Whataboutism was used by Stalin in Communist Russia as a clever technique to rebuff harsh criticism against Stalin’s regime.
Stalin institutionalised a terror state. He killed more than 40 million people (between civilians and soldiers used as a human shield). Torture, extradition, and starvation were widespread means to keep people under control.
When criticised, the regime had no convincing answers and it could not keep quiet. So, they resorted to an absurd but pretty convincing technique. The technique of Whataboutism, which means “what about you…”
When pinned down about human rights atrocities or scandals, Stalin would counter-attack the questioner, “What about Apartheid, what about Korea, Vietnam, etc.” and immediately go “ad hominem” or against the person in an accusative mode.
This technique confused and refocused the discussion. It shifted attention away from shameful, unanswerable and questionable abuses.
Leonid Bershidsky explains that whataboutists don't deny the charge but attack the accuser as a hypocrite, "Who are you to lecture us?"
In the Western world, this technique has resurfaced. Donald Trump uses it quite often. On the US television programme "Last Week Tonight", John Oliver identified three tools Trump has put in place to advance his propaganda. Whatboutism, discrediting the media and trolling. This angers and disparages the opponent, until they become irrational.
Whataboutism is not new in Kenya. For example, we have never had a properly concluded investigation or inquiry on grand theft, assassinations or simply mysterious deaths because when things get hot someone asks, “What about my people, my clan, others have also stolen or … this is an attack on my people.”
Ultimately, whataboutism is about the intimidation of truth. In Kenya, we are witnessing a worrying whataboutistic trend in the responses we get to police brutality.
CRIME OF BEING POOR
I have met many incredibly good and gifted police officers. Many people in Kenya know or have a relative in the police. Many of them are dedicated and heroic officers.
There is no doubt that there may be organised gangsters sabotaging the work and reputation of the police. There is also quite a bit of police negligence, lack of training, poor logistics and crowd control, panic, etc.
But this cannot be justified and swept under the carpet as something that just happens. Several children, men and women have died from stray bullets. They were not demonstrating. Their crime was to be poor and live in Mathare instead of Muthaiga, Kawangware instead of Lavington Green, or Kibera instead of Karen.
Would we lightly treat a stray bullet incident that kills a politician? A renowned businessman or woman? Are some lives more important than others? We seem to justify and even defend situations and crimes that are not defensible. That is whataboutism.
The World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI), is a report presented by the International Police Security and Police Index (IPSA), an institution specialising in police science. The report evaluates and ranks the best to the worst police services in the world.
It ranks countries based on evaluation of the ability of police institutions worldwide to render effective security services. It looks into the internal security of countries and measures public confidence in such services. It studies the rates on fear and crime, rates of crime victims and establishes indicators of police operations and activities.
The study measured security provider performance across the four domains of internal security: capacity, process, legitimacy and outcomes. It considered the availability of resources devoted to internal security, the use of these resources, public perceptions of the use of these resources and whether the public views security providers favourably, and the current threats to internal security in each country.
POOR POLICE PERFORMANCE
In the latest WISPI, Singapore performed best, followed by Finland, and then Denmark. There were only four non-European countries in the top 20. The United Arab Emirates was the highest ranked country from the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and ranked 29th overall.
Botswana and Rwanda were the highest-ranking African countries, though appearing first at position 47 and 50 respectively.
Nigeria performed worst on the index, followed by DRC, Kenya, Uganda and Pakistan. Countries with protracted civil conflicts were not eligible for the index. North America and Europe performed best while sub-Saharan Africa had the worst average.
It is interesting to note the similarity between the top performers in both this index and the global development index. The correlation between security and development is ineluctable.
WISPI further demonstrates that public perception of the police service impacts the performance of security providers, translating at the end to an impact in development. For example, Botswana and Rwanda, high performers in the development index, are recording a high in the effectiveness of their police services.
NEW TOYS AND WEAPONS NOT A SOLUTION
Our political environment is charged. The police are nervous. Any demonstration is met with violent force and live bullets. We have invested heavily in repressive tools like the green whales we see nowadays navigating around Nairobi. We had never seen them before.
The police have new tools, new weapons, new toys, new gears…but the same old training. Their morale is low and their social acceptance has been eroded tremendously. This is a hint of greater troubles ahead.
Sometimes I ask myself, what is life on a roundabout like? Our traffic cops spend 12 to 14 hours a day standing, breathing fumes, in the scorching sun or torrent rain. With a miserable salary and nobody to care whether they eat or rest. Drivers hate and fear them. That is not a life.
The police spokesman and government officials have fallen into the trap of whataboutism. We hear: “This is the fault of the opposition…the fault of other criminals, of politicians who call for demonstrations…what can the police do when provoked, etc.”
This is not an acceptable answer. There are excellent police officers (I know many) who are heroic, dedicated and they want change.
The police have very strict legal criteria that justify the use of force. They are found in Schedule Six of the National Police Service Act.
These conditions are proportionality, efficiency under command control and responsibility, self-defence and always under a duty of notification.
Are these conditions met when repressing those demonstrations? Are the police using the right approach for crowd control? Is there proper intelligence on the conditions of pre-announced demonstrations? Or are we using demonstrators as human shields for political gains?
The answer, for the sake of Kenya’s sustainable peace, cannot be whataboutism.
Dr Franceschi is the dean of Strathmore Law School. [email protected]; Twitter: @lgfranceschi