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.

A House of Foreplay

As the debate before the aborted debate in the Senate raged Tuesday afternoon, Speaker Ekwee Ethuro appeared to sink deeper and deeper into his chair.
Two hours into the exchanges between the senators, it suddenly dawned on many of us covering the Senate that Ethuro had every reason to relax.
Unlike his colleague Justin Muturi, who leans forward and whose back rarely touches the back of his seat, Ethuro appeared to have been aware what he needed to do.
Sit. Listen. Take notes. Rule. Go back to holiday.
Unlike Muturi, who had to duck missiles on his last day in the House this year, Ethuro did not have to do anything he wouldn’t be inclined to.
Later, Minority Leader Moses Wetang’ula would blast him in that passionately eloquent way of his: “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.”
Ethuro waited for him to finish in stony silence and when he was done, declared that the House stood adjourned.
What would Muturi have done?
He would have been sitting upright and from the moment Wetang’ ula made the second or third of his belligerent statements, he would have declared him out of order. One can reliably predict that the same would have happened when people like Omar Hassan or Dr Boni Khalwale contributed with the usual mix of sarcasm and well-worded digs.
At the end, he would not have resisted the impulse to get back at Wetang’ula and warm him of the great dangers of insulting the Speaker and accusing him of bias. That would have probably marked a descent into chaos and name-calling.
As it was, Ethuro did not even need to duck missiles.
He did not, like his colleague Muturi, even have to prepare a considered ruling. He wrote his on the papers around him and offered a moment of humour when he dropped them around him as he prepared to make his ruling.
Cord must be kicking themselves ( and if they are not then they should start) for allowing Ethuro to sit back in his chair and allow three hours of foreplay knowing very well they wouldn’t be getting any of the main action.

It is a House, in the end, that appears fully committed to the act of foreplay without thinking beyond that.

Isukutis and awkward teenagers

Isukuti drums and songs welcomed Student So and So as she rushed to confirm her first place at This and That School somewhere in the leafy suburbs or at Unknown Academy at Dusty Estate in Nairobi.

That was December 2007 and as we looked forward to the General Election, I wrote such an intro on a 300-word story that was married to several others describing similar events the day the results of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Examination came out.

The editor who assigned me that job was obviously happy with the story I wrote that day. It was precise and delivered fast and in time to go into the paper, which I think had a bigger print order than usual.

For KCPE, we would troop to the Makinis, Riaras, Light Academies and in the odd year, to some school in Komarock or Githurai  to record stories of the supposedly best students. It is all predictable quotes: “I prayed hard to God and would like to thank my parents and teachers for their support. I was watching TV with my sisters and cousins when I heard the minister say my name. I want to be a doctor/aeronautical engineer/neurosurgeon/pilot/insert dream profession.”

In subsequent years, I would find the whole process of covering the release of national examination results rather boring. I could write that intro one million times with my eyes closed. That intro can even write itself. It is that used to being written.

Even when colleagues who work on other publications asked that we introduce some variety, we put out the same thing over and over every year. It worked for us and it worked for the market.

In 2012, I had the results for the entire country at my disposal. All the candidates. All you had to do was give me an index number and in the case of my nephew, Ctrl F and enter his name.

One of those years- they all look  and sound the same- an advertising salesman came to the news desk and got into an altercation with the boss. He wanted one of his clients given favourable coverage because they had ran adverts in the paper six months straight. We don’t do that kind of thing so he was asked to sod off. Ironically, I had been to the school earlier and talked to the owner and her benighted first class honours students.

Before Mwai Kibaki brought (back) Free Primary Education, the stars of the annual ranking were the likes of Olympic Primary School. Set in Kibera and catering to the ordinary, common and most likely poor students, there was a sense of satisfaction in seeing a public school where students got the honours they deserved. But then schools such as Olympic got crowded  and those who could afford it began putting their children in private schools. When a private school got ranked high up, it got to attract more students- parents actually- and has a genuine reason to hike the fees.

Walking these newsroom corridors, I have often heard the question, “What happened to the stars of yesterday such as Olympic?”

They drowned in the rankings is what happened to Olympic.

Internally, the media will have to adjust to covering the release of the results in a whole new different way. We have to get more creative. No more isukuti drums. No more awkward teenagers on uncle’s shoulders.

Let’s see what the papers do tomorrow.

Keeping us guessing

President Kenyatta’s letter to the Speakers of the Senate and the National Assembly on Friday afternoon asking them to summon MPs for a special sitting on Sunday caught Ekwee Ethuro and Justin Muturi by surprise.

With both Houses on a break, there wasn’t much going on in Parliament Buildings apart from committee meetings. Even the parking lots were scarcely populated and the corridors quiet.

President Kenyatta’s letter would set in motion what has eventually emerged as a cleverly crafted plan to create a frenzy over whether he would heed the summons by the International Criminal Court.

The Speakers immediately embarked on having text messages sent to MPs as they drafted the notice in the Kenya Gazette to give legal effect to the request by the Head of State.

They did not know what the President was going to tell MPs.

“My only imagination is that it may be something about ICC,” Mr Muturi said when contacted.

The Speakers were at the top of the list of many who would be surprised by the President and his close-knit circle of advisers  and who would be kept waiting until the final five paragraphs of his Monday afternoon speech.

Some of the MPs received the text messages from the Speakers while at the Dutch embassy, which had been forced to open on Friday to accommodate the large number of applicants.

They were granting interviews and it was after one such at 3 p.m. that the message from the Speakers came in.

Majority Leader Aden Duale, who speaks for the Executive in the House, was entirely in the dark as he had travelled to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, for the 1435 Annual Islamic Hajj.

He also had no idea whether President Kenyatta would be travelling to The Hague and asked those who managed to get him on phone whether a decision had been announced.

Asked whether their applications for visas meant the President was travelling, Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria told journalists, “We are speaking for MPs.”

There was still no definite word from the President’s men on Saturday and Sunday, with even sources in State House staying mum on the matter or speaking in a manner to suggest they were also in the guessing game.

It was also telling that on Monday, his speech was sent to the press two hours after the special sitting, suggesting it had not been available to the entire team beforehand. The Presidential Strategic Communications Unit normally sends a soft copy of the speech before he has finished reading it.

Without a word as to what direction the President would take, the Opposition Cord on Sunday seized the opportunity to make some political mileage out of the special sitting and asked their MPs not to go to the House.

This was on the basis that the special sitting was called without the consultation of the Minority Leaders as required by the Standing Orders and mainly because, they argued, the President was going to speak about a personal and not a national matter.

A small number of Cord MPs from the Coast, Western Kenya and Kisii attended the special sitting regardless.

President Kenyatta also left the major announcement deliberately late in his speech, spending time before that on how the country has come since 2008, when the crimes he is accused of committing took place, to the making of the new Constitution and his personal disappointment with the ICC’s handling of his seemingly collapsing case.

The first statement on the direction things would go came at the forty fifth paragraph of his 2,258-word speech: “It is for this reason that I choose not to put the sovereignty of more than forty million Kenyans on trial, since their democratic will should never be subject to another jurisdiction.”

But that was still not a definite statement and could have been taken any other way.

He laid his mission bare in the next paragraph: “Therefore, let it not be said that I am attending the Status Conference as the President of the Republic of Kenya.  Nothing in my position or my deeds as President warrants my being in court.”

After that, the other surprise was stating that he would sign the legal instrument necessary to appoint Deputy President William Ruto as the Acting President.

At the end, the relieved legislators, a majority from the Jubilee Coalition, were applauding. A diplomat in the balcony forgot protocol and clapped along with the rest. Nobody normally claps in the chamber.

Mind the bomb in the plastic bag

What’s in a black plastic bag and has wires sticking out of it?
In Nairobi today, that is probably a crude bomb.
The Bomb Disposal Unit will tell you that the best thing to do is step away and inform the authorities, who I assume will then ask the BDU and their little robot to come over and have a look.
What if you’re in the traffic jam at Pangani on the second lane on the highway part of Thika Road?
Close the novel and mark the page with the blue and white Prestige Bookshop bookmark, feel the thing with your shoe and look discreetly at the contents of the plastic bag.
That’s what I did a few mornings ago in a matatu I was in, and the Bomb Disposal Unit or my friends in the KDF would certainly not be happy with what I did because that is honestly a very foolish thing to do, isn’t it?
It certainly is and I tell this little story as a bad lead-on to the point I want to make; that if we are to deter terrorists, then we certainly must take it upon ourselves to do the job, not leave it to the trained people alone.
When the crews of the matatus that were bombed on Thika Road were dragged to the courts and slapped with bonds of Sh5 million, the sages on Twitter and Facebook put up their scrawny arms and protested. The Matatu Welfare Association came in with the assertion that the job of the conductors and touts is to collect fare, not check their passengers for things that go boom. Dickson Mbugua’s crippled argument was that the matatu crews have no idea what a bomb looks like and would therefore not know it if they saw it.
So that if say, the makanga on the matatu I take home saw a package with loose wires poking out, he would think the bearer is a mechanic or a radio repair man taking it home or back to his customer.
That is how bullshit sounds and that is why I was for the idea that the crew of the Jeean Bus and the Mwiki Sacco Bus that were bombed should have been allowed to spend a little time at Industrial Area and see how bedbugs and lice look like and practice the classic art of crushing a hardened louse between the thumbs.
Whenever you board a public service vehicle, you literally place your life in the hands and feet of the matatu crew.
You pay them, enter a contract for your safe transportation and then hope that they will get you to your destination in one piece. That they will not allow the vehicle to roll, that they are sober and sane enough to avoid crashing into a tree or another vehicle and they will stop it so you can alight and go wherever you’re going safely.
Drivers who cause accidents end up in court because they endanger or even end lives. Similarly, drivers who carry exploding devices in their vehicles should be made to bear a similar responsibility. They should be made to ensure they don’t have harmful things on board.
When you think about it, what do you carry in a bag that is so private that you wouldn’t mind a total stranger seeing? Pads and tampons? Nobody will open your letters or look through your wallet. If the metal detector keeps beeping, kindly show the man what it is you have in your luggage.
Of course this won’t stop the fellow who really wants to blow us up from doing so, but it might deter him. To this I would add a constant awareness of our surroundings. Had the bombed buses been operating in a more organised way, and we all know how crazy the Paradisos, Jeeans, Maranathas and Tuxedos on the Guthurai 45 route are, they surely wouldn’t have been sitting ducks that Sunday.
As Scott Gration said at the National Prayer Breakfast, “a safer and more secure nation is everyone’s responsibility, not just the job of the security forces.”
That’s from a man who has been in the security forces and was in the Pentagon when the third hijacked 9/11 airliner slammed into the side of that fort. His fighter jet also once stopped 100 feet short of slamming into the ground. He’s also a white American and we seem wired to pay more attention when a lighter-skinned foreigner dispenses advice.
Also, we know very well how our police operate.