Friday, April 29, 2011

The Newt Who Would Be King

A Week in the Life of a Contender*

Monday:  “Eeek!” Callista says this morning, drawing me from my profound introspection.  I am irritated at the disruption, sure that I am on the brink of a stunning breakthrough—likely something to do with Osama—I mean Obama’s—un-Americanness.  “What is it dear?” I say, hurrying into the living room in my dressing gown and slippers.  She points at the television.  A ghastly red hairpiece is dancing around on the screen.  It takes me a moment to recognise that egotistical blob, Donald Trump, beneath it.  He is saying something about sending investigators to Hawai’i to look into Obama’s background.  “How could he!” I fume.  “I’m the one supposed to be sowing doubts in the public mind about the anti-colonial Kenyan!”

Tuesday:  I meet with some communist sympathiser reporters in the afternoon.  “I‘ve some stunning news”, I say grandly.  They hang on my every word, dupes that they are.  “I will be sending investigators to Kenya to look into Obama’s citizenship.  I am convinced that what they will find will shock and horrify ordinary, hard-working, American-looking Americans”.  “When are your investigators leaving, Mr Gingrich”, one of the toadying little socialist swine asks.  I improvise, “Next week”.  “Then they’ll be six days behind Sarah Palin’s private-eyes” another calls.  Fuming, I stalk off-stage.  “Any word on the economy, Mr Gingrich?” someone calls after me.

Wednesday:  I wake up and call a secretary to check on how American Solutions, my 527 is doing financially.  “Mr Gingrich, we’re doing fine”, she says.  “We’ve raised $52 million since 2006, so I don’t think you have a thing to worry about”.  I hang up and sigh, somewhat relieved.  But what about Donald Trump, I think.  He has billions! 

In the afternoon I give an address.  I warm up by calling for a permanent extension of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, hard-working, American-looking Americans.  Obama, I say, is “in effect trying to create a Chicago style machine for the whole country with a billion dollars”.  My cell-phone rings.   

It’s a number I don’t recognise, but it’s a D.C. area code, and as much as I hate to do a Giuliani, I wonder whether it’s a rich donor, so I answer as the crowd applauds me.  “Yes?”  “Newt”, says a voice, “don’t you think you’re being a hypocrite?”  “What are you talking about?  And who are you?”  “Newt, you just accused me of trying to buy Americans’ votes, when your organisation’s going around the country raising tens of millions of dollars”.  “Barack?” I gasp.  “Where are you?  How do you know what I’m saying?”  I look around, sweating, and hang up.  The crowd is still applauding and fawning, so they don’t notice.  But when I go to bed at night, Callista checks me looking through the blinds out at the yard.  “What are you looking for, Newty-pie?” she asks.  “Obama’s spies are everywhere!” I declare.  She looks at me, brow furrowed, worried.  As she should be.  We are in real danger.  Mau Mau tactics! 

Thursday:  The rabidly socialist, fascist, Godless, liberal media machine has been all over me recently for supposed inconsistencies.  So I decide to play the card that no-one can criticise.  The Grandchildren.

I say to reporters, “I have two grandchildren—Maggie is 11, Robert is 9.  I am convinced that if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time they’re my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American”.  My cell phone rings.  “Excuse me”, I say to the reporters, and, hands shaking, answer.  “Yes?”  “Did you know that Islam is a religion, Newt?” says that infuriating voice on the other end.  “Yes Barack, I did.  When are you going to release your birth certificate?”  “We’re past that Newt”, he says blandly, “but I’m curious how the country can be secularly atheistic and radical Islamist at the same time?”  “How did you know what I just said!” I say, my voice worryingly high, as I glance around.  Maybe one of the TV cameramen is a spy?  He laughs, and hangs up without answering. 

“Who was that, Mr Gingrich?” a reporter asks.  “A donor, a God-honest hard-working American-looking American”, I reply, “who was urging me to save this country from Obama’s radical socialist, fundamentalist, secular Islamist machine politics!”

Friday:  I’m walking to an engagement in D.C. from my hotel, feeling a twinge of guilt that I’m not driving and contributing to our carbon emissions.  I suddenly notice two black men behind me.  Am I being trailed by Kenyan agents?  Is that how Obama always knows what I’m saying?  I quicken my pace, and they do the same.  I leap onto a bus that is about to depart a stop and dash for the rear of the vehicle, the driver shouting after me that I have to pay my fare.  “I’m a senior!” I shout back.  “And I’m going to be king...I mean, President!”  People look at me like I’m crazy, clearly not recognising me.

But then I see that the two men have boarded the bus as well, and are sitting at the front, talking amongst each other and pretending to ignore me.  At the next stop I bail off, and hail a cab.  I hop in and give the cabbie the address of the Institute.   But then I notice: he has some kind of an African accent.  Could it be?  Obama is hiring veterans of the irrationally-anti-colonial Mau Mau war to hunt me down?  In a panic I open the door of the cab and tumble out onto the curb.  I right myself, pleased with my ingenuity, and saunter off. 

That evening I tell Callista that I’ve been trailed by the Kenyan Secret Service.  She looks confused.  I explain.  Her confusion remains.  I thought I’d married a perfectly intelligent woman, but sometimes I have my doubts.  I also envy Donald Trump’s “great relationship with the blacks”.

Saturday:  I meet a clutch of reporters who are eager to get my reaction to the news that the Mau Mau revolutionary in the White House has just released his birth certificate.  “Do you have a political platform left, Mr Gingrich?” one of them has the nerve to ask.  I take a deep breath and reply, “Of course, my campaign will switch gears and focus on the critically important issue of who forged the signature on that certificate!”  “Do you agree with Donald Trump that Obama was admitted to Harvard under false pretences?” asks another.  “I thought of that first!” I shout. 

“What do you say to insinuations that you’re losing your grip on the process?  That Bachmann and Trump will be the two to slug it out?” another anti-colonial, Soviet-sympathising, Al-Qaeda affiliated journalist asks.  Obama is a “perfectly fine, extraordinarily brilliant, sadly shallow, left-wing activist who has never yet become president,” I shoot back.  “But Mr Gingrich”, the uppity man from the leftist, fascist media outlet replies, “that doesn’t make any sense”. 

“They must often change who would be constant in happiness or wisdom”, I reply cryptically, cutting him off.  But the media are feeling restive today, and he calls back, “That doesn’t make any sense either, Mr Gingrich”.  I momentarily snap, “Confucius wasn’t a Muslim!”  The press looks askance, and backs away.

The phone rings.  I recognise the number and recoil.  I don’t answer, but when I check my messages later I hear the voice: “Newt, I can hook you and John Roberts up, and he can explain the constitutionality of my position, but it might take him two tries”.

Sunday:  After church, I come home and use one of these new-fangled electronic contraptions called a ‘google’ to search for myself.  I type in my first name.  There are apparently almost 9 million pages with my name on them!  I preen at my popularity, but then notice that one of them mentions a “Newt Watch” and is located in California!  It must be a front organisation for the Kenyan Security Services who are out to get me.  They know if they can do me in, their man can stay in power as an illegitimate president.  Fuming, sweating, hands fumbling, I click on the link to see what new smear Obama has come up with now. 

It reads, “Tilden’s South Park Drive will be closed to vehicle traffic from November 1 through April 1.  Every year beginning in November, the road is closed to traffic for the seasonal newt migration.  Thousands of newts rely on crossing the street as a means to reach Wildcat Canyon for breeding”.  I go on to learn that “although not a threatened species, the overall newt population has decreased over the past several decades primarily due to loss of habitat”.

Sheepishly, I close the browser, and look around, hoping that Callista wasn’t watching.  But then I stop.  Not yet threatened, but in decline?  Is Obama trying to send me a message?  Will he stop at nothing?  “I’ll get you Barack!  If it’s the last thing I do!” I howl.  Callista hurries in, looking downright scared.  “Newt?”  “It’s all right dear”, I say, my composure restored.  “America is my habitat, and I’m in no danger of losing it”.  She doesn’t appear to find this reassuring, and goes back into her office.  But I think I hear the click of the lock.  Funny...she didn’t seem worried about Obama yesterday.

*This is not real and I am not Newt Gingrich.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Petraeus Threat

News broke this week that Obama is set to give command of the CIA to General David Petraeus, the man credited by some with turning the fortunes of the U.S. military around in Iraq, and who was thereafter charged with managing our wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Now he will oversee the U.S.’ secret campaigns against foreign enemies of the state from the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Petraeus, the general best beloved by the Republican and right-wing Democratic Congressional caucuses, told the BBC last month that “at this point in your life you serve at the pleasure of the elected leaders above you and when they decide what the future holds obviously I’ll salute smartly and execute their decisions”.

But Petraeus’ verbal respect for constitutional form, civilian leadership, and the judgement of his superiors is not borne out by evidence.  And the smart salute has been often accompanied by a knife in the back and a not-so-quiet word to the media.  David Petraeus is an insubordinate, back-stabbing, MacArthur-esque figure, whose overweening ego, unseemly fondness for the microphone and warmongering should preclude his continued service, let alone promotion.

Bob Woodward has described how the White House had to develop an unprecedentedly-concrete terms list to provide to the thrusting military in order to prevent them from wilfully misinterpreting their orders and publicly bombarding the President with requests for ever-more troops.

Mid-way through Obama’s Afghan policy evaluation, Petraeus would go rogue on television, undercutting the President by arguing that his (Petraeus’) way was the only one (158).  During the administration’s strategy sessions, he refused outright to answer Vice-President Biden’s questions about preparations or contingency plans for worst-case scenarios (221). 

He knuckled under when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen, refused to allow him to provide the President with the multiple options he had requested.  When ordered by the White House to cease granting interviews to the media (which tended to turn into hagiographic bio-spots), what did Petraeus do?  Head straight to CNN (266).

What the White House would clearly like to do—and what it should do—is fire Petraeus, whose political machinations have locked the U.S. into an inextricable war in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the despicable purposes of massaging his ego and vindicating his counterinsurgency strategy, the panacea the Pentagon enthusiastically substitutes for serious contextualisation and analysis of our role in South Asia and the Middle East.   

We should also be worried about the military baggage that Petraeus will bring to the intelligence world.  As it is, the agency has an awful track record of cherry picking intelligence and of failing to ensure that decision-makers get a balanced view of national security scenarios.  But the real danger is that the intelligence sphere will increasingly become a fig-leaf for the military-industrial complex which (Mitt Romney’s lunacy aside) drives our foreign policy.

We have every reason, based on past behaviour, to believe that Petraeus will turn the C.I.A. into an arm of the military (even more so than is already the case); that it will be tasked with covert ops, intelligence gathering and performing acts of questionable rationalisation with an end to justifying the military’s a priori take on national security.  That is, instead of providing information with an eye to informing the decision-making process around the waging of war, the cementing of alliances and the reformulation of national security priorities, intelligence agencies will wind up trolling for evidence to back up the conventional wisdom and support the military and political frameworks that drive our needless wars in South Asia and the Middle East, our backing of dictatorial regimes in the same regions and across North Africa, and our failure to get to grips with the historical reasons for our unpopularity in said regions.

For all of these reasons, professional, political, personal and institutional, David Petraeus is utterly unfit to command the Central Intelligence Agency.  His ego, his obsession with counterinsurgency, and his subversion of the military’s role vis-à-vis civilian leadership have badly damaged the White House’s decision-making process and have imperilled our national well-being.  The Senate should roundly reject this appointment. 

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why Jerry Brown's shoe-string campaign is haunting California

On November 3, California’s political pundits were waxing lyrical about Jerry Brown’s political savvy, his genius, his acumen.  About how, even factoring in spending by his (now-spurned) union allies, he’d fended off the nation’s most comprehensive-ever attempt to buy high office by Republican Meg Whitman.

Brown had ignored the advice of his party and op-eds, sat the summer out, hardly deigned to hit the campaign trail through the early stages of the fall, and eschewed grassroots organising.  He argued that he could coast to victory in November by relying on name recognition, limited spending by labour allies, California’s traditional Democratic-tilt, the Republican Party’s propensity towards self-destruction, and a well-placed eleventh-hour barrage of television ads.

And the man who’s done it all—LA Community College Board Trustee, California Secretary of State, two-term Governor, three-time Presidential candidate, California Democratic Party Chairman, Mayor of Oakland, California Attorney General—confounded his critics and, in common with other Democratic candidates in California, bucked the national trend by crushing his Republican opponent.  And his victory put him in a position that, to the casual observer, looked enviable. 

In 2008, Obama’s high-spending, intense political campaign garnered him a heady seven-point victory over Republican John McCain, majorities between 56 and 60% of the Senate, and around 58% in the House of Representatives.  Brown had beat Meg Whitman by 13%, and his party had 63% of the seats in the State Senate and 65% of seats in the State Assembly.  And his was a more unified caucus than Obama’s—the Democrats in California’s State Legislature are, compared with their national counterparts, highly progressive.

But he’s learned something that—savvy pol that he is—he should have known already.  Electoral victory means very little when it comes to governing, especially if the opposition party is hell-bent wreaking mindless destruction all around it.  And the dangers of an electoral victory of the type won by Brown are multiple.  He won a personal electoral victory, but his campaign was so bare-bones, so policy-lite, that he didn’t win a mandate for any signature policy, platform or philosophy. 

He knew what the political arithmetic would look like...California’s districts are so thoroughly gerrymandered that they have lost all capacity to throw up surprises.  He knew that Democrats haven’t been able to break the two-thirds hurdle necessary to pass the tax increases that are necessary to drag the state out of its woes.  And yet he assumed that he could rely on the good-will of a handful of Republicans to, if not pass a budget, at least put it before the people—per his idiotic campaign pledge—so that they could have a say on the maintenance of current tax levels which are necessary to close the budget gap.

Now in the world inhabited by most people, this would be a reasonable assumption.  If the alternative was closing University of California campuses, doubling UC tuition, cutting the K-12 school year, cutting police, slashing social services and mass-layoffs, most people would see the maintenance of current tax rates as an eminently reasonable measure.  The more daring among them might even suggest that, given people’s vulnerability in an economic downturn, now might be the time to shore up our social system, cut tuition, get more people into higher education to aid California in making an economic comeback, and improving our schools. 

This fit of social conscientiousness is all the easier to imagine given the tax breaks we’ve historically handed out to an irresponsible energy sector, to corporations who’ve repaid us by out-sourcing jobs and creating new loop-holes for themselves, and to the extremely wealthy.  It seems reasonable to cash-in on the good-will that Californians have surely cultivated amongst those sectors in a time of hard-ship for those on incomes that aren’t buoyed by bail-outs, bonuses and tax breaks.

But California’s Republican Party inhabits, and has for some time, an alternative universe.  Undeterred by the evidence demonstrating that trickle-down economics was a failure for all but the wealthy, the Republican Party has launched a ferocious assault on public servants, public institutions and, most disturbingly, on the very idea of public good.

While denouncing the deployment of a socioeconomic safety-net for the weak, the sick, the poor, the young or the elderly as ‘government interference’, the Republican Party has never been shy about mounting a full-court press on behalf of wealth—using all of the machinery of government.  The philosophy of the party of the liberal individual is, in short: social welfare for individuals—No!; corporate welfare for the wealthy—Yes! 

Now in many political systems a party that can rake in at most 38% of seats wouldn’t be in a position to actively promote this vision.  But the Republican Party flourishes in California’s political system which inhibits the Legislature’s ability to raise revenue through property tax—an undifferentiated system, making no distinction between individual home-ownership and corporate property—while calling for a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.  This is Minority Rule.

The Republican Party has found that it can accomplish its destructive vision by kicking back and voting—No, no, no, and no, time and again.  Its members, unencumbered by any feeling of responsibility to their constituents, have gone so far as to sign the deceptively-titled Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which assures constituents that signatories would plunge the nation into a debt crisis or depression before they would vote to raise taxes.

This Party, which thrives on inculcating a fear of Government in its supporters, while using that same Government to promote the interests of a select and wealthy few, has had the nerve to accuse Democrats of scaremongering when they draw up a model of what the all-cuts budget that Republicans are calling for would look like.  This is an exceptionally hypocritical claim to make because Republicans who benefit from Minority Rule in California have all the power to kill any budget they’re unhappy with, while none of the responsibility that comes with actually drawing up a budget.  Sadly, Democrats are right in their portrayal of what our society would look like on the heels of an all-cuts budget.

Which brings us to where we are now: Republicans refusing to even allow Californians to vote on a budget, and offering an alternative that would strip away the social safety net while crippling education and law-enforcement and privatising our university system by turning it into an socially-selective institution.

Back to Brown...why does his shoe-string campaign bear much of the responsibility for our plight?

Because by satisfying himself with coasting to an electoral victory he utterly failed to built the grassroots support for his candidacy or for any kind of progressive agenda.  Which means that now, as he criss-crosses the state to drum up support for his budget—already deferred by the Republican Party—he has to start from scratch.  He has to develop arguments that he should have been making a year ago.  He has to try to create a network that a serious, committed politician like Obama realised he had to have in place before an electoral victory. 

Brown may have been right to assert that his credentials, party-affiliation and name-recognition would be enough to allow him to coast to office against a woman who asked Californians to put their state up for sale to the highest bidder.

But he clearly didn’t think through the implications of failing to engage with the public, of failing to build a network of supporters, of failing to be frank about what addressing the budget crisis would mean.  If Brown had created such a network, he would have been able to mobilise it to get the budget on the July ballot by signatures alone—and again, he should have seen the need for such a move long before last month. 

The costs of his failures are severe.  Not only does our state face uncertainty, cuts will drive many public servants out of work, require retrenchment within the private sector, badly damage the quality of K-12 education and—should Republicans be able to marshal public opinion against Brown’s budget in the four months they’ve bought themselves with their irresponsible tactics—spell the end of the public University of California.

Because make no mistake...the corporate-oriented leadership of the University of California, held in check so far by progressives in the state legislature, student and faculty protest, and public opinion, will not pass up the chance to free the University system (or at least its elite campuses) from what they see as the fickle embrace of California.  They will aim to create differentiated fees across the system, at campuses which abandon the ambition of fostering citizenship through a broad range of courses, slowly depart from the dual teaching-research mission and with it, the commitment to fostering student socioeconomic diversity.

If Brown’s miscalculation were to lead to the destruction of California’s public higher education system—the finest in the world—it would be tragic for our state, but a symbolic moment—heralding, as it would, the ascendancy of moneyed power and personal greed over social solidarity and a commitment to fairness.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The politics of Mau Mau

I was recently in office hours with a professor, discussing changes in land tenure between colonial and post-independence eras.  Somehow Kenya came up, and he said that he remembered being in Berkeley in December of 1963 and seeing, one day, a car piled full of Kenyans careening down Shattuck.  They were laying on the horn, shouting, and waving a flag, looking like their world had just changed.  My professor recalled, “I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on, but I cheered and waved back”, an appropriate response during those heady days when African colonies were at last gaining their independence. 

But many Kenyans, in the years after Uhuru, must have felt much the same way—that they weren’t entirely sure what was happening around them.  A mere 68 years after formal annexation by the British—though it undoubtedly seemed far longer to those under the yoke of imperialism—Kenya was independent.  The course of events that followed both bore out and belied the intensity of the changes wrought by colonialism.

The conquest of Kenya came about as the British constructed a railway to Lake Victoria.  White settlement grew up along the railway line, expanded outward, was legally codified over some 30 years, and ultimately centred on the so-called White Highlands and Rift Valley, the richest agricultural land on the country.  Kenyans, subject to a colour-bar after a brutal conquest, found themselves living within the boundaries of Tribal Reserves, eking out a living in the growing capital, Nairobi, or working as squatters on settler lands (this group shifted from being a kind of labour aristocracy to providing the basis for violent uprising), providing labour for the colony’s agricultural elite.

‘The Tribe’ became, for British administrators, the logical unit of organisation, and they went so far as to see white settlers as just one amongst many Kenyan ‘tribes’ (one, of course, with special privileges).  Areas open to white settlement, it was thought, should be used to separate out ethnic groups that would otherwise war incessantly with each other, and when Kikuyu, Meru, Maasai, Luo and others were forced into ‘homelands’, they were often occupying land that had, before the disruptive force of colonialism entered the scene, been at least temporarily the property of a different society.

Organised dissent to colonialism took many forms, and was often centred on Ethnic Associations, Burial Societies and Dance Societies, all institutions which formed as Kenyans who migrated to urban areas sought to maintain connections with their rural homelands.  It was through these institutions, rather than organised labour, that dockworkers came close to bringing the colonial economy to a halt as they struck at Mombasa harbour during the 1930s and ‘40s.  Unionisation followed.  It was an era in which few expressions of grievance could be characterised as ‘nationalist’, but the creation of the Kikuyu Central Association in 1924 marked the beginning of more formalised resistance to and criticism of colonial rule.

During the Second World War, Kenyans fought in large numbers for Britain.  Black soldiers saw action across Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.  As in other colonies, the experience led to a heightened sense of alienation from colonial rule, particularly when no social or economic rights materialised to reward those who fought for the Empire.  The Kenya Africa Union, formed in 1946, was a more avowedly nationalist organisation, and took a key role in the Mau Mau war, which broke out in 1952 when the British government declared a state of emergency after a group calling itself the Kenya Land and Freedom Army murdered a number of settler families and—more critically—‘Loyalist’ chiefs.

The war that followed was part nationalist war, part civil war, part regional conflict, and pitted neighbours and family against one another.  Jomo Kenyatta denounced Mau Mau, but the British jailed him anyway, after a sham trial.  Mau Mau fighters were undoubtedly brutal in their killings of settlers and ‘Loyalists’, but no sensible person would argue today, as the British did in 1952, that theirs was a movement without any discernible rationale.  Relying on deeply-held racial stereotypes, and under pressure from settlers, the British government theorised Mau Mau as a ‘primitive’ reaction, a last gasp of a people thrust too brutally into the modern world.

Their response was to clear Nairobi of Kikuyu and force Kikuyu living on settler lands and in Tribal Reserves into village encampments, patrolled by British soldiers and Home Guards.  They also set up a system of concentration camps, called the ‘Pipeline’, that were used to sort and break anyone suspected of Mau Mau sympathies.  The atrocities committed in those camps are the subject of the case being brought by Mau Mau veterans against the British government.

By 1956 the worst of the fighting was over, and although it was a military victory for Britain, their days in Kenya were numbered, and they released Kenyatta from prison (he denounced Mau Mau again).  Because of his imprisonment, he was able to preserve the support of those who fought in the war against the British, and because of his conciliatory approach and promise of a multi-racial Kenya, he also received support from the British government and, after Uhuru, the descendants of white settlers who chose to remain behind in Kenya after 1963.

Land redistribution was enacted on a willing buyer-willing seller basis which favoured the wealthy (not coincidentally perhaps, those who had supported the British during Mau Mau).  In 1964, Kenyatta amended the Constitution and became President.  He abolished the position of Prime Minister (not revived until the rapprochement between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga after the 2007 election violence) and instituted a one-party state.  Kenya’s history thereafter reads as a litany of broken promises and brutal acts of repression.

Tom Mboya, a prominent Luo politician, was murdered in 1969, members of the regime were suspected, and security services shot protestors who objected to the President’s attendance at the funeral. 

Ngugi wa Thiong’o wrote I Will Marry When I Want in 1977, the first of many salvoes against authoritarianism in his home-country, for which he paid the short-term price of imprisonment and continues to bear the long-term burden of exile. 

Daniel arap Moi assumed power in 1978, faced down an Air Force Coup, and sent thousands to prisons and torture chambers.  Authoritarianism had donned a more sinister mask.  Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, another leading Luo politician, was driven out of politics for a decade.

Accusations of ‘tribalist prejudice’ flew fast and thick, and every public figure’s move was scrutinised to see which ethnic group would benefit from official largesse. 

Moi was pilloried by Green Belt activist, Wangari Maathai, for attempting to construct a monstrous new party headquarters in Uhuru Park, and though the plans fell through, Maathai was targeted for assassination and was harassed, with countless other activists, by the government.

In 1990, John Robert Ouko, another promising politician on an anti-corruption campaign was shot to death and burnt.  The government called it a suicide.  It remains unclear who was responsible for his gruesome death.

Under pressure from the international political and financial community, Moi announced a return to multi-party politics in 1991, but during the election the following year, used the increasingly fashionable language of tribalism and security to brutalise opponents, sparking widespread violence along ethnic lines.

Moi left office in 2002, as the reformist NARC candidate Mwai Kibaki assumed power.  Kibaki promised a crusade against corruption, but his actions proved largely symbolic when not utterly Janus-faced (unbelievably, two of the World Bank’s representatives in Kenya thought it appropriate to rent property from Kibaki!).  Kikuyu politicians have been accused of making up for lost time during the Moi years by plundering the nation.  After the disputed 2007 election, and the massive violence that followed, Kibaki and Raila Odinga joined forces to support the 2010 constitutional reform.

Mau Mau has played an odd role in all of this.  Written out of Kenya’s history after Uhuru, veterans grew disenchanted and were largely abandoned.  In the rush to attract international investment and aid, the moment of violence that had enabled independence was something unseemly.  It was to fill this void that Kenyan writers and historians, joined by their European and North American counterparts, penned novels and plays, and undertook fieldwork and archival research.

With the return of what some have called the ‘Mt Kenya Mafia’ to State House, and the promise of land reform accompanying constitutional reform, Mau Mau is suddenly back in public vogue in Kenya.  A statue to one of its leaders, Dedan Kimathi, was erected (and vandalised) in central Nairobi in 2007, and promises of land reform all but invoke the armed struggle for Independence, at times seeking to appropriate the movement as a purely Kikuyu one. 

Whereas once any mention of Mau Mau was to be deplored, it now confers legitimacy, amidst many a curious twist of history, imagination and political manoeuvring.  It is in this context that the trial in London is capturing worldwide attention, and it will be fascinating to see what effect the trial and its outcome have on Kenyan politics and society, particularly ahead of the 2012 election and the trial of the Ocampo Six at the Hague.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Britain v. Mau Mau, 55 years on

The war fought between the group of Kenyans history now knows as the Mau Mau on the one hand, and the British and 'loyalist' Kenyans on the other was, as wars tend to be, brutal.  'Loyalist' chiefs, homeguards, and a small number of white settlers were targeted by Mau Mau fighters during the fighting that reached its peak between 1952 and 1956.  Many of these killings were brutal.

The foothills outside of Nyeri, on the edge of the Aberdare range.  It was over this rich land that one of Britain's dirtiest wars was fought.
But that violence was nothing compared with the institutionalised system of concentration camps created by the British to evaluate, categorise and then systematically break virtually all of the Kikuyu in Kenya.  The systematic torture used in those camps and in the villages into which Nairobi's Kikuyu residents were forced, has been well-documented. 
The forest adjoining Mt Kenya National Park, where much of the Mau Mau war was fought.

Four Mau Mau veterans are suing the British government, but part of their battle is getting their hands on the relevant evidence.  On the eve of Uhuru (weiyathi in Gikuyu), the British spirited masses of incriminating documents out of the country.  They have been bludgeoned into releasing them in the context of the trial in London, but are doing so in a calculatedly dishonest manner.  The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has also resorted to manipulating and misrepresenting the work of the very same historians who brought the brutality of British reaction to Mau Mau back into the public eye less than ten years ago.
A statue of Dedan Kimathi, one of the Mau Mau generals, in Nairobi.  Decades of amnesia meant that the statue to Kimathi was only put up in 2007.

David Anderson, one of those historians, has given evidence which speaks to both of these points.  The British government's behaviour is reprehensible: it has attempted to squash the trial, to foist responsibility off on the Kenyan government, to withhold documents, and to distort their meaning.  They are truly the heirs to the thuggish regime that ran the Pipeline in the 1950s.
One of many caves where Mau Mau fighters lived during the war.  Those living in villages brought fighters food at great risk to themselves.
 The classification of documents on 'national security' grounds is frequently an obstacle to historians and others who attempt to shine light on some of the more sordid moments of the recent past.  The work of David Anderson and Caroline Elkins (of Oxford and Harvard) is to be commended.

The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office has released documents in a piecemeal manner, calculated to make the task of those sorting through them as difficult as possible.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Corruption and democracy

The taxi out to the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi ground its way through the crowded city-centre before picking up speed and cruising down tree- and villa-lined lanes in the suburbs.  The embassy itself was surrounded by fortress-like walls, and protected by layers of security, preferential treatment for Americans (though they tried to herd me into the line for non-citizens), cold efficiency and wonder we’re so beloved around the world.  It was actually my second trip to the embassy, because I’d gone out in a matatu on Monday without even realising—I’d only just arrived in Nairobi from Oslo and was still finding my bearings—that it was the day after the 4th of July, meaning that it was closed.

I took the same taxi back downtown to the archives, and got talking to the driver, Alex, about the growing political scandal of the moment in Kenya—the granting to themselves, by Members of Parliament, of a generous salary raise.  Thanks to their solicitous cultivation of their own interest, Kenyan MPs would make about the same as a member of the U.S. Congress, and this in a country where the average wage is a very small fraction of what it is in the U.S.  Like most Kenyans I met, Alex found this move outrageous.  ‘It is sickening’, he said, as we drove through the dusty streets of Nairobi, not so many miles from Kibera, one of the most desperately poor slums in the world, ‘to see how our politicians enrich themselves!’  President Kibaki, not himself anything like a paragon of virtue, has since halted the salary increase for the time being.

I was reminded of this moment because I just finished reading Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat, which tells the story of Kenyan John Githongo’s co-option into the Kibaki regime’s civil service apparatus, and his subsequent whistle-blowing campaign, ultimately as futile as it was heroic.  I remember wishing that I could have told Alex, in Nairobi, what it was like to live in a country that was free from corruption.  But of course I couldn’t.  Instead I was reminded of that age of Old Corruption in eighteenth century Britain. 

Corruption is a tricky word.  MPs awarding themselves salary raises may or may not qualify depending on your view (but it owes its position on the fence not to any illegality).  The trouble with corruption is that, although it has strong negative connotations, it does not necessarily denote something that is illegal.  Georgian Britain was rife with practises (all legally aboveboard) that stank to high heaven of immorality, bad governance and profiteering.  You could scarcely find a public figure whose snout was not buried deep in the trough. 

Now corruption in the U.S. today is of a different sort.  It is not the country of kitu kidogo, in which the average mwananchi is going to be asked on a regular basis for a little something to make the wheels turn that much faster in their favour.  It operates at a more exalted level, but is no less pernicious for it.  The most applicable OED definition of corruption says nothing about illegality; rather, it is a moral question. 

“Perverted from uprightness and fidelity in the discharge of duty; influenced by bribary or hte like; venal”.

Sickeningly, American political culture is filled with a brand of official corruption that is sanctioned when not encouraged.  Think of the multitude of congressmen and –women who are re-elected on the basis of their ability to bring pet projects and spending to their districts: money and projects that may or may not benefit the community equitably, which may not reflect the legislative or moral priorities on which the congressperson is actually running, which may be much more urgently needed in other parts of a state or of the country, and which often benefit special (and powerful) interests that in turn will contribute to a politician’s campaign coffers.  And these funds and projects are casually inserted into bills on potentially crucial issues that have nothing to do with local back-scratching: thus a bill on healthcare might contain dozens of supplementaries, ranging from money for a small-town museum to the assignation of a military contract to a locally-based company.

Think too of the charade which allows a President, circumventing the Constitution, to order the country’s armed forces into action, into what by every stretch of the imagination resembles a war (the bombs, the troops, the rubble, the deaths, the flag-draped coffins returning to the U.S. and the unmarked graves of ‘foreign enemies’), but which by a sleight of hand is re-worked and -named.  The legislature and executive both know that the action is tantamount to war, but maintaining the fantasy of distinction gives one a power that is convenient, and absolves the other of a responsibility which is anything but.

Or what about the Representative from a poor Northern California district, most of whose constituents could benefit from a form of universal healthcare, who takes massive campaign contributions from the insurance industry and consistently votes against all efforts at healthcare reform, while cruising to re-election every year because he can outspend his opponents ten or twenty to one?  Or the one who sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, who is defeated in a re-election bid, and who goes on to hawk his access around the energy industry, and now hopes to return to the Senate? 
And then there’s the Senator who votes for a war in the Middle East.  Coincidentally, her husband sits on the board of a company that goes on to make vast profits from that military misadventure.  Her husband might also sit on the Regents’ board of a public university system, and at the same time cast votes that tear that system apart while himself investing in dodgy distance education schemes.  If these aren’t examples of corruption, I’m not sure what is.  And yet they are accepted if not encouraged. 

But of course the most egregious might be the actual legalisation of something most of us view as corruption: the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which tells us that corporations are people and money is free speech.  These and other examples demonstrate the power of ingrained political practises to subvert the character of our democracy. 

I remember how outraged I was seeing corruption in action in Kenya.  I was in a matatu coming back from Nyeri, in the Highlands.  Being the only mzungu on-board, I’d been given the seat of honour in front, crammed between the driver on one side and two other passengers on the other, my head constantly knocking against the roof, my knees against the dashboard, and my eyes fixed on the road as we careened around slower vehicles on the way to Nairobi.  A police check-point suddenly loomed ahead.  I was the only one wearing a seatbelt, and I at least assumed that the driver would urge the other passengers to buckle theirs (though there almost certainly weren’t enough for all of us).

Instead, on slowing down, he passed the police officer monitoring the check-point what was probably his driving license, weighted with some shillings.  The officer nodded, returned the license sans the shillings, and we went on our way, none the safer.  Now, unlike the lobbyist who passes funds to a presidential candidate, a senator, a representative or other government officer, the matatu driver was breaking the law outright. 

But however much petty corruption acts as a millstone on Kenyans’ necks, it is the corruption on a grand scale, there as here, which is most dispiriting.  Because abusive oil companies, warmongering defence companies, destructive financial groups, and heartless insurance companies don’t need to break the law—such is their power and unchecked influence in our lobbyist- and money-ridden system that they can arrange to have the laws meant to protect people tailored to their needs.

I remember the hope that Alex and other Kenyans felt as they prepared to vote for the country’s new constitution in the summer of 2010.  It was a hope that their countrymen and women felt in December of 1963 as Kenya was unveiled as an independent nation; in 1991 with the end of one-party rule; in 2002 when the Moi regime left power; and on the eve of the 2007 general election.  Time alone will tell whether 2010 will validate the hope and optimism that swept crowds in Uhuru Park in the run-up to voting, when even some of the worst kleptocrats were forced to get behind the referendum.

Corruption is the subject of constant debate in Kenya.  Indeed, political debate is almost utterly free of ideology.  We find ourselves in a very different situation, but all those who feel that democracy is in itself something worthwhile should endeavour to raise the issue of corruption that is as real in the U.S. as in Kenya.