MAKOKHA'S MEMOS - Daily Nation

Campaign to sanitise torture chambers

Friday January 9 2009

By Kwamchetsi Makokha
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The government in Kenya suffers from a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde complex, especially with regard to history. One day it loves history, and the next it reviles it.

On the one hand, the Government has aggressively pursued a memorisation programme by building monuments, developing a heroes’ and heroines’ policy, and dedicating space at Jamhuri Park in Nairobi for a Heroes’ Corner.

On the other hand, no single action has been taken to realise the numerous assurances and pledges from the Government over the past five years that the Nyayo House torture chambers will be converted into a national monument of shame.

Twelve human rights organisations and torture survivors whose representatives visited the chambers last year found that the site is quietly being renovated in an attempt to sanitise its dark past.

The lift connecting the interrogation rooms on the 24th floor to the basement has been removed and the switches in the control room have been tampered with.

Fluorescent lighting has replaced the harsh lights, one set of toilet and bathroom equipment is missing, the heavy sound-proofed steel doors have been removed from the basement cells, and the red fire-fighting hose pipe used to fill the cells with water is no longer in place. Additionally, there are attempts to remove the temperature vents.

The building is still managed by the National Security Intelligence Service, the successor to the Directorate of State Security, also known as the First Accused in all torture cases.

As Kenya waits for the Justice minister to appoint a date when the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission Act will come into operation, it is anticipated that Nyayo House will be focal point in the investigations seeking the truth in order to make reparation for victims.

There is a fat chance of that happening if all the evidence is destroyed and the commission has to rely on the testimonies of the victims alone.

In a December 5 letter to the Prime Minister, written on the same day of the visit, the 12 organisations requested a meeting of all concerned before December 17, 2008. It has received no response.

The letter was copied to Justice minister Martha Karua, Attorney-General Amos Wako, Internal Security minister George Saitoti, National Heritage minister William ole Ntimama, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights chair Florence Jaoko and the National Museums of Kenya director . So far, only Ms Karua has responded with promises to take action.

It is imperative that the sites of all historical crimes— not just Nyayo House Torture Chambers — be preserved until the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission completes its work. More importantly, these places now belong to history and must be preserved.

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Let’s cut back on the Cabinet

Many months after Finance minister Amos Kimunya was forced to eat a humble pie and “step aside” — notwithstanding his voiced commitment to dying before resigning — and just as long since the passing tragic death of Roads minister Kipkalya Kones and Home Affairs assistant minister Lorna Laboso, another departure has been forced on the grand coalition Government.

Mr Joel Onyancha was invited to leave Parliament by the High Court, which said his election had not occurred in an environment you would call free or fair.

The four vacancies in government, which have been unfilled for a long time, demonstrate the superfluity of ministerial positions.

If a ministry that signs on loan agreements and disbursements like Finance can operate without a supervising politician for so long, it should give pause to clamour for jobs by people elected to play a legislative and oversight role.

The arguments about institutions not encroaching on each other’s turf – especially Parliament, the Judiciary and the Executive – have fresh ammunition in the relative stability of the government in absence of substantive politicos in executive positions.

Looking back, one can recall that after the departure of Mr David Mwiraria from Finance, Mr Kiraitu Murungi from Energy and Prof George Saitoti from Education in the whirlwind of corruption allegations and investigations, their Cabinet jobs were held by acting ministers.

Last year, the partners in the grand coalition convinced the country that it was necessary to have a bloated Cabinet of 44 and a slightly higher number of assistant ministers in order to govern.

Those numbers have not been used to pass any significant law. At the last instance, when the President and the Prime Minister needed to send home the Electoral Commission of Kenya, they were reduced to begging. So why is the country footing the bill for a bloated government when prices are high, opportunities scarce and performance minimal?

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Pluralism in the religious sector

French philosopher Voltaire said: “I hate what you say, but I would die for your right to say it.” Pluralism is always a good thing, especially because it keeps things in perspective, teaches tolerance and humility.

Nowhere have these lessons been more sorely needed than in religion. The launch of an atheists advertising campaign on 800 buses in Britain — saying: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — is a wake-up call to religious bigots who take dominance as a right. In Kenya, for example, certain religions bully and dismiss dissenting minorities by claiming to have a monopoly on truth about how the universe is organised.

This because Christians are allowed to propagate their faith almost everywhere. And because Muslims enjoy similar privileges — making several calls to prayer and praying at national events.

Because there are people whose universe revolves around the veneration of spirits and ancestors, and yet others who do not hold truck with worshipping, the atheist campaign in Britain, as well as in the US where ads urge people to be good for goodness’ sake, is a testament to freedom of expression.

Just before the launch of this campaign, which has attracted no less than $200,000 (Sh16 million) in donations, a friend in the UK pointed to me an article in the Times of London titled, As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.

In it, Matthew Parris condescendingly suggests that Africans lack individualism and curiosity. “People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.”

That is why, he argues that the continent needs more Christian missionaries, not aid money, to change the way they think. That at a time when Britain is painting its buses with agnostic messages. What cheek!

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We hope coalition will last till 2012 elections

This has been a testing week for the coalition Government — from the spat over the transition team at the Electoral Commission of Kenya to the Kenya Communications (Amendment) Act.

Ambassador Francis Muthaura, a man presumably raised on diplomacy, has displayed a remarkable talent to create conflicts where none should arise in the course of executing his duties as President Kibaki’s permanent secretary.

It is quite clear that Mr Muthaura, as head of the public service, does not work for the Orange Democratic Movement side of the Government. Or he would not have so many run-ins with that coalition partner’s potentates.

His close relative in the civil service, Dr Alfred Mutua, for all his spin, forgot that he was working for a coalition and printed leaflets defending the position voiced by one side of the Government.

The upshot of all this is the realisation that the little gentleman’s agreement between the coalition partners on how to resolve conflicts— which was kindly drafted by Mr Mutula Kilonzo — has no signatures.

Being the optimists Kenyans are, they will continue to believe that they have a government, and that the coalition administration will last until the next election in 2012.

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