For All Kenyans to Be Equal, Kenyatta Must Move Beyond Words on Justice

by David Tolbert*

President Kenyatta (c) AP

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta (c) AP

President Obama’s historic visit to Kenya came at an important crossroads for the country. While much of the attention of the press was directed at Obama’s Kenyan roots, for many, Obama’s emphasis on justice for all Kenyans is what will be remembered. This is particularly true given that Obama’s visit came four months after President Kenyatta’s official apology to, and announcement of reparations for, the many victims of the 2008 post-election violence, as recommended by Kenya’s Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC).

The issue of justice, as well as endemic corruption and the stalled reform process in Kenya, will remain long after the cheers for the U.S. President have faded. President Kenyatta has, however, an opportunity in the wake of Obama’s historic visit to go beyond rhetoric and both deliver on his apology and the issues Obama has raised. Kenyatta and the Kenyan authorities should not miss this opportunity.

Kenyatta’s promising announcements require concrete steps and actions without further delay. His four-month old decision to establish a fund to provide relief to victims was followed and confirmed by the inclusion of the first tranche of resources-one billion shillings (almost $10 million U.S. dollars) in the new annual budget. Now is the time to design a comprehensive and gender-sensitive reparations program that starts with the most vulnerable victims. Opening space for the participation of victims and listening to their needs and demands must be the first step. Concurrently, an efficient and transparent administrative system and infrastructure for the program must be created.

For the violations not to reoccur, urgent attention to the police vetting process is essential. Political support and adequate financial resources are necessary to back up the police reform process, which is currently struggling to achieve even minimal results. Again, ensuring civil-society and victim’s participation and transparency in the decision-making process are crucial if the process is to achieve its objectives: restoring credibility and legitimacy in the law enforcement body.

Much more needs to be done in terms of holding perpetrators accountable. Kenya has an important legal obligation to investigate and prosecute the serious crimes that were committed during the post-election violence period. President Kenyatta has demonstrated utterly no leadership in this respect, and he does his country a disservice by failing to ensure that the law is respected and implemented. Not only does this failure undermine the rule of law in Kenya, it contravenes domestic and international law.

The excuse of lack of evidence to support investigations and prosecutions rings hollow. President Kenyatta should take concrete steps to support investigations, such as creating a specialized unit dedicated to reviewing all proceedings that have taken place thus far and employing modern methods of investigating serious crimes. Asking for assistance from other countries and international organizations would also help to demonstrate a commitment to change.

The onus, however, does not rest solely on Kenyatta’s shoulders. The Kenyan Parliament also has an opening to convene and debate the TJRC’s final report. This step is long overdue, but Parliament does have the ability to show the world that it can oversee the implementation of these important recommendations.

Leaders of other institutions must also step forward to meet their moral and legal obligations. The TJRC identified a broad array of Kenyan institutions that were implicated in serious human rights violations. Their leaders must, without delay, follow Kenyatta’s initiative and acknowledge and apologize for the harms inflicted on victims by the institutions under their control. These include the Chief of the Kenya Defense Forces, the Director General of the National Intelligence Service and the Inspector General of Police. The Chief Justice has shown the way already by issuing an apology on behalf of the judiciary for the role it played in countenancing human rights violations during Kenya’s dark past. The other institutions should follow his lead, for it is already late in the day given the magnitude of the violations that occurred.

Acknowledgement is an important act. It will give solace to the victims, increase transparency and make recurrence less likely. However, it will have little impact if Kenyan government officials and policy-makers do not face the aforementioned challenges nor take concrete steps to implement solutions.

To demonstrate commitment to the vision of Kenya embraced during Obama’s visit - a Kenya built on equal justice and the rule of law - Kenyatta and the authorities in Kenya must move beyond words and take action. Bringing perpetrators of post-election violence to justice, providing reparations to victims and reforming the police will be welcome steps in the right direction.

* This post was originally published here.