It is easy to poke holes into the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. And I’m certain many will seek do so. Journalists are, after all, a pretty cynical lot. We delight in nothing more than tearing down the edifices of officialdom and being the small axe that chops down the big, big tree.
So in the coming days, aspersions will be cast of the report’s credibility given the delay in issuing it; the infighting within the commission which dates back to its establishment; the missing signatures on the land chapter and rumours of a minority report; the contradiction of condemning impunity on the one hand and, on the other, seemingly letting off Daniel Arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki despite acknowledgement of the gross violations of Kenyan’s rights that happened on their watch.
All these, and many other valid criticisms, will be levelled at the report and at its authors (I’ve done my share). And it is right and proper that they are. A report such as important as this should be held up to the full glare of public examination. However, as we do so, we should also be careful that we do not throw out the baby with the bathwater. For despite its failings, and there are bound to be many, this report is a monumental achievement for Kenya.
As we focus on the findings and recommendations of the report, we must keep in mind that it represents the first real and concerted attempt to tell an aspect of the Kenyan story through the eyes and experience of the Kenyans who lived it. The 40,000 or so statements collected by the TJRC, the largest number of statements of any truth commission in history, represent a living history of the troubled times that Kenyans have endured (and continue to endure). It is not a history that you will read in any of the textbooks that purport to teach our children about the travails of independent Kenya. And it is neither a perfect, or even complete, history by any means. It is, though, a valuable start in demolishing the walls of myth, lies and official silences that have surrounded traumatic events, and shedding light on some of the darkest chapters of our common history.
It was critical that these testimonies were recorded before memories faded and the events disappeared into the mists of time. Lodged at the National Archives, they`should provide fodder for historians seeking to tell a more accurate version of what happened in our past.
For the rest of us, it is important that we hear these 40,000 odd Kenyans and recognise that their voices are representative of countless others who remain unseen. We must strive to hear them all. Their testimonies are raw and uncomfortable to hear, but we must not turn away. Their pain is real and cries out for acknowledgement.
But more than merely listening, this report should spark a discussion, a radical and honest reappraisal of our common past, a reformulation of our national identity with the aim of fostering a fresh and deeper understanding of the ties that bind us. The discussion must not, like has been the case previously, be restricted to the ivory towers of academia. It must go on in our homes, in our schools, in our places of worship, in our pubs and in our social gatherings. The stories in the report must become our stories; the pain, our pain.
And that is only the beginning. I hope the report sparks more exploration into the events that make up our past. It would be unreasonable to expect that any one report, however well intentioned and resourced, could capture every aspect of our history. We must keep up the effort to fully document, to borrow from Chinese novelist Liu Zhenyun, the easily forgotten tragedies that occur in places abandoned by their governments and its enemies.
Finally we should, as a nation, seek to understand how that past still influences attitudes and actions today, how present-day Kenya is very much a product of its past. We must, for example, see the common thread running through the Shifta War, the many atrocities committed by the security forces in the North East and the recent “security operation” in Garissa. We must understand the militancy of the Nyanza politics through the prism of the region’s nearly half century of political and economic marginalisation. For it only when we see these linkages that the history stops becoming a rather interesting story, and becomes a tool for refashioning our nationhood and for ensuring that we do not continue to repeat the mistakes of the past.
Then, and only then, can we truly and honestly accept and move on.