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Saturday, August 18, 2007

RECREATING THE REPUBLIC: The Challenges Facing Young Kenyans

"But to get to our Land of Promise, there is a wilderness we must cross and there are giants we must slay."

Closing Address delivered at the 3rd National Youth Convention Kenyatta International Conference Centre Sunday, 12th August 2007

By NJONJO MUE Senior Legal Counsel
and Head of the Advocacy Programme Kenya National Commission on Human Rights.

Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen: I would like to congratulate you on the successful conclusion of the Third National Youth Convention.

Over the last two days, you have had occasion to discuss and debate the future of our country and the critical role that Kenya’s young people must play in reclaiming the fortunes of our land. Unfortunately, I was not able to join you until this afternoon, but going by what I have observed and heard in the short time I have been present, I know I can rest assured that the future of our country is in safe hands. Indeed, when I go to bed tonight, I shall be able to close my eyes and rest. I know

I can afford to dream of the country that my children will call home. Through the watches of the night, I will behold in my mind’s eye, a strong African country, united in its diversity with a vibrant economy and equitable distribution of resources; where every man, woman and child has the opportunity and the means to achieve his or her fullest potential and where justice and respect for human dignity shall be the basis of social behavior by both the citizen and the State alike.

I can already see a strong, united country, taking its place of leadership in regional and international affairs; setting the pace in political governance, economic growth, foreign policy, science and technology, and promoting fair trade. I see a green land where people are able to feed themselves, enjoying the fruits of the land while protecting the environment in the true realization of the fact that “we did not inherit this land from our parents; we have borrowed it from our children.” From Lamu to Lokichogio, from the Lake the blue shining sea, I behold all the peoples of this beloved country, in their different hues and colours living and working together side by side in mutually reinforcing and affirming communities across the land.

I see a land where justice is truly our shield and defender; where we shall resolve our disputes peacefully without resorting to violence. Where brother shall no longer hurt brother, nor a man lift his hand to strike his wife. Children shall play together in safety and shall have all the means to grow strong in mind, body and character, to become the men and women who will diligently apply their time, treasure and talent to serve their communities and their country faithfully.
But to get to our Land of Promise, there is a wilderness we must cross and there are giants we must slay.

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The picture of now is not altogether an encouraging one. Over the last few days, you have dissected the problems confronting us; challenges to our nationhood that threaten to rip our social fabric apart, including poverty, unemployment, insecurity, inequality, domestic violence, drugs and alcoholism, negative ethnicity and corruption. We have spoken ourselves hoarse about these giants in the past, so I shall not belabour the point here. Suffice it to say that it is time to move beyond the rhetoric to providing practical solutions.

A scene from the South African movie, Sarafina, comes to mind. Sarafina’s teacher, Mrs. Masumbuga, is discussing Sarafina’s idea for the school play. Referring to the still incarcerated Nelson Mandela, she says to Sarafina, “I like your idea for the school play… the prison gate swings wide open and the prisoner walks free…” after she allows herself a few moments of pause to savour the imaginary scene she comes back to reality, “… and then what?”

The history of our struggles in Kenya is a history of aborted revolutions primarily because we did not bother to ask and answer the question, “… and then what?” In 2002, the country united to remove an unpopular government. We all joined together in the new unofficial national anthem, “Yote yawezekana!” But because we did not pause to ask ourselves “… and then what?” as soon as the common enemy was defeated, we turned on each other and spent the next five years hurling insults on one another and emerged even more divided than we were when we embarked on this leg along the troubled journey to true nationhood. Kenya’s young leaders must avoid this mistake. We must have an agenda that goes beyond merely replacing the old guard.

I do not have answers for you, but some of the questions that we must ask ourselves include the following:

Our population is projected to rise to 60 million by 2030. 60% of these people will live in urban areas. How do we face the challenges of providing food, health, housing, security, education, sanitation and other social services? Are we prepared to introduce new thinking to tackling the challenges of modernity or are we going to stand by and watch as our towns and cities continue to become one big slum? What demands are we making on government to provide affordable services to its people in a sustainable way?

A recent survey shows that the majority of our young people dream of living in urban areas and of working in sectors other than agriculture. What are we doing to prepare to meet this challenge, by changing mindsets, making agriculture more attractive and building the skills and capacity of our young people to face the challenges of living in a globalized world? Another recent survey in Kabete and Gachoka constituencies indicate that young men are dropping out of school at alarming rates to engage in crime, miraa trade and drug trafficking. This has led to an imminent mental health crisis which is threatening to reverse the few gains made in development. In the cities - and among us here - alcohol has become the silent killer of our hopes and quiet stealer of our dreams. The problem of alcoholism and drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions as are the associated vices of violence, prostitution, gambling and pornography. These are challenges that especially face young people and if we are to safeguard our dream of recreating our republic, we must become our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper by holding one another accountable as to how we are individually safeguarding our dream by taking care of our own mental and physical health.

Having listened to some of the discourse this afternoon, I have to admit that I am a bit disturbed about the seeming obsession with power and position. While power is important because when properly used it enables us to proffer our point of view in the competitive marketplace of ideas and to implement progressive policies, there is need to point out that leadership is not just about position; it is about influence.

It would be a pity if we as young leaders waited until we become MPs or councilors before making a contribution. Each of us here is in a position to influence one or two people on a daily basis towards the direction we want our country to go in the project of recreating our republic. What’s more, there are countless opportunities to engage the holders of power and duty-bearers at local levels in creative ways of holding them to account for the way they exercise this power. In particular, there
currently exist gaps in the way devolved funds such as CDF and LATF are used and accounted for, and it behooves us to offer leadership to our communities in auditing how these funds are used. And there are myriad opportunities to grow in leadership by offering ourselves to serve in those unsung positions such as the PTAs, school boards of governors, trade unions, estate and village security committees, cooperative societies, CBOs, and so on, where we can develop our leadership skills away from the pressure of the national limelight. We should shun the idea of parachuting from the blue and ending up in Parliament when we have never led anything in our lives and have absolutely no track record except the ability to align ourselves with a particular tribal chieftain and riding on the wave of euphoria thattends to precede our national elections.

Currently a lot of young people have allowed themselves to become frustrated and despondent. They are alienated from structural correctives that exist but are ignored or cynically manipulated by the powers that be. But there is hope yet. Speaking just about human rights, there is a lot of machinery in place, nationally and internationally, for the promotion and protection of human rights which we can use to place our society on an irreversible trajectory towards becoming a human rights State – a State that not only respects human rights, but also upholds the right to be human. Kenya is a signatory to most major human rights treaties and the State is beginning to respond to pressure to be accountable to various mechanisms set under these treaties. But more remains to be done. There is need to push for the ratification of several protocols such as the African protocol on the rights of women.

Further, despite the alienation and despair that we sometimes feel as young people, times are changing. More and more, young persons are occupying key positions in
government, business and civil society. The youth are not short of role models. The Kenya National Commission on Human Rights is an example of one institution that is led by young persons virtually from top to bottom, and is at the forefront of challenging old paradigms. While youth representation, especially in politics, is not what it should be, I invite young people represented at this Convention to participate in those structural correctives which are available to them, such as KNCHR. Your participation in these processes should not be seen as an alternative to the various ways in which you are already agitating for change, but as additional tools. You should feel free to engage with us and to share your concerns because your concerns contain crucial information that may not otherwise reach us and therefore become part of the workings of these structural correctives. Your voice should also be heard in challenging those elements of the political class that oppose the Commission’s efforts to hold them and the State accountable.

Finally, as we position ourselves to address the challenges of the future and as
we make our case for seeking positions of influence, we must ask ourselves, what is the sense of value that is driving our wanting to get into power? Leadership should be about more than just capturing seats. How have we been preparing ourselves to be that quality leader when the time comes? The late freedom fighter, Bildard Kaggia, is reported to have dismissed two young activists who visited him in his twilight years, seeking to know how they could contribute to the achievement of the Mau Mau dream. Said he, “Nyinyi hamna maana (you people are useless). You like good suits and you like seeking high positions regardless of what those positions do to your people. There is nothing you can do.”

This is a sad indictment of our generation, and coming from a veteran of the struggle for independence, it cannot be ignored. It is sadly the case that the Kenyan middle class seems obsessed with flashy cars, the latest models of cell phones and foreign football teams, instead of finding ways of giving leadership on the critical issues of our day. We have come to define the Kenyan dream as comprising a 1,2,3,4 lifestyle: 1 spouse, 2 children, a 3 bedroom house and a 4x4 car. As long as I can have and maintain these for my own nuclear family, the rest of the country can take care of itself. Our booming economy is characterized by ubiquitous developments of serviced apartments in up market suburbs whose key selling point, apart from the swimming pool, barbecue area and gym, is the ultramodern security system complete with electric fencing, controlled entry and exit, 24 hour patrols and CCTV cameras. Am I the only one who wonders for how long these high walls we are building around us will keep the people of Kibera, Mathare, Kawangware and Korogocho at bay? Might the Good Book have a point when it cautions us that ‘He who builds a high wall invites destruction’?

This brings me back to the question of values. As we confront the challenges
of the future and position our country to be a leader not only in the region but also in the world, I hasten to point out that we will not get to the Promised Land if half of us are fettered and half of us are free.

We need to shift decisively from a world where a small minority lord it over the
majority. Many of us here are privileged in many ways; we must bring the rest of our sisters and brothers with us. For as Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us long ago, none of us is free until all of us are free. The values that should drive the image of Kenya’s future that I described at the beginning of this address are the same values that inspired our forefathers and mothers when they took up home-made guns half a century ago in a blatantly unequal contest to shout from the rooftops that they too were created in the image of God. They are the values of dignity, justice, honesty, integrity and hard work. They are the values of humility and mutual respect and the equitable distribution of the burdens and the benefits of belonging. Our struggle must be anchored on the desire to build a society that celebrates its strong while taking care of its weak; where hard work is rewarded and crime is duly punished, no matter the social status of the criminal. A country that is bound together by its strong faith in God and the inalienable pride of being proudly African….

As we aspire to transform our country into a heritage of splendor, and as we continue to confront the challenges facing our young democracy, we as young leaders have a critical role to play. We must be prepared to march out in front when the majority prefers the comfort of the ranks.

Our leadership must become the voice of a new generation of Kenyans, which are emerging to answer new historical challenges; the voice of young men and women who will define themselves as leaders by their capacity to identify the issues that unite us as a nation. These are the true patriots who will raise the banner of Kenya and bid us to confidently follow, as we march together into the future, proud and united, one nation under God. I thank you.

Njonjo Mue
12 August 2007. Njonjo Mue Legal Counsel / Principal Human Rights Officer Campaigns & Advocacy Programme Kenya National Commission on Human Rights 1st Floor, CVS Plaza, Lenana Road P.O. Box 74359-00200 Nairobi TEL: 254-20-2717908 / 2717928 / 2712624 FAX: 254-20-2716160

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Transcript of a Sermon delivered by Njonjo Mue at Living Hope International Christian Centre, San Rafael, California, Sunday, 24 September 2007

I am grateful to be able to worship with you this morning. I arrived from Kenya on Friday and am visiting with family here in San Francisco ahead of attending a conference in San Jose next week. It is always such a joy to be with Kenyans abroad and whenever I travel. I take advantage of what spare time I can find to fellowship with brothers and sisters who are spreading the Kenyan charm in far-flung lands on this green planet.

Our reading today is taken from Judges 9: 1 – 21.

( Reading – Judges 9:1-21)

When I was asked to speak at this morning’s service, I struggled to come up with a suitable topic. I was taught in my preaching class in Bible school that when one mounts the pulpit to share from the Word, one should not only exegete Scripture, one should also exegete his audience to make the word come alive and relevant to his hearers. For me, this is a difficult undertaking, since I am a visitor and am not well acquainted with the issues of moment to you here. And so I will beg your indulgence as I speak from the point of view of what is happening back home in Kenya.

As you are aware, it is election season in Kenya and things are beginning to heat up as we prepare to elect a new government (or re-elect the old one) and a new parliament and local authorities by the end of this year. This has prompted my choice of subject for today’s sermon in which I try to highlight the role that good people must play in the politics of our land.

Traditionally, Christians in Kenya and in Africa have tended to shun politics. There are several reasons for this but due to limitation of time, I shall briefly discuss four:

First is the weight of history. The missionary experience during colonial rule discouraged active participation in civic affairs. Politics was largely regarded as worldly and Christians were to have as little to do with it as possible. Some have argued that this was part of a conspiracy where the missionary project was an intrinsic part of colonial domination. Indeed in extreme cases, for example in Apartheid South Africa, sections of the church provided a dubious “biblical” justification for apartheid.

Whether by default or by design, the teaching of the church in colonial Africa left a legacy of exclusionary politics where politics is left to worldly people while the church focuses on pastoral issues. But by so doing, this approach has ended up limiting the definition of politics as a process of acquiring political power for power’s own sake and thereby enabling politicians to protect their own interests as opposed to working in trust to advance the interests of the nation.

But even before the advent of colonialism and the missionary project, and this brings me to my second point, religion has historically tended to introduce a false dichotomy with regard to the management of human affairs. Jim Reeves’s famous song comes to mind here. “This world is not my home, I am just passing through…” Many have interpreted this song and sections of Scripture as meaning that Christians should have nothing to do with how their countries are run but should focus instead on winning souls.

But few stop to wonder what happens to the souls if the conditions in a particular country make it impossible to keep soul and body together. At worst those who subscribe to the “Jim Reeves” school of thought behave as if social problems do not exist; at best they try to salve their consciences by engaging in acts of charity.

They conveniently forget that Moses did not go to Pharaoh seeking better food and medicine for the slave labour force; he went marched on the palace with a profoundly political demand, “Let my people go!”

When they read the story of the Good Samaritan, they deliberately refuse to ask, “What would the Samaritan have done if he repeatedly found victims of robbery on the Jericho – Jerusalem Road. Would he have continued taking them to the inn and paying for their treatment from his own pocket, or would he have started asking some fundamental questions like, why is there not street lighting on the road to Jerusalem? What have the police done to combat this sort of crime? Has there been any cooperation between the Jericho and Jerusalem metropolitan councils to improve securing along this important access road? What have the authorities done to equip the inns along the road with medicine and oil to take care of those that fall prey to the robbers known to be operating along this road?

In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25: 31 - 46) Jesus tells us that on the last day, we shall be judged on the basis of whether we provided food to the hungry and water to the thirsty; whether we invited in the stranger; whether we clothed the naked; whether we looked after the sick; and whether we visited the prisoner in jail. These things can and should be done at a personal level; but at a societal level, they all involve very political choices, and Christians should not imagine that they can escape their God-given responsibility to make life more liveable through fighting for a fair and just distribution of power and resources in the society of which they are a part.

Thirdly, we have been misled into maintaining a loud silence in the public square by buying into the false popular belief that we are “the leaders of tomorrow.” I am forty years old today, and all my life, I have been told that I am “the leader of tomorrow”. But tomorrow never comes. Those who became ministers at independence in their twenties are still calling the shots. We complain that our country is being left behind, but what do we expect when our leaders have been at the helm of politics since the 1950s. How can you have a new idea when you have been on the scene for 60 years?? I am amazed at how a young country like Kenya, with over 70% of our population at the age of 35 and below can allow itself to continue being ruled by septuagenarians?

The phrase “Leaders of tomorrow” should be scrapped from our political lexicon and dismissed with the contempt it deserves. We need to develop a culture of leadership development and succession that is in tune with the changing challenges of our time. And we should not apologize for it. I repeat here what I have said before. We will continue to value the experience and the wisdom of the old, but when they become obstacles to change and progress, then it is not just our right, but it is our solemn duty to politely but firmly show them the door.

Fourthly, we shy away from politics because we have a limited definition of politics. Politics is not just about party positions, important though this is. It is about the process of making decisions for groups in all spheres of social endeavour. God instituted politics and we should robustly engage in it the same way we engage in any other part of God’s creation. The powers we engage with are God-created. But because of sin, they are fallen but they can and shall be redeemed. Indeed we are God’s instruments in redeeming the powers and being a foretaste of the establishment of the Kingdom of God. This is not to take a position on the latest fad of church leaders seeking political office, which is not within the scope of our topic today, so I shall say no more about it here.

If politics is a dirty game, it is because we have left it to dirty people to play while we stand on the sidelines and complain. This brings me to today’s text from the book of Judges Chapter Nine. This is an interesting story of Abimelech, the illegitimate son of Gideon, who murdered Gideon’s legitimate sons in order to have himself enthroned as King. Only Jotham, Gideon’s youngest son, escaped the slaughter. Abimelech, then appealed to his mother’s tribesmen, on the basis only of the fact that he was their flesh and blood, to support him in his quest for power. Abimelech also hired reckless, adventurous youths who became his followers.

This profile of Abimelech, the usurper, sound uncannily Kenyan. His approach to politics was nakedly tribal, he murdered potential competitors and he intimidated the populace by using an armed militia of unemployed youths. But it is Jotham’s words that bring to the fore the most chilling comparison with our situation today.

During Abimelech’s coronation ceremony, Jotham tries to warn the people by telling an interesting parable of a community of trees in a desperate search for a king to reign over them. First they approach the olive tree but it declines. “Should I give up my oil, by which both gods and men are honoured, to hold sway over the trees?”

Next, they approach the fig tree but it also refuses to serve. “Should I give up my fruit, so good and sweet,” it asks, “to hold sway over the trees?” Then they approached the vine which also declines saying, “Should I give up my wine, which cheers both gods and men, to hold sway over the trees?”

In desperation, the trees turned to the thornbush and asked it to be their king. The thornbush, knowing their limited options, gladly accepts but with a caveat, “If you really want to anoint me king over you,” it tells the trees, “come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, then let fire come out of the thornbush and consume the cedars of Lebanon.”

Having thus warned the people of Shechem, Jotham flees into exile, but the people ignore him and proceed to anoint Abimelech king. His reign is marked by strife, oppression and civil war, as predicted by Jotham.

In the same way, many good people in Kenya today have opted out of getting involved in public affairs and left the country to be governed by thornbushes. We are too busy producing our olives, figs and wine to get our hands dirty with political issues. And yet we get all upset when these thornbushes go to our parliament, steal our money, while being unable to raise quorums to pass vital legislation.

But we must get involved. And not just in the voting during this election year, but in the daily tedious task of building institutions and holding our leaders accountable. We must be willing to take risks and to pay the price to reclaim our country from those who have stolen it from under our noses. And if necessary, we must refuse to cooperate with a political class that has made it their stock in trade to subdivide amongst themselves the garment that covers our nakedness. We must unmask the charade that goes by the name of party politics in Kenya today.

There are many reasons why we must do this but because we don’t have much time, I will briefly focus on three.

First, whether we are involved or not, we are still responsible. In any country, especially in Africa, politics has an important impact on the direction that our societies take. Hospitals have drugs when politicians want them to have drugs; roads are fixed when politicians say they get fixed. Politics is too important to be left to politicians alone.

Second, if we do not get involved, others will make the decisions for us. All the decisions made by politicians affect all citizens alike. The Bible reminds us that we may not be of this world, but we are in this world. We should therefore not be too heavenly minded as to be of no earthly good. There are too many moral dilemmas in our time for us to remain neutral. It was Edmund Burke who said that all that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing. Closer to home, Prof. George Kinoti has pointed out that it is immoral for Christians to opt out of the struggles of our time only to come in and reap from the blood and sweat of others.

Third, we must get involved because God expects us to get involved. Matthew 5:13 tells us that we are the salt of the earth. Salt both preserves and gives flavour to meat. Christians like to complain about the rottenness of society, but if the meat is rotten and tasteless, there must be something the salt is not doing.

In light of all this, how then should we live? It is possible that being so far from home and without the vote, you may be feeling pretty helpless. But there is much you can do both here and at home in Kenya. Three possibilities come to mind:
First, you should pray for the United States of America. In Jeremiah 29:7, God instructed his exiled people to pray for the country into which He had allowed them to be taken into captivity, “for when it prospers, you also prosper.” Likewise, we need to understand and own the problems and challenges afflicting the country of our sojourn; to pray about them and to contribute towards solving them.

Secondly, we should get involved in local political issues of our day – in our church, community, in our children’s schools, our local authorities and so on. As in evangelism, in social justice issues, the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few. We should refuse to be lukewarm or complacent. God wants us to get actively engaged in rebuilding the walls around our communities to make them safe again in all respects.

Finally, for you who live abroad, you should remember Zion. I have had opportunity to speak to groups of Kenyans in many countries since the 1990s and I have repeatedly sought to remind them (including myself when I lived abroad) that the task of rebuilding our country belongs to us. In July 2000, in an address to a group of Kenyans in Oakland, California, I appealed to Kenyans to invest at home with what was then considered to be a controversial statement:

“My plea here is made even more urgent by the fact that all Kenyans look forward to the time they can retire at home and many are busy saving money to build a house there. But pray tell me, are you going to build that house in the air? How can you look forward to retiring in a country that is quickly going to the dogs on your watch?

Others are comfortable being Americans and we cannot fault them for that. But I would like to point out that American capitalism, in its current form, is no its last leg as a dominant socio-political formation. It is unsustainable for the simple reason that you cannot have all this accumulation in one part of the world while the rest of the world is starving. Something has got to give and it will give soon.

One of three things will have to happen in the next five years. Either there is going to be a major stock market crash precipitating a great depression; or there is going to be a major war – which is what capitalism has traditionally used to redistribute surplus resources from one part of the world to the other (… it has been the same story since 2nd World War where Europeans destroyed their continent to enable Americans to make a massive transfer of resources through the Marshall Plan). The third possible scenario is that even at this late stage, America and other rich nations will see the looming disaster and agree to a Marshall Plan for Africa.

Whichever comes to pass, it behoves Kenyans in the Diaspora to take the lead in reconstructing their country. For the comfort zone we have occupied in the US and elsewhere may not remain comfortable for long.”

A year after this warning, 911 happened and the war on terror began, making it inherently difficult to travel to, remain and work in the US. The comfort zones are no longer as comfortable as they used to be, and it has become even more important to rebuild our Zion. We should get involved in making Kenya liveable by defining those issues that we feel passionate about and giving our time, talent and treasure in reclaiming the fortunes of our land. You may not have the vote, but you have immense influence. You also have resources through which you can become involved in giving provision for the vision of a better homeland.

Nehemiah had a good secure job in the king’s palace (Nehemiah 1), but this did not blind him to the sorry state of the land of his birth. He used his position to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem to keep enemies at bay and restore the dignity of his people. We are in a similar position today. Our beloved country lies dangerously exposed to mercenary thornbushes who owe allegiance to no one but themselves. We will soon go through the ritual of electing yet another lot. But have we asked ourselves what would really happen if we all got seriously involved in snatching our country back from the brink?


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