5 Lessons from the Alfred Keter debacle

1. Impunity is alive and well

You might have seen on the internet an image of a letter said to bear the forged signature of Deputy President William Ruto. It is to the China Road and Bridge Corporation purporting to recommend a contractor to the firm building the Standard-Gauge railway. It states rather simply that the contractor is known to the Deputy President and has executed previous contracts excellently, with the upshot being that they are good guys and ought to get the job. In Kenya, it would work in your favour if you did not ignore a letter from the Deputy President saying so and so is a nice guy who delivers on time.
After all, it has been proven that if you are a Cabinet Secretary pulling down homes built on what you believe is grabbed government land, and you hear the President telling on Sonko on phone that you should stop, it is only reasonable that you shut down your noisy earthmover.
It is with this in mind that Alfred Keter was screaming, ““We were about 10 Members of Parliament. You are waiting to hear from who? From God? Jesus Christ to call you? What the f**k is that?”
In his twisted logic, a call from the State House Comptroller is equivalent to a call from the President and a call from the MP who chairs the Administration and National Security Committee is like a call from the head of the police.
It is therefore proper to surmise that impunity, the word Koffi Annan brought to Kenya, is alive and well.

2. Everyone is involved

Before Sonia Birdi and Rahim Dawood, Shakeel Shabbir was the most recent Kenyan of Asian origin in Parliament. But Dawood is from deep inside Meru in Imenti and Shabbir is known to declare that he is a Luo and an honorary Massai. I forget the Massai name he calls himself. Sonia Birdi is every inch the Kenyans of Asian origin we see in Nairobi. Some drink and party and hang out with Kenyans of African origin and get in the muddle with the rest of us. They make up their hair into mohawks, have joined the community of bikers and Subaru drivers and generally mingle quite well.
I noticedSonia during the pre-election campaigns in 2013, taking a place at the front of the dais on a day that ended badly in Dandora and waving dreamily at the crowd with the rest of the politicians,. Although she struggles to make a point during debates in the House, she certainly makes an effort. She is also a regular at the bar and some colleagues have seen her smoking. She caught the attention of a few of us when we spotted a tattoo on her upper arm one day.
While she was not known much before the incident, she now is, and we now know that everyone is involved in whatever it is they were doing.

3. We need to talk about weighbridge corruption

“At that bridge, a lot of bribes are demanded,” Sonia said first thing on the phone Sunday when asked about the incident. It was no surprise that the claim would be among the first reasons Alfred Keter and her would give when confronted. There has been a fracas at the weighbridge at Mlolongo Monday. Not long ago, a cop manning a weighbridge shot at officers from the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Unit bent on arresting him. There was also that interesting case where cops sued the Inspector-General after they were transferred away from a weighbridge. Get the drift?
Now we know that even as Keter and Sonia are lynched in the manner deserving of a public officer caught in that kind of affair, there is something seriously wrong at the weighbridges.

4. “Railway Bug”was never a saint.

After he ‘broke’ the story about people in government taking money to give the contract for the construction to China Road and Bridge Corporation, Alfred Keter gave the media in Parliament a copy of the statement he read. We were lounging around at the media centre there when I took a look at the statement, which I had glanced over earlier as I wrote the story. It was then that I noticed that it had “Railway Bag” written at the top. “What is Railway Bag?” I asked a colleague. He was also puzzled a bit by it for a while but then his eyes lit up and he said, “This guy meant Railwayberg, like Goldenberg.” We had a good laugh like all good Grammar Nazis so in such circumstances. There were a few jokes about how he might have meant “Railway Bug” because he was going to be a bugger on that one.
Not that getting a word wrong is a sure sign of a bad guy but when the Public Investments Committee asked for proof of the corruption, he made a point of appearing.
The reporters following the ‘scandal’ expected Mr Keter to show up with a trove of documents showing how this and that official went to China on this and that date and came back with a container full of Reminbi. Instead, he showed up with Senior Counsel Ahmednassir Abdullahi and a statement apparently taken off the World Bank site showing that CRBC had been blacklisted by the World Bank.
Is it fair to say that Alfred Keter was a creation of the media? I think he was. In a coalition that doesn’t exactly like criticism from anyone, much less from within, a rebellious voice was certainly bound to get attention. Who else would say in public that, ““We are holding the horns of the cow while others are milking it,”?
Although he publicly declared an end to his rebellion, Keter had just managed to establish his name. Now we know he was never a saint.

5. If caught, spin it as much as possible

When she was arrested for driving under the influence, she was quite embarrassed and thought that going under for a while would solve things. But a politician friend who has been in the arena for a while had some useful advice: just spin it. When I heard their conversation a few months later at the older politician’s office, she sounded happy that the advice had come. “When they called me, I did not even try to deny. I gave them an explanation and added a little story. I did what you advised me,” she happily said.
“Don’t call me honourable,” Sonia Birdi shouted at NTV’s Larry Madowo when the combative presenter asked her whether she deserved the title Honourable, which MPs are trained to apply to their names the moment they enter the chambers. (By the way, only in politics, academia and in the titled professions will you find people who tell you what title to put before their name, which I find extremely egoistic).
Back to Sonia, who when asked why the title should not apply to her, said it is because if being dishonourable amounted to what she was doing at the weighbridge by fighting for the rights of Kenyans, then clearly she does not deserve the title.
Similar arguments were advanced by Keter, who argued that the focus ought to be on the corrupt, not those, like their two honourable selves, who tried to go around the rules instead of offering the money straight up and sending the crane along to drill holes.
Among other failings. the two failed to stitch their tale together well enough and so the holes in it were so big you could see their tails very well.

But now we know that spin is an essential tactic to counter bad press.

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5 lessons from the Langata Road Primary School saga

1. Schools need to get title deeds

Sometime back, there was some beef between the Father-in-Charge at Kambaa Catholic Church and the management of Kanyore Primary School right next door. The man of God at the new parish hived off Githunguri wanted to fence off the church compound and create a little more space for the church. The beef arose because he wanted the church to have more space for a lawn and a shrine, which meant changing the orientation of the football pitch, moving the gate and adjusting the well-established entrance to the school. Some words were exchanged and the priest prevailed but the church was eventually locked out of the hall built in the school and had to build their own. The dispute was partly made easy to handle because the church and the school came into existence at the same time. We have seen with the Langata Road Primary School playground affair that when a school and a private citizen or company clash over land, the latter will likely be the loser.

2. Sometimes you need a brave man (even if a little teargas comes along)

Some of the blame for the kids getting teargassed on Monday is being directed at Boniface Mwangi, who is seen in one of the photographs, before the teargas was thrown, in the midst of school pupils and appearing to angrily lead them in pointing accusing fingers at one of the cops guarding the land. I don’t know whether Boniface was to blame for anything seeing as before he propelled himself into the affair, the kids had no playground and all the National Land Commission was doing was visiting the land as the politicians kept their way and the Twitterati twiddled their thumbs. Because of the Boniface-led protest and the police’s thoughtlessness, the children now have a playground. There is still a case in the courts filed by Airport View Ltd but with Major-General Nkaissery making the school his first port of call Tuesday morning, President Kenyatta making those statements against the land commission and the Lands ministry and all the media attention now fixated on the land, I doubt anyone else will ever want to occupy it. All because of a brave man and his few brave friends.

3. Swazuri and Ngilu (and probably everybody else) was sleeping on the job

I was walking up the bridge on the Reminisce side of Langata Road on December 22 last year when I became aware of a fast moving person bounding up the stairs on my right. Then the muzzle of a gun came into view and the man holding it quickly passed me. It was an Administration Policeman in full uniform. Police come in pairs so his colleague was behind me. As we descended the stairs on the other side, the two cops were already over the fence and walking to the shade of the trees next to the school, where the construction of the wall was going on. I wondered then what was going on. That was a month to Teargas Day. In between, my colleagues were attacked when they went to photograph the site, the National Land Commission officials have been to the place a few times, while the ministry and the politicians waited until the brave people had brought the wall down to make their declarations. Where were they all along?

4. What police reforms?

If the right to hold demonstrations is still in the Constitution, what would you say the cops were doing when they gassed those kids? Ok. They were pushing down the wall of what was then assumed to be private property. After they had done that, all manner of government officials emerged from the woodwork to declare that the school was the rightful owner of the school’s playground.
If that cop who threw the canisters would have told his commander that he couldn’t stomach throwing tear gas at a kid, would he have faced any punishment under the Force Standing Orders?

5. There is a beneficiary of all this walking awaaay in this town.

There is, in this urban centre somewhere, a man or a group of men, there might even be women involved, who presented the land for sale. They called the client to a room in the private members’ club on the top floor of a hotel, bought them a meal and a glass of wine, ordered an expensive double of one of those smoky whiskeys and then laid out the plan. With laser pointers they showed the person the plot, showed them the documents from Survey of Kenya, pulled out some maps and transparencies and told him what a good investment this is. What about the school next door, the man might have asked? No problem. A file was extracted and plans were shown once more. Look at these houses here. Before the owner built them, a claim was made but was withdrawn after they looked at these here plans. What about Nairobi West Prison? That belongs to the government and is well documented here. Once you fence the plot off and build it up, people will forget. Deal sealed. Money in the bank. Walk awaay.

 

There is an additional lesson re the top Jubilee politician constantly connected to the land: the internet is always awake.

 

So what national dialogue?

Those who listened to Rosemary Odinga at her brother’s final funeral service were surprised by how calm she was. How easily she had the crowd shut up and listen to her and how far she diverted from the rhetoric spewed wholesale by her father’s political friends. Some of us – okay, me- were literally swept away when she began to sing that verse from Redemption Song. ‘Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery’ is just the right thing to tell the sort of people who show up for funerals ready and willing to listen to all manner of balding men shout at the top of their voices matters completely unrelated to either the deceased or their family. Matters, if we are to be a bit more precise, such as national dialogue.

We watched wide-eyed on May 31, 2014 as Cord leader Raila Odinga arrived from the United States and went straight to Uhuru Park to Iron Zion with his peeps before heading home to family. That day, Kalonzo Musyoka said, “We want an all-inclusive government.” All-inclusive in politician-speak could mean a government in which I am included or a government in which every representative of the various political leanings is included. that, in our present circumstances, can never happen. Certain decisions were made in March 2013 that have made that impossible for the next two, three years. At that moment, then, it looked like the bitter man from Tseikuru wanted a nusu mkate government.

But then, thankfully, he ended his microspeech and handed the mic to the jet-lagged Baba. Baba can work up a crowd. Everybody temporarily forgets what they think when he launches into his tendawili or football commentating. Even the staunchest Jubilee supporters, those who stand up when they see the President on television or drop the child when they hear Kamwana speak will tell you they listen very well when Baba drops his tendawili and mawingu yametanda lines. That last day of May, after he was done with the theatrics of #BabaWhileYouAway, Baba delivered the final call. National Dialogue. He said this should be done in 60 days  and if that doesn’t happen by Saba Saba, July 7, the government could only blame itself for what would follow. Mawingu yalikuwa yametanda.

Never mind that July 7 was not 60 days away but 37. Never mind that Kalonzo convinced us to forget that he had called for “an all-inclusive” government and

After that, as football lovers like the former Prime Minister enjoyed the World Cup, the call for national dialogue was kicked around like the political football it had become.

By the time Saba Saba came around, the tune changed to referendum.

Today, the switch has flipped back to referendum, and the football is being passed around again as we await the Africa Cup of Nations.

Back to Rosemary, who would be a good interview prospect one of these fine days, who seems to me like a worthwhile new politician in the mould of Johnson Sakaja, who has also taken to making statements unlike those of his peers or agemates, and whom the former Prime Minister should probably prepare for politics as he was said to have been doing for Fidel.

She spoke well, saying, “What we are asking is if the leadership of Cord can come and have dialogue without any ultimatums, please come have dialogue without any ultimatums. And to the leadership of the country right now; yesterday, you did not own the instruments of power. Tomorrow, you will have to give those instruments to somebody else. What will be your legacy? Kindly, I ask, humble yourself and come for dialogue. For the sake of Fidel, humble yourselves and come for dialogue.”

The question that remains unanswered is; what form will it take?

 

How Cord was outflanked in the Senate

After about two hours of debate in the Senate Tuesday evening, Busia senator Amos Wako appeared to have realized what was going on and urgently asked Speaker Ekwee Ethuro for a chance to speak.

He did not, like his fellow Cord senators, launch into debate on the preliminary question of whether the Senate should debate the Security Laws Amendment Act. Instead, he simply asked Mr Ethuro to rule.

But the Speaker could not.

Moments before Mr Wako, the former Attorney General, stood, Elizabeth Ongoro (ODM, Nominated) had walked over to the Speaker, who was leaning back in his seat, and pleaded for a chance.

That moment marked the breakdown of Cord’s strategy in the Senate, where they ended up fuming in anger after Mr Ethuro denied the House the opportunity to toss the controversial security laws in the wastepaper basket.

Unwittingly, by playing a part in the prolongation of the debate on a mere point of order by Majority Leader Prof Kithure Kindiki, Cord played into the hands of their rivals and three hours were spent on a preliminary matter rather than the actual substance. They thus lost the chance to score political points during debate and possibly force the House to vote on whether to declare the controversial Act unconstitutional.

“There is no limit to how (long) the debate would be. The debate is determined by interest,” Mr Ethuro told me the following day.

“There was an equal interest from members even from their side  and the moment Senator Amos Wako said we should stop debate, I said…some of their own members had threatened me, asking ‘Why are you not giving us a chance to contribute?’” he said.

When Mr Wako sat, the Speaker gave chances to Ms Ongoro as well as to Janet Ongera (Nominated, ODM) and then to create a balance, to Kipchumba Murkomen (Elgeyo-Marakwet, URP)and then Naisula Lesuuda (Nominated, TNA).

By extending the debate for three hours, the Jubilee side ensured focus remained on an issue that in ordinary circumstances would have been ruled upon by the Speaker after taking contributions from just three members on either side.

The extension also spared Jubilee senators the dilemma of whether to support the Senate and demand that the Act be declared unconstitutional because they did not handle it or defend it as a product of the administration they support.

“When we got informed there is a special session and the agenda in line with the law has been stated, we prepared. That’s why we were consistent and did not veer off into other issues,” Prof Kindiki said.

Jubilee senators stuck to the argument that parliamentary debates have to be conducted within the law and thus pushed the argument that the Senate shouldn’t get involved in matters that are in the courts.

Cord also ignored the fact that by the time Prof Kindiki rose to ask the Speaker to rule on the matter, there was as yet no motion on the floor because Moses Wetang’ula, the Minority Leader, had not initiated debate.

The normal practice in the House is for anybody opposed to the existence of a motion to wait until it is initiated, known in parliamentary parlance as “moving”, before questioning it.

By raising the question on procedure even before Mr Wetang’ula had kicked off the debate, Prof Kindiki robbed Cord of the opportunity to take potshots at the government. He would have had an hour to do that, placing him in the limelight as a nation on holiday watched and listened in the afternoon. The motion’s supporter, possibly Siaya Senator James Orengo, would have had 30 minutes to also disparage the Jubilee administration.

Mr Wetang’ula had spent the bulk of the three hours sitting calmly and listening as the debate progressed, apparently unaware of the filibustering Jubilee were engaged in, tiring his side out with winded arguments.

He appeared to realize what had been going on too late, after Mr Ethuro had ruled against Cord, and he was then not slow to make his point of view clear.

“My worst fears came to pass that the deliberate prolongation of the point of order raised by the distinguished senator for Tharaka Nithi was in fact a conspiratorial process to make it difficult for this motion to be debated in this House,” he said, bristling in anger.

The Speaker disagreed.

“The prolongation was deliberate to the extent that we needed to give a fair chance to more people. There are more senators who can tell you I denied them the chance to speak. You have to marry the time and the interest of the members. If you terminate the discussion early enough, one party would not have exhausted the objections. When you make the objections, one side will always claim that you have gagged us, you curtailed us…,” Mr Ethuro said in an interview.

He was of the belief that had he made the ruling earlier, when only a handful of senators had made contributions, that would have been “at the behest of Jubilee proper.”

“Deep inside them, they know,” he added.

Mr Ethuro said some Cord senators had already approached and told him of their intention to ask for an extension of the sitting, which would have been asked for 30 minutes to the scheduled end of the sitting, and he had agreed.

That would eventually not be necessary as the Speaker ruled against Cord, ending their planned assault on the legislative front and sending it back where it remains for now, the court.