Political culture is an elusive creature. It is pervasive but invisible, like the oxygen that energizes our social organization and economy. It is also colorless and odorless, the carbon monoxide that suffocates the public interest. Like the quanta of particle physics, it inhabits a difficult to pinpoint state straddling legal-constitutional rationality and people’s behavioral orientations. The oil that lubricates the wheels of power, it is also the glue that holds the system together. Red in tooth and claw, it is an essential component of peaceful coexistence.
An agricultural economist colleague once asked me, ‘all this insight into culture you anthropologists generate is fascinating, but what are we supposed to do with it?” There are no simple answers to this question, but we can try.
1. Political Culture Defined
Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior. The dean of political culture studies, Gabriel Almond, cited the terribly destructive “irrational” events of twentieth century like the World Wars and the Holocaust to underscore its importance, in contrast to rationality, for explaining social life.
The concept’s lineage dates back Plato who used it to explain the dispositions differentiating Greek city-states like Athens and Sparta. This comparative approach is often more useful for practical purposes than for diagnosing the intricacies of a given political system. The contrasts between the political cultures in this region, for example, can be a useful entry point for examining the different pathways nations are traveling in search of adaptive governance as well as the usual historical, environmental and other parameters guiding the journey. This in turn connects to the idea political culture is a useful indicator of the system’s health, viability, and most distinctive features.
Political culture is formally defined as the “set of attitudes, beliefs and sentiments that give order and meaning to a political process, including the underlying assumptions and rules that govern political behavior.
Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting. This not to say violence is alien to the country; the sustained bloodshed of the red and white terror is hardly ancient history and the government has shown itself to be quite adept at using force to leverage its objectives. The state does go about it in a more organized fashion than neighboring countries, and the same can be said for the civilians: as one acquaintance in Addis Ababa informed me, “we let these guys do their thing for a long time but when things reach a certain point we pick up our weapons and get rid of them.”
Abyssinian imperial tradition helps explain this particular set of attitudes and values, especially in contrast to the conflicts raging in neighboring South Sudan and Somalia. The example of Somaliland, in contrast, contradicts the notion that lineage based societies are conducive to clan-based violence.
The more self-explanatory aspects of the term are expressed in familiar truisms like the ‘culture of impunity’ or ‘subculture of violence, and tired clichés like ‘there are no permanent friends or enemies’, and ‘politics is a dirty game’, or more homegrown expressions like ‘to slip is not to fall’ one hears in Kenya. These indicators of modern political culture underscore the rupture between the more seamless quality traditional African political cultures and the contemporary variations that replaced them, including the culture of unchecked power and domination.
2. In Search of African Political Culture
Cultural exemplars are typically context-specific, by nature a derivative of culture proper, and of which Africa has long been a rich reservoir. In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world. Politics was for the most part embedded in the internal order of these societies and recognized the overlap between the material and the unseen world. The uncertainty embedded in the environment gave rise to mythical representations like the character of the trickster who was often represented by an animal, the most famous being Ananse the spider of Akan-Ashanti traditions.
Ethiopia, for example, presents a very strong internalized sense of order. This helps account for why, after Mengistu’s regime fell, the country continued to function normally for two weeks without a government. Civil servants went to their offices and the business of ordinary life continued without disruption and looting.
Leadership was often distributed across generations and genders, though less so in the case of women in many societies, and included pathways for integration and negotiation with other groups. Culture is by definition plastic and adaptable, and institutions such as age grade organization and elders’ councils facilitated the transfer of problem-solving skills and wisdom across generations. In the areas that gave rise to centralized structures, kings operated more as managers and coordinators who oversaw the redistribution of resources; the culture of gift giving, dance and music, rituals and rights of passage featured prominently, as did the tradition of sacrifice to propitiate to the gods and the higher powers. Rainmakers and seers occupied a prominent position in many cultures. Violation of social rules and the unseen order could bring misfortune upon the individual and the group.
European intervention effectively deculturalized many areas of Africa with ramifications for post-colonial governance. The problem was most acute in Anglophone countries. In a recent article in the Guardian, Chizidie Obioma describes colonialism as a process where “the civilisations of the peoples, their various cultures and traditions, their religions, political philosophies and institutions” were effectively hollowed out.
In any event, the transfer of state institutions at independence came with the attendant problems of fossilized ethnic identities, marginalization of indigenous institutions, detention without trial, and other repressive mechanisms adopted by the new state elites. The pattern coincides with multiple other examples in developing regions where political culture is often reducible to the influence invested in national elites. The following decades saw diverse attempts to reconstitute a national political culture based on different ideologies including efforts to indigenize the Marxist orientation behind many liberation movements.
One analyst explained the political culture of democratic transition in Latin American countries by underscoring the link between the material aspirations of the general public and the goal of replicating the greater opportunity and ability enjoyed by the wealthy classes. This equates to the quest for democracy incentivized by material success. The caveat here is that for generations, that region’s political culture was shaped by the contest between ‘the people’ and small cartels shaping their nation’s key political institutions and controlling most of the wealth. These conditions gave rise to Neo-Marxist models that were exported to Africa in the form of dependency theory and critiques of neo-colonialism, but the political culture they fed elsewhere never really took root in African soil.
In general, African cultures established clear boundaries between generations and groups, defined clear mechanisms for participation, and incorporated belief in higher powers and recognized the agency of forces operating outside the natural world.
The African socialism of that era was a convenient catchall term. Julius Nyerere’s Ujumaa was arguably the most serious attempt to inculcate a political culture based on indigenous tradition. The idea of African socialism was a common meme across the continent after independence, but took different forms. The African Socialism featuring in Kenya’s Sessional Paper No. 10 provided a convenient wrapper for expanding the inequality associated with the country’s agrarian capitalism, while others like Kwame Nkrumah parlayed the term into a vehicle for grandiose infrastructural projects. On more than one occasion civil servants explained it to me by saying, ‘we Africans like to socialize so we get together somewhere and share beer and talk’.
The centralized system behind Syad Barre’s contrived concept of hantiwadaag, or camel-sharing, scientific socialism was another example. During the early years of his rule Syad Barre sincerely attempted to extrapolate his hantiwadaag socialism into economic reality by nationalizing most of the country’s formal sector economy and by devoting a third of the government budget to setting up a system of agricultural cooperatives, including a pilot scheme of fourteen cooperatives for herders based on the allocation of grazing blocks and drilling boreholes for water. His most ambitious cooperative-based project was the conversion of 90,000 drought stricken nomads into fisherman. Other initiatives including processing facilities for milk, meat and fish canning, and sugar enjoyed a measure of success during the 1970s before everything unraveled following his ill-fated support for the occupation of the Ogaden.
In the end, the political culture of irredentism triumphed over the scientific management of national resources. Such case studies provide ammunition for academic critics who regard “the very concept of political culture as epiphenomenal and superfluous,” according one scholar based at the University of Warwick. Even so, the idea keeps on coming back.
In 2009 I participated in a research project entitled Political Culture, Governance, and the State in Africa. Our objective was to examine the influence of political culture across the continent. We recruited a diverse collection of academics and analysts to explore how culture and politics interact, and the import of political culture in African societies where institutionalization is weak and emergent national political cultures reflect a variety of diverse influences and forces.
I reviewed and read close to sixty papers, many of which were interesting, well documented, and insightful. Some featured captivating but complicated titles; one of my favorites was African Cultural Political Renaissance: Strategies, Identities, Ambiguities, And Confrontations. Quite a few were also dense, abstract, and not easy to read. They invariably illuminated the culture of politics in diverse African settings and contexts from South Africa to Tunisia, and discussed issues from the role of the military, to capacity building and indigenous conflict management. However, none of them directly addressed the basic thesis that sought to pin down how political culture articulates within African settings to influence political processes and their outcomes.
The same proved true during our three-day meeting, despite the project’s curator, Professor Abdalla Bujra, attempts to steer discussion toward this end. The case studies demonstrated that culture is integral to politics, and that governance draws from a variety of sources both within a given national arena and from without. The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level. Pluralism is the problem; the richness of indigenous political culture contrasts with the poverty of its institutional counterparts. They negate each other in a manner that tended to make the conclusions of the papers amorphous in the end.
Perhaps this was understandable insofar as it is difficult too isolate the contribution of political culture when one is so immersed in the chase, so to speak. Culture is like camouflage, and its influence derives from its ability to blend so well into the background.
The practice of socialism, democracy, participatory governance, and resource redistribution as well as relentless exploitation and opportunism all have precedents on the communal level.
But there are success stories. The unrecognized Republic of Somaliland’s retreat from the brink of civil war through protracted dialogue is one such exemplar that underscores the utility of inclusive participation. The long discussions among clan elders in Boramo received most of the attention, but the contribution of organizations with names like Moonlight and Havioko that served as conduits for women and youth were equally critical to the emergence of a political culture aligned with the society’s internal cultural endowment.
Still, the shift from democratically inspired liberation movements to democratic governance has been a major problem as most other cases illustrate. The contrast between Eritrea’s remarkable guerilla campaign and the dictatorship of Isias Afworki is probably the most extreme case, and as one South African commentator details, a supportive political cultural is essential for democracy to work.
3. Identity, Culture, and Power
I came across an interesting commentary by Jens-Martin Eriksen and Frederik Stjernfelt on culturalism and politics while doing research for our political culture conference. The culturalism argument they address is predicated on the view that individuals are determined by their culture, and that cultures have a claim to special rights and protections even if at the same time they violate individual rights. This is the ‘each culture in its own place, each culture in its own country’ right-wing response to multiculturalism and globalization.
Any politically aware individual alive and breathing today will recognize how the issue of identity-based politics has gained traction since the time of our meeting. The American political scientist, Samuel Huntington, captured the essence of these developments in 2004 when he predicted that we are entering a time when what you support will not matter as much as who you are.
The problem in Africa is that African constitutions … are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.
This has been the default in Africa for quite some time, where many cultures ended up sharing the same political space. Who you are and where you were born often has a direct impact on individual and group prospects and opportunities. The departing colonialists assumed that the transfer of Western political institutions and legal institutions would solve the problem. The problem in Africa is that African constitutions, according Kenya’s illustrious legal scholar, H.W.O. Okoth-Ogendo, are easily ripped up or ignored because the real charter organizing political life is a nation’s power map, which typically reflects ethnic identity and who controls the state.
Change through legal and institutional methods is gaining ground, but there is a long way to go. When institutions lack autonomy and rule of law is weak, political culture functions as a system of unwritten codes and principles. Rules continue to be defined by the political elite, and this is often the case even when they are not in power.
This form of political culture is as much about assumptions as values. There are rules of thumb, like the common meme that ‘no incumbent government loses an election before its constitutional term has expired’. Acceptance of this assumption leads to the familiar discourse that treats the government of the day and the opposition as different sides of the same coin.
The authors of the culturalism essay cover similar terrain when they ask why the left is unable to muster their intellectual powers to counter the culturalism of the right. Erikson and Stjernfelt observe that this is due to the fact that “they allow themselves to be blinded by the same cultural views as their homologous opponents: they are themselves culturalists.” The inability to recognize their similarities limits to their ability to analyse their opponents’ position.
In the African context, the same problem translates into the often-cited view that criticism of the management of the political process is a self-serving ploy to advance the interests of the opposition’s ethnic coalition at the expense of national development. Even though they claim to represent reform and renewal, says the government in power, they subscribe to the same political culture as we do. In Kenya, the period of coalition government following the 2007 electoral meltdown added substance to this narrative.
Kenyan political campaigns typically use this ‘we are the same but they are poor and hungry’ discourse to deflect attention from issues of misrule and corruption. During the 2017 campaigns, the Presidential contenders broke new ground by skipping the debates organized by the national media houses. This confirmed the sad reality that in Kenya elections, it is the method more than the theory that determines the outcome.
4. The Political Culture of Tricksters and Masks
The root meaning of siasa, the Swahili term for politics, is order. The brutal but more clinical use of state violence referred to in the Ethiopian example above conforms to this definition of politics. In many other cases, the meaning of the term is inverted.
In a 2002 volume entitled Criminalization of the African State, Francois Bayart, Stephen Ellis, and Beatrice Hibou (2002) provide a deeper analysis of the pathologies of African governance. Bayart’s contribution explores the role of the trickster archetype, which appeared particularly relevant to Moi’s style of leadership. In Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument, an earlier volume in the same series, Patrick Chabal and Jean Pascal Daloz detail how disorder and violence are used to maintain the neo-patrimonial status quo. They explore the darker side of the forces unleashed by the mandarins of the neo-liberal political economy and pour cold water on the idea that the likes of civil society and structural reforms will lead to improved governance.
The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause.
Some of my academic colleagues do not like this line of analysis, but they miss the fact that it is, for many nations, an unavoidable stage in Africa’s political development. The authors of these analyses do not posit this state of affairs is the endpoint, or a permanent condition. They push us to look deeper and to disentangle the complicated role of culture at the intersection of politics and economy.
Almond and his acolytes cloak the concept of political culture in discussions of political socialization, loyalty and human identity, the cultivation of civic virtue, historical determinants explaining the variations among political traditions, and the ‘ordered subjective realm of politics’ which gives meaning to the polity and discipline to institutions. The advancement of political culture in these analyses tends to form a circular relationship with institutional development, posing a chicken-and-egg question of which comes first. The problem makes it tempting to advocate for more soft power and support for artistic works and civic education in order to advance the cause. Of course, this is part of the solution. But interpreting what transpires in the shadows is more useful than the positivism of the Anglo-American tradition at this stage of the game.
Kenyans have consistently associated events like the departure of Moi and the passage of a new constitution with a new political dispensation, but the trickster never left. The instrumentalisation of disorder to serve political ends is still part of the game, as the 2017 elections indicated once again.
The electoral chicanery disrupting the past three electoral cycles has become part of the country’s culture of politics, and in turn encouraged resort to disorder and civil disobedience by the opposition to combat it. One cannot be separated from the other even though the intentional use of disorder justifies the opposition’s efforts to fight back. These elections have traumatized the economy and body politic while cloaking the very idea of national unity in verbal abuse and blood.
The angst conveyed by Wafula Chebukati in the wake of the flawed elections of last August mirrored the horror of his predecessor Samuel Kivuitu ten years earlier. The mocking visage of the Electoral Commission’s executive, Ezra Chiloba, in contrast, signified how shameless in contrast the Masters of Deception have become. His glib explanation for the Commission’s colossal failings, dished out to an incredulous public, remade him into a poster boy for the shadow school of analysis—or perhaps more accurately, the mask concealing the venality of the usual suspects.
Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.
Like the trickster archetype, the mask has a long pedigree in human culture. The ancients believed masks imbued the wearer with some kind of unimpeachable authority. In rituals, masks allow humans to assume the role of the gods, or to lend credence to a person’s claim on a given social role. Kenya’s elections have become masquerades that integrate all of these functions. Chiloba put on his mask and played God with the country’s future.
National elections are participatory cultural spectacles that begin with hope but end in tragedy. Episodic incidents of electoral violence, political assassinations, and mass protests turned violent are predictable features of Kenya’s political arena. From the perspective of Kenya’s political culture, these episodes have also acted as kafara – blood sacrifices – that primed the system to accept change before plunging the nation into the kind of full-scale conflict experienced by neighboring states.
The 2017 version, however, was different. The Supreme Court parted the clouds long enough to establish an important precedent. The battle took place in the courts instead of the streets this time around. Those who found the confirmation of what is in effect a nusu kikombe instead of a nusu-mkate government—whether or not the glass is half empty or half-full is irrelevant at this juncture—a cause for celebration are deluding themselves. The fat lady did not sing this time around.
 The coalition government that emerged out of the post-electoral violence of 2008 is often referred to as nusu-mkate, or a half-loaf government due to the division of positions between the two parties.
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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