The real achievement of 2003: an open society

by Sunny Bindra on December 21, 2003 · 0 comments

in Sunday Nation

It is traditional in December to offer a review of the year that has passed. And 2003 is well worth reviewing – the first year in our history in which a non-Kanu government took the reins of power. Narc itself has published a glowing record of its achievements in office in year one. On the other side, there is widespread dissatisfaction and disenchantment about all the failures and missed opportunities of this new government.

It is difficult to know what to think. Does this government deserve applause or just condemnation? Are we on the right path, or going nowhere? Just for this week, I ask you all to put aside the spectacles of cynicism, and join me in taking a positive look at the achievements of Kenya in 2003. Let us be ready to smile, and give credit where it is due.

Let me start by taking things from a personal perspective: I would not be writing this column under the previous regime. Such was the despair that Kanu in its final years had reduced us to, that it was simply not worth trying. People with ideas kept them to a closed circle; people with views shared them only with family and friends. The idea of a wider society had withered away. Nobody believed anything could change. None but the most diehard activists believed that progress was possible. Most of us were intellectually numb, our hopes broken on the rock of unmet expectations. To hell with society, we thought: just look after yourself and your family.

The Narc victory rang in yote yawezekana throughout the sleeping country. Many of us broke out of our shells of isolation, rubbing our eyes in the suddenly bright sunshine. We saw, much to our amazement, that the sky was clear and blue, and a vivid rainbow arched resplendently across the land. All became possible. Suddenly, we were all stakeholders in the country again.

Slowly but surely, the chatter of new hopes began growing. Everyone now had ideas about what needed to be done. Every Kenyan felt he or she needed to be heard again. The letters pages of the daily newspapers began filling up; new columnists appeared; public discussions about the future of the country, once attended by a few tired lecturers and NGO-types, now began playing to full houses.

To me, this opening up of Kenyan society has been the most important phenomenon of 2003. We are truly in a different country now: one in which we believe in our individual capacity to shape our common future. There is debate where previously there was dissent. There is discussion where previously there was despair. Discourse has replaced discord. It is worth contributing, worth participating, worth belonging again. And to its credit, the Narc government has given free rein to this new openness, this new participation. Even when the chatter is negative and the conclusions cynical, the government has allowed the debates to carry on. Kenyans have come to believe that freedom of speech is possible, that radical opinions need not land you in detention or worse. This freedom must be protected at all costs: it will provide the cornerstone of our development for generations to come.

Coupled with this new openness is a new accountability. For the first time in this country, there is genuine public scrutiny of the affairs of government. If ministers engage in murky transactions, their names are soon made public and noted by voters. If MPs spend their time in clandestine tribal politicking, they are soon discussed and condemned in popular columns and radio talk shows. If politicians try to influence tenders, their interference is rapidly leaked to the press by civil servants once too meek to complain. In short, the propensity for wrongdoing in our leaders may not have changed; the likelihood of revelation has improved dramatically.

The government has played its role in the new dispensation. It has shown the political will to do what none could before: clean up the institutions of governance. The attack on the judiciary may have been unprocedural, ugly and incomplete: but it achieved more in one stroke than any amount of commission reports and statements of intent could have. It signalled the government’s willingness to grasp the nettle. All public servants have taken note; all future miscreants have been given pause.

The President is playing a key role in this attack on public plunder. He has been consistent throughout the year in his statements: there is no room for scams and schemes any more in this country. His personally appointed PS for Governance and Ethics is doing a sterling job: wherever the scent of new corruption appears, he is rapidly on the scene. As checks and balances go, this office is the most important one in government. It has shown its alertness and tenacity as a guard dog in 2003; in 2004, let it sink its teeth into some ill-begotten trousers.

Let us present two further awards to this new government of ours: one on education, and the other on heath. Narc did what others said could not be done – it opened the doors of primary education to all-comers. More than a million additional children were enrolled in primary schools in 2003; which means more than a million children were spared a likely future as herders and touts, and granted at least the possibility of becoming scientists, writers and accountants. The positive effects of this visionary act will be felt in ten, fifteen and twenty years time by the whole country.

On the health front, the government deserves a major award for understanding and escalating the war on the HIV/AIDS scourge. 2003 will go down in our history as the turning point in this war, the year in which we unleashed our battalions. The most important breakthrough came from the President himself: by lending his face and person to a very public campaign, he has given the fight dramatic credence. Many others in his position would have been too queasy, or too ignorant, to make such a public gesture. If we do indeed succeed in taming the HIV/AIDS beast, let us remember this remarkable contribution.

In marking Narc’s scorecard, let us always remember where we came from: a despotic, intolerant country that oppressed its populace and brooked little dissent; an intellectually and morally bankrupt state; a huge milking machine for the nourishment of two dozen or so families at the expense of everyone else. We need never go back there again. We must keep nurturing the new transparency in society, keep strengthening the institutions that guard our future wealth, keep building the rule of genuine democracy. To the extent that Narc delivers on this promise, we must offer it all our support. If it fails us along the way, we must show it the door.

This week, we have presented Narc with some fragrant bouquets. But we also know exactly where the new government has failed us. Next week, we let the brickbats fly. Come and witness the caning; same time, same place.

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