Marsabit: Let’s Use the Ballot to Silence the Bullet5 min read.
True justice demands that perpetrators of violence be brought to book and held liable for their actions regardless of their status in society.
While Kenya’s 46 other counties are preparing for the next ballot, through consensus building for some and negotiated democracy for others, Marsabit residents are caught in a snare, not knowing where the next bullet will be fired from and whose life it will snuff out. This has been their reality for the last four years.
All is not well at Marsabit; we have thrown the sanctity of human life to the dogs and turned Marsabit Central, our only oasis in the desert, into a hell on earth. Sixty lives have been lost in the Saku constituency alone in the last four months. But this figure is not conclusive since the killings are not systematically reported and revenge attacks are swift.
The changing dynamics of this conflict are evident; targeted daylight assassinations in Marsabit town have introduced a new and dangerous twist to the tribal hostility between the Boran and Gabra, once close cousins now arch-enemies.
It is claimed that the assassins use either a motorbike or a saloon car to carry out attacks targeting influential people in the rival community. This has led to a four-month ban on boda boda within Marsabit town, exacerbating youth unemployment and resulting in the economic decline of families whose source of livelihood revolves exclusively around the boda boda business.
The result is that Marsabit town has become a ghost town; businesses have collapsed, and some people have abandoned their homes and fled to other towns to seek refuge. Most affluent families have temporarily relocated to Isiolo, Nanyuki, and Meru, leaving behind the poor—those with no means of escape—to continue butchering each other.
These constant attacks and counterattacks have reduced Marsabit to an empty shell of its former self. Yet I believe that it cannot be that we lack the ability and the goodwill to engage in constructive conversations. At this juncture, let me share an interesting story I came across on social media:
If you can catch about 100 red fire ants that live mostly in the desert and also about 100 of those large black ants and drop them in the same jar, not much will happen– until you shake the jar vigorously and dump them out on the ground. The red ants will attack the black ants and the black ants will attack the red ants and they`ll devastate each other. The thing is, the red ants think the enemy is the black ants and the black ants think the enemy is the red ants and all those ants put together never figure out that the real enemy is the guy who shook the jar. (Anonymous)
It is difficult to prove or disprove this tale. However, I am interested in using it, like one of Aesop’s fables, to dig deeper into the moral of the story in the context of our situation as Marsabit residents.
The centre of interest in this tale is the “outside force” that shook the jar. The ants lived in harmony until that outside force set them against each other. The same hand of disruption must be at play in the Marsabit conflict; we had been going about our daily lives in perfect harmony until someone shook our jar and destroyed our peace and stability. Therefore, the onus is on each one of us to dig deep and unearth the faces behind those shaking our jar and denying us peace.
Of all the factors contributing to the insecurity in Marsabit, the one that stands out is the unhealthy fight for political supremacy that is used as a wedge to pull us apart, yet politics is just a small part of who we are. We were like those ants in the jar, existing side by side and often interacting without boundaries as far as our relationships are concerned until someone somewhere disrupted this serene coexistence.
We had been going about our daily lives in perfect harmony until someone shook our jar and destroyed our peace and stability.
To illustrate this point further, look at the cordial relationship enjoyed by the Borana and Gabra just two decades ago, a relationship in which the two communities lived in harmony, intermarrying and sharing resources, including grazing rights and even certain aspects of each other’s culture.
Who shook our jar and turned us against each other so successfully that we no longer see eye to eye today? Our past relationships and blood ties are no longer binding. The animosity and hostility between us is at an all-time high. We have turned into each other’s nemesis overnight, baying for and shedding each other’s blood every day.
Who is this powerful, faceless individual who has set us apart and created a conflict that has led to massive loss of life, displacement of populations and destruction of property? The finger is often pointed at our elected leaders and politicians as the instigators of this ongoing conflict that is devastating Marsabit; and they are on record making accusations and counter-accusations and blaming each other through press releases.
We have turned into each other’s nemesis overnight, baying for and shedding each other’s blood every day.
Instead of addressing this runaway violence, our political leaders are now rushing to switch political parties for their political survival, committing betrayals that will likely aggravate the conflict during this election season in total disregard of the people’s suffering.
The political class and their supporters seem to benefit from this vicious cycle of conflict; at times they pretend to be in control of the chaos and able to pull us back from the abyss of our self-destruction. And while the incumbents are using the conflict as their main campaign tool for re-election, some of the new aspirants have not been left behind since they are presenting themselves as the antidote to what ails Marsabit while others act as warlords to shield their communities from aggression.
Indeed, the onus is on each one of us within our communities, as members of the civil society, as religious leaders, as the business community, and as professionals, to make the hard choice between continuing to enable these conflicts or choosing to hold the forces shaking our jar accountable to reverse the path of self-destruction in which we have placed ourselves.
Let us use this electioneering period to right some of the wrongs by choosing the right leaders whose manifestos revolve around promoting unity and peace among our diverse population instead of selecting those who present themselves as warlords. Let us also utilize this opportunity to weed out and send home those of our current leaders whom we believe to be part of the individuals shaking our jar and thus trading with our lives.
Let us also utilize this opportunity to weed out and send home those of our current leaders whom we believe to be part of the individuals shaking our jar and thus trading with our lives.
Let us embrace honesty and open engagement to return the warring communities to peaceful coexistence. Let us jumpstart a process of sincere reconciliation anchored on justice. True justice demands that perpetrators of violence be brought to book and held liable for their actions regardless of their status in society. Moreover, for justice to prevail, those who have lost their loved ones, their homes, and their livestock must be compensated. And although peacebuilding is a complex process, a lasting peace can be achieved if we are willing to act.
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Defend the Freedom of the Press
We, The Elephant, stand with our fellow journalists against the attacks meted during the coverage of the recent demonstrations. An independent, impartial, and objective media is a pillar of our democracy and crucial to both the state, the opposition, and the wider public. Freedom of the press is a non-negotiable.
Going by recent events, we are quickly sliding down a precarious path as regards freedom of the press. The spike in disinformation, influence peddling, hostility and attacks blurs the ability for the media sector to deliver, timely, critical and credible information necessary to help the public make informed decisions and hold meaningful conversations.
We are also particularly concerned by the targeting of specific media persons, media institutions, international journalists, and media industry practitioners.
In March 2023 alone, we have witnessed at least 45 reported cases of attacks, theft, harassment, and arrests by both sponsored state and non-state actors with some of the journalists affected suffering direct attacks and bodily harm.
The genesis of these attacks can be linked to the publication of the photos and issuance of summons by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) linked to the demonstrations on the 20th of March. The publication on the state agencies social media platforms was an exercise in error that included false, misleading and misconstrued claims against participants in the demonstration.
The unintended outcome has been the formulation, and instrumental-ization of hostility and violence against members of the 4th estate. So far we have witnessed the targeting of reporters, videographers, freelance practitioners, and photographers by police, hooligans, hired goons, and looters who’re kin to cause mayhem and evade justice.
Journalists as chroniclers of societal events, scribes of the evolution of political demands, and recorders of the unwarranted, gross violations, have a solemn duty to inform the public on matters of public interest. They therefore ought to be accorded their respect in time, their place in the political contestations as neutral arbiters, and respected as repositories of current and historical memories.
We urge our colleagues while out in the field to prioritize their safety, assess the risk factors, coordinate with their newsrooms, and the law enforcers, and review media ethics and the legal ramifications in the course of their work during demonstrations.
We urge freelance journalists to coordinate, liaise, and embed with their colleagues for safety purposes. We also urge for urgent investigations into the theft, assault and detainment of journalists, and call for speedy prosecution of the perpetrators. We also ask for refrain by public figures from spotlighting specific media persons and media houses, and ask aggrieved parties against media persons and institutions, to channel their complaints through the respective legal channels as provided by law.
The Elephant Desk
Addressing the Information Disorder: Building Collaboration
In deploying measures to address the information disorder, the trend is towards the establishment of multi-stakeholder collaboratives.
In a recent article, I discussed the need to address the information disorder (defined as mis- and disinformation) through collaborative multi-stakeholder collectives such as Fumbua Kenya. In this article, I take the next step of envisioning the ideal composition for such collectives. However, before doing so, I briefly explore other similar collectives with a view to drawing lessons on building collaboration.
A tried and tested concept?
For several years now, numerous stakeholders have attempted to address the information disorder in different ways such as fact-checking and conducting media literacy trainings. These solutions were often used in isolation. More recently, stakeholders recognized the importance of collaboration in deploying measures to address the information disorder. As a result, there has been a growing trend towards the establishment of multi-stakeholder collaboratives to address the information disorder as it relates to issues such as the pandemic or democratic processes such as elections.
Collaborative efforts have largely been dominated by media practitioners. For example, in Brazil, during the 2018 elections, a collective of journalists drawn from twenty-four different local media companies was established to debunk rumours, fabricated content, and manipulative content aimed at influencing the polls. This collective is known as Comprova. In the same year, a similar collective was established in Mexico with the same mandate. It was known as Verificado. A year later, Uruguay followed suit and established a collective under the same name. However, Uruguay’s iteration of Verificado broke the mould by incorporating academics, universities, and civil society professionals. With the examples of Brazil, Mexico, and Uruguay, Argentina was able to pull together a collective of more than 100 news organizations under the Re-Verso banner. Much like Uruguay, Argentina’s Re-Verso took the collaboration further by including other disciplines such as forensic scientists who were able to assist the journalists in fact-checking audio messages.
With the experiences of these collectives, recent multi-stakeholder collectives have become increasingly diverse in their composition. For example, the BBC recently launched the Trusted News Initiative which brings together journalists, social media platforms and technology companies, and researchers. The mandate of the Trusted News Initiative is to increase media literacy, develop early warning systems, engage in voter education, and provide a platform for stakeholders to share lessons. Similarly, the Credibility Coalition, which is comprised of researchers, journalists, academics, policymakers, and technologists, aims to foster collaboration around developing common standards for information credibility. One of Fumbua’s members—Meedan—is also a member of the Credibility Coalition.
When these collectives were initially established, they were primarily driven by the recognition of the importance of collaborative journalism, and the need to reach broader audiences. As a result, their composition was heavily biased towards the media. However, subsequent iterations recognized the importance of broadening the pool of collaboration to factor in other disciplines. Some have articulated this importance explicitly. For example, Nordis, a consortium of researchers and fact-checkers funded by the EU Commission, explains that the diversity in their composition is aimed at developing new insights, technological solutions, recommendations for journalistic practice and tools educators can use. Perhaps most importantly, they hope to have concrete policy recommendations for legislators.
Extrapolating the basics
Based on the examples of multi-stakeholder collectives around the world, one can discern common trends. For one, most collectives seem to be centred around journalistic practice and as such are dominated by media organizations. While there has been a recognition of the role played by other stakeholders such as academic researchers and cognitive scientists, their involvement has not been as robust and deliberate. These collectives also often crop up in response to a major socio-political/socio-economic event such as an election, and this influences their composition and activity.
Most collectives seem to be centred around journalistic practice and as such are dominated by media organizations.
Fumbua has largely conformed to these trends, being comprised of a large number of media organizations, and having been established to address the information disorder around the 2022 general election in Kenya. However, Fumbua’s experience is unique in several ways. For one, Fumbua included a pre-bunking initiative which was the first of its kind in Kenya—StopReflectVerify. Fumbua also relied on social media personalities and performing artists to repurpose some of the core messages developed by the journalists within their collectives. The use of multimedia content enabled the collective to engage audiences in ways that align with the nature of information consumption on social media. Perhaps most crucially, Fumbua was able to use its network to engage with policymakers and regulators to attempt to impact public policy.
One size does not fit all
When one considers the experience of the diverse collectives around the world, it is clear that each iteration was significantly influenced by several factors which were unique to each situation. From the social issue the collective was designed to respond to, to the available resources and organizations willing to participate, it is clear that one cannot define, in absolute terms, what these collectives should look like.
However, what remains clear is the importance of such collectives being intentional about defining the scope of collaboration, the role of each member, and how each member’s activities will feed into the larger collective’s work. In building collaboration, such collectives should also be mindful of the information value chain in their ecosystem. For example, in Kenya, one would be remiss to exclude vernacular radio stations which remain a consequential player in the media ecosystem.
The diversity of these collectives should be informed by the unique issues they are responding to. Fumbua for example was able to engage a large cross-section of its audiences in a way that was familiar to them by deliberately including stakeholders at all levels of the media ecosystem and supporting these stakeholders by amplifying their content and helping them repurpose it. However, at a broader level, these collectives should be designed around changing how the populace interacts with and consumes information. It no longer suffices to raise awareness around the existence of the information disorder, or to flag information as false or misleading. For this reason, these collectives ought to be focused on impacting how information systems are designed. This goal, considered in the context of the particular collectives, should then inform their composition.
The Roots of Toxic Masculinity in South Africa
In South Africa and elsewhere, toxic masculinity is an outcome of modern individualism rather than tradition.
As I stepped into the nightly streets of Cape Town’s most dangerous neighborhoods, I sensed that my journey would be an initiation. The goal of my research project was to document the lasting impact of apartheid racism and gender inequalities on tough and street-smart men. Little did I know that I would make every effort to become invulnerable in my own kind of way, trying to prove my masculinity and academic prowess through ethnographic fieldwork.
Just like many of the men I met in South Africa, I was attempting to shed my vulnerability. However, it never fully worked, even for a privileged European white man like me. Ethnography is an art form rather than a science and it makes researchers vulnerable as they continuously affect and are affected by the research subjects. Moreover, the pressure I put on myself to produce something exceptional to gain respect and impress others took a toll on me.
The paradox of (in)vulnerability made both my research participants and I complicit, although on vastly different terms. For me, attempts to become an invulnerable individual with fixed gender identity led to relationship problems, substance abuse, irritability, and suicidal thoughts. The more I sought invulnerability, the more vulnerable I felt. This (in)vulnerability has received little attention in research, which often disregards the gendering of behavior or turns masculinity into both the cause and solution for a range of social, psychological, and medical problems.
Over the course of more than 10 years of research, I could feel the pulse of (in)vulnerability; the throbbing between disconnection and connectivity, rigidity and disorder, closure and openness. Perhaps this pulse is a fundamental aspect of life for everyone, regardless of social and cultural differences. But the struggle for invulnerability takes on different rhythms based on circumstances. I have been witness to the pain and struggles of the men I interviewed. Some committed suicide, others were murdered, had fatal accidents, or died from infectious disease before they reached their 40s.
Although I stayed in contact with some of these men, I retreated to my safe haven after completing my doctoral research. Writing my dissertation and book was draining, filled with anger and shame over my inability to support the people whose stories I documented, and my own shortcomings. I was not living up to the ideals of a compassionate human rights advocate or a productive academic who could be sharp, unyielding, and daring at all times. But the survivor’s guilt was just another manifestation of me believing that I could be an individual savior.
As I delved deeper into my research, I realized I had fallen into a well-worn pattern—a white European male traveling to Africa to prove his masculinity. It dawned on me, most of the behaviors that are associated with toxic masculinity are an outcome of modern individualism rather than tradition in South Africa and elsewhere. White men imported the gendered ideal of a self-made individual. The trope can be traced back to 17th-century English philosophers who defined the individual as the “owner of himself,”” who owes little to others, with a core identity composed of seamless traits, behaviors, and attitudes, rather than an assemblage of contradictory elements adopted through ongoing exchanges with others.
South African psychologist Kopano Ratele argues that well-meaning critiques of gender ideologies tend to homogenize and retribalize African masculinities as if they had no history. From this perspective, contemporary heteronormativity and male power are not necessarily a matter of “‘tradition”’ as a single and fixed structure. Yet, gender development work in Africa often uses the term “toxic masculinity” interchangeably with “traditional masculinity” particularly among low-income Black men.
During my doctoral research, I found that my own assumptions about the dark ages of patriarchy and their continuing effects on South Africans were based on a teleological model of progress that obscures how modern individualism creates toxic masculinity. My pursuit of invulnerability through ethnographic research was an attempt to “be somebody” in a world in which personhood is seemingly no longer defined by mutuality in relationships. For the most marginalized men I met in Cape Town, this pursuit was by far more distressing, in part, because these men were aware of the fact that they always depended on others for their very survival.
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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