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Kenya, the land of impunity, refuses to accept and move on
Daniel Kalinaki
Posted: 5 months 2 weeks

The man in the crisp blue shirt sat on a wooden bench in the middle of the crowded courtroom.

He leant forward, whispering conspiratorially to the woman next to him.

The woman, her head weighed down by an unruly mass of black mass-produced hair, occasionally cast furtive glances in my direction, her jaundiced eyes darting away every time I caught her looking at me.

I had never seen the woman before. But she had, at least, seen a photograph of me.

She had also been to my flat and in my bedroom, where she had rummaged through the drawers in my drawers, strolled into the sitting room, past the pictures of my kids on the walls and the books on my shelves.

Then she, and an accomplice, had calmly walked out, through the door they had opened with a large bunch of master keys, carrying away money, a laptop, hard drives, a keepsake watch and the TV remote controller.

The TV itself they abandoned in the corridor; why break their artificial nails when they could order one online and have it delivered?

With the help of a keen-eyed neighbour, who spotted the licence plate of their getaway car, the two women had been arrested soon after with the laptop, then released on bail. Fingerprints and phone records put them at the scene. Open, shut.

Several months later, the trial was about to start. But the man in the crisp blue shirt, the detective in the Kenya Police Service in charge of investigating the case, had a message for me from the suspect as he retook his seat next to me: She was willing to save me the bother of endless and fruitless court appearances if I accepted some money – less than 10 per cent of what she and her accomplice stole – and the laptop.

“It’s a good deal, bwana,” the detective told me quietly.

“I’d take it if I was you.” I looked up at him. He had a fatherly look in his eyes, like he had just done me a great favour. Then he recited the anthem of impunity in Kenya: “You just accept and move on.”

To understand the significance of last week’s Supreme Court annulment of the presidential election result in Kenya, one must understand how widespread and entrenched impunity is.Kenya is a product and a producer of impunity.

The seeds were sown by the land-grabbing colonial white settlers, watered by the native land-grabbers who replaced them and is tended by a predatory political and business elite.Its fantastic political history is written in the blood of assassins-at-large, including infamously, a foreign minister, who tortured himself to death, then drove his car into a field and set it on fire. Genius.

When long-standing ethnic and land grievances erupted after the 2007 election, leaders of the warring sides buried their hatchets atop their victims, and shared the spoils of war.

Witnesses with something to tell the International Criminal Court somehow seemed to suffer unfortunate personal misfortunes that invariably led to their deaths. Anyone, from tenderpreneurs to IT experts, who refused to accept and move on, was ‘discovered’ a few days later.

In Kenya you accept and move on, lie low like an envelope, or literally lose your head (or arm).

But every political system determines the opposition to it and a history of impunity in Kenya has given rise to a tenacious civil society as well as grassroots and middle class activism. Small acts of courage, such as Wangari Mathaai’s resistance, and others, snowballed into a new constitution in 2010 that fundamentally attempted to redistribute power from the centre to the grassroots.

The Supreme Court ruling is a child of that constitutionalism and represents a refusal to accept and move on.

It speaks of a Kenya that refuses to accept the mediocrity of ‘good-enoughism’, and of Kenyans who believe in better.

Incidentally, I declined the dirty deal offered to me by the detective.

Outside the courtroom, after the case had been adjourned, I watched as he high-fived the suspect and her lawyer – probably hired using my money – and remembered why Kenya is one of those countries where you have to worry about criminals. And the police.

I knew, deep down, that the dirty deal was my best chance to cut my losses and run, but also that it is better to fail at the right thing than to succeed at the wrong one.

Regardless of the outcome of the fresh election, Kenyan democracy will emerge stronger. Progress in society comes not from acquiescence to safe and convenient arrangements, but from individuals and institutions refusing to accept and move on from impunity. Who would have thought that this lesson would come out of Kenya?

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s freedom fighter.

Twitter: @Kalinaki.