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The Kenyan Court of Appeal’s BBI Judgment: Thirsting for Sunlight

9 min read.

At its heart, the BBI Judgment is about power, and the judges in the majority believe that the constitution acts as a barrier against the concentration of power, and as a channel for its dispersal.

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The Kenyan Court of Appeal’s BBI Judgment: Thirsting for Sunlight
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There is a story about how, for the longest time, the poetic perfection of The Iliad confounded scholars. How could Homer both be the first of the epic bards, and the most accomplished? Foundational works are tentative, exploratory, sometimes stumbling, searching for an assurance that they are doomed to never realise. That privilege is reserved for later works, which build upon the foundation and reach the pinnacle.

The mystery was ultimately resolved when it was deduced that Homer was not the first – or even (in all probability) one – person, but part of an entire oral tradition of epic composition (a lesson, perhaps, that whether artist, judge, or lawyer, acts of creation are always collaborative). Yet the point remains: when we consider work that has taken on the burden of a beginning, we should hold it to the standards of a beginning. Not every question will be answered, not every resolution will satisfy, not every path be taken to its logical destination. But without a beginning, there will be nothing to take forward.

I’d like to think of the BBI Judgment in the words of Christopher Okigbo’s poem, Siren Limits: “For he was a shrub among the poplars/ Needing more roots/ More sap to grow to sunlight/ Thirsting for sunlight. . . .” In the years to come, constitutional jurisprudence may put down stronger roots, and more sap may flow that takes it to sunlight, but here is where the beginning is.

In that spirit, in the first section of this article, I raise a couple of questions that future courts may be called upon to answer. These are in addition to some of the issues discussed in the previous posts, which have also been left open by the judgment(s) (constitutional statutes, referendum questions, identifying the exact elements of the basic structure, etc.)

Making the constitution too rigid?

A stand-out feature of both the High Court and the Court of Appeal judgments has been that, for the first time in basic structure history, the doctrine has been held not to constitute a bar on amendments, but to require the replication of the Constitution’s founding conditions. This, it is argued, provides a safeguard against a possible juristocracy, where the courts stand as barriers to the people’s will, thereby leaving a revolution or a coup as the only options.

To this, the counter-argument – mentioned in Judge Sichale’s dissenting opinion – is that the judiciary nonetheless remains a gatekeeper, as it will decide when a proposed amendment violates the basic structure and therefore needs to go through the rigorous four-step “re-founding” procedure. This becomes problematic, because if Article 257 is meant to empower the common person – Wanjiku – to initiate a constitutional amendment process, then placing the constitutional courts as a set of Damocles’ swords that might at any point fall upon that process, cut it short, and demand its replacement by the far more onerous re-founding procedure, can hardly be called empowerment. After all, is it fair to expect Wanjiku to approach the constitutional court every time, to check in advance, whether Article 257 should apply to a proposed amendment, or whether preparations should commence for nationwide civic education, a constituent assembly, and so on?

I suspect that it is for this reason that more than one judge in the majority did try to define the basic structure with a degree of specificity, gesturing – in particular – to the ten thematic areas set out in Article 255(1) of the Constitution. Ultimately, however, the Court of Appeal judgments could not reach a consensus on this point. The upshot of this is that it is likely that the Kenyan courts – more than courts in other jurisdictions – will be faced with litigation that will specifically require them to identify what constitutes the basic structure.

Is it fair to expect Wanjiku to approach the constitutional court every time, to check in advance, whether Article 257 should apply to a proposed amendment?

That said, however, I believe that the concern is somewhat overstated. One thing that comes through all of the Court of Appeal judgments is a clear sense that constitutional amendment is a serious endeavour. The stakes – permanent alteration of the Constitution – are high. In such a circumstance, is it that disproportionate to have the constitutional courts involved at the stage of vetting the amendment, simply on the question of which procedural channel it should proceed into? After all, there are jurisdictions where pre-legislative scrutiny for constitutional compliance – whether by a constitutional office such as that of the Attorney-General, or even by a court – exists.

And one can easily imagine how the Kenyan courts can develop norms to minimise the disruption that this will cause. For example, the point at which one million signatures are collected and verified could become the trigger point for judicial examination of whether the initiators should proceed to the next steps under Article 257, or whether the four-step re-founding process applies. Note that this need not be an automatic trigger: the requirement that someone has to challenge the process can remain, but the courts can develop norms that will expedite such hearings, discourage appeals on the specific question of which procedural channel a particular amendment should go down, and so on. The judiciary’s role, then, would remain a limited one: simply to adjudicate whether the proposed amendments are of such import that they need the deeper public participation envisaged in the four-step re-founding process, or whether Article 257 will do. The task will obviously be a challenging one, but not one that is beyond the remit of what courts normally do.

De-politicising politics, and the perils of vox populi, vox Dei

There is an argument that both through the basic structure doctrine, and through its interpretation of Article 257, the court evinces a distrust of politicians and political processes, and a (consequent) valorisation of litigation and the judicial process; that the effect of its judgment is to make the constitution too rigid, and effectively impossible to amend; and that, if we look at Article 257 closely, it was always meant to be a joint effort between politicians and the people, because the threshold barriers that it places – one million signatures and so on – require the institutional backing of politicians to start with. It is further argued that this is not necessarily a bad thing, as (a) even historically, the 2010 Constitution of Kenya was the product of political compromise, and not the outcome of pure public participation that the High Court’s judgment made it out to be; and (b) there is no warrant to demonise politicians and politics as tainted or compromised, or at least, relatively more tainted and compromised than litigation and adjudication.

To this, there is an added concern: judgments that claim to speak in the name of the People invariably end up flattening a plural and diverse society, with plural and diverse interests, into a single mass with a single desire – which only the court is in a position to interpret and ventriloquize. This, then, turns into the exact top-down imposition of norms and values that the doctrine of public participation is meant to forestall.

While I believe that the Court of Appeal did not make either of the two mistakes indicated above, I do think that the argument is a powerful one, and requires the judiciary to exercise consistent vigilance (primarily upon itself). A reading of the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments, to my mind, makes it clear that the Constitution Amendment Bill of 2020 was executive-driven (indeed, it would be a bold person who would go against the unanimous finding of twelve judges, across two courts, on this).

But it is easy to imagine messier and less clear-cut situations. What happens if, for instance, an amendment proposal emerges from a set of people, and then a political party or a charismatic politician takes it up, uses their platform to amplify it, and ultimately helps to push it over the one million signature mark? A point was made repeatedly that politicians are part of The People; now, while the distinction between the two was particularly clear in the BBI case, what happens when it is not so, and when it becomes much more difficult to definitively say, “this proposed Amendment came from the political elite, and not from the People?” Is the answer judicial deference? But if it is deference, wouldn’t it simply allow powerful politicians to use proxies, as long as they did it more cleverly and subtly than the protagonists of the BBI?

The difficulty, I believe, lies in the fact that when you say that Article 257 is a provision for The People, you run into a host of very difficult challenges about who are the People, who are not the People, when is it that the People are acting, and so on. The intuitive point that the High Court and the Court of Appeal were getting at is a clear and powerful one: Article 257 envisages an active citizenry, one that engages with issues and generates proposals for amendments after internal social debate – and not a passive citizenry, that votes “Yes” or “No” to a binary choice placed before it by a set of powerful politicians. And while I believe that that is the correct reading of Article 257, it places courts between the Scylla of short-circuiting even legitimate politics, and the Charybdis of stripping Article 257 of its unique, public-facing character.

I think that the only possible answer to this is continuing judicial good sense. Given the issues it had to resolve, I think that it is inevitable – as pointed out above – that the BBI Judgment would leave some issues hanging. But for me this is not a weakness of the judgment, or a reason to castigate it: I think that there are certain problems that simply can’t be resolved in advance, and need courts to “make the path by walking.”

The grammar of power

Stripped down to the essentials, constitutions are about power: who holds it, who can exercise it, who can be stopped from wielding it; when, how, and by whom. Constitutions are also full of gaps, of silences unintended or strategic, of ambiguities planned and unplanned. Interpretation, thus, is often about the balance of power: resolving the gaps, silences, and ambiguities in ways that alter power relations, place – or lift – constraints upon the power that institutional actors have, and how they can deploy it. When Robert Cover writes, therefore, that “legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death,” we can slightly modify it to say that “constitutional interpretation takes place in a field of power.”

Article 257 envisages an active citizenry, one that engages with issues and generates proposals for amendments after internal social debate.

At its heart, I think that the BBI Judgment is about power. The issues that span a total of 1089 pages are united by one common theme: the judges in the majority believe that the constitution acts as a barrier against the concentration of power, and as a channel for its dispersal. Why require referendum questions to be grouped together by unity of content? Because doing so will constrain the power of institutional actors to force unpalatable choices upon people in all-or-nothing referenda. Why interpret Article 257 to exclude public office holders from being initiators? Because to hold otherwise would divest power vested in the public, and instead, place it in the hands of a political executive claiming to directly “speak for the people”. Why insist on contextual public participation for the Article 257 process? Because without granular participation, even a “people-driven process” will not be free from centres of power that dominate the conversation. Why insist upon fixing the IEBC quorum at five, and for a legislative framework to conduct referenda? Because independent Fourth Branch Institutions play a vital role in checking executive impunity on a day-to-day basis, in a way that courts often cannot. And lastly, why the basic structure, why this form of the basic structure? Because the power to re-constitute the constitution is the most consequential of all powers: institutional actors should not have it, but nor should the courts have the power to stop it. Thus, the articulation of the primary constituent power, and its exercise through – primarily – procedural steps.

And I think that it is here that we find the most important contribution of the High Court and the Court of Appeal judgments to global constitutional jurisprudence. Reams have been written by now about the “Imperial Presidency”, and the slow – but inevitable – shift, across the world, towards concentration of political power rather than its dispersal. Examining the High Court and Court of Appeal judgments through the lens of power, its structures and its forms, reveals a judiciary that is working with constitutional text and context to combat the institutionalisation and centralisation of power, to prevent the constitution from being used as the vehicle of such a project, and – through interpretive method – to try and future-proof it from ever being so used. It is too early to know if the effort will succeed. The sap and the roots are now the responsibility of future judgments, if sunlight is to be reached, and not just thirsted for.

The hydra and the sword: parting thoughts

There are moments in one’s life when you can tell someone, with utter clarity, that “I was there when. . . .” For my part, I will always remember where I was, and what I was doing, when, during oral arguments before the Court of Appeal, I heard Dr Muthomi Thiankolu’s ten-minute summary of Kenyan constitutional history through the allegory of the Hydra of Lerna. It ended thus:

If you drop the sword, My Lords and My Ladies, we have been there before. When the courts drop the sword of the Constitution, we had torture chambers. We had detentions without trial. We had sedition laws. It may sound, My Lord, that I am exaggerating, but the whole thing began in small bits.

I remember it because by the end, I was almost in tears. It took me back to a moment, more than four years ago, when I stood in another court and heard a lawyer channel Justice William O. Douglas to tell the bench: “As nightfall does not come at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”

The judges in the majority believe that the constitution acts as a barrier against the concentration of power, and as a channel for its dispersal.

The chronicle of events that followed those words does not make for pleasant reading. But as I heard Dr Thiankolu speak of an era of executive impunity – an impunity enabled by a judiciary (with a few exceptions) that saw itself as an extended arm of the executive – what struck me was not how familiar (detentions without trial!) his examples sounded, but that he spoke of them in the past tense. And on the 20th of August, as judge after judge in the Court of Appeal read out their pronouncement, it seemed that an exclamation point was being added to those arguments: the past really had become a foreign country.

One person’s past is invariably another person’s present. But the present sometimes overwhelms us with its heaviness. It creates an illusion of permanence that forecloses the possibility of imagining a future where this present has become the past. We cannot bootstrap ourselves out of such moments: we need someone to show us the way, or to show us, at least, that a way exists.

And so, perhaps the great – and intangible – gift that the Kenyan courts have given to those stuck in an interminable present, is a simple reminder: it needn’t always be like this.

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Gautam Bhatia is a constitutional lawyer based in New Delhi, India.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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I Am Samuel
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“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.

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