Connect with us

Op-Eds

In Whose Interest? Reflecting on the High Court Ruling Against John Githongo

7 min read.

The core issue in the Murungaru v Githongo case remains whether the revelations of the Anglo Leasing scandal – which was not just exposed in the Nation newspaper that published the Githongo Dossier in 2006, but was also extensively documented by the British journalist Michela Wrong in her book, It’s Our Turn to Eat were in the public interest.

Published

on

In Whose Interest? Reflecting on the High Court Ruling Against John Githongo
Download PDFPrint Article

The awarding of a hefty Sh27 million ($270,000) in damages to the former minister Christopher Ndarathi Murungaru by the High Court judge Joseph Sergon has sent a chilling message to all those who might be inclined to report corruption or wrongdoing within government: do so at your own peril.

Murungaru’s libel case against anti-corruption activist and former Governance and Ethics Permanent Secretary, John Githongo, has raised serious questions about whether court decisions are being made without due reference to constitutionally-protected rights and freedoms and whether Kenya’s judiciary has been “captured” by the state.

These questions were recently discussed and debated at a public forum in Nairobi organised by various civil society organisations, and attended by prominent legal minds, including the former justice minister and NARC leader, Martha Karua, who described the Sh27 million award by the judge as “outrageous”. Karua, who has been accused by her critics of not doing enough to protect Githongo when she served in Mwai Kibaki’s administration (when the so-called Anglo Leasing scandal that implicated Murungaru and others in government was exposed), stated that the case will make people afraid of coming out and reporting corruption within government. She further claimed that when she realised that many of the Anglo Leasing contracts that Githongo had exposed in what is known as the “Githongo Dossier” were fraudulent, she made several attempts to have the government not honour them, but was thwarted in her attempts by none other than the then Attorney General, Amos Wako.

As George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, pointed out, “This case was about isolating John and exposing him financially. It was to embarrass and ruin him and to silence him.”

Wachira Maina, a constitutional lawyer and governance consultant, believes that this case illustrates how “state institutions have been repurposed for private gain”. He wondered why Murungaru had not sued the Nation newspaper, which published the dossier, suggesting that the case was a personal vendetta against a soft target who could be financially crippled by the case. As George Kegoro, the Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission, pointed out, “This case was about isolating John and exposing him financially. It was to embarrass and ruin him and to silence him.”

The amount awarded to the plaintiff also seemed unusually large. As Jill Ghai noted, “If you lose a leg in an accident in Kenya, the most you get awarded is 2 million shillings, so 27 million for damages is outrageous.”

“The court did not consider that Anglo Leasing happened under Murungaru’s watch,” said Maina. He further pointed out that every ruling in the courts must “pass the constitutional test”, which this ruling clearly did not. “There is no single reference in the judgement to the constitution. Judges are not only expected to apply the constitution, but are also expected to interpret law to reflect the constitution.”

Did the public have the right to know the people and events that constituted the Anglo Leasing scandal? Definitely, because billions of Kenyan taxpayers’ shillings were involved, and the contracts signed had to do with national security

Several countries are reconsidering their libel laws and amending them so that they do not impinge on freedom of speech and the right to access to information, which are constitutional rights in many countries, including Kenya. These rights and freedoms become even more salient when the publication of certain information is in the public interest. The UK’s Defamation Act of 2013, for instance, curtailed what is known as “libel tourism” (libel cases brought by people who go to court in countries where they are most likely to be awarded large amounts of money in damages) and extended to the mass media the “qualified privilege” defence, which provides protection from a defamation lawsuit for journalists who publish information that is in the public interest.

Perceived injury to an individual versus public interest

The core issue in the Murungaru v Githongo case remains whether the revelation of the Anglo Leasing scandal – which was not just exposed in the Nation newspaper that published the Githongo Dossier in 2006, but was also extensively documented by the British journalist Michela Wrong in her book, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistleblower, published in 2009 – was in the public interest. Did the public have the right to know the people and events that constituted the Anglo Leasing scandal? Definitely, because billions of Kenyan taxpayers’ shillings were involved, and the contracts signed had to do with national security. (The Anglo Leasing scandal, as the corruption scam that Githongo exposed has come to be known, was a series of fictitious security contracts signed with shell companies by the Moi and Kibaki governments that cost the Kenyan taxpayer millions of dollars. According to reliable estimates, the contracts were worth more than $700 million, of which an estimated $250 million was paid out). Some of those implicated are currently facing trial in the Kenyan courts.

Kimeu said that the role of the judiciary is to interpret the law, and to do so in line with the aspirations of the people. “This case was about Kenyans and their money,” he stated. “The case made an example of John – it is basically telling us to lie low. If you speak out, it is to your personal detriment.”

Moreover, the court must determine that there was “actual malice” on the part of Githongo when he claimed that Murungaru and four other high-level government officials orchestrated the Anglo Leasing scam. So, for instance, there needed to be evidence that Githongo deliberately tried to malign Murungaru in order to cause harm to him or to damage his personal or professional reputation. (Murungaru claimed that he lost his parliamentary seat as a result of Githongo’s allegations, which is neither here nor there.) As Samuel Kimeu, the Executive Director of Transparency International-Kenya, rightly asked, “How is it that a perceived injury to one person trumps the public interest?”

Kimeu said that the role of the judiciary is to interpret the law, and to do so in line with the aspirations of the people. “This case was about Kenyans and their money,” he stated. “The case made an example of John – it is basically telling us to lie low. If you speak out, it is to your personal detriment.”

Kimeu highlighted that there is currently no law in Kenya that protects whistleblowers, which makes exposing wrongdoing a daunting task, and that this particular libel case has had a “disorienting” effect on those who protect the public interest.

Integrity issues

Prof. Kibe Mungai, an advocate of the High Court, admitted that many judges and public officers in Kenya disregard the constitution, especially on issues to do with integrity and values. However, as I have noted in previous articles, the precedent was set by none other than the current presidency, Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who stood for the highest political office in the land despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity. By doing so, they contravened Article 73 of the constitution that states that “authority assigned to a State officer is a public trust to be exercised in a manner that … promotes public confidence in the integrity of the office”.

In my opinion, Kenyatta and Ruto should have disqualified themselves as candidates in the 2013 election (but could have stood for political office when or if they were acquitted). While I believe that the ICC process has proved to be flawed and perhaps even discriminatory, and that Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga – respectively the head of state and the leader of the opposition during the post-election violence in 2007/8 – should have borne ultimate responsibility for the deaths and destruction during that time, I think that by putting themselves up as candidates, Kenyatta and Ruto rubbished both the ICC and the Kenyan constitution – an unfortunate development that severely eroded Kenya’s reputation as a country that upholds the rule of law and which had a detrimental effect on the country’s political landscape.

The constitution, in particular Chapter 6 on Leadership and Integrity, was further ignored by a large segment of the Kenyan electorate, which went ahead and voted for Kenyatta and Ruto, not despite the fact that they were indicted, but because they were. The country has been on a downward spiral constitutionally since then, and we the Kenyan voters, have only ourselves to blame.

Justice Sergon also failed to recognise that the role of a whistleblower is not to bring forth evidence, but simply to raise suspicion about possible wrongdoing that will, hopefully, result in a full investigation by the relevant authorities

George Kegoro believes that the case, which took 13 years to conclude, was flawed from the start. First, in March 2015, the previous judge, Justice David Onyancha, disqualified himself from the case on the grounds that there had been attempts to compromise him, while providing no details about who the compromisers were. This raised the question about whether his successor, Justice Sergon, was considered to be a more pliable judge by those who tried to compromise his predecessor.

Moreover, Justice Sergon proceeded as if Anglo Leasing never happened. As Kegoro argued in an opinion piece published in the Standard:

“Besides underrepresenting issues of process in the final judgement, Justice Sergon totally ignored questions of context. The suit against Githongo arose from the Anglo Leasing scandal that gripped the country in 2006, giving rise to a tumultuous political situation that almost toppled the young Kibaki government. The fallout from the scandal included the resignation of Githongo from government before he went into exile in the United Kingdom. Also, a number of high officials, including Murungaru and [former finance minister David] Mwiraria, eventually lost office or were charged in court in relation to the scandal over which there was significant public outrage… Allowing Murungaru’s claim against Githongo has given judicial approval to a blinkered and contrived self-view by the former minister, which is at variance with how the general public has come to view him…”

Yet, in his ruling, Sergon stated: “There were no iota of evidence presented by the defendant and his witness linking the plaintiff to the corrupt practices. Therefore the contents of the dossier in the absence of evidence to establish their truthfulness means that the publication is and was defamatory of the plaintiff.”

Justice Sergon also failed to recognise that the role of a whistleblower is not to bring forth evidence, but simply to raise suspicion about possible wrongdoing that will, hopefully, result in a full investigation by the relevant authorities.

Kenya’s legal history is littered with bad judgements and excessive punishments, not just for those who raise their voices against injustices and human rights violations but also for those ordinary citizens who cannot afford savvy lawyers or who lack access to political influence

Githongo has said that he will appeal the High Court decision, and a crowd-funding mechanism to raise Sh27 million has already been put in place in case he loses the appeal.

Kenya’s legal history is littered with bad judgements and excessive punishments, not just for those who raise their voices against injustices and human rights violations but also for those ordinary citizens who cannot afford savvy lawyers or who lack access to political influence (like chicken thieves who end up eight years behind bars because a judge deemed that a hungry man who steals a chicken is more criminal than a man who robs an entire country).

We must also not forget that Kamlesh Pattni, the mastermind of the Goldenberg scandal in the early 1990s, which almost brought Kenya to its knees economically, is still enjoying fresh air and living large. The Murungaru v Githongo case might just outrage Kenyans enough for them to demand more accountability from governments that steal and from courts that continuously thwart or ignore the will and aspirations of a fatigued citizenry yearning for a more just and humane society.

Support The Elephant.

The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.

Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.

By

Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist. In a previous incarnation, she was an editor at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat). She has published two books on Somalia – War Crimes (2014) and Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) – and is the author UNsilenced (2016), and Triple Heritage (1998).

Op-Eds

Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation.

Published

on

Joint UN, Ethiopia Atrocities Report: Poison Fruit of Poisonous Tree
Download PDFPrint Article

The joint United Nations (UN) and Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) investigation is like a ham omelette: the chicken is involved, but the pig is committed. In this investigation, the UN only reluctantly became involved in demonstrating its efforts in investigating atrocity crimes, while the EHRC was committed to defending the government of Ethiopia – the architect of the war on Tigray.

Various reports on the investigation into atrocity crimes committed in Tigray are expected to be released in the coming weeks.

The report of the joint UN and EHRC investigation was released on 3 November 2021. The much-anticipated report by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the determination by the United States government on whether genocide against Tigrayans has been committed, are also expected to be released in the near future. These reports will be markedly different from the discredited report of the joint investigation.

The joint investigation’s report failed to establish facts because the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) had no access to the location it purported to cover and where most of the crimes are presumed to have been committed. Due to what the report calls “challenges and constraints”, the joint investigation was unable to access atrocity zones. It also underreported on, and failed to include, infamous atrocity zones in Tigray, including Axum, Abi Addi, Hagere Selam, Togoga, Irob, Adwa, Adrigrat, Hawzen, Gijet, and Maryam Dengelat as well as the Tigrayan bodies that washed up in Sudan on the Nile River. As in most cases, the worst atrocity zones in Tigray were located in active battlefields. Yet, the investigators were able to visit and interview witnesses in parts of Tigray that had been ethnically cleansed.

Victims side-lined 

Moreover, the report downplayed the concerns of victims. The UN Basic Principles on Right to Remedy and Reparations, under Principle 8, define victims as:

[P]ersons who individually or collectively suffered harm, including physical or mental injury, emotional suffering, economic loss or substantial impairment of their fundamental rights, through acts or omissions that constitute gross violations of international human rights law, or serious violations of international humanitarian law. Where appropriate, and in accordance with domestic law, the term “victim” also includes the immediate family or dependants of the direct victim and persons who have suffered harm in intervening to assist victims in distress or to prevent victimisation.

The final report did not include the findings of extensive interviews that the UN conducted with Tigrayan refugees from the second week of November 2020 through to the end of December 2020. These interviews were held in refugee camps in Sudan, with victims and witnesses of human rights violations of various kinds and to different degrees. According to some informants, the report was submitted to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in January 2021. However, for unclear reasons, the findings of this investigation have not yet been made public, and there is no mention of it in the joint report. Informants say that few staff members of the Office of The High Commissioner for Human Rights in Addis Ababa raised questions regarding the integrity of the investigation carried out by their colleagues in Sudan.

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded. Instead, the UN issued the report authored jointly with the EHRC while concealing the report its office in Sudan had produced earlier. This amounts to subversion of investigations and victims’ right to truth and remedy – a violation of international law.  Reports indicate that the government of Ethiopia curtailed the UN’s role in the investigation including by expelling one of the UN investigators.

Witnesses were reluctant to participate in an inquiry involving the EHRC. As one of the challenges, the report mentions the “perceptions of bias against the EHRC in some parts of Tigray where some potential interviewees declined to be interviewed by the JIT because of the presence of EHRC personnel”. This is a deliberate understatement.

Tigrayan victims and Tigray authorities rejected the joint investigation from the outset and declared their non-cooperation. In a recent report the Guardian asserts, “Especially damaging has been the growing perception among Tigrayans, about 6% of Ethiopia’s population, that the commission is partial towards the federal government and hostile to the TPLF.”

The voices of victims and witnesses of atrocious crimes who gave their accounts in complete confidence in the UN have been deliberately disregarded.

Victims are right to fear reprisals by Ethiopian, Eritrean and Amhara forces, and this fear silenced many and reinforced victims’ non-cooperation since the EHRC was involved. Conversely, perpetrators believe they can get away with their crimes when the EHRC is leading the investigation.

A principal at the core of the concept of justice is redressing the wrongs done to victims. The interests of victims should thus remain central to any investigation. In Tigray, women are the principal victims of the war, and a deliberate campaign of rape and sexual violence has been as typical as murder.

By excluding the voices of the majority of victims, the UN violated its cardinal principle of a victim-centred investigation. Justice entails that victims have the right to the truth and that those responsible for victimising people are held to account for their actions in a transparent fact-finding process and held liable for remedying the harm caused. The truth of what occurred should be established through the verification of facts and full public disclosure.

Bad start

The joint investigation started on the wrong footing. The basis on which the decision to constitute a joint investigation was made, the terms of reference, the selection of the investigators, and the agreement between the UN and the EHRC have never been made public, despite many requests. They remain shrouded in secrecy.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia. Others argue that such a joint venture would help build local and national capacity for investigation. It is heartless to think of building local capacity at the expense of victims of mass atrocity crimes (rape, killings, displacement and destruction of livelihoods). In effect, in this investigation, though committed to addressing atrocity crimes, the UN has been allowed to play second fiddle to personalities of a national system. The UN offered a façade of independence and impartiality to the investigation. The decision to conduct this joint investigation politicized a process that could and should have been de-politicized.

Some claim that the EHRC was involved in this investigation for the UN to gain access to Ethiopia.

Given that a general situation of war, chaos and a breakdown in law and order has been deliberately created in Tigray to systematically and systemically commit atrocities, destroy infrastructure and loot property, fears of reprisal are real. Consequently, the victims had little confidence in the joint investigation’s impartiality, capability and mandate to establish the truth, let alone identify perpetrators – particularly those holding the highest offices of command, control and communication.

Pleas unheeded 

For these reasons, many Tigrayans denounced the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for involving the EHRC. The investigation was, from the start, designed to fail the Tigrayan victims. Tigrayans consistently called for the UN to establish an international commission of inquiry equipped to investigate crimes of such magnitude and gravity.

What is more, the report subverted the core aim of a standard investigation. Investigations and findings should be based on verifiable evidence collected from the ground without any involvement from the parties to the conflict and institutions accused of bias. The UN also failed to follow its guidelines and precedence of establishing independent and international commissions of inquiry or international fact-finding missions, as it did in Burundi, South Sudan, Gaza, Syria, Libya, Sudan (Darfur), Côte d’Ivoire, and Lebanon. These exemplary investigations were comprehensive and served as historical records of grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, offered the victims truth, and ensured the legal and political accountability of those responsible. In addition to holding criminals accountable, such investigations are supposed to help in restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and above all, guarantees of non-repetition of violations.

One asks why the UN thinks the atrocities committed in Tigray are less deserving.

False equivalence

All investigations need to include all alleged violations by any party. The prosecution also needs to include all responsible parties to ensure that no justice is victor’s justice. This is not only the right thing to do but also the most effective method of legitimizing the process, ensuring accountability, providing remedies, and fighting impunity. However, such a process should not apply bothsidesism as a method of investigation and attribution of culpability.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators. There are more paragraphs about calls for the cessation of hostilities, reconciliation, and capacity building than accountability, attribution of culpability, and ending impunity. The report is crafted in a manner that covers up the ringleaders of the crimes, softens accountability, advances recommendations that permit impunity in the name of reconciliation, and establishes false equivalence among warring parties. One paragraph in the report, for example, states, “International mechanisms are complementary to and do not replace national mechanisms. In this regard, the JIT was told that national institutions such as the Office of the Federal Attorney General and military justice organs have initiated processes to hold perpetrators accountable, with some perpetrators already having been convicted and sentenced.” The report advances proposals on non-legal issues including political causes of the war, humanitarian consequences and capacity building of EHRC.

Pulling the wool over the eyes of the international community, the report created false equivalence to disguise the real perpetrators.

It is bizarre that the UN believes that the Ethiopian National Defence Force and the Attorney General of the Government of Ethiopia can ensure accountability. The Ethiopian National Defence Force is a principal party in the war, and the Attorney General remains the chief architect of massive profiling of Tigrayans living outside Tigray, rounding up Tigrayans and leading the campaign for their internment. Like the EHRC, the Attorney General has no prosecutorial independence to hold officials of the Ethiopian government accountable.

Furthermore, many Ethiopians see only the victimization of their own group and not what their side has done to others. Dialogue, reconciliation and peace cannot be achieved while every fact is disputed. This report adds to the fierce dispute around the facts. For this very reason, many will continue to reject the report – as they did the investigation.

Victims’ demand

Overwhelming segments of the Tigrayan society reject the joint report. In particular, Tigrayans demand that the UN conduct its investigations, revealing Tigrayans’ high expectations of the UN’s ability to establish the truth based on which justice can be served.

Given the recent leaked audio recording that reveals the conspiracy against Tigrayans by some of the leaders in the UN Ethiopia office, one is forced to ask why Tigrayans have such high hopes in the UN. Many are left with no option but to reject outright the poison fruit of the so-called joint investigation, much as the victims, their families, the survivors and the Tigrayan community at large have done. By disregarding repeated calls for an international commission of inquiry, the UN has missed an opportunity for an empathetic and purposeful connection with the actual victims of the war.

Many atrocity situations such as in Rwanda, Darfur, Syria, and Burundi have been visited by the highest level officials of the international community. The highest-level officials of the UN, AU, IGAD and the US and EU leadership should travel to Tigray and other war-torn areas of Ethiopia. Even if permission from the government of Ethiopia for such high-level visits would have been difficult to secure, such attempts by high-level officials to visit the region would have demonstrated at least personal compassion and solidarity with victims. Such visits would have been viewed as both a symbolic and tangible commitment of leaders to end the war and the siege, and address impunity.

In the interests of the victims – and to place them at the centre of UN’s human rights work – the UN should authorize a UN-mandated commission of inquiry to investigate the atrocity crimes committed in Tigray and in other parts of the country.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land

Kenyans choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army (also known as Mau Mau) did not fight for a monument. They fought for land.

Published

on

No Country for Our Real Heroes: A Monument for the Mau Mau at Last, but No Land
Download PDFPrint Article

Mau Mau heroes now have a monument, but no land. Earlier this month, they were invited to the unveiling of this monument in Nairobi; a “memorial to the victims of torture and ill treatment during the colonial period 1952-1960.” They turned up in large numbers, the majority wearing bright red t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Shujaa wa Mau Mau” – Mau Mau hero.

In their hundreds, they were a sea of red and black amidst the green of Uhuru Park, watching avidly for when their monument would be unveiled in the section of this commons called “Freedom Corner.”

And while the British and Kenyan government and collaborating NGO representatives, all younger than the actual heroes, were sitting within an expansive white tent, these aging freedom fighters were sat under the hot sun, waiting for the official ceremony to begin. Some were said to have arrived as early as 6 am.

Finally, we could say, at least some recognition for our people who were classified as terrorists until 2003. Finally something to honour the bravery of all freedom fighters and the significance of that period in our history.

But, as social movement activist Gacheke Gachihi asked, what can we gain from a narrative that continues to posit them as “victim” instead of victor over the British? And even while recognizing the inhuman excesses meted out against them, what are the motivations for a rewriting of history that perpetuates a narrative of their victimhood and, as is appearing to be more and more the case, erases the full extent of their struggle?

Spoken interminably at the monument unveiling was the word “reconciliation,” followed closely by “ending” and “closure.” It seems that this monument is also meant to make us reconcile our past with all features of British imperialism; the £90,000 monument (an incessantly repeated figure) is where all further questions about the ravages of empire stop.

Inevitably, it seems also to be the national burial site for the land question.

Not one mention of it anywhere at this launch.

It was the elephant in the room, the solid yet invisible presence that no one spoke about. It was clumsily replaced by other buzzwords: reconciliation, closure, victimhood.

And while they turned up in their numbers, the show could definitely have gone on without the Kenya Land and Freedom army for in many ways these heroes were the appropriate props for the speeches and photo opportunities of innumerable people who were not Mau Mau, yet who will revel in the after glories of the praise that will come from being “important” at this event.

It is reported that these important characters then later went off to drink at the Norfolk, the oldest and, undoubtedly, most colonial of Nairobi’s hotels (even President Roosevelt stayed here in 1909 when he came to shoot half our wildlife to “collect specimens for the Smithsonian institute”) and whose terrace is “rumoured” to be the site where Africans were often shot for sport.

Meanwhile the actual shujaas then walked home, 80-year-old grandmothers bent over with no shoes walking through busy Nairobi to go back to their rural homes.

And in the the Nairobi headquarters of the Mau Mau, Mathare constituency, life continued as normal for Monica Wambui, a 101-year-old Mau Mau woman who has been living in her mabati tin house for the last 50 + years, and with no water, permanent shelter and still having to find her own firewood to cook.

And for this shujaa wa Mau Mau from Mathare, tells it all.

In this same place the descendants of these two heroes are caught in the spate of police killings that Mathare Social Justice Centre is working to document. And there will never be monuments for these young people who, in many ways, are also fighting for land.

A week later we are still being told about the £90,000 monument to “victims,” and being assailed constantly by the supposed generosity of the British government who solicited this monument at their “own” expense  (one twitter commentator remarked that this money is likely to have been easily raised from all the exorbitant visa fees Kenyans are charged to visit the UK) .

And in all the hyper-buzz about this memorial we choose to forget that the Kenya Land and Freedom army did not fight for a monument.

They fought for land.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

Continue Reading

Op-Eds

I Am Samuel

The government should support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard, and everyone’s point of view to be listened to.

Published

on

I Am Samuel
Download PDFPrint Article

“I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”

We first got introduced to independent documentary filmmaking in 2013, at a gathering of Kenyan filmmakers in a small office of the nascent DocuBox film fund. Pete Murimi, director of I am Samuel, and I, producer, had no idea that it was possible to tell stories independent of a broadcaster or funder. As a service producer, I was used to receiving agency or broadcaster briefs and working according to spec. Pete, as a filmmaker at the UN, was familiar with that style of telling stories.

This intimate gathering of filmmakers (which included directors of The Letter, Kenya’s submission to the Oscars in 2020, and the director of New Moon, winner of Oscar-qualifying 2018 DIFF Best Documentary award) did not know that it was about to embark on an arduous multiple-year journey to tell their stories, and self-release at global festivals. But we all somehow made it through the strength of community and the determination to have complete agency over the stories we felt were important to tell. Pete and I were committed to telling stories of outsiders, people who did not accept the way things were, just because.

Voltaire’s quote above is our fallback when asked about freedom of expression, the freedom we committed to when we decided we wanted to tell these stories. We are a diverse country, with complicated, layered realities. Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

Shot over five years, I Am Samuel tells the story of a queer man navigating the tension between his life in Nairobi and his rural childhood home. He and his partner Alex want to build a life together, but his father and mother want him to get married, have kids, and live the exact kind of life they have.

Allowing storytellers to tell these stories, no matter whether you agree with them or not, is a move towards greater inclusivity, democracy, and tolerance.

This was not an easy documentary to make. Samuel had to give up a lot of his privacy, and trust Pete and I, who were first-time independent filmmakers, balancing making this film with our day jobs. But Samuel allowed us into his life, without restriction. And that was a privilege that we could not afford to take lightly. Alfred Hitchcock once said, “In fiction films, the director is God; in documentary, God is the director.” We believe this to be true; life as it happens, with all its messiness and unpredictability, is what makes character-driven verité styles so difficult to do, but ultimately so rewarding.

I am Samuel was released at Hot Docs 2020, an international film festival that showcases stories from across the globe. It then toured the Human Rights Watch Film Festivals the world over and showed in South America, the Netherlands, and the UK. But our eventual goal was always to bring it back home. Because we felt this was a Kenyan story, we knew it would connect with audiences back home; mostly because Samuel’s lived reality as a queer, religious, traditional man is not unique. We applied for classification in Kenya to be able to screen it locally, and waited weeks for a response. We were asked to attend a meeting at the KFCB offices on Thursday 23rd September, but we were unable to make it in person. We then heard about the press conference, the ban, and the press release later that Thursday.

We are yet to receive a letter in writing or a certificate that shows our Kenyan rating.

We were deeply disturbed by the discriminatory language used in explaining the ban: they described it as “blasphemous” and “unacceptable, and an affront to our culture and identity.” The restricted classification of the film contained a number of inaccuracies. It referenced a “marriage” that never happened and said we were “promoting a homosexual lifestyle”. The board noted a “clear and deliberate attempt by the producer to promote same-sex marriage as an acceptable way of life. This attempt is evident through the repeated confessions of the gay couple that what they feel for each other is normal and should be embraced as a way of life, as well as the characters’ body language, including scenes of kissing of two male lovers.”

We were simply filming people’s lived experiences.

By banning the film, KFCB is silencing a real Kenyan community and trampling on our rights as filmmakers to tell Samuel’s story. Every story is important. And we are all equal in the eyes of the law and before God, in line with the religion the film board is invoking in this ruling. The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

The Kenya Film Classification Board is trying to censor a part of Kenya that has always existed, is a lived reality for millions and will always be a part of us. Several high-profile Kenyans are queer, including government politicians and public figures, but the intolerant atmosphere created by discriminatory statements like those of the KFCB make it impossible for them to live openly – and allow other Kenyans to continue to discriminate, wrongfully so, against LGBTQ+ Kenyans. As I Am Samuel shows, prejudice forces LGBTQ+ Kenyans to live in the shadows, fearful of being beaten up, fired from their jobs, or evicted from their homes. Stigma puts pressure on their families, who fear that if their neighbours find out they have a gay child, they will be ostracised.

The arts – from filmmakers and novelists to painters and comedians – hold a mirror up to society and show us some of the difficult realities from which we often try to shy away.

In their press statement, the KFCB appealed for content that “promotes Kenya’s moral values and national aspirations”. What are these values? The KFCB is assuming that the values of all Kenyans are the same – conservative and Christian. But Kenya is a diverse country and it is the responsibility of our government to represent and serve everybody. Our differences should be acknowledged as a strength, and shown through our filmmaking. Kenya is Africa’s third biggest film producer, after Nigeria and Ghana, making 500 films a year. African filmmakers are attracting international acclaim. Softie won an award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival last year. The United Nations recently said that the African film and audio-visual industry generates US$5 billion a year and has the potential to create 20 million jobs. I Am Samuel is the third LGBTQ+ film to be banned by the KFCB, following Stories of Our Lives (2014) and Rafiki (2018). Among other movies that have been banned by KFCB are The Wolf of Wall Street (2014) and Fifty Shades of Grey (2015).

Our film is a true record of Samuel’s lived experience Samuel. Gay African men, gay African people, should be recognised and have their rights respected. This includes the right to freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom from discrimination. Samuel himself is a strong Christian, and Kenya has several LGBTQ+-friendly churches that provide a place for queer Kenyans to worship together. Banning of films is a blow to Kenyan filmmakers as our audience is inherently local, and we need to have a wide distribution to reach audiences, to go regional, to go global, for so many reasons: telling our own narratives, correcting the misguided ones, creating jobs, and widening our own imaginations, exponentially, of what is possible for us as Kenyans. The Lupita Nyong’os and Edi Gathegis of this world should not only exist in a rare and unexplored vacuum.

It is time for the government to accept and support our creative industries, and allow every Kenyan’s voice to be heard – because the banning also leaves us with questions about whether everyone’s point of view truly is listened to. The documentary has been released across Africa on the AfriDocs website, and we hope that African audiences will still get a chance to watch a film that is not accepted in its home country. . . yet.

Continue Reading

Trending