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Reading Our Ruins: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar
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Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.

Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.

What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?

This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.

There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.

In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.

A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.

So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?

We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.

True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.

Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.

An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?

How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?

I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.

In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.

The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.

Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.

Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:

“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”

I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.

Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.

The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?

Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.

To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.

Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.

A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.

China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.

I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.

I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.

Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.

I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.

“Mbote,” They might say.

The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.

The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?

A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?

There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”

What do you want me to say? That I stopped?

That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.

I hurried on.

I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.

None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.

The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.

There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.

Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.  

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women

7 min read. The main objective of Kenya’s largest women’s organisation has been to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for Kenya’s women.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women
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MYWO has always existed to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the foreseeable future

We are witnessing the Kenyan government’s attempt to reimpose silence as the preferred political language in this next phase of politics. These attempts are hidden in plain sight. Take for instance the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO)’s recent public censure of the Member of Parliament for Kandara constituency, Alice Wahome, for criticising the president, or the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders demanding that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s popularisation is the preserve of those aligned to the president.

According to its website, MYWO is a non-governmental organisation of over 25,000 affiliate women’s groups and over 4 million individual members. Registered in 1952 by a group of white settler women as part of the colonial government’s Department of Community Development and Rehabilitation, its purpose was to focus on women’s social welfare, which it did through organising women’s self-help groups around the country. In central Kenya where the movement for land, freedom and independence (the Mau Mau) was active, MYWO was treated with suspicion and there were rumours it was used to collect information on Mau Mau activities.

MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independence government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development. The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987. MYWO, therefore, has deep roots in the state and the state as an institution for the control of people. It is an organisation by women but not for women; its purpose is to serve the interests of the state.

MYWO has never deviated from its historical roots and purpose. It has never been an independent women’s organisation, nor has it ever been invested in women’s political agency. Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

Because women were for all intents and purposes excluded from mainstream politics, MYWO was one of the few spaces for politically active women. Thus, some of its chairpersons include such politically active women as: Hon. Phoebe Asiyo, who was first elected in 1980 and was also the first person to table a bill for affirmative action for women’s representation in elective politics in 1997; Jael Ogombe Mobogo, who almost beat Mwai Kibaki in the race for Member of Parliament for Bahati Constituency in the 1969 elections; and Ruth Habwe, who was expelled from KANU in 1966 after she dared to run against KANU as an independent. Other chairpersons of MYWO include such prominent women as Hon. Zipporah Kittony, who was first nominated by President Moi as a KANU MP in 1988 and again by Gideon Moi, President Moi’s son and the Chairman of KANU, to the Senate 25 years later in 2013; and Jane Kiano, who was also a patron of the organisation until her death in 2018.

Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

However, MYWO’s influence began to decline during the “second liberation” as demands for multipartyism grew and civic space expanded. As the public space for women expanded, including through the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, MYWO continued to shrink. Its resurgence to chastise Alice Wahome for criticising the president is, therefore, worth reflection.It is also worth noting that President Uhuru Kenyatta first ran on a KANU ticket and his political mentor was President Moi.

For the first time in our history, men and women form a class of citizens, neither with superior status, and both with the right to representation in elective and appointive bodies. Yet over the past decade, and especially in the last seven years, we have witnessed some of the most hardened resistance by the state to women as citizens — from systematic violations of the Constitution to exclude women from Parliament, Cabinet, and parastatal and ambassadorial appointments (as required by the Bill of Rights Article 27) to laws undermining their equality in marriage and the increase in violence against women by men in the public and private spheres.

In other words, there has been no shortage of “women’s issues” over the past decade. Women and women’s organisations working in women’s interests have had to demand, advocate and fight for women against the state despite the law – from court cases challenging these unconstitutional actions by Parliament and by the president to public advocacy for compliance with the rule of law to ensure women’s full representation in public space and politics. Women working for and on behalf of women have been at the forefront of challenging state illegalities that harm women, undermine their citizenship and limit their opportunities. During this time MYWO has been missing in action.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment. MYWO certainly does not protect the interests of women as a class of citizens. This isn’t to argue that their position is invalid or does not deserve a platform but to provide context and to assert it is not the women’s position.

MYWO was established to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the future of women in the country. The Kikuyu Council of Elders is the preserve of men, and the emergence of a “women’s league” in a notoriously misogynistic institution is probably a sign that the interests and positions being advanced are those of men.

The homogenisation of women

Women have been speaking for the past decade on issues of national importance. Where are those voices of women who have been speaking when it wasn’t convenient or politically expedient? Indeed, what the 2010 Constitution did to the consternation of the political elite is to create opportunities for the largest number of women in Kenyan politics – women who demand public space and national platforms without apology and on the same terms as men, women who speak against the state’s failure to protect women.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment.

But the way in which women who have been speaking for and on behalf of women against the state are being covered today is an attempt to homogenise women, to deny women the right to multiple and diverse opinions (see how this is consistent with a view of women as not real citizens). A small class of politically active women are also trying use the media to manipulate the public into seeing them as the “leaders” of the constituency of women so that they can leverage this standing to secure positions in the negotiated politics that is the fashion post-BBI.

Women are insulted, raped and killed and MYWO is silent, but a woman politician doing politics in a way that upsets the establishment is a cause for national statements. No woman with an issue – from the alienation of inheritance land or rape of her daughter in a public high school, or even the death of her daughter allegedly by a governor – runs to MYWO. However, the state runs to MYWO when it has issues with women.

To deny women diverse political opinions is to deny us the fullness of citizenship; it serves to infantilise us as well as to deny us agency at a time when the political elite is most vulnerable. Our politics is bad but it isn’t simple.  Attempts by the political elite to gloss over differences or muzzle dissent should be met with suspicion.The only way citizens can influence the direction or agenda of politics is through critical political engagement not mere acquiescence.

MYWO’s resurgence, especially in the role of the disciplinarian of women doing politics, is a harbinger of a politics without basic freedoms: freedom of association and speech, not just for women, but all citizens. The nature of our popular, predominately male, political analysis is to render anything articulated by a woman as peripheral to the national discourse and only for the consumption of other women. Whereas men speak and do politics for the public, women speak and do politics only for other women.

This analytical framework fails to take cognisance of changes in society, as well as the expanded public and political role of women, especially post-2010. In addition, it is stubbornly ahistorical, ignoring this administration’s history of violating women’s rights as a prelude to more expansive and systematic repression. We see the same modus operandi with court orders. The Parliament and the president have consistently violated court orders on the two-thirds gender rule, including refusing to enact legislation on women’s representation and naming an unconstitutional cabinet. Now court orders are violated to deny some citizens the right to enter the country, as well as release them on bail.

We would do well to broaden our political analysis to take women’s role seriously as citizens with agency and with diverse political perspectives and, therefore, as proponents of both progressive and regressive politics. Part of what is most threatening in the current context is diversity of political opinion, complexity and nuance among all citizens, not just women.

MYWO and organisations like it are telling women what the proper political position is, thus pulling women back from complicating the public space by demanding to be heard. This is especially damaging for women because women as a class of citizens have legitimate litigated grievances that challenge the legality and legitimacy of any proposed referendum or constitutional amendment processes.

Why women are critically important is because none of the legal processes to amend the Constitution are available because these institutions are unconstitutional as they exclude women. We have an unconstitutional cabinet, an unconstitutional Parliament, an unconstitutional electoral body and a political elite that have all but admitted that elections are hijacked by those in power. The scope of the current illegalities would seem to exclude the current holders of those positions from initiating or overseeing any constitutional amendment process. Instead of an unconstitutional government overseeing amendments to the Constitution, what we should have is an independent transitional government. But the political elite know that this political moment works in their collective interest only if it is a binary choice, uncomplicated by facts and the law.

As citizens we would do well to be suspicious of those seeking to silence us or to mould us into well-packaged constituencies, whether they be organised around ethnicity, gender or age, for sale to the highest bidder. We are being encouraged to consider political choices that are both illegal and ahistorical and questioning the framing is considered heresy. We seem to have learned nothing from the silencing of critics and the faux “tyranny of numbers” scenario.

Shrinking the political space, especially the space to disagree and oppose the status quo, is bad for citizens and great for politicians. The politics of silence is the politics of oppression; it merely starts with women but will eventually silence and oppress all citizens equally.

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How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule

11 min read. An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics suggests that President Moi owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries. The Moi era is also a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War.

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How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule
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Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest-serving post-independence president, was buried at his Kabarak home on February 12th. His death, eulogy and press coverage by the big commercial media outlets have stoked divisive debates and ambivalent recollections of the past, which recall Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observations that “while nothing is easier to denounce than an evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

How does one understand the evils of the Nyayo government if Moi was solely responsible for some of the evils of his government, but not all the evils were exclusively his? And what if some of the evils Moi is rightly condemned for, such as crony capitalism, sabotaging democracy, resisting political reforms, political murders and corruption, are also the evils that were perpetuated by his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki, and even his successor, Uhuru Kenyatta?

Perhaps one way is not to see Moi as the African Big Man, which Moi’s death has brought back into circulation. Though convenient, the Big Man or strongman reference conceals rather than reveals the kind of state power an authoritarian ruler wields, and the internal and external political forces that also shape the politics of authoritarian regimes. It conceals the wellspring of crimes committed by an evil leader in charge of a highly centralised and unitary state, one where the executive’s power has been concentrated in the presidency in particular, without the mitigating effect of the counter-balancing powers of an independent Parliament and judiciary.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

Moi’s authoritarian rule wasn’t solely a product of a unique character trait in him as an individual; rather, it was a handmaiden of the statecraft of an unreformed highly centralised and unitary state. By using this form of state power to reward and punish, he adroitly exploited the national or regional political needs of Kenyans and the political schemes and rivalries among his political rivals, and astutely manipulated the greed and the cravings of the clergy, the intelligentsia, and bureaucrats.

Moi’s evil government also had the support of the West during the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras, which kept his repressive, corrupt and incompetent government going. Britain and the United States were clear about who the enemies of the West were during the Cold War: communism and radical nationalisms in Africa. They wanted to reconfigure African economies through neoliberalism. So his was hardly a one-man show.

Perhaps the politics of the South Nyanza district in the 1980s, which resonated with the politics of the other marginalised regions of Kenya, offers some answers. At that time, Kenyan elites were jostling for positions in the new political order under Moi, and the Nyanza elite were no exception. Signaling a political truce and an intention to bring back the ostracised Kenya People’s Union politicians back into the fold, Moi appointed Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as the Chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing in 1980.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

But, as Anyang’ Nyongo regretfully explained in the Star, despite their concerted efforts to keep Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of the limelight, Jaramogi granted Hillary Ng’weno of the Weekly Review an ill-timed interview. Moreover, in Mombasa, Jaramogi “denounced Kenyatta as a land grabber”. These successive events, as Nyongo notes, torpedoed what would have been the Moi-Odinga rapport because Moi was beholden to the very Jomo Kenyatta era forces that had forced Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of government and that had jailed him.

After the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga debacle, Moi looked to South Nyanza for new leaders who did not have autonomous political constituencies such as Odinga’s, and leaders who would owe him their allegiance. Moi found willing accomplices in some South Nyanza elite with whom he could fend off political enemies, run a brutal and repressive state security apparatus, and build an alternative political base to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s. It was a move that stirred the undercurrents of the intra-Luo and inter-district elite competition, resentment, and envy.

Moi understood the Luo intra-ethnic political undercurrents, its elites’ vanities, greed, and opportunism and their region’s developmental challenges. He played one individual’s ambitions against another individual’s ambitions, or one district’s elite faction against another faction, thus keeping his would-be enemies busy and preoccupied with siasa ya kuchimbana.

Legacy of the Seventh Day Adventists

For years, the South Nyanza elite had felt that the district had lagged behind Kisumu and Siaya districts in terms of social and economic development. The area was beleaguered with a huge disease burden and high mortality rates. In Freedom and After, Tom Mboya, suggested that this had partly been the social cost of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) mission’s anti-educated African attitude and miniscule investment in the education sector.

Referring to a time when the education of the Africans was mainly left to Christian missionaries, Mboya lamented:

There were also churches—for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists—which thought it immoral to give Africans any academic education, and believed all they should learn was the Bible from the first page to the end, and perhaps how to do some woodwork and manual labour. Until a few years ago the Seventh Day Adventists thought it un-Christian for an African to want to go to high school and university. I know of many cases of Africans who were openly condemned in church for trying to get further academic education. In some cases Africans who defied the church on these matters lost their teaching jobs or the employment. As a result, you have today very few highly educated Africans among the Seventh Day Adventists.”

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations. But the SDA church of the colonial times, with its Kenyan headquarters at Gendia mission in Kendu-Bay, and its roots in the millennial religions of white North Americans, seemed to have exported America’s virulent racist attitudes towards “free” black people. The SDA church of colonial times seemed to have resolved that the type of education the “natives” needed was apolitical education – the teaching of “technical” or functional education, the kind that would not stir political agitation, but would be good enough for the immediate needs of the white-dominated colonial economy.

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations.

In an era when the colonial government assigned various Christian missions particular geographical locations – ostensibly to forestall religious conflicts – only the Anglicans (the Queen’s church) could establish a mission anywhere they fancied. Thus a Christian mission’s formal or informal policy could have a great impact on a region’s socio-economic (mis)fortunes. The white missionaries’ preference for high altitudes and cooler climates meant that there were very few missions and missionary schools in South Nyanza’s mostly hot, mosquito- and tsetse fly-infested areas.

The rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi

Tom Mboya’s rise as the ultimate champion of post-independence modernity held great hopes for South Nyanza. But his assassination on July 5, 1969 robbed the region of a grand patron and an impatient moderniser who felt that the colonial government had dealt the region an unfair card. Orphaned by Tom Mboya’s murder, South Nyanza, more than any other district, was a region yearning for a patron and inclusion in government.

But South Nyanza elites’ ambitions and popular needs, a laggard elite formation, poor social and economic welfare, especially when compared with the other Luo-dominated districts of Kisumu and Siaya, played into Daniel Moi’s Machiavellian hands. The failed Oginga Odinga and Moi rapport paved the way for Moi to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza’s Luo community politics.

No one personified Daniel arap Moi’s attempt to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza politics and to control it more than the late Hezekiah Nelson Oyugi Ogango, aka “Kalam Maduong” or the Big Pen. Oyugi’s nickname attested to the might of Oyugi’s powers, which he derived from his lofty position in the Provincial Administration, and later as Permanent Secretary in charge of internal security, an office he held at the pleasure of President Moi.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. No one expected another Luo to come close to state power, and certainly not close to a national security organ.

A Homa Bay legend has it that in the 1980s, a goat had spoken to Hezekiah Oyugi when he was serving as a Provincial Administrator in the Rift Valley. The goat had told him to warn the Kenyan government or the president of an impending drought or famine and request them to build a buffer against such an eventuality. Oyugi promptly relayed the message. President Moi heeded the prophetic warning by building a grain reserve, thus averting a famine. The legend’s Old Testament undertones cast Oyugi as Joseph, the interpreter of dreams in the Pharaoh’s court.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Oyugi, like Simeon Nyachae, was an ambitious workaholic and a stickler for rules who zealously served the Moi government while pursuing his own regional political ambitions and development agenda, especially in South Nyanza. Tired of the streetwise, honey-tongued and rib-tickling political orators with dismal “development” records, such Olouch Kanindo, Oyugi attempted to remake South Nyanza’s politics in the 1980s.

The Moi-Oyugi line-up of the favoured Members of Parliament included politicians such as Peter Nyakiamo, Dalmas Otieno and one maverick – if ever there was one – Professor Ouma Muga, and other loud and loutish Nyayo loyalist types. The new crop of leaders had expansive worldviews, were educated and experienced as administrators of big corporate or academic institutions, and were above all Nyayo loyalists.

In the mid-1980s, Moi came calling at Homa Bay. The KANU’s brass band was bigger and better than St John Seminary Rakwaro’s, which often graced Homa Bay town’s national day celebrations. South Nyanza, it was said, had topped the list of the districts with the highest number of registered KANU supporters for the two consecutive years preceding the presidential visit. This wasn’t entirely voluntary. During those years, KANU youth wingers forcibly recruited party members. They had laid siege at the entrances and exits of the town’s markets and the main bus park, letting in only those who had a KANU membership card and the annual KANU membership stamp (worth five or ten shillings) affixed to it. In addition, the KANU Maendeleo Ya Wanawake women, the party stalwarts who could secure more than five kilos of pishori rice or unga ngano, went door to door, making sure that every adult was a registered and duly paid card-carrying member of the ruling party.

With the rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi as the PS in charge of internal security, the fortunes of other Luo leaders, such as David Okiki Amayo (KANU’s national chairman), ministers Dalmas Otieno, James Okwanyo, and Peter Nyakiamo, and several assistant ministers, such as Professor Ouma Muga and Ochola Mak’Anyengo, appeared to be on the rise too. But were they?

When the tide of Nyayoism receded from the shores of South Nyanza in the early 1990s, a mixed bag of harvest was revealed. Some educational institutions, notably Kanga High School and the Migori Institute of Science and Technology, were established. There was employment in the Provincial Administration and the Administration Police. There were other goodies, such as a school bus and a few church buildings.

However, the region faced deepening economic decline: bad roads, collapsed marine transport, beleaguered cotton, sugarcane and fisheries sectors, declining public sector employment or retrenchment (popularly known as “the golden handshake”), and an increasing disease and healthcare burden. Moi’s government was also balkanising the old South Nyanza district, dividing it along its dominant language and clan cleavages, namely, Rachuonyo, Migori, Suba, and Kuria districts.

Around that time, Hezekiah Oyugi had also died mysteriously, which was quite common during the Nyayo era. And Moi was openly and widely resented.

Representation without development

In 1993, the MP for Kasipul Kabondo, Otieno K’Opiyo, asked the Minister of Health why there were no Nyayo wards built in the former South Nyanza district. Yet, in his words, “if you consider the proximity of the previous leaders of South Nyanza, all of them were in cabinet and were very, very close to and were co-operating with the KANU government, but in spite of all this cooperation by nine ministers, nothing was done…why did they not consider South Nyanza where they had the heartbeat of KANU throbbing day in day out?”

Although many Nyayo wards were never completed in several parts of the country, and the Moi government later said that the wards were supposedly mainly a self-help and a partially government-sponsored project, South Nyanza did not get a Nyayo ward despite the fact that Peter Nyakiamo, the MP for Mbita, was the Minister of Health when the Nyayo ward project was initiated.

How could this happen? Can this paradox of good cabinet representation without local development explain the kinds of tweets posted on the debate on Moi’s legacy, but informed by the former North Eastern Province’s harsher experiences? Rashid Abdi stated on Twitter:

He [Moi] kept North under emergency law, deepened hatred of the ethnic Somalis, forced discriminatory pink card on them, looked on as his troops massacred civilians in Wagalla, ran a prosperous country aground, disappeared & killed ForMin [foreign minister]. Whose legacy history will look to kindly it is Raila Odinga. Raila made his mark in the struggle for democracy, new constitution and devolution (notwithstanding qualms about BBI), on the one hand.”

And then there was Ahmednasir Abdullahi SC’s ambivalent reaction:

Despite the history of NFD, the Independence Referendum of 1963, the war of independence (the shifta wars) and Section 124? Of the constitution that imposed state of emergency on NFD from 1963 to 1992, BABA Moi made Somalis, Borana, Gabra, Rendille et al to part of Kenya.”

Dr Sally Kosgei, Nyayo’s last Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, in her eulogy at Kabakak during Moi’s funeral, put her finger on this paradox of cabinet representation without development when she noted without any sense of irony that Moi “managed the affairs of the state with his civil servants”. (Note: Moi’s civil servants, not Kenya’s civil service.)

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

In nearly all-key institutions of Kenya’s highly centralised state power, the locus of power was not the elected public face of any particular institution. Rather, Kenya’s state power was deliberately designed to subvert its citizens’ democratic will and aspiration. In some instances, the bureaucrats and henchmen who wielded the most power were invisible or largely unknown beyond their private spheres of influence.

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

The locus of power lay in the office of a bureaucrat appointed directly or indirectly by the president, often without security of tenure or with superficial security of tenure. (“His civil servants.”) So it was the Treasury, not the National Assembly, that allocated national resources. Within the National Assembly, the clerk had more authority than the speaker. In the justice sector, it was the Attorney General, not the Chief Justice, who was the ultimate legal authority. In any given ministry, it was the Permanent Secretary, not the minister, who made the important decisions. In local governments, it was the various clerks who wielded power. In the districts, the District Commissioners called the shots as chairmen of the District Development Committees and the District Security Committees. In the villages, it was the chiefs, not the elected councillors, who were the kingpins. Nearly all the elected leaders were subservient to the president’s appointed bureaucrats who had the “Authority to Incur Expenditure” behind the scenes.

An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics in the first decade of Moi’s presidency suggests that the former Kenyan president owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries – often ignited by none other than Moi himself. Moi adroitly and carefully co-opted the regional elite from marginalised ethnic groups, cynically exploiting their yearning for “development”, and keeping them happy and slavish. However, their appointment to key positions did little to bring “development” to their regions.

South Nyanza’s experience also suggests that Moi stayed in power for long because of his brutal repression of the opposition, because of the atomising fear and despondency that his regime of terror induced in the population, as well as because of the international financial support his government received from or through the West, especially Britain and the United States. Kenya under Moi’s authoritarian rule was the proverbial crocodile’s lair where no freedom fighter or radical nationalist sought refuge.

Daniel arap Moi may have fancied himself as an African statesman – and was even eulogised as one by many – but his reign is a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War. The evils of the Nyayo era recall Lord Acton’s maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To think of Moi as either a “Big Man” or a “strongman” is to ignore the institutional distortions that enabled him to rule over Kenya with an iron fist, and the domestic and international support that sustained his presidency.

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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts

14 min read. The Goldenberg scandal did not just negatively impact the Kenyan economy, it also left in its wake damaged and destroyed lives. Central Bank of Kenya employees who raised queries about the massive fraud were quickly sacrificed. These individuals and their families have hauntingly traumatic memories of Moi and his government.

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As a curious child growing up in the early 1990s, I had a general idea from reading the newspapers that my father brought home that Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya was not a place to play around. Then, in August 1992, these abstract ideas became realities. One evening, my visibly distressed mother brought home a newspaper bearing the photo of her elder brother appearing unconscious and lying on a bed at Nairobi Hospital. The caption had my uncle’s name, Francis Lukorito (whom we called Uncle L), followed by an explanation that the hospitalised Central Bank of Kenya employee had been arrested days earlier in relation to the mysterious death of the multiparty stalwart Masinde Muliro.

Pius Masinde Muliro, the founding member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), had been declared dead on a Nairobi-bound flight from London, where he had gone to fund-raise for the party. FORD was a serious contender in the 1992 general election following the repeal of Section 2(a) of the constitution, abolishing Moi’s one-party state. That newspaper, with the usually charming Uncle L appearing bruised, swollen and defeated, became part of family memorabilia, in remembrance of the day my uncle became an enemy of the state.

Uncle L was a tall, heavily built and worldly individual who people aspired to become. He finished his high school education at Lenana School and proceeded to undergraduate Bachelor of Commerce studies at the University of Nairobi. He was an impressionable 23-year-old when the Central Bank of Kenya came calling in 1976. He was first sent to Milan, then to Washington, D.C. for further training. Within a short period of time, he became the bank’s superintendent, then the senior Superintendent. The future was supposed to be bright – until August 1992 happened.

As narrated to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, where Uncle L took the witness stand on 14 January 2004, the truth was that Muliro and Uncle L came a long way. When Muliro was attending school in Tororo, Uganda, before proceeding to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he made a habit of passing by my grandfather’s home at the Kenya-Uganda border, not too far from Tororo, where he spent time with my grandfather, who was his age-mate. Since then, Muliro remained a regular visitor to my late grandfather’s home, in the process becoming my uncle’s guardian.

On 14 August 1992, while minding his business at work, Uncle L received a call from a friend who informed him that Muliro was dead. Shocked and in disbelief, he left for Muliro’s Nairobi residence in Upper Hill, where he confirmed the news. As Muliro’s children contemplated their next move in dealing with their patriarch’s death, it was decided that Uncle L would become the treasurer for the funeral organising committee. Uncle L drove back to work, unaware that his association with Muliro was about to be conveniently used as a scapegoat to kick him out of the Central Bank – in a bigger game of chess that was being played at Moi’s State House.

Five days later, on 19 August 1992, three plainclothes policemen showed up at the Central Bank. With them was Mr. H. H. Njoroge, Uncle L’s head of division, and a Mr. Karanja, the bank’s chief security officer. The men requested Uncle L to accompany them. No explanations were given. Since the bank officials were aware of what was transpiring, Uncle L obliged. Outside the bank building, on Haile Selassie Avenue, Uncle L saw a Special Branch Peugeot 504 station wagon with two more men inside. There and then, in Moi’s Kenya of detention without trial, he knew his goose was cooked. Multiparty politics had been begrudgingly restored, and although it appeared the democratic space was expanding, in Uncle L’s world, there lurked a monster which was about to cripple the Kenyan economy, an ogre which he and a few others had tried to slay, but which had now come back to haunt them.

As senior superintendent, Uncle L had to scrutinise all export compensation scheme-related CD3 forms submitted to the Central Bank by commercial banks on behalf of their exporting customers. Uncle L worked with Mr. David Meader, an Australian national seconded to the bank from the International Monetary Fund. The duo flagged a whopping 17 billion shillings, which they considered an irregular payout to a company called Goldenberg International, which was purporting to be exporting massive amounts of gold and diamonds on a daily basis to Europe, the Middle East and Asia (even though Kenya had no known commercial deposits of either). For every US dollar earned in the purported sales abroad, Goldenberg was under a statutory export compensation claim where it was paid thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya shillings as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports.

However, proof of sales and exports of gold and diamonds later turned out to be forgeries.

By mid-1992, six months prior to the first multiparty presidential election in three decades, the flow of CD3 forms intensified. At that time, Uncle L and Mr. Meader raised red flags about what they believed was fraud by writing to the Central Bank’s chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office. As they kept scrutinising more CD3 forms, more anomalies surfaced. Unknown to Uncle L and Mr. Meader, the scheme involved some of the most powerful individuals in Kenya, including the Head of the Special Branch (Kenya’s intelligence service), who was a partner in Goldenberg International, a company owned by Kamlesh Pattni.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal, which was being executed right in front of their eyes. As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

Khaminwa: Why do you believe Mr. Riungu, Mr. Waiguru and Mr. Karanja were responsible for your arrest? 

Lukorito: Because when I was working on pre-shipment finance papers, Mr. Pattni was very close to Mr. Riungu. On a daily basis, Mr. Pattni would come and see Mr. Riungu. While working on the papers with Mr. Meader, I would see Mr. Pattni going into Mr. Riungu’s office next door.

Upon entering the Peugeot 504, Uncle L was driven to the Nairobi Area Police Headquarters, where he was taken to a basement office. There, he met three policemen – Mr. Kimurgor, Mr. Murage and Mr. Slim – who wanted to know how he knew Muliro, how he came to know about Muliro’s death, how close he was to the opposition leader, and whether he knew where Muliro stayed. Uncle L gave them the history by writing a 16-page statement.

Later that evening, he was thrown into the back seat of the Peugeot, where he was made to lie down on the vehicle’s floor. The policemen sat and stepped on him as they drove along. After a not-so-smooth drive, the vehicle slowed down at what seemed like the entrance of a building. As they pulled Uncle L out, he saw Hotel InterContinental’s beige façade. If he hadn’t expected the worst, then being in the precincts of Nyayo House gave him reason to be afraid.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal…As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

He was taken to an upper floor within Nyayo House where he met a new set of hostile Special Branch interrogators. This time, the story was that he was an opposition mole within the bank. He told them he wasn’t. The beating started. Uncle L collapsed. When he came to, he was in a dark room filled with water that made his skin itchy. His body was swollen and aching all over. Lucky for him, he was picked up later that night and delivered to Parklands Police Station.

The following morning, Uncle L was driven to Nairobi Area Police Headquarters. This time there was not much to talk about other than kicks and blows. He collapsed. When he came to, he found himself at Nairobi Hospital, where the photo in the newspaper my mother brought home was taken. How the media knew who he was, why he had been arrested and where he was hospitalised is anyone’s guess. Uncle L had not been charged with any crime, but he had been badly tarred with a broad brush – he was now a government official caught in the middle of the country’s “dangerous” opposition politics. He stayed bedridden for six days.

The impact of the beatings meted on Uncle L are captured in the 14 January 2004 proceedings of the Goldenberg Commission, which read: (The witness was then referred to a medical report signed by Dr. D. K Gikonyo, a physician and cardiologist, which showed that on admission, among other things, his blood pressure was extremely high – 230/130. (He has since become hypertensive.) After a mandatory two week sick leave, Uncle L was quickly interdicted.

“Following your arrest by the police on 19 August 1992, we write to advise you that it has been decided to interdict you with immediate effect in accordance with Rule 6.35 (b) of the Staff Rules and Regulations,’’ read the letter from the Central Bank of Kenya’s Administration Division, signed by Mr. C.K. Ndubai. ‘‘While on interdiction, you will be paid half your salary and you will be required to report on every working day to the Head, Security Division, where you will sign a register of attendance. You will not leave your place of work except with the permission of the Head of Security Division. The interdiction will remain in force until further notice.” 

This is how a lame game of ping pong at the highest level of Moi’s government started. On 21 September 1992, Uncle L received another letter, ostensibly reversing his earlier interdiction and requesting him to report to the Principal, Development Division, for assignment of duties.

“This is to advise you that it has been decided that your interdiction be lifted with immediate effect and that you report in your former Division. Accordingly, please arrange to report to the Principal, Development Division immediately for assignment of duties.”

On 8 July 1993, Mr. J. K. Waiguru, the Central Bank’s Secretary had some news.

“Following the lifting of your interdiction and posting back to your division, there has been further development in this matter. Would you please report to the Deputy Governor for further instructions.”

When Uncle L went to see the deputy governor, he was advised to go and see the head of the civil service, Prof. Philip Mbithi, who was stationed at Harambee House. Prof. Mbithi told Uncle L to go home and wait. Someone would be sent to him. Uncle L waited for over six months without pay. Then in February 1994, Prof. Mbithi sent someone to Uncle L’s Nairobi home to bring him over. On reaching Harambee House, Prof. Mbithi referred Uncle L to his personal assistant, Mr. S. Z. Ambuka. Mr. Ambuka showed Uncle L a letter dated 10 February 1993 – signed by Mr. Ambuka – addressed to Dr. Wilfred Koinange, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

You will recall that early this week, I talked to you about the redeployment of the above-named officer who previously worked with the Central Bank and whom we were asked to assist in re-deploying to any of the other banking institutions.

You asked me to check with the Central Bank and confirm [Uncle L’s] status with them before you could take over the case. I had discussions with the bank secretary who confirmed that:

(a) When [Uncle L] had a discipline case with them, he was struck off their payroll.

(b) However, when it was later decided that [he] be forgiven and rehabilitated, he was reinstated in the payroll.

(c) Later on, a decision was made that [Uncle L] be referred to the Office of the President for re-allocation of duties elsewhere. When he was referred to the Office of the President (and subsequently to Treasury), he ceased being in the CBK payroll.

(d) The Bank Secretary advises that [Uncle L] could apply for early retirement from the bank. This early retirement, if approved, would be frozen as [Uncle L] would not be entitled to any retirement benefits until he attains the mandatory age of 50 years.

(e) [Uncle L] would then be available for you to assist him get a fresh placement in any other financial institutions.

[Uncle L] has accordingly been informed and is herewith sent to you for the necessary assistance.”

There it was. Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House to enact the final chess move. It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Khaminwa: Were you forgiven and rehabilitated? 

Lukorito: I do not know that I was supposed to be forgiven because I had committed no offence.

Khaminwa: Something I don’t seem to understand. You were employed by the Central Bank, then how does the Head of the Public Service come into a corporate organisation like CBK?

Lukorito: I do not understand either.

Khaminwa: In Mrs. Mwatela’s statement in Exhibit 111, could you read what she says about you.

Lukorito: [Reads statement.] “I remember Mr. Pattni visiting me in my new office. He arrogantly and proudly reprimanded me for my alleged stupidity in questioning his affairs. He claimed that my stupidity would get me nowhere. I did not reply to him. He specifically referred to one Mr. Lukorito who had been sacked and informed me that no one played about with him and got away with it. I knew he had powerful connections and no purpose would be served in answering him.”

There it was, confirmed in black and white: Goldenberg. Uncle L’s mistake was that he had stood in the way of Kamlesh Pattni, who could leverage state power, including the Office of the Head of the Civil Service, to deal with him firmly.

Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House…It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi? More importantly, one may then want to ask: How did Uncle L try to interfere with the Goldenberg pay-outs, and did he have powers to stop Kenya’s biggest economic crime to date? The answer lies in an exchange between Uncle L and lawyer Cecil Miller, appearing for the Deposit Protection Fund at the Goldenberg Commission.

Miller: Mr. Lukorito, did you question the duplication of CD3s in writing?

Lukorito: Yes. They should be with CBK.

Miller: Who did you write to?

Lukorito: The chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office.

Miller: Did you get a response?

Lukorito: They did not come directly but they came in the form of whether we had agreed on the level of Treasury Bills that we were to advertise for the weekly tenders. If we all agreed on the amount, we would advertise. 

Miller: Am I right in saying that technically you were the final port of call in relation to CD3s and pre-shipment?

Lukorito: Yes my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 17 of your statement, you mention Exchange and Pan African banks. 

Lukorito: Yes my lords. 

Miller: You then proceed to say on page 18; “The funds would be withdrawn from CBK under a currency withdrawal scheme by the two banks and then the amount withdrawn by the beneficiaries at the bank.” Would you know who the beneficiaries were?

Lukorito: I would not know my lords. We would detect the money movement using the open market operations ledger. 

Miller: You raised a concern on page 39 – your memo – on the potential snowball effect on the banking sector. And you got a response which you say you were not satisfied with?

Lukorito: I was not my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 14 of your statement, you list the beneficiaries of the pre-export finance scheme. You left the bank in November 1994. 

Lukorito: I was arrested on August 19, 1992 and from that day I just used to report but I was not working within the bank.

Miller: So you would not know that three of these banks went into liquidation thereafter?

Lukorito: I wouldn’t know. 

Miller: And you would not know whether they had paid their pre-shipment funds by the time? 

Lukorito: I would not know. 

Dr. Wilfred Koinange seemed like a man of few words. ‘‘I have nothing to do with you,’’ he told Uncle L. With that, my uncle was forcibly retired from the Central Bank of Kenya aged 40, an age where he wasn’t entitled to a pension. This is how Kenya is known to treat its best.

‘‘That is all I wish to say in deciding to risk my life by becoming an actor instead of a privileged spectator in the fraudulent deals through CBK during my last years with them.’’ Uncle L told the Commission when wrapping up his testimony. ‘‘And while I can claim a background in central banking, I can only claim a very great interest in the fields of money, banking and finance which would have enabled me to contribute to the economic transformation taking place in our sub-region. It is my hope that someday I will have the opportunity to bring to consummation that interest.’’                                                            

*** 

Sometime in 2014, Uncle L pulled me aside during a family gathering, sat me under a tree and started reading to me a letter of solidarity sent to him during his travails at the hands of the Moi state by a mutual friend he shared with Muliro, who had since moved abroad. The letter was aged, worn thin by the elements and now turning brownish. As he read it, it was as if he was being transported into a different realm. Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but his voice didn’t falter. He was crying, but he wasn’t. I felt both sorry and proud of him, for his endurance, defiance and stoicism. It was an awkward yet special moment. As always, the conversation veered back to Goldenberg. He quickly dispatched his son to bring more documents. He wanted to show me the architects of the 1990-1994 Goldenberg fraud.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi?

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate), the scam transferring the equivalent of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP for the 5 years concerned into private hands. In the process, the Kenya shilling collapsed – dropping from 21 shillings in 1990 to 56 shillings in 1994 against the US dollar. Some of the names Uncle L mentioned, known to those who know within the banking system, left me dumbfounded. But then no one could talk. Those like him who dared speak were unceremoniously pushed to the gutter, their lives turned upside down.

The same fate befell Joseph Mumelo, the Central Bank’s Head of Foreign Exchange, who was married to my mother’s first cousin. As mentioned in the 8 February 2020 Saturday Nation article “Legitimate and dubious means Moi used to build empire”, Uncle Joe was asked not to interfere whenever money was siphoned through the Moi-affiliated Transnational Bank. In 1993, a terrified and non-cooperative Uncle Joe was arrested and detained before being kicked out of the bank.

When I joined Nairobi School in 1999, my family had already moved out of Nairobi, and so I spent my mid-term breaks either at Uncle Joe’s or Uncle L’s. They both had children my age. By then, Uncle L had long moved to his rural home. Uncle Joe retreated to his new home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Whenever I visited, Uncle Joe and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Scrabble. He would open up to me about all sorts of things. Through him and Uncle L, I learnt the proper meaning of lying low. Just like Uncle L, Uncle Joe never drove any of his cars. He enlisted the services of a taxi driver who drove a Volkswagen beetle, and unless the guy showed up, Uncle Joe rarely left the house. On some nights, when he was brought home by his friends, Uncle Joe refused to get out of the vehicle until the song playing on the car stereo played to the end. His were little pleasures. Just like Uncle L, with his roaring voice, he cursed loudly at Moi and his men on the rare occasions he watched the news. Everyone knew to stay quiet.

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate)…

Seeing that Uncle Joe died before he could appear as a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, Uncle L decided to do family duty by adding Uncle Joe’s police statement at the time of his arrest as an annexure to his own, so that Uncle Joe could be heard posthumously. Below, the Commission’s Dr. Khaminwa questions Uncle L about Uncle Joe’s statement on the pay-outs.

Khaminwa: Would you look at your additional statement and read it. 

Lukorito: [Reads statement.]Further to my January 12, 2004 statement, I wish to state that sometime in July 1993, I learnt from the Central Bank of Kenya that one of my former seniors there, Mr. Joseph Mumelo had been arrested by police and was at Kileleshwa Police Station. I visited him and he told me that the previous governor Mr. Kotut had asked him to pass some cheques relating to some banks and when he later on put it in writing, the governor disowned him. I told him that I also had a similar problem with pre–export finance in relation to Goldenberg International. He told me he believed that it was the source of my problem with the bank. I later learnt that he was released and retired from bank service. I have been shown a statement recorded from the late Mumelo on July 23, 1993. The deceased shared the same views as those noted in my memo to Mr. Riungu on January 21, 1992. 

Khaminwa: You state that you had problems with Mr. Kotut regarding pre–export finance, could you remind us what the problem was? 

Lukorito: We got some applications from Goldenberg International but Mr. Riungu was absent. The papers were pushed to Mr. Kotut’s office but we never got any reply. We were not able to proceed because the papers were, to me, very suspect. They had the same CD3 serial numbers from different banks and the amounts were substantial. Mr. Mumelo appeared scared and told me that he was not staying at home because he had been threatened by powerful people. He was moving from hotel to hotel. He cautioned me and from July 1993, I never drove any of my vehicles.

Uncle Joe’s and Uncle L’s well-being – careers, livelihoods, health, family life and their wives’ and children’s welfares and futures – all became collateral damage because they raised queries which had the capacity to unravel Goldenberg. These are the hauntingly traumatic memories some families have of Moi and his government. Sadly, the Goldenberg culprits remain unpunished to date.

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