OPINION: Let’s wait to hear from the BBI Committee before passing judgement

By Michael Cherambos

The basis of all fair legal systems is the same: Innocent until proven guilty. Or to put it another way, as the Latin maxim goes, ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof is on the accuser, not the denier).

In fact, the presumption of innocence is so central to the notion of fairness that it is covered by the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, making it an internationally recognised human right.

The idea of waiting to evaluate something before judging is not only covered by our legal conventions, but by every aspect of our society. Science is based on the premise of evaluating evidence before drawing conclusions.

In sport, as those who wrote off Sir Alex Ferguson after his difficult early seasons at Manchester United – and have been ridiculed ever since – will know, it generally pays to reserve judgement. And we can all remember our parents and teachers telling us not to give up on something until we have tried it, and not to “judge a book by its cover”.

With the social media era lending itself to snap, uninformed judgements, where those who react first are often valued more than those that react best, these values and norms are truer now than ever before.

And this brings us to the debate surrounding the yet to published Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) recommendations. Let me repeat for the benefit those not following closely. UNPUBLISHED recommendations.

While there is much speculation and rumours about what the BBI committee will recommend in its hotly anticipated report, due in the coming weeks, nobody yet actually knows for sure. This however has not stopped some politicians and influential figures from criticising its ‘findings’ in the most aggressive terms.

This vitriol is difficult to understand. To remind us, the BBI was born out of the handshake agreement between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, bringing together two old foes whose rivalry has divided the country for much of the past two decades. The enmity between their families predates independence.

With one gesture, the country breathed a sigh of relief as it seemed our leaders and their supporters had put the past behind them and resolved to work together towards a better future.

The handshake however could never be enough. A handshake between two people will never be sufficient to enshrine peace in a country as diverse and divided as Kenya. What was required was a broad initiative to build on this new spirit and reform our institutions so that they would promote peace and harmony, rather than hostility.

It was out of this idea that the BBI was created. In the almost 18 months since the handshake, its committee members have travelled the length and breadth of the country, consulting with local communities from all backgrounds and noting their suggestions. From this, they are devising a series of recommendations.

The BBI committee were tasked with going around the country, consulting with and listening to the public, and devising a series of “practical recommendations and reform proposals that build lasting unity.”

While people may have specific issues with the detail in the report (which again, has not been released), it is hard to comprehend how anyone could oppose any of the above. Surely peace, unity and harmony are things we can all get behind. After all, we all suffered from cross-communal tensions and violence, so we will all be the beneficiaries of unity.

As someone with an optimistic view of human nature, who always prefers to give people the benefit of the doubt, I choose to believe that these attacks emerge from a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the critics.

The anticipation and lack of information has led to a frenzied environment in which snap judgements are made based on rumour and innuendo, the opposite of how things should be. I hope that these misunderstandings will be addressed once the report is released.

What is therefore required is for the critics and the cynics to take a deep breath. There will be ample time to debate the findings of the commission, but this time will only come once it has released its findings. Criticism before that is simply premature and unhelpful.

In the meantime, I urge us all to remember the words of the Greek philosopher Aristotle: “Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

Michael Cherambos comments on topical issues.