The quest for unity, inclusivity or peace by any other name is not new to post-independent Kenya. Indeed, from the inchoate stages of the nation state’s development, ethnic rivalries were rife. Some culminated in assassinations of leading political figures. Yvonne Owuor in her critically acclaimed book ‘Dust,’ talks of the dystopian state following the murder of politician Tom Mboya. She writes: “After Mboya, Kenya’s official languages: English, Kiswahili and Silence.” In an interview, Ms Owuor spoke of silence as coming after “the loss of a dream, the loss of the imagined Kenya”. She further said that “with the death of Mboya, the One Kenya project came to an end”.

President ’s new ‘One Kenya’ project is expected to find expression in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) campaigns in the New Year. Among the raft of benefits the BBI proposes is an expanded executive to promote inclusivity. The proposed creation of five positions at the apex of the Executive and the position of Leader of Official Opposition has been touted as the elixir that will cure perennial fights in Kenya’s ethnically diverse environment.

Kenya's woes and the language of silence
National Council of Churches in Kenya (NCCK) General Secretary Rev Canon Chris Kinyanjui (centre), NCCK Deputy General Secretary Rev Dr Nelson Makanda (left) and Catholic Justice and Peace Commission (CJPC) Chairperson Rev. John Oballa Owaa during a press conference at Ufungamano, Nairobi on December 11, 2020 to voice their concerns on BBI. [David Njaaga, Standard]

But like Owuor’s novel ‘Dust,’ there are deaths in Kenya that threaten to upend the BBI dream. Medical personnel in the country’s war against the pandemic have started dying in large numbers, yet the government’s stock response has been in eloquent silence. At recent Jamhuri Day celebrations at the Nyayo Stadium, the president, expected to address the plight of frontline health workers, did not. Nor did he mention the fact that there is an ongoing strike in the health sector causing untold suffering to Kenyans.

The president is sanguine about the prospects of the country if the BBI succeeds in amending parts of the Constitution. However, present reality diverges markedly from his vision. Universal health care, part of the four agendas of his legacy, has fallen off a cliff with showing just how far this fall has been. For one, citizens are on their own as the National Hospital Insurance Fund has declared it will not cover patients afflicted by the pandemic. Then there is poor management of in the counties precipitated by inadequate disbursement of funds from the national government. Further, no sanction against theft of personal protective equipment appears to be forthcoming even as a studious silence is maintained over stolen funds.

Kenya's woes and the language of silence
Further, no sanction against theft of personal protective equipment appears to be forthcoming even as a studious silence is maintained over stolen funds.

Yet the clamour for constitutional amendments betrays a tacit recognition that Jubilee has failed Kenyans; that nepotism, negative ethnicity, crony capitalism and corruption have nearly bankrupted the country as have poorly executed projects funded by egregiously expensive loans. The government is now preoccupied with debt renegotiations to avoid insolvency, hardly leaving any cash to pay its health workers.

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Which is why it is extremely poor form to lecture dying doctors about sacrifices for the country. It is insensitive of the political class to call for tolerance when they themselves recourse to costly treatment overseas. They are aware that to be subjected to broken down public health facilities is, in many instances, a death sentence. It is unconscionable that our medics can go without pay for months as the country hires expensive Cuban doctors.

Local doctors

And Jubilee is at its eloquent best when it talks about a referendum next year. At an estimated cost of Sh14 billion, the opportunity cost is the entire lot of unemployed local doctors who would be fully remunerated for up to five years. To many citizens, the plebiscite appears to be a bitter pill that must be swallowed even when they cannot see its curative or palliative value.  

Of the death of Mboya, Owuor writes: “The loss must have been so grievous to the psyche of the nation that the silence around that death has sustained itself to this particular day”. How darkly prescient those words are when one considers the silence around the deaths of frontline health workers. It is as if those in authority hope that the problems will miraculously resolve themselves.

A fundamental reorientation of the nation’s priorities is needful. Whilst constitutional amendments are necessary, the timing is of utmost importance. Silence may be golden, but it also speaks volumes about the contempt with which ordinary citizens are held. This is apparent when the conversation on their protection, treatment and coverage of medical bills is glossed over in favour of other mundane discussions.

-Mr Khafafa is a public policy analyst

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