What is the value of a Kenyan life?

The Kenyan government is a product of its colonial upbringing and has difficulty imagining its people as fully functioning human beings capable of understanding or dealing with complexity.

For the past six years, Kenya’s self-proclaimed “moral cop”, Dr Ezekiel Mutua, has used his position as the CEO of the Kenya Film Classification Board to impose extremist restrictions on Kenya’s cultural scene. In that time, Mutua has earned the derisive epithet “Deputy Jesus” through his regular fulminations and bans targeting local films and music as well as advertisements and parties that offended his religious sensibilities.

Last week, however, to the glee of many on social media, he seemed to get his long-awaited comeuppance. Not only was he fired from his perch, but the country’s Ethics and Anticorruption Commission announced he was under investigation for illegal payments he had allegedly pocketed during his tenure.

In truth, it has been a long time coming. While Mutua has vastly expanded the scope of his purview beyond anything even the colonial architects of his organisation intended, he exemplifies the same mentality they had when they created it. The Kenya Film Censorship Board, as it was known when it was established at the close of the colonial epoch, was the culmination of decades of racist and colonial paternalism whose aim was, in the words of one writer, “the suppression of African culture and the efficient penetration of … Christianity”. In the eyes of the British, “the entire African population [w]as extremely vulnerable, psychologically immature and without the mental capacity to consume certain films without corruption”.

Mutua has the same view of his fellow countrymen but attempts to disguise it as a concern for children, even when the restrictions he applied were aimed at adults. In that regard, he was a pretty good fit for the government he served, which throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has preferred to treat Kenyans like they were delicate children, simple minded and incapable of handling the truth or complex situations. As such, it has deliberately opted not to explain its plans, actions and policies to the citizenry but rather to impose, threaten and deceive.

In the week after Mutua’s firing, as a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections ravaged the country, the government inexplicably loosened restrictions on public transport while urging the public to continue observing them. This came despite admitting that a high infection rate was the reason the protocols had not been eased earlier. Yet there was no rationale offered for the government’s u-turn, which came just a week after its own Health Ministry raised the alarm over surging COVID-19 cases.

A few days later came a sneaky revelation from the chair of the Kenya COVID-19 Deployment and Vaccination Taskforce, Dr Willis Akhwale, that the government has “quietly” told healthcare workers to give vaccines to anyone over the age of 18 in order to avoid available doses expiring. The original, publicly advertised vaccine rollout plan had prioritised healthcare workers, security personnel and people over the age of 58. No one seems sure when exactly this changed but according to Bloomberg, “all those over 18 years old have been eligible since about July”. Again, there has been no public explanation for the change in policy which comes even as elderly citizens wait in long queues outside public hospitals and are forced to pay bribes to get vaccinated.

This week too, the government ordered all its 750,000 employees to receive at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine within two weeks or face disciplinary action. Again, there was no explanation offered for why all government workers, regardless of age or what job they actually did, were skipping the queue nor a plan unveiled for how exactly they would go about this without overwhelming the already shambolic distribution system. How all of this fits into the government’s wider plan for combatting COVID-19, or whether it even has such a plan, is anyone’s guess.

Kenya has been under a curfew, and various other pandemic-related restrictions, for nearly a year and a half now. But the government is yet to unveil a plan that allows the public to make sense of its decision-making or that provides benchmarks for the easing of these measures. The arbitrariness of the approach is deliberate and converts the restrictions from necessary medical measures into an assertion of power and authority. It is why the face of the government’s approach has been the police, not the doctors, and why its pronouncements are always couched in the language of “directives”.

Like Mutua’s KFCB, the Kenyan government is a product of its colonial upbringing and has difficulty imagining its people as fully functioning human beings capable of understanding or dealing with complexity in the world. Like its British forebears, it sees the population as unsuited for self-rule; neither for making their own decisions over what they or their children can watch or listen to, nor for participating in national decisions about how to deal with a pandemic. Deputy Jesus may thankfully be gone, but this attitude sadly remains.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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