Pulling the trigger on impunity through citizen action

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By Phoebe Nadupoi

The National Rainbow Coalition (Narc) inspired a new sense of hope when it brought to an end the oppressive reign of then ruling party KANU in 2002. The country was pregnant with expectation and promise. A study by the Afrobarometer titled “A New Dawn? Popular Optimism in Kenya After the Transition” published in 2014 confirmed this up-beat mood that defied socioeconomic and cultural boundaries.

In the same year the NARC government assumed power, some residents of Adungosi Centre in Teso frog-matched two police officers to the Provincial Police Officer’s office over extortion. A similar incident had been reported earlier that same year in Kangemi where a police woman was said to have taken a bribe (nothing was said about the giver). Kenyans were ready for change! These hopes were, however, quickly dashed due to the government’s inability to act to entrench good governance.  Corruption and impunity took root, and we know some of their descendants – they include Anglo Leasing and its other relatives.

We were lucky to have had another defining moment that gave us the opportunity to start all over again. The promulgation of what has been hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions provided yet another transition moment signifying another chance to seize the unrealised dreams. The new constitutional dispensation revitalised the country yet again, and provided a collective sense necessary for goal unification as the country charts a way forward especially after the infamous post-election violence of 2007/2008. I need not recount the chronology of events, but we all know where we are today.

As we commemorate five years since we gifted ourselves this progressive, supreme law, we cannot help but notice the contradiction of what is on paper and reality, of the dreams deferred, and of ideals that have remained just that. As we contemplate on the gains and misses, it is imperative to reflect on our role as citizens. What can we do to change the status quo?

Even though challenges abound, citizens have the power to trigger change. Somebody recently told me that what it takes to bring about change is to step on the toes of those perpetrating impunity and even if they are not moved at first, they will eventually budge when their toes begin to get sore. Citizens have a role to play in building and sustaining pressure for reform.

One avenue citizens can use to do this is through social media. Before the advent of social media, citizens’ voices were heard through their elected representatives and, in some cases, through leaders in appointive positions, as well as traditional media. Whether or not these representatives advance agenda that resonate with the views of their constituencies is a subject of debate. Scott and Jacka in “Auditing Social Media: A Governance and Risk Guide” hold the view that before the advent of social media, organisations and traditional media controlled the message. They observe: “Most had the ability, and the desire, to ensure that communications were simple monologue or, at the most, a very controlled two-way conversation.”

Kenyans on Twitter (KOT) provide an example of social media’s transformative role in respect to governance. Take the case of Nandi Hills MP Alfred Keter, who stormed the Gilgil Weighbridge insulting and threatening staff for refusing to release a trailer that had been held for flouting transport rules. It is the reactions of Kenyans on social media on the incident that prompted mainstream media to give prominence to the issue, and other arms of government to take appropriate action. The story of the Kayole driver who knocked a woman and managed to get out on Sh1,000 bail is yet another demonstration of the potential of citizens’ power to illuminate on these issues and make demands on public officials.

It is organised and sustained citizen pressure that saw Pastor James Ng’ang’a charged with reckless driving and causing death. But this is not just important because justice will be served; the incident has revealed the rot there is in the police force and provides an opportunity to relevant institutions, including the National Police Service and Independent Police Oversight Authority to address systemic problems within the police service. If it remains just a Ng’ang’a issue, then we will have lost an opportunity.

It is important for government institutions to embrace citizen participation as a core strategy in the quest to enhance good governance. David Cohen raises an important issue in a chapter titled “The Power of Organized Citizens: Fighting for Public Integrity” published in Governance Reform, a publication by the World Bank. He argues that more than declarative intent is required in the promotion of good governance, and avers on the need to recognise citizens as a key stakeholder in addressing impunity and institutionally embedded corruption.

Finally, as Cohen suggests, there is need to protect what he calls “public space for argument”. Change only happens if we allow alternative voices to be heard. Which is why citizens, civil society, media and the opposition must heard. It is the case, after all, that diversity is a key feature of democracy.

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