"Sitting in the best hotels drinking coffee..."

Shaazka Beyerle
12 November 2008

The 13th International Anti-Corruption Conference is over, a few participants are bumping into one another at the Akropolis and on Syntagma (Constitution) Square, the warm sun shines overhead, and Athenians can be spotted still swimming in the enveloping blue Mediterranean.

On the last day, while I "manned" the exhibit table for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), a modest woman with a kind face and big smile came up to me. She told me she had wanted to stop by earlier. Her name is Phyllis Muema, she is with the Kenya Community Support Centre in Mombasa, and she gave permission to be identified. As we chatted, I told her about a comment made by a another Kenyan during a session organized by ICNC on the creative, brave ways in which civilians have mobilized and engaged in civil resistance to break the violence-corruption nexus in their societies, for example, in Sicily (mafias) and Guatemala (narco-cartels). (Vanessa Ortiz posted impressions about this session earlier.)

During the panel discussion, an elegantly attired man, whom I was later told (but cannot verify) was a Kenyan member of parliament, asserted that it was the violence in Kenya that created the urgency and impetus for the negotiations and solution to the political conflict following the contested presidential elections last December. I relayed the story to Phyllis, and asked her what she thought. "Well," she said, "the power-sharing agreement is for only 210 people - those in the parliament. It's not power-sharing by the people for the people. Their [parliamentarians'] needs were met, namely to sit in the Parliament."

"Were there other options available?" I queried. She argued that no dialogue or negotiations were attempted before the violence escalated ten months ago. And this was not for lack of good people, as she believes that there were a number of Kenyans and other Africans based on the continent with solid diplomatic skills. After much bloodshed, finally, the two sides ended up in negotiations mediated by Kofi Annan - something that could have been attempted from the outset.

Phyllis is concerned with repercussions the post-election violence is having on Kenyan society, particularly young people. "Violence breeds violence." She said that youth burned three hundred schools over the past few months. "They learned from their parents' actions last January. When they have a problem with the school administration, they burn the school." In her view, many people were also manipulated by the politicians during the violence. "The young men who were used were poor and unemployed. Many were paid...While many who fought now don't know why they fought, now forty government ministers (an expanded number) are fighting for themselves." As for the victims who lost their lives, she'd like to see restitution. She stated that some militia-men are in jail but have not been tried. "And the politicians who incited and funded the militias have gone back to the city. They don't take responsibility for what happened and are sitting in the best hotels drinking coffee."

I didn't need to ask her what she thought should follow now. Phyllis already had a vision and shared it. "We need to think how to mainstream conflict management, and teach civic empowerment and nonviolent action. There needs to be a lot of training in nonviolent skills." She believes that the Kenyan people have the capacity to assert their demands for a better life. "We need to have a strategy - what are the objectives of action and what we want to achieve. People have power. They only need to realize it's in their own hands and they can make changes in the system."

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