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Much has been documented about reburial cases in Kenya, especially situations resulting from heated contestation among family members, concerned community and the government. Most of these cases have been determined through court processes and have raised questions of heritage, memorialization and how to handle the dead.

The debate about reburying the dead has resurged with renewed vigour, with politicians and pundits discussing relocating the remains of Kenya’s founding president, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. This issue was tabled in the eighth parliament in 2001 through a motion by former Rangwe MP Shem Ochuodho, who wanted the government to create a fund to support Kenya’s heroes. However, Ochuodho’s proposal was shot down in parliament and did not see the light of day.

The discussions were revived in June 2003 when Justice Minister Kiraitu Murungi announced the planned construction of Heroes Corner in Nairobi and the intention to exhume the remains of former Mau Mau fighters and the Kapenguria six for reburial there. The idea of exhuming and reburying them was intended to construct a narrative of resistance against colonialism, following a script that would largely portray veterans as national heroes during the reburial ceremony.

The debate about exhuming and reburying past heroes was once again revived, focusing on former president Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the idea of Heroes Corner did not take off following the failure to find Dedan Kimathi’s body and the decision by the government to erect his statue on Kimathi Street in Nairobi in 2007. It also emerged that the families of nationalists and freedom fighters opposed the idea of exhuming their dead kin, claiming that the government was not in a position to dictate where their loved ones should be buried or reburied.

Prior to the promulgation of the new constitution, a task force chaired by Prof. Vincent Simiyu was set up to fast-track the idea of memorializing past and present national heroes and heroines. Following the committee’s recommendations, the late President Mwai Kibaki announced on 20th October 2010, during the first ever Mashujaa Day celebrations, the government’s plan to establish a National Heroes Monument at Heroes Corner in Uhuru Gardens to honour past and present heroes and heroines.

The debate about exhuming and reburying past heroes was once again revived, focusing on former president Jomo Kenyatta. It centred on whether to rebury Jomo’s remains at the family’s rural home in Gatundu, or at the Heroes Corner in Nairobi, or whether to let them remain in the heart of Kenya’s capital city. This debate raises the serious question of whether the remains of Kenya’s first president have any significant role in Kenya’s politics today.

Born in 1893, Jomo Kenyatta served as Kenya’s first prime minister, becoming the first president when the country became a republic on 12th December 1964. As president, Jomo was associated with abolishing racial segregation in schools, hotels, churches and social clubs. His supporters believe he was central in spearheading the Pan-African movement, an ideology that sought to create and entrench African identity.

On the other hand, critics challenge Jomo Kenyatta’s role in the struggle for independence and his depiction as a Pan-Africanist and as a unifying leader. He is blamed for undermining the 1962 constitution, which had aimed to create a decentralized political system, in favour of a centrist state. This gradually led to a weakened opposition, unequal resource distribution, clientelism, neopatrimonialism and “land capture” by the elite.

After ruling for about 15 years, Mzee Kenyatta rested on 22nd August 1978. Although his family wanted to bury Mzee’s remains at their ancestral home in Ichaweri, the government objected because Jomo Kenyatta was a national figure and the country’s founding father. He was buried in a marble mausoleum at Parliament Square.

The mausoleum is adjacent to Parliament Buildings on a piece of land that is approximately 4.48 acres along Parliament Road within Nairobi’s Central Business District. Its walls and floor are solid granite. There are 22 evenly-spaced flags — 11 on each side — along the paved pathway to the red-carpeted entrance to the main structure, and decorated statues of lions.

While Jomo Kenyatta’s mausoleum is not open to the public, access may be granted upon formal request, or one may catch a glimpse of the sepulchre during the commemoration of Mzee’s death that takes place on 22nd August every year.

It is, however, ironic that the existence of the Jomo Kenyatta mausoleum defeats the purpose for which it is referred to as a national heritage. If its existence is to remind Kenyans and the world of the significant centrality of Jomo Kenyatta’s presence in the making of the Kenyan Nation, then why deny Kenyans the opportunity to engage with its past? It is no wonder then that in some quarters there have been demands that Jomo Kenyatta’s remains be moved to a private site or to a more accessible space such as Heroes Corner.

Critics challenge Jomo Kenyatta’s role in the struggle for independence and his depiction as a Pan-Africanist and as a unifying leader.

The calls led to an unsuccessful attempt to open the mausoleum to the public through the Kenyatta Mausoleum Bill 2016 tabled by Hon. Muthomi Njuki. The bill had recommended that the mausoleum be made a national repository of Jomo Kenyatta’s artefacts, a place of research and knowledge dissemination, a tourist site for locals and outsiders, and a spot for preserving and conserving Jomo Kenyatta’s and Kenya’s heritage.

That the mausoleum is treated as a private space is bemusing considering that Jomo Kenyatta was a public figure and Kenya’s founding president who led the country for nearly fifteen years. Moreover, the mausoleum is managed and maintained by parliament and guarded by the Kenya Defense Forces using taxpayers’ money. In other countries such as Egypt, Ghana and Malawi, the mausoleums are not only part of the national heritage but are also open public spaces that tourists and locals can visit freely.

There are those for whom the question of relocating Jomo Kenyatta’s remains to Ichaweri appears to be a non-issue; they point to former presidents Moi and Kibaki who were buried in their homes at Kabarak and in Othaya, respectively. In both cases, however, their two families objected to the government’s plan to bury Moi and Kibaki at Uhuru Gardens. The families further claimed that both had expressed the wish to rest within the family home. It should also be noted that both Moi and Kibaki died in retirement, unlike Jomo who passed away in office.

The suggestion to rebury Jomo Kenyatta at Ichaweri, therefore, is not meant to bring dignity to the deceased or closure to his family. Rather, it is connected with current politics that aims to rewrite national histories from below.

On the other hand, while the proposal to rebury Jomo Kenyatta at Heroes Corner in Uhuru Gardens is a noble idea, it is dubious and comes at an inappropriate time. His interment at Uhuru Gardens should have occurred when he died in 1978. Moreover, moving the mausoleum from parliament to the new Uhuru Gardens would be a waste of public resources and would affirm Jomo Kenyatta’s influence on Kenya’s politics from the grave.

Reburial, in most cases, is undertaken to end the narrative of the dead, to set the deceased’s body and soul at peace and offer closure to the living. However, given that the dead body and the exhumation and reburial process are political, this not only unsettles the writing of history but raises questions regarding the temporality aspects and sequences of these actions, that is, what the remains of the dead do in relation to reburial and their impact on those involved in the exhumation process.

The significance of the dead body — especially of a national hero — to the survival of a political regime cannot be wished away. It possesses the capacity to upset and destabilize social order or even evoke a variety of understandings across the social-political spectrum. A case in point is the Malawi government’s decision to rebury the country’s founding president Kamuzu Banda in a mausoleum. The action was part of President Bingu wa Mutharika’s strategy to win hearts and secure the support of Banda’s ethnic group, the Chewa of central Malawi.

The suggestion to rebury Jomo Kenyatta at Ichaweri, therefore, is not meant to bring dignity to the deceased or closure to his family.

It has also been argued that the burial of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe at his rural home in Zyimba — instead of at Heroes Acre in the capital Harare — denied President Mnangagwa the opportunity to legitimize his leadership and benefit from the prestige of the dead.

However, unlike Heroes Acre in Harare, Heroes Corner at Uhuru Gardens is not a cemetery but a symbolic area that features the names of Kenya’s heroes and heroines for the remembrance and preservation of the nation’s history. Photos of past and present national heroes and literature on Kenya’s history are part of the materials being considered for inclusion at Heroes Corner. Any consideration of relocating the corpses of deceased heroes and heroines to Uhuru Garden will open up a whole can of worms with the families of the deceased, and in terms of culture and the law.

What is emerging through this debate on the reburial/relocation of the mausoleum is how this narrative is linked to attempts to recast the past, connecting the history of the reburied with the temporality of convalescing and reconstructing the nation. Jomo Kenyatta’s case raises questions about his life as president and the role of reburial and memorial practices in producing a historical narrative around the corpse of the founding president, pointing to how reburial can be a politically contested issue.

The contestation clearly indicates that Kenya’s founding president, Jomo Kenyatta, is an irreplaceable figure in the sense that his remains convey a complicated legacy of the struggle for independence that cannot be erased from history.