During a transition into a new presidential tenure such as Kenya is going through at this point in 2017, it is expected that people – certainly government and governance scholars – will review the outgoing tenure so as to highlight the needs of the incoming tenure. If such reviews become a habit, then the next logical step is to review the comparative performances of presidents and/or presidencies over the years, with a view to assessing aspirants for suitability.
The mutations to the independence gave much power to the Executive relative to the Legislature and Judiciary: all public servants were employed “during the pleasure of the President”, which bred extensive impunity in the upper echelons of the Executive. That the reformist 2010 Constitution, designed to put paid to such potential Executive excess, has failed to do so reflects, inter alia, the depths to which the roots of impunity had sunk during the initial 47 years of independence. That impunity is alive and well in and around the presidency, is elaborately manifest even in the persisting illegalities and irregularities surrounding the transition to a new presidential tenure. This is an indicator of the nature of disposition to constitutionalism.
The global literature illustrates varied approaches to evaluating presidents and/or presidencies, such as through the analyses of speech content, performance of the economy, and opinion poll ratings, amongst others. These listed approaches are more amenable to the evaluation of developed country contexts where such data is habitually gathered; but this is not the case for developing country contexts, such as Kenya. For the latter countries, presidential speeches are based on opportunistic political expediency rather than on the individual’s beliefs; economies are disproportionately driven by exogenous rather than endogenous factors; and opinion polls are excessively subjective. However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country. Given the respective contexts within which Kenya’s independence and 2010 constitutions were made, it is reasonable to expect greater fidelity to the latter which arguably carries greater legitimacy.
However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country.
The making of Kenya’s independence constitution was chaperoned by the British, with delegates from the colony abiding by the tradition of attending talks at Lancaster House in London. Despite the British government’s declared ‘wind of change’ sweeping in independence for its colonies, its kith in Kenya, the White settlers, briefly contemplated a ‘unilateral declaration of independence’, which would have perpetuated the relative voiceless-ness of the majority African population. But the Africans at the constitutional talks did not also speak with one voice: the self-serving settlers had successfully heightened the fears of the Africans from the smaller ethnic groups under the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) party, of domination by those from the two largest groups, the Kikuyu and Luo, who were grouped in the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain. In contrast, the making of the 2010 Constitution was a ‘people-driven’ comprehensive review process commenced in 1999, with a large number of delegates, 629 in total, attending the National Constitutional Conference at the Bomas of Kenya venue.
A dominant feature of Kenya’s 27 constitutional changes between 1963 and 2008 was the centralization of power in the Executive, specifically on the President. Founding Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta – hereafter Kenyatta I – begun the cannibalization of the independence constitution as early as 1964, when he declared himself the President of the Republic of Kenya. The other 1964 changes also watered down the independence of regional governments, which were consequently killed in the next year. The 1966 changes ushered in dictatorship, amalgamating the Senate and National Assembly, derogating rights and freedoms while also introducing detention without trial. Furthermore, 1966 saw the constitutional stifling of the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) opposition party launched in 1965 and gave the President power to hire and fire all in the public service, while 1968 saw the abolition of independent candidates and provided for the President to be elected through a General Election, as opposed to election by the National Assembly, which made him politically independent of the latter. By 1969, the President had acquired the right to appoint the Electoral Commission of Kenya; but the need to rationalize these multiple amendments led to ‘rebasing’ the constitution on that year. Among the last of Kenyatta’s 15-odd amendments would be one to allow him to pardon ex-Kapenguria detainee, Paul Ngei, and allow him to return to politics after he was convicted of an electoral offence.
Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain.
Among the more outstanding constitutional amendments of successor president Daniel Moi (1978-2002), was the infamous Article 2A of 1982, transforming the country into a de jure – by law – single party state that made KANU the Baba na Mama of all Kenyans. Another outstanding amendment was the 1991 repeal of the same Article 2A, which returned the country to multipartyism. In between, 1986 witnessed the mischievous removal of security of tenure for the Attorney General and the Auditor and Controller General (CAG), and the increase of parliamentary constituencies to 188. Torture was allowed in 1987, while security of tenure for constitutional offices was removed in 1988. Security of tenure returned in 1990 amidst pressure for the opening up of democratic space for Kenyans; and in 1991 constituencies increased to 210.
While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists. The treatment of suspects, with several prosecutors and magistrates acting as the system’s hatchet men, was in violation of the well-known and internationally accepted rights of people in such circumstances. And of course, there were several assassinations, among the better known ones being Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M.Kariuki and Robert Ouko. The era saw many unexplained accidents, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Additionally, individuals were ‘dealt with’ through various other means, such as a vocal Assistant Minister being imprisoned for violating foreign exchange regulations by inadvertently keeping some loose change after foreign trips.
The independence development blueprint, Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism, had provided that scarce investment resources would be focused on “areas of greatest absorptive capacity”, with surpluses being redistributed to the lower absorption parts of the country. Growth occurred in fits and starts, but there was little redistribution to the low absorption regions and communities previously overlooked by colonialism. Instead, there was expropriation through harambee fund-raising for social sector investments even as the government extensively biased budget resource allocations. Thus, for example, public health care resources went disproportionately to the parts of the country that had a harambee capacity to build health facilities, rather than to those parts that had comparatively greater disease burdens, such as the malaria endemic regions. The net effect of such inequitable resource allocation have been the inequalities in health status, such as are reflected in the child mortality rates of Figure 1.
Figure 1: Under-5 Mortality Rates by background characteristics, 2014
Source: KDHS, 2014
The illustration above of disregard for comparative development needs was given further impetus by both regimes’ resort to parochialism – and indeed, nepotism – in key public appointments. Notwithstanding public employment being “during the pleasure of the President”, it is difficult to imagine that any tenant of State House believed that the national interest was best served through excessively parochial public appointments. Table 1 shows that belonging to the president’s ethnic group was significant for the distribution of cabinet positions, with ethnic shares fluctuating markedly depending on the president’s ethnicity. And beyond merely having a cabinet position, ethnicity also determined which lucrative dockets went to whom. Such exalted positions enabled the illegal but unpunished diversion of Parliament-sanctioned development resources away from areas perceived hostile to the government to ‘politically-correct’ areas. The context also enabled self-aggrandisement with impunity since such individuals’ closeness to the president protected against prosecution. In any case, the annual CAG reports that would highlight such criminal misconduct would be several years behind schedule, complicating remedial action.
|Ethnic group||Kenyatta (Kikuyu)||Moi (Kalenjin)||Kibaki (Kikuyu)||Share of population|
The ad hoc reviews of the constitution led to internal contradictions; but weak fidelity to the letter of the document also opened up further opportunities for impunity. For example, the dividing line between KANU and the Executive increasingly became blurred over policy-making and implementation; and the context increasingly dictated the agendas of the Judiciary and Parliament. As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious. These contradictions led to extensive demands for a comprehensive review of the constitution in the run-up to the 1997 general elections. The brutal response of the government was most vividly captured in the police invasion of the inner sanctum of the All Saints Cathedral into which they lobbed tear gas against demonstrators. The stand-off was eventually resolved through the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) process, which was able to extract modest reforms from the government, such as the inclusion of opposition in nominating members of the electoral commission hitherto appointed exclusively by the President. While Moi retained power at the election, the seed of change had been sown; sustained internal and external pressure for a comprehensive constitutional review led to the Bomas of Kenya conference launched in 2003.
While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists.
The shenanigans around the constitution review process are well documented: suffice it to say that it took 10 years of back and forth, and critically, over 1,300-odd deaths and half-a-million internal displacements during the 2007/08 post-election violence, to focus the government on the delivery of a new constitution.
IPPG had not convinced Moi of the need for comprehensive change; so he had set about co-opting perceived ethnic chiefs into KANU to diffuse the growing clamour for an end to Nyayoism. In a perverse way, that Moi strategy probably made a major contribution to liberating Kenya from his clutches, even if his empire would later strike back. Moi’s strategy culminated in the Kasarani Stadium conference at which he declared a comparative political nonentity, Uhuru Kenyatta, to be his heir. That action sparked a revolt that passed through various political outfits to coalesce in the exceedingly ethnically broad-based and popular National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party. This was the party that brought Kibaki to the presidency in 2003, with a promise of a new constitution in 100 days.
Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I. Of the ‘new constitution within a 100 days’, a leading Kibaki ally would declare that there had been nothing wrong with the existing constitution, and that changes to it had only been desired as a means of getting rid of Moi. The growing indiscretions of the Kibaki faction in NARC meant that the party soon imploded, even as that faction set about manipulating the Bomas Draft Constitution to perpetuate the status quo. These divisions set the stage for the 2005 national referendum defeat of Kibaki’s preferred version of the proposed constitution, which in turn set Kenya on the road to the disputed 2007 presidential elections, and the violence the followed in its wake.
As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious.
Notwithstanding the unprecedented horror surrounding it, the 2007-08 post-election violence had a silver lining: its resolution by the Kofi Anna-led African Union’s Panel of Eminent Personalities led to, amongst other things, the institution of Agenda Item 4 of 2008 – the basis of long term governance reforms in the country. A newly independent African country’s primary ambition must surely be the transformation of the state (constitution), boundaries and peoples into a nation-state. One might try to explain Kenyatta I’s failures in this respect on his old age and his being overwhelmed by the very idea of ‘independence’ (self-rule); and Moi’s failure on his narrow world view that limited exposure to ideas, such as nation-hood. But neither explanation could hold for the much younger, more educated, and indeed cosmopolitan Kibaki’s failure to realise the dreams of the NARC revolution. And Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.
So ineffectual was Kibaki that he largely seemed to have slept through the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments of Kenyans adjudged to have had the greatest responsibility for the 2007/08 post-election violence. But Kibaki did have reason to let sleeping dogs lie, even as Moreno Ocampo muddled his way through the early ICC processes: the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) evidence to the Waki Commission was that Kibaki’s National Security Council (NSC) had been regularly briefed on people arming themselves for violence after the elections. If NSI’s evidence was true – and nobody denied it – then the NSC chair should have been first on the plane to ICC: he knew of impending violence, and failed to contain the threat despite having both the constitutional obligation and the means with which to do so.
Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I.
Among the distinguishing acts of the Kibaki presidency was his rampant creation of unconstitutional administrative districts. In 1997, Kibaki’s Democratic Party had won a High Court action against President Moi for creating some 30-odd “unconstitutional districts”, which the judge did not dissolve because it was the eve of a general election premised on those very districts. Yet during his presidency, right up to the 2010 promulgation of the new constitution, Kibaki created over 200 new, similarly unconstitutional districts, which the new Constitution duly abolished by transforming the constitutional 47 into counties.
Among Agenda 4’s objectives was the time-bound promulgation of a new constitution, which Kibaki hardly campaigned for ahead of the national referendum on it. That the Constitution (2010) is transformative is indisputable: while Chapter 1 of the 2008 version of the independence constitution says nothing about the people of Kenya before launching into the greatness of the President, Article 1 of Constitution (2010) conditions the presidency on the will of the people in declaring as follows:
“(1) All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution5)
(2) The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.”
Having declared as such, the Constitution (2010) further takes power away from the President in three important respects: (i) it underscores the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature (Article 1(3)); (ii) instead of all public servants being employed “during the pleasure of the President”, key public offices are filled through people-driven processes as well as protected against external interference (Articles 160, 228, 229, and Chapter 13, etc); and (iii) it creates the national and county levels of government which “are distinct and inter-dependent and shall conduct their mutual relations on the basis of consultation and cooperation (Articles 6 and 189).”
Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.
A further driver of impunity and parochialism under the independence constitution had been the central control of government resources began by Kenyatta I’s 1964 constitutional amendments that took service delivery and revenue generation functions away from the regions. However, the Constitution (2010) proved true to the principles of effective fiscal decentralization: its Fourth Schedule divided functions between the National and County Governments; and Chapter 12 on Public Finance ensures that money (resources) follows the Fourth Schedule’s division of labour.
As noted above, the Kibaki regime was not overly pleased with the governance changes occasioned by the new constitution, especially devolution which would take “at least 15 percent of national revenue” out of Treasury’s control (Articles 203 (2), 207 (1) and 209). This displeasure was most graphically illustrated in the stand-off over the draft Public Finance Management Bill, between devolution’s then mother ministry, Local Government, and the Finance ministry. While Treasury insisted on retaining control of monies devolved by Parliament to county governments, the Local Government prevailed with its position aligned to the recommendations of the Task Force on Devolved Government and the spirit of the Constitution, that Treasury must not touch such monies. Additionally, and critically for effective transition to devolution, the Kibaki government delayed the establishment and adequate resourcing of the Transition Authority, the statutory midwife of the process. This meant that devolution was launched in April 2013, before the Authority could complete many of the preparatory measures envisaged by the Task Force on devolution, and reflected in the Authority’s founding statute.
These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it!
Kibaki’s 2013 succession was a somewhat messy affair. His regime had a perception that a Kikuyu could not – or at least should not – succeed him; and so it searched for an ‘acceptable’ non-Kikuyu to oppose Raila Odinga and subsequently manage the ICC burden favourably, with Finance minister Kenyatta, arguably the strongest Kikuyu presidential candidate, indicted there for the 2007/08 post-election violence. Meanwhile, Kalonzo Musyoka’s 2008 backing of Kibaki had enabled the latter to form a government despite a numerically stronger opposition; and Musyoka had reason to expect the favour to be returned. Elsewhere, Kenyatta considered a candidacy for fellow Deputy Prime Minister and former Vice President, Musalia Mudavadi, who had the additional advantage of family ties to former president Moi. In the event, Kenyatta abandoned Mudavadi, declaring “the devil” to have caused him to even think of that option, broke loose of Kibaki handlers, and joined forces with fellow ICC suspect, William Ruto, to milk their tribulations for political gain. These developments pushed Musyoka into an alliance with Odinga.
However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters.
These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it! For example, while the full implementation of the Constitution (2010) is viewed as a plausible instrument against corruption, Kenyatta has wished for the independence constitution’s imperial presidency. Secondly, Kenyatta is among the Kiambu-ians who came to terms with ‘the snake crossing the River Chania’ into Nyeri, but cannot countenance the snake leaving the ‘House of Mumbi’, an underlying issue in the post-2007 election agenda. Additionally, after losing the 2002 presidential election, Kenyatta had become the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and eventual chair of the KANU party; but he would lead the party into Kibaki’s Party of National Unity coalition in the run up to the 2007 election, and eventually abandon it for his own presidential run with an eye on ensuring a House of Mumbi victory in the 2013 elections. The Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s victory in that election; but the court’s decision was derided by numerous legal scholars.
While Kibaki seemed ambivalent during the 2010 debates on the Proposed Constitution, Kenyatta publicly supported it. However, as Finance Minister, his attitude towards the document was evident in his disregard of it over the management of devolved funds. Additional events further illustrate Kenyatta’s less than complete support for the constitution he swore to defend, such as his predilection is well known for grandiose, resource-consuming projects that have pushed the national debt burden beyond the East African Community sustainability levels. Such infrastructure priorities have paid scant attention to Chapter 4 of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to food, clothing and shelter.
Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism.
However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters. Public servants and other resources were deployed to the regions to curry favour for his Jubilee party. The regime has also been notorious for its persistent arm-twisting of constitutional commissions and independent offices, most notably the Auditor General and the Controller of Budget. Disdain for the independence of such institutions was most vividly illustrated in Kenyatta’s recurrent outbursts against the Supreme Court which had nullified the August 8 elections for being fraught with “illegalities and irregularities”. Yet two of the judges Kenyatta dismissed as wakora – crooks – had upheld his 2013 election despite big questions and all would uphold his victory in the October 26 repeat election. In spite of their recruitment on constitutionally determined merit, Kenyatta would ask the same judges rhetorically: “Who even elected you?”, and would promise to ‘revisit’ and ‘fix the court ‘problem’. Since then, the law has been changed to complicate the nullification of a presidential election.
This note has presented a broad-brush review of the relationships between Kenya’s four presidents to date and their regimes, and the constitution. The broad finding is that all the presidents have not been sticklers for the either the letter or spirit of the constitution, applying it when convenient, and amending it or even violating it when the need has arisen. Kenyatta I’s apologists might point to the context of his tenure – an autocrat in euphoria over the new independence status; and Moi’s apologists will emphasize his restricted world view. It is however, difficult to go beyond ethnic insularity find explanations for Kibaki’s failure to embed constitutionalism more deeply in governance and his misadventure which led to many lost and wasted lives and livelihoods, is an indictment he will never escape. Kenyatta II is an extension of the Kibaki heritage in many respects, having been an alleged hatchet man in the horrors of 2007/08. Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism. Based on these experiences, the outlook for Kenyan constitutionalism looks bleak.
Bigsten, Arne (1977), Regional Inequality in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi
Kanyinga K, Okello D. Tension and Reversals in Democratic Transitions: The Kenya 2007 General Elections. Nairobi: Society for International Development and Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; 2010.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014), The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014. Nairobi, KNBS. Available at https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/fr308/fr308.pdf
Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008), On the Brink of the Precipice: A Human Rights Account of Kenya’s Post‐2007 Election Violence. Nairobi: KNCHR. Available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/pev-report-as-adopted-by-the-commission-for-release-on-7-august-20081.pdf
Kipkorir, Benjamin (2016), Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic. Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd.
Kivuva, Joshua M. (2011), Restructuring the Kenyan State. Constitution Working Paper Series No.1. Nairobi: Society for International Development.
Ministry of Local Government (2012), Interim Report of the Task Force on Devolved Government: A report on the implementation of Devolved Government in Kenya. Nairobi: Local Government.
Murunga, Godwin and Sharack Nasong’o (Eds.) (2013), Kenya: the struggle for democracy. London: Zed Books
Mutua, Makau (2008), Kenya’s Quest for Democracy: Taming Leviathan (Challenge and Change in African Politics). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.
URAIA Trust and IRI (2012), The Citizen Handbook: Empowering citizens through civic education. Nairobi: URAIA/IRI. At http://www.juakatiba.com/public/publication/eccbc87e4b5ce2fe28308fd9f2a7baf3.pdf
 That impunity persists despite the structural opportunities to fight it is also a reflection of the hopelessness of a majority of the Kenyan people, as illustrated in the rest of this note.
 This was precisely what the European settlers in Rhodesia did in 1965, leading to minority rule opposed by guerilla warfare in that country until formal independence was negotiated in 1980.
 While the constitution had provided for a multi-party state in a bi-cameral parliamentary system, the opposition KADU party was ‘encouraged’ to dissolve itself by “crossing the floor”, transforming Kenya into a de facto single party state, even if in law t remained a multi-party state
 After the 1969 banning of ex-Vice president Oginga Odinga’s KPU party, and the detention without trial of all its leadership, the country became a de facto single party dictatorship.
 The ‘higher absorption’ parts of the country were the former White Highlands of central Kenya and the spine of the Rift Valley, settled by European settler farmers, in which the colonial government had used ‘native’ tax revenues, such as is reported by Kipkorir (2016), to build development-facilitating infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and telecommunications.
 For example, allowing African small scale farmers to grow cash crops at independence boosted national economic growth into the late 1960s, but the oil crises of 1974 and 1979 dampened performance.
 See Bigsten (1977).
 Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014).
 A local government minister, for example, used Nairobi City Council equipment to grade a road to his Kajiado home in preparation for his son’s wedding.
 Into the early 1990s, these annual reports were 7 years behind schedule, meaning the responsible officer had likely transferred, retired, or indeed, died.
 See Murunga and Nasongo (2013).
 Even Mwai Kibaki who a decade earlier had declared that removing Moi and KANU from was like trying to cut down a mugumo tree using a razor blade, ventured to contest the presidency.
 See URAIA/IRI (2012: 15-18).
 This choice overlooked Raila Odinga and former minister Katana Ngala, and former vice presidents George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi.
 The Kibaki faction for instance rubbished a Memorandum of Understanding that provided for equal shares of the cabinet with the Odinga faction of the party.
 The 2007 presidential election circumstances are documented in the Kriegler Report, available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/the_kriegler_report.pdf. The post-election violence is explored in the Waki Report, available at http://kenyalaw.org/Downloads/Reports/Commission_of_Inquiry_into_Post_Election_Violence.pdf. For an academic approach to the issues, see Kanyinga and Okello (2011).
 The Agendas were as follows: 1–Immediate action to stop the violence and restore fundamental rights and liberties; 2–Immediate measures to address the humanitarian crisis, and promote healing and reconciliation; 3–How to overcome the political crisis; and 4–Addressing long-term issues, including undertaking constitutional, legal and institutional reforms; land reform; tackling poverty and inequality as well as combating regional development imbalances; tackling unemployment, particularly among the youth; consolidating national cohesion and unity; and addressing transparency, accountability and impunity. For details, go to https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Background-Note.pdf
 An interesting analysis is available in Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (2008).
 The manner of their creation was so ad hoc, leading to deeply contested boundaries and headquarters.
 Key individuals in his regime had campaigned against the Proposed Constitution, and only changed positions when it became evident the ‘Yes’ camp would carry the August 2010 national referendum.
 The Constitution ring-fences at least 15% of national revenue for county governments. In reality, however, the share has been nearly 40% of the revenue.
 See Ministry of Local Government (2012).
 Transition Authority (2016) is an elaborate end term report. Sun, August 20th 2017.At
 See Njeri Rugene and Patrick Langat, President Kenyatta defends tenure, seeks second term. Daily Nation, Tuesday March 21, 2017.
 Kenyatta I’s Kiambu people provided the ‘home guards’ who fought against the Mau Mau largely from the Kikuyu lands across the River Chania. The Kiambu position was therefore that the presidency (and its motorcade [snake]) should never cross into the other lands.
 See for example, Paragraph 545 in Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008).
 For example, see Nzau Musau, Why Decision 2013 was ridiculed, torn apart by scholars. Standard Digital, Sun, 20th August 2017. At https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001251923/why-decision-2013-was-ridiculed-torn-apart-by-scholars
 Aljazeera, Uhuru Kenyatta to court: “We shall reisit this”. 2nd September 2017. At http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/uhuru-kenyatta-court-revisit-170902130212736.html
THE BATTLE FOR KENYA’S SOUL: Will history absolve them?
Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or just right. Soon after the Miguna Miguna arrest-and-deportation circus began, I opened an autobiography I had just been gifted. The book, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, by Duncan Ndegwa, came highly recommended. Little did I know what I was in for.
Duncan Ndegwa was Kenya’s first Head of Civil Service and its second Central Bank Governor. He was in the sanctum sanctorum in those early years. His story promised to be insightful, if not tantalising, revealing the many struggles Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, faced. But it made me angry.
I wasn’t sure why I got angrier and angrier after I got past the diversionary chapters on culture. But I did. Eventually, I scanned through my notes and scribbled them in pencil on one of the blank pages at the back of the book. Then it all made sense. I was reading the past while it was happening in my present. If the past was ever a prologue, Kenya in 2018 is it. We are stuck in a destructive cycle.
Quick, try placing these two statements in the last five decades of Kenya’s history:
- He openly warned the media against misusing press freedom to “misinform the public”.
- He was charged with treason, which was later changed to the lesser crime of incitement.
The first entry is from a speech by Tom Mboya in 1962, but those words have been used many times since. They could as well have been said by Argwings Kodhek, or his boss Jomo. Or in 1979, when newspapers were ordered not to publish an opinion poll. Or by Kalonzo Musyoka in 1990, when he filed a motion to ban a newspaper from covering Parliament proceedings. They could even be taken from John Michuki’s infamous “if you rattle a snake” retort.
The second statement refers to the short-lived treason charge against Maina Kamanda in 2001. He had said that President Daniel arap Moi should be shot in bed if he tried to extend his term. The charge of treason, the crime of betraying one’s country, has been a constant threat against outspoken opposition MPs since independence. Whether applied in 1971 or in 2018, this weighty threat is still firmly in place.
The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
You’ve heard both phrases lately, and you will hear them again. These are what the academic Joyce Nyairo calls “the grammar of the state”. The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
Tyranny of the accursed
In many ways, the last decade has felt like a marathon through the first 30 years after independence. The son wants to eradicate the same things that his father promised to focus on 55 years ago. Detention without trial is back. We have launched wars on human rights, a new constitution, devolution, and Somalia. The concerted effort to reset to the KANU code is in full gear. We are back to essentially a one-party state with a growing greed and hold on all arms of government. We have the makings of a Sun King who can do no wrong, and in whose wisdom and undying love for our wellbeing we must trust.
There’s a tough-talking Interior Cabinet Minister with a disdain for the law and basic decency. Our maize scandals are now an annual thing and pilfering from the state is now a legitimate way to join the upper ranks of society. A fake political rivalry continues to eclipse real social and economic issues. Politics has become entertainment in all but name, an expensive escape from realities. We are now numb to theft of land, taxes, and even borrowed money, in this dark comedy.
This reality is not accidental; it was the entire purpose of the creation of the Kenyan state. In his treatise on this, Darius Okolla says that this founding ethos of the colony never went away. In fact, in the last sixty years and four presidents later, it is even more entrenched. Now as then, the needs of a few appear as the needs of the many, as do their problems. “Personal problems” are not the same as the “you” in “security starts with you”.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it. The problem is their myopic view of what the Kenyan state could be, as becomes clear in Ndegwa’s memoirs. The men around Jomo deified him, and even when he was senile and dying, shielded him like one would a monarch. It wasn’t Jomo the man, or the icon, that they worshipped, but the head of this zombie elite. He wasn’t just actively refusing to build a formidable Kenyan state; he was leading the way in destroying it.
A constant argument I’ve heard is that it was important for Jomo and Moi to rule as they did because they had inherited a traumatised society. The argument is that such a society is fragile and needs a firm hand to guide it through the healing process. It is the dangerous justification for “benevolent dictatorship”. That firmer hand promised repeatedly by Jubilee mandarins before and after the last election is a slippery slope. It is the same one with which the opposition handles its internal elections. This argument is back in our news diet, based on the same laws and ideals. What’s missing from it is that this “firmer hand” traumatised society in more ways than the colonial unit had, more so because the black aristocracy had no direction or plan beyond acquisition.
Publicly, and in such personal records as memoirs, this elite class continuously pretends it worked for the good of the country. But it turns out that our definition of country differs. For them it was a running plantation that requires little or no input, where a slave working class is either a vote, a weapon, a taxpayer, or all three. To keep this intact, the greatest inheritance Uhuru’s fathers left him was an assortment of oppressive colonial laws. They retained that same colonial attitude to dissent, peasant revolutions, and oaths. Laws on treason, sedition and secession remained untouched. Some were even shored up and legitimised as necessary, such as the Emergency laws.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it.
Inherited from a monarchy, these laws were designed to protect and deify the throne. They protected their perceived God-given right to rule, and fenced off the rituals, like oathing, that even attempted to challenge this. For example, the law used to arrest Miguna Miguna was passed in 1955 to fight the peasant irredentism that was the Mau Mau. Another interesting fight in the last five years was whether governors could fly official flags on their cars. In a pseudo-monarchy, the symbols of power, such as flags and oaths, must be protected to legitimise the power of the few, even among themselves. Yet that legitimacy remains shaky at best.
The identity problem
Two significant events will take place between now and 2020. The first is a census, in 2019, that will no doubt be assessed more for its political meaning than its socio-economic importance. We will be on the upper layers of 51 million people by the end of this year, with a net gain of one person every 25 seconds. Most of this population is under 25, and with a life expectancy of 62 years, is not even halfway through its lifespan.
Yet, given our deliberate and structured apathy to the destructive parts of our history, it will not be a surprise if the same conversations are still around in 40 years. Then, on June 11, 2020, most of mainland Kenya will mark a century since it was carved out as a colony. The 12-mile coastal strip will follow two months later, and the north five years after that. With that, the entire patchwork that is the Kenyan state will be a century-old. But the Kenyans within this boardroom experiment will still be struggling with what exactly it means to be Kenyan. Kenyanness is still a weapon, as shown by the cases of Ernsteine Kiano, Sheikh Khalid Balala, Miguna Miguna and Mohammed Sirat. All four found themselves “unKenyaned” for their personal and political stands, as if being born in a particular place (or married in, in the case of Ernsteine) should not be the foundation of all rights and inheritances.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things. It is a blood relative who, after years of self-imposed exile, returns to the family fold when he’s diagnosed with a terminal disease. His reason? Because he needs his people to bury him.
In Ndegwa’s book, there’s a way he talks about the Shifta War that is both condescending and revealing. First, the state of emergency that allowed Jomo and Moi to rule the North-East by decree was illegal. Ndegwa says as much, but cheekily defends it as a necessary breach of the law. Second, there is an appalling distance in the way he talks about an attempt to deport all Somalis from Eastleigh, and his failure to follow an order from his boss in a related event. The worst thing about this “othering” is that it is not unique to him or to the Jomo administration; it is a tool used by politicians even today.
The future of the Kenyan experiment
There is no Kenyan identity to reclaim. It has never existed, and there’s a possibility it might never exist. There are layers, yes, between officialdom and what we actually are and want to be.
I encountered this properly when I wrote “Nicholas Biwott was Not a Good Man” in response to the flurry of hagiographies that followed his death. The things in that obituary were common knowledge, but they were missing from the most read obituaries. My article was followed by statements like “Africans don’t speak ill of the dead”, which is a lie. My subject had himself been obsessed with his legacy, probably being the first among Kenya’s elite who paid to have the Internet scrub off any bad stories about him. If anything, Biwott epitomised the murk of the zombie elite. For him, the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t contrite about the lives he had ruined in his quest for wealth and power, but how history remembered him. He escalated (and demanded) the official silence we somehow now believe was a precolonial thing. We collectively censor “bad” stories about public figures, in much the same way that sexual predators roamed Hollywood for decades, unpunished.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things.
But the problem is that when official histories are written, people like him will get away with their contribution to the stagnation of the Kenyan state. Their concerted efforts to keep our identity in stasis, by both feeding off the land and actively trying to shape how such stories survive, will be lost in the threads of history. The elite of the day will actually promote this, not because of any other reason but a desire to sustain this destructive form of memory. It will still permeate through our social networks as if death, by itself the only certainty, somehow cleanses one of all the evil one has done.
In The Burden of History, American historian Hayden V. White wrote that “…we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.” There’s nothing like an objective history, White argued, because while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. And societies are built on stories. If you control a society’s stories, whether through censorship, tyranny, litigation or official narratives, you control its future.
Here, the resurgence of the KANU state is not as scary as it should be because we are eternal optimists. Because in the way stories are distilled, present-day problems are new and the solutions for them haven’t been tried before. Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation. We have learnt to accept the dichotomy between what makes it to official history, which includes media and eulogies, and what we discuss outside of it. This allows us to live double lives, and to drive our society further up the pedestal from which it will eventually collapse.
Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation.
In a discussion I had about Ndegwa’s memoirs, an acquaintance told me I was being harsh on the old man. I offered that the purpose of memoirs is not just to tell one’s story for one’s legacy, but to fit it in a slot in the sands of time. Its purpose is to invite us into a journey that is not our own, to see and experience a different life. It is not just that we might learn something about the author, but that we might also learn something about ourselves. What I learnt about us from that book is that we are stuck in a cycle that can’t be sustained.
That was primarily why Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles pissed me off so much. In Ndegwa’s boastful stories about how he and others deliberately undermined devolution, subverted the constitution and ostracised entire regions, I saw the men and women around Uhuru Kenyatta today. When they are aging and obsessed about their legacy, they will try to justify turning Kenya into the tyranny it is swiftly becoming. Memoirs will speak of the common good that is national security, and why ignoring court orders was the only choice. They will celebrate the handshakes and the failed projects. People who are actively destroying this society today will become “statesmen” and “stateswomen”.
And the taxpayers in this jua kali nation will let this be. In the coming years, they might even replace them in the list of great nation builders.
But will history absolve them?
HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?
In January 2018, at the annual Makerere University Tumusiime-Mutebile Centre of Excellence (TMCE) Business Dialogue, the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda, stated that Uganda was now in a position to finance 70% of its budget. However, despite the rosy declaration by the National Resistance Movement stalwart, all indications point to an economy in free fall and one not poised to make major economic breakthroughs.
Basic healthcare remains a serious challenge: despite a commitment made with several other African countries to allocating 15% of their budgets to the health sector, Uganda allocates less than 10% (just over 6% this year) of its budget to health. A cholera outbreak in western Uganda in late 2017 signaled yet another drug stock-out. There were reports from the central region of a lack of drugs to treat hepatitis-B. A major drug and consumables (e.g. gloves) shortage was also reported in Mbale in eastern Uganda in January 2018. The Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a catchment area of four million people, had received no drug consignments for two months.
Then in February this year, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee announced that a loan taken in 2016, in part to pay for drugs bought by the National Medical Stores, was not in fact passed on to the organisations for which it was borrowed. The Speaker of Parliament ordered a special audit to establish the use of the money.
At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
The Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, has so far explained that the funds were used for general budget support required in the last fiscal year: to plug a UGX 288 billion revenue shortfall, supplementary expenditure of UGX156 billion, and to substitute more expensive domestic borrowing amounting to 280 billion Uganda shillings.
Parliament is up in arms because when approval for the loan for budget support was first sought, it was rejected. Following a revised request emphasising the need for essential drugs, the request was approved. However, Parliament says it was duped as the beneficiaries were never advised about the arrival of the funds.
Muhakanizi is adamant that the money was banked in the government’s consolidated fund, along with all other sources of funds, and disbursed in the usual manner. One source says it is clear from the loan documents that it was never tied to the purchase of drugs. Furthermore, it appears that Parliament approved the loan on verbal presentations as to its usage, not on the loan documents. If this is so (the Auditor General is still investigating), then Parliament has revealed itself to be negligent in scrutinising and approving loans.
The underlying problem appears to be that, even with the PTA loan, there were simply insufficient funds for government business and the Treasury was unable to disburse all the money required by all sectors, even for essential expenditure like drugs. (Non-essential expenditure seems easier. It will be remembered that in 2016 a gratuity of UGX6.2 billion was paid by the President to 42 celebrity public servants as a reward for carrying out their ordinary duties. The Secretary to the Treasury was part of this privileged group.)
Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans.
The cash crisis persisted in 2018. At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
This is not surprising as there has been a shortfall in expected revenues of UGX300 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija. The shortfall is expected to double by the end of the year. By way of explanation, Kasaija claims that the budget estimates for 2017/1018 were wrong in some cases and there have been unexpected expenditures in others. The upshot, says Kasaija, is that ministries, departments and agencies have put in requests for an extra UGX2.3 trillion. This is needed for salaries, pensions, security and social assistance grants to low-income households, energy, as well as for the development budget. So far, only 38% (870 billion) of the excess expenditure has been approved in supplementary budgets.
Speaking of energy, Uganda is also experiencing a shortage of petrol. As with all fuel shortages, explanations include the refurbishment of infrastructure for the storage and transport of fuel, limited international supplies, delays in the construction of a pipeline from Kenya to Uganda, Kenyans, and myriad other excuses. What is not clear is why Uganda’s statutory fuel reserves are not replenished and in fact reserved for such emergencies. Why are the fuel reserves sold on the open market?
At the time of writing, news of the Uganda Police’s budget woes broke. The latest quarterly treasury release of UGX137 billion is sufficient only to fund operations at the Inspector General of Police’s headquarters and in three administrative regions, namely, Kampala Metropolitan, East Kyoga, Sipi and East Rwenzori. This means other operations, including criminal investigations and intelligence in Northern, Central and much of Western Uganda, are not funded. The Inspector General of Police has explained that operations will be rotated i.e. the next release will be used on operations in the areas that lost out this time.
Even though food is provided for, the association of police suppliers has suspended supplies while it demands payment of UGX 33 billion in arrears. This figure almost exactly matches the amount the police expects to spend on tear gas alone in a year. Total police arrears amount to UGX125 billion or a quarter of the annual budget. Suppliers have claimed that they are often threatened when pushing for payment.
The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
Primary health, education and transport – all designated as priority areas for development – are affected by what can only be the slow-motion collapse of the Ugandan economy. Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans. Foreign exchange fluctuations and further falls in commodity prices could make the situation worse.
Konkola, Hambantota and other stories
The trouble with loans to administratively weak countries and to full-on captured states is that they are irresponsibly used and are unsustainable. It is also public knowledge that significant portions of public funds, which would include loans and grants made to the government of Uganda, if not squandered are stolen outright.
Unsustainable debt will eventually lead to a loss of Uganda’s ability to even generate income. Prime examples of this dynamic would be the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia, Hambantota Harbour in Sri Lanka and Mozambique’s liquid natural gas deposits.
In 2014, under pressure from the World Bank to repay its debt, the Government of Zambia sought to sell Konkola, Zambia’s largest copper mines. The price was set at US$400 million, presumably after professional evaluation of Konkola’s potential revenues. The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
He then found himself in the presence of President Mwanawasa and later the Zambian Parliament, being hailed as a great man. Addressing an investment conference in Bangalore in 2014, Agarwal boasted that Konkola had earned his company, Vedanta, between US$500 million and US$1 billion annually since he bought it – more than even its original sale price.
Another example is from Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which derives from an ancient civilization noted for its irrigation and prosperous salt production industry. The harbour is the site of a port built in 2010 with a loan from China. A feasibility study for international ship-building, repair and freight services looked good on paper. However, like Uganda’s budgets, the feasibility study did not pan out and Sri Lanka defaulted on the loan repayments. Under the terms of the agreement, the harbour became the property of China for the next 99 years. There was an outcry, of course. Issues such as the initial viability of the loan were raised. Readjustments followed and now the harbour is a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka. Joint ventures managed by economic predators are no more profitable than unsustainable loans.
The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour.
More recently, in 2017, Mozambique lost future revenue from newly discovered natural gas deposits when the government defaulted on secret loans of US$2 billion. There too, a dodgy feasibility study showed that the loan was sustainable but it turns out it will take Mozambique ten years and most of the gas income to cover the loan and penalties for defaulting. The military and fishing equipment that it was ostensibly used for was being searched for by an international audit firm. The fishing fleet bought with some of the funds was rusting in dock as the business proved to be a loss-maker from the start. The government admitted that the fishing project was, in fact, a front for military acquisitions.
Of the many accounts of the Mozambican debt crisis, Ugandans and citizens of other developing countries should at least read the one by Bodo Ellmers of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, if only to form an idea of how our own oil discoveries could be squandered even before commercial production begins.
Naturally, after following developments in Zambia, Sri Lanka and Mozambique, one becomes nervous about Uganda’s situation. The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour. Chinese extractors are already mining the Lweera Wetland for sand at an industrial rate. The question is, could this official departure from national environmental policy be part of a secret concession sold to the Chinese by the usual suspects?
Is there a danger that title to or rights in other state assets will be or have been transferred to someone like Anil Agarwal or the Guptas, now that the latter have been flushed out of South Africa? It is a reasonable question, patriotic even, given that Uganda is a veteran of cartoonish business deals.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated.
A recent Department of Justice statement revealed the modus operandi for looting state assets employed by predator “investors” and their local agents when it charged one Patrick Ho with bribing the Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, in return for assorted business favours for a Chinese state entity. These costly concessions included, but were not limited to, direct access to the President (resulting in) extended tax holidays, free land by the square kilometer, forests, transfers of public machinery and plants on promises of future payments after they become profitable, and so on. It is in the public interest that Parliament investigates the sustainability of Uganda’s entire debt burden and what the country stands to lose in the event of a default.
Restitution of control
The process of recovery from this parlous state will not be easy. Taking South Africa as an example, a state under the control of regime stalwarts and foreign divestors – the Gupta brothers – it took the constant coordinated efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters to oust ex-President Jacob Zuma by: a) keeping the public informed about the inner workings of the regime; and b) naming the perpetrators. Working within the law, the EFF rejected attempts to normalise state capture by repeatedly bringing government business in Parliament to a halt. The resulting international spotlight on South Africa made Zuma’s position untenable. He resigned days after he was unable to make a last State of the Nation address.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated. Increasingly elaborate state functions, like the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation address and Independence and Heroes day celebrations belie the desperate realities.
Meanwhile, envoys from complicit countries continue to make high-profile visits to Ugandan government officials, even those implicated in financial scandals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund churn out evaluation reports deliberately fabricating achievements and downplaying the impact of failures in administrative and economic reforms. Concrete examples can be found in the evaluation of the Economic and Financial Management Programme, the Public Service Performance Enhancement Programme and the Education Sector Adjustment Credit. 
Until the Ugandan Parliament recognises the capture of the state for what it is, and by whom, and becomes serious about scrutinising public debt, Uganda is going nowhere.
 For records of misleading World Bank reports on Ugandan projects, see Mary Serumaga, The case for repudiation of Uganda’s public debt, 8 December 2017 by Mary Serumaga published by the Committee for Repudiation of Illegitimate Debt.
WADING INTO TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth
*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.
An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.
The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.
Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.
In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!
The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.
How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!
This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.
Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.
Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.
There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”
A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.
Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.
Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.
In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.
But can we rely on the youth to deliver?
Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:
The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.
Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing. He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.
We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”
According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute, Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi. Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.
It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.
The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.
In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu. But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.
Where Are Those Songs? Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:
Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […] Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.
Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:
Chilled body but not my soul…
We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.
I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.
Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.
Let us demand the dreams of our children.
Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.
Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA
Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.
Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337
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