Friday, February 18, 2011

A Culture of Accountability: Off With Their Heads!

A bit of a discussion about the aftermath of the bombings came up, and I expressed my deep skepticism about any calls for resignation at this time. Fellow blogger hj had this to say in response:

"I don't think it's just political posturing or unfocused anger that is pushing for these calls of resignation. The situation in gongo la mboto is simply a microcosm of a larger problem at hand. Accountability and governance isn't just donor-ingratiating jargon. Yes, a resignation or dismantling of the government structure may not do much good, but what is the alternative. There is more at stake here then simply a power shift, this may be an opportunity to cultivate a culture of responsibility and engagement rather than complicity, armchair activism and rhetorical spin."

I really like that last part: "this may be an opportunity to cultivate a culture of responsibility and engagement..."

As it happens, this afternoon the Army called a press conference to partially inform the public about the Gongo la Mboto events. Even more shockingly, the two high ranking officers tasked with the job- Brigadier General Leonard Mndeme and Brigadier General Paul Mella- did their best to answer journalists in a courteous and informative manner (they didn't always succeed, but they tried). When challenged as to whether the report of the commission tasked with investigating this event will be made public, considering that the report on the Mbagala bombings was not, Brig. Gen. Mella had a telling moment. He joked that with the current parliament that we have, it would be difficult not to make the report available to the public.

Accountability is indeed not donor-ingratiating jargon- if anything I would argue that donors should stay far away from that party.* However accountability is also not a top-down game, you can't parachute it in with a couple of high-profile resignations. It has to be demanded and fostered at the grassroots level and become an inalienable component of our understanding of professionalism in the public sector.

I am not against the resignations per se, but I do think that they lose their impact as a political tool when used improperly. Case in point: Former Prime Minister Edward Lowassa** resigned in 2005 over the Richmond/Dowans scandal. In 2011 he is back in parliament as Chairman of the Standing Parliamentary Committee for Defence, Security and Foreign Affairs. Dowans is being paid taxpayer money for not producing any electricity, and we are experiencing 12-hour power cuts that have already caused a number of small industries to shut down, rendering their employees jobless. Who is laughing now?

During the army press conference, there was no sign of our Minister of Defence and National Service, Mr. Hussein Mwinyi. Chief of the Armed Forces General Davis Mwamunyange was also conspicuously absent. We haven't been told anything about the officers who were directly in charge of that munitions dump. These are glaring holes in the story, a story we are yet to piece together. A resignation based on a general principle of accountability is fine, but I would rather a resignation or three based on evidence, facts and direct culpability. That, I would find deeply and lastingly satisfying.

But, more importantly- how do we make sure that Gongo la Mboto's events spur us to create a culture of responsibility and engagement? And specifically, what tools can we bring to bear in the effort? I want to go back to the Army press conference. Major Mela essentially promised by implication that the report would be made available to Bunge, which is the people's organ of government.

We are not privy to cabinet deliberations but I can guarantee you that within seconds of that document hitting Bunge, wenyenchi will be all over it like flies on a warm glass of Safari. In fact, in the past five or so years parliament has arguably done more to foster accountability (however hairy and inconsistent the ride has been) than any other tool/method/forum outside of independent media. None of this would even have been possible if certain politicians hadn't used that platform to blow things wide open a few years ago where government is concerned. Now, if only we can stop the habit of letting politicians bribe us for our votes during elections, we might have a fighting chance at this good governance thing.

I want to make one last point. Dramatic, emotionally charged events with high loss of life such as Gongo la Mboto excite us, understandably, to examine issues of accountability and governance with great immediacy. Off with their heads! But... every year far large numbers of us are dying thanks to poor healthcare, access to medicines, clean and safe water, antiretrovirals, safe birthing services... you get the drift. Sadly, these every day stories are not sexy outside of NGO circles. We would rather see Mwinyi or Mwamunyange be fired in disgrace and savor that moment than storm the walls of the Ministry of Health or the Ministry of Education and demand their heads on a platter. For that matter, we don't even know how much money the Army spends on toys and guns when the budget for Health is so horrifyingly inadequate.

I worry that if a scapegoat is identified and "forced" to resign, our nimble thespians will put on a satisfying show on the political stage and nothing else. We the people will buy tickets to the public political beheadings and go back home... to our powerless, waterless houses to put our kids to sleep, praying they don't get malaria and that maybe they will learn to read and write when they go to school tomorrow, that we'll still have that small factory job that's earning us a wee bit of a living, that when we go to hospital we'll have enough saved up to bribe the nurses into selling us medicines that were meant to be given for free, that the government will not sell off to much of the Strategic Grain Reserves to Kenya as this is a drought year and the price of food is already going up...

I would rather wait and see what's going to be done about our weapons storage/management issues, compensation in disasters, settlement policy with regards to military bases and real accountability in a meaningful way, without the distraction of a public hanging.

*... yeah, this is one of those things we kinda need to do for ourselves. As it is, the government is far too concerned with being accountable to donors while it ignores local watchdogs and voters.


  1. "I would rather wait and see what's going to be done about our weapons storage/management issues, compensation in disasters, settlement policy with regards to military bases and real accountability in a meaningful way, without the distraction of a public hanging."

    Surely the point is that this did not happen last time, and a public hanging this time might help concentrate minds a little. If I hire a watchman who falls asleep on the job then I fire his ass. The same should apply to public servants. (Including all those ones in health and education who are also asleep on the job ...)

  2. ps. And if the security company (aka political party) keeps on sending me dud security guards then I switch company ...

  3. Yeah, that's the idea. And it's a good idea. But it doesn't seem to work here. Besides, I think and investigation is due first.


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