perpetrated by the callous political leadership class since independence”.
Bureaucratic corruption affects healthcare and this is a very old problem both in Nigeria and throughout the formerly colonized world. When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country. The profits of colonial exploitation are so large they inspire disbelief. For instance, the British Ministry of Food made profits of 11 million pounds sterling in some years, according to Walter Rodney. As Rodney’s seminal text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, so clearly explains: this obscene figure of 11 million pounds sterling per annum was the result of artificially low prices set by private capitalist investors in Britain. The British government allowed dummy organizations, like the West African Cocoa Control Board (est. 1938) to lie to and bully African farmers, while pretending to advocate for them. Moreover, farmers were mandated to sell their crops no matter what price they were given. The farmers did not have the might to stand up against the military and political power of the British government. They did not have a choice. They were not economic players in the game, just chess pieces to be thrown around the board. At any rate, 11 million pounds accounts for the profits of just one body, the British Ministry of Food, so we can only imagine the cumulative profits enjoyed by the British Empire.
When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country.
Whatever the final profits, the people of Nigeria didn’t share in the wealth generated from such exports. The people were simply the machinery of the capitalist endeavor. They were machinery in the sense that the colonial political and economic government had absolutely no consideration for their physical well-being. Instead, by allowing missionaries to overrun the landmass, they rid the country of traditional doctors and what is now referred to as homeopathic medicines. For all the superstition and abuse that occasionally accompanied it, traditional medicine functioned as a rudimentary healthcare infrastructure across the African continent. Aspects of these so-called primitive practices have real and proven benefits.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press. Cotton Mather, who is credited with introducing inoculation into North America, wrote extensively about how a West African born slave, Onesimus, told him about inoculation practices. After learning from Onesimus, Mather began interviewing other enslaved Africans who backed up Onesimus’ testimony of being inoculated as children. Mather then tested inoculation on slaves born outside of Africa and when it proved successful, he introduced it to the white population. But as the practice of inoculation became widespread throughout colonial America, and the rest of the West, its origins were conveniently forgotten.
Once the traditional healer was undermined by new religious concepts, Imperial Britain continued to loot the land and exploit the people. Never was there any real investment in an alternative healthcare infrastructure. There are those who quote the 19th century European lie: they brought us civilization; they brought us religion and railways and doctors! But the numbers don’t bear that out. Rodney notes that in the 1930s, the British colonial government maintained a 34-bed hospital for Ibadan when the city had a population of 500,000 people! The colonial government later expanded their medical facilities, but this was only after pressure from nationalist movements set up by people tired of economic and political exploitation.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press.
It’s obvious that the dearth of medical and healthcare infrastructure was inherited by the national government in the 1960s. Understanding this history, it can be easy to excuse Nigeria and the Nigerian elite. In fact, this is precisely the hope of the Nigerian political and economic elite.
But we can’t let this excuse win the day since the post-1960 era hasn’t seen a marked continual commitment to the healthcare infrastructure system. The initial investment in healthcare wasn’t bad. In fact, as AO Malu, of Benue State Teaching Hospital, points out, when the Ashby Commission on Higher Education recommended the expansion of educational facilities in 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, Medical Faculty at the London College of Ibadan (now known as the University of Ibadan) was expanded and new medical schools were established in Lagos and in Northern Nigeria. The newly independent government continued to found and support teaching hospitals, particularly in the southwestern and northwestern region of Nigeria (Malu).
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology. There is many a “middle class” Nigerian that can testify to their own birth or treatment in a Nigerian teaching hospital. Graduates in this 25-year span, from 1960 to 1985, also willingly testify to the maintenance of the facilities, which is no small thing since it both reflects and demands pride from the facilities’ users. It also reflects real material investment and demands it as well. But all of these testimonies are historical. The testimonies are about what the teaching hospitals used to be. Neglected by federal and state governments, the hospitals are today decrepit artifacts that are stuck with the technology of the last decade. I know one doctor who cried when she visited her alma mater in Rivers State, such was the state of the place with debris and rats. Another physician I know refused to discuss her medical school; she stammered, shook her head in anger and walked away. When she returned to the subject, she said only, “It was never, never like that before. The standard has really fallen.”
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology.
But these “historical” hospitals are still hospitals. They still admit patients and attempt to treat them; they still admit students and attempt to educate them. Their treatment is curtailed by the lack of technological investment, the deteriorating facilities and the stagnated curriculum that Nigerian medical students are afforded. This is not the doing of some late 19th century Briton. It is the result of the rampant and insidious corruption executed by the political elite and their counterparts in the financial sector. As Professor Ogbeidi, notes in his article, citing this 2004 Reuters interview with then anti-graft chief Nuhu Ribadu, “Incontrovertibly, corruption became endemic in the 1990s during the military regimes of Babangida and Abacha, but a culture of impunity spread throughout the political class when democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. In fact, corruption took over as an engine of the Nigerian society and replaced the rule of law”. In other words, the neglect of healthcare infrastructure is a product of recent and present-day choices that continually disregard the health of the people who are the machinery of the nation.
The teaching hospital model was never capable of nor adequate in caring for Africa’s most populous nation. It was a step in the correct direction, but a step that has been halted. As Professor Ogbeidi puts it: “As a consequence of unparalleled and unrivalled corruption in Nigeria, the healthcare delivery system… [has]become comatose and [is] nearing total collapse.”
So what are Nigerians left with? The vast majority of Nigerians who were never able to access teaching hospitals must rely on book doctors and unlicensed and unregulated pharmacies. A book doctor is a person who has learned about the practice of Western medicine solely from books. This book doctor never attended medical school, never sat for a medical certification or license exam and never completed a residency or rotation under the supervision of more experienced medical practitioner. Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises. Neither the federal nor state governments make any attempt to investigate them in the interest of the people.
My experience with the book doctor was fine. He was affable. All the materials I observed were clean and unused. His nurses were well-trained and products of nursing schools. Yet the facility did not have electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, running water, nor a toilet. (Outside of major Nigerian cities, it is not rare to go 2 or more months without electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, this is despite the fact that Nigeria sells energy to Togo, Benin, and Niger.) The book doctor instead powered his facility with a generator and bathroom functions were undertaken in a darkened room at the back of the property. The patients brought their own water.
Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises.
Despite my benign experience, Nigerians die daily from inadequate care from book doctors, just as they die from the inadequate healthcare system throughout Nigeria. Death is the fruit of corruption.
The other fruit of corruption is the bankruptcy of Nigeria’s national wealth.
In making adequate healthcare difficult or impossible to access, the political class is making it an absolute necessity for people to seek medical help outside of Nigeria’s borders. This drives those people who can afford it, to go to African countries like Ghana and South Africa, or ever further to Europe, India, the Middle East or the Americas for medical care. This is an insane situation for a citizen of an oil-rich country.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling. This is money that was made in Nigeria but spent elsewhere; money that should be circulating in the Nigerian economy. Bu a real investment of capital into the construction and maintenance of medical infrastructure would not only stem this but also enrich the country, especially if the construction materials were purchased from Nigerian companies and Nigerians were employed in the labor.
But the same government that is legislating against “medical tourism” is led by President Mohammed Buhari who has become the “face of medical tourism.” President Buhari spent 7 weeks, from January to March, in London before offering up a vague explanation about his health. The lack of specificity was an allusion that was meant to be understood in the mind of the Nigerian citizen as you know we no get oyibo (white man) medicine na. Buhari left Nigeria for London again in May. When the Nigerian populace, aided by journalists, demanded that the President return and govern after an absence of more than 3 months, the president reluctantly returned. He has refused to say how much money the Nigerian government spent on his almost 5-month stay in London. No matter. The failing Nigerian healthcare system is implicit in the president’s long stay in high-priced London and the unstated, exorbitant price tag is yet another example of political corruption.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling.
This drama, of course, comes after the 2010 death of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua whose 3-month medical stay in Saudi Arabia ended when the Nigerian government sent a delegation to “check on his health.” Yar’adua’s absence was explained to the Nigerian people as medical treatment, but during those 3 months, he was not seen in public and this fueled both rumor and a real leadership crisis in the federal government.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
Yet, still the middle class, takes the political and financial elite as “leaders” and follows them abroad. They are not leaders; they are elites by virtue of being on top of the capitalistic structure and because they are elitist, believing that only those at the top should have access to what are now called “basic human necessities,” including electricity and running water. If they were not elitist, they wouldn’t rob the country to the detriment of the health and very life of the people.
In going abroad, middle-class Nigerians are increasingly identifying service sectors and medical acumen with the West. This is dangerous because such identification alleviates the pressure to improve the facilities within Nigeria. The determination to go abroad should instead be replaced by the determination to improve the healthcare infrastructure at home.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
The portion of the Nigerian middle-class that does utilize the healthcare system have little encouragement. Added to the corruption that robs the system is the dearth of physicians who might otherwise provide superior care and demand attention from the political and financial elites. It is not that Nigerian isn’t training medics, but the problems already noted drive them to ply their trade abroad.
A 2013 article by the Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) is titled “Nigerian Medical School Graduates and the US Physician Workforce” and the title says it all. Despite the corruption and deteriorating conditions, Nigerian-educated medical professionals are skilled physicians who are able to practice throughout the world. This is good for them but bad for Nigeria.
According the statistics of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, at least 4300 Nigerian medical graduates were certified to practice in the United States between 1980 and 2012. That is 4,300 doctors who are not practicing in Nigeria. What would Nigeria be like with 4,300 more doctors? Before answering, consider that this is only one type of certification program doctors in the United States and Canada; it does not account for the medical graduates who have emigrated to mainland Europe, the UK, Australia, the Caribbean nations, India, or the increasingly, alluring South American republic of Brazil. Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria must educate another person to become part of the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses another bloc of people capable of putting pressure on the political class to fix the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses people who might create real national wealth by buying Nigerian made goods and supporting local industry, rather than the cheaply made, imports – the shine shine – that litter the market stalls of the subsistence worker and the Instagram pages of the so-called middle class. With the flight of the medical graduate, Nigeria is left stagnant.
Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
It is this stagnant Nigeria that earns a Nigerian the ridicule of his countrymen. At home, everyone (or so it seems) wants to travel abroad. Abroad, home is just a green-and-white outfit, a party theme on October 1st. Healthcare in Nigeria is a fatal casualty of continued political corruption. Medical tourism will cease only after the government has demonstrated sustained and responsible investment and maintenance of healthcare schools and facilities. Until then, the middle class will follow its political and economic elites in seeking medical treatment abroad; they will spend their hard-earned money in other countries and continue to wonder why death and bankruptcy follow them home to Nigeria.
THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill
Two road crashes in the first two weeks of November have robbed Kenya of six lives including that of Nyeri Governor, Wahome Gakuru, and once again brought to the fore the crisis of safety on the country’s roads and highways.
As of November 8, according to statistics released by the National Transport and Safety Authority, 2,387 people had lost their lives on our roads. In its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation shows Kenya’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in the world claiming an average of 29.1 lives per 100,000 people. By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000. Road crashes are among the top ten killers of Kenyans, account for between 45 and 60 percent of all admissions to surgical wards and cost the country up to 5 percent of GDP.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. While the number of registered vehicles on the roads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from just over 1 million to just under 1.8 million according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of both accidents and victims actually fell by about half says the 2015 study Analysis of Causes & Response Strategies of Road Traffic Accidents in Kenya. However, what should set off alarm bells is that despite this, the number of deaths barely budged. It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
In the face of such appalling statistics, it is nothing short of outrageous that the NTSA considers a reduction of 4 percent in the number of pedestrians who have lost their lives on the roads as “drastic”. Though overall deaths were down by a slightly higher 5.8 percent, it speaks to the low expectations the Authority has of itself that the numbers it is celebrating do not even come close its own rather modest target of reducing traffic fatalities by 12 percent.
By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000.
The widely trumpeted but almost always short-lived measures that have been taken by the government to address the issue over the last ten years -such the famous “Michuki rules”, the banning of night buses, enforcement of speed limits, introduction of random breathalyzer tests- have barely budged the average annual number of deaths which still hovers stubbornly around the 3000 mark. By contrast Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads managed to slash in half the number of traffic deaths between 2000 and 2014.
What are the Swedes doing right?
Unlike Kenya’s knee-jerk approach, where reactionary legal measures are quickly announced in the aftermath of a particularly horrific crash, with little research, forethought or long-term planning, and just as quickly forgotten, the Swedes have adopted a more systemic, evidence-based method. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, the Swedish Transport Administration does not believe that deaths and injuries on roads are an inevitable cost of having a functional road network. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg told The Economist in 2014. Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
This focus on building “a system for the humans” is the central pillar of Vision Zero, the radical policy that since 1997, has governed the nation’s approach to transportation. It is even written into their laws. In the same year, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.
Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead, as Dinesh Mohan notes, the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”
Vision Zero seeks to not just reduce, but to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. But it does so, not primarily on the back of enforcement of punitive legislation as is the preferred approach in Kenya. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” says Belin. “If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.”
Enforcement of traffic rules is an important element but rather than merely bullying road users into compliance, the Swedes are building their system around the road users. Safety is not something that is added to the road system; it is an essential component of the system itself. As one analysis of the policy puts it: “Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the system set by the designers. If the users fail to obey the rules … or they obey and injuries occur nonetheless, the system designers must take steps to avoid people being killed or seriously injured.” The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
In Kenya, the approach is diametrically opposite. While the NTSA acknowledges that 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, and blames everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, it rarely discusses the design of our road transport systems, the behaviour it incentivizes and how such errors are mitigated beyond arresting people and increasing fines.
Take the two crashes referenced at the beginning of this tale. Both happened at notorious “black spots”, one at Salgaa and the other at Kabati. Murang’a County Commissioner John Elung’ata says of Kabati, where the Governor died, that “motorists lose control whenever it rains”. The 14-kilometre stretch between Salgaa and Sachangwan along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has been the scene of multiple horrific accidents involving trucks. Yet in 2015, then NTSA Chairman, Lee Kinyanjui, whose agency blamed the crashes on “ignorant drivers” could only promise that “over and above fining those freewheeling, we will be recommending an immediate revocation of their licences and this should go to all the drivers. Reckless driving on our roads will no longer be there.” In these cases, administrators seem to have either resigned themselves to the inevitability of crashes or limited their responses to punishment. There was not talk of redesigning the road to eliminate the “black spot”. Instead Kinyanjui promised to “construct lorry park with a capacity of 200 vehicles where the NTSA officers will be checking lorries”.
But one could perhaps cut Kinyanjui a little slack. While the NTSA can only advise the national government on such design changes and mostly appears to confine itself to patrolling roads to catch errant drivers or chasing down jay-walking pedestrians, STA actually owns, constructs, operates and maintains all state roads in Sweden.
Obviously, a road system is more than just the state of the road and transport authorities have to coordinate with a wide array of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and road users. That system includes all factors that have a bearing on behaviour on the road. As such, the commitment to safety cannot be simply a matter for one body, but rather a national, even cultural commitment. As Belin says, “Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context.” It is, after all, the home of Volvo. Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death. A national obsession with safety is definitely a bonus. However, even without one, Kenya can make better infrastructural decisions that would reduce the risk of injury and death.
The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Take the Thika Superhighway, on which Governor Gakuru died, as an example. The road which rumbles through populated areas is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week. The difference between Thika Superhighway and, say, the UK’s M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly that such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behaviour on them.
We can also ask about emergency responses, or rather, the lack of them. And about the safety of guard rails and whether there are better alternatives. Road accidents, even when they do happen, need not result in grievous injury or death. Why weren’t systems for rescuing trapped people and getting them emergency care factored into the design of the road? How can Kenya fix this? And what rules for other existing and future highways?
Perhaps nowhere would such approach be beneficial than in addressing the safety problems posed by Kenya’s public transport system. According to the WHO, in Kenya “buses and matatus are the vehicles most frequently involved in fatal crashes and passenger in these vehicles account for 38 percent of total road deaths.” Although the 2015 study found that matatus only caused about a third as many accidents as cars and utility vehicles considering that matatus make up only about 5 percent of the about 2 million vehicles on our roads, the fact that they cause around 15 percent of accidents indicates a big problem.
The study found that “Kenyan drivers cause crashes largely because of behavioural and attitudinal problems” and that these problems were more acute in drivers of Public Service Vehicles. “While matatu drivers are viewed as crooks, they regard other drivers as amateurs and always try to show them that they have superior driving skills.”
However, adopting the Swedish approach, one would not just settle for blaming the drivers, as the study, the NTSA and pretty much all of Kenya does. Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death.
The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems – A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. Consider the Kenyan public transport system, which is privately owned and dominated by matatus.
Most matatu crews are not salaried. They basically have a deal with the matatu owner where they deliver an agreed sum every day and get to share what is left over. This means that their daily income is directly tied to how many people they carry and how many trips they make. At the same time, as this Africa Uncensored investigation reveals, most traffic policemen on the road are there, not to enforce the rules, but to extort bribes, matatus being a favourite target. In fact, during vetting by the National Police Service Commission last year, many traffic officers were unable to explain the source of their wealth and the many mobile transactions they seemed to be making. Given that it has been reported that most actually pay their superiors for the privilege of being deployed on the roads, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where they were sending the money.
The rub of this is that matatu drivers have big incentives to stop anywhere to pick up passengers and to make as many trips as possible, even when this means driving like madmen. The police, on the other hand, have little incentive to enforce the law. And given that many powerful government officials and senior police officers own matatus, there is little incentive to fix the problem.
Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the problem is less incompetent drivers with an attitude problem, but rather the perverse system of incentives which generates the behaviour. Thus the solutions proposed, such as retraining and recertifying drivers, will have little effect. As US philosopher Robert Pirsig, wrote in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Similarly, retraining drivers without changing the underlying system will resolve nothing.
Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Changing the system would require the NTSA to confront more powerful forces than lowly matatu crews, but is the true measure of the government’s commitment to dealing with the carnage matatu’s wreak on the road. However, it is not just where matatus are concerned that Kenya could benefit from a serious retooling. Rather than shooting from the hip when confronted with speeding or drinking drivers, the country would do well to adopt a research and evidence-based approach which looks at the problem in all its facets. For example, if, as one study found, “mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence,” should Kenya be focusing on those?
An important aspect of ensuring roads are safe is ensuring the road system caters for the needs of all its users, not just a few of them. That requires understanding how the roads are actually used. According to the World Bank’s Kenya State of the Cities Baseline Survey released in March 2014, half the labour force and three-quarters of students walk to work or to school. Another 43 percent and 19 percent respectively use matatus. Only 3 percent actually drive to work. Yet Kenyan roads treat pedestrian traffic as an afterthought and, as detailed above, the public transport system is in a shambles. This inevitably creates conflicts and, as statistics show, it is passengers and pedestrians who bear the brunt of the violence on our roads. Similarly, as the use of motorcycle-taxis, or bodaboda, has increased, so has the number of fatalities and injuries associated with them.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage. Well thought-out policies, including pedestrianizing the CBD, have been successfully adopted in cities like Pontevedra in Spain, which eliminated 53 percent of traffic in the city as a whole and 97 percent at its historical centre. “We inverted the pyramid,” its long serving Mayor, Miguel Lores, says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.” As a result, the city has not had a single traffic fatality in 6 years.
Understanding behaviour on the roads does not require condoning its unsavoury aspects. Rather, it means Kenya can get to grips with the systemic reasons such behaviour is prevalent and why it is destructive. It means, beyond demonizing road users, the NTSA and other stakeholders within and outside the government consider how they contribute to the problem, and what needs to change in order to either eliminate the incentives for that behaviour or to mitigate its effects.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage.
In fact, Kenyan roads are a microcosm of the colonially-inspired hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place on the time, lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of Kenyans. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates for whom nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. The tiny middle class is next in line and at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. When, periodically, their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can take over the streets entirely. Like the traffic police, the institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for their betters.
Eliminating traffic deaths and injuries is an achievable goal. But to do it, Kenya must change, not just its roads and its drivers, but itself. The country must revolutionize its approach to the problem and start seeing people as the reason the road system, and indeed the entire rubric of government, exists. In short, like Sweden, it must “create a system for the humans”.
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