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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise

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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise
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“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

When we were children, our mother took us to St. Andrews Church in Nairobi every Sunday. A grand, cavernous cathedral-style building on the right side of Uhuru Highway, it was there that she and my father had had their wedding ceremony in 1983.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) was founded by Scottish missionaries but would soon be known for what the Kikuyu called mutaratara – a liturgical style of worship that is composed, outwardly decorous and predictable. That was how my mother, Rose Wanjiku, had always done church. She was in charge of our spiritual formation; my father was largely irreligious – I now realise that this is not unusual, and perhaps the norm, in most Kenyan families.

In my teenage years, I met some cool kids who went to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, and I followed them there. The youth fellowship there was nicknamed Fortress, and for a 13-year-old raised to be a dignified mini-adult in church, the unbridled energy and chaotic emotionality of a Pentecostal service was enchanting. I loved Fortress. We had day (and night) concerts, youth camps, picnics and movies. I led praise and worship and preached on occasion. We went on “missions” where we proselytised to strangers, prayed in tongues and we baptised in the Holy Ghost.

My mother was not entirely pleased with my new spiritual commitments. I suspect that they seemed a little too ecstatic to her. She resisted my formation of a whole lifestyle that was outside her supervision or control. I would argue that at least I was spending my time in church, not “out there” like other girls. This would usually placate her.

I spent the rest of my teenage years being highly active “in the ministry” as we called it, both at my boarding school and at Fortress when I was home on vacation. And far from being a drag on my social life, church was actually fun. It was not only a sanctuary but also the place where I grew up, developed my own personality, and made deep and meaningful friendships, some of which remain to this day.

***

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when Kenya’s Christian institutions were undergoing a profound change, whose effects remain with us today. Purportedly, Kenya is a Christian nation; census data indicates that nearly four in five Kenyans self-identify as Christian.

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches accounted for 70 per cent of Christian congregations in Kenya by the time Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president in 1978. Christianity was a colonial project in most of Africa. The missionaries may have been welcomed in individual communities, but the machinery of the colonial state followed very soon after, enforcing and accelerating the winning of (bodies and) souls.

In England, Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the River Thames is the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Houses of Parliament are less than 400 metres away, on the opposite bank. The British colonisers diligently replicated this spatial intimacy of church and state. In the capital cities of most former British colonies in Africa, the official residence of the Anglican archbishop was next to, or across the street from, the Governor’s Mansion.

In Nairobi, the Anglican archbishop’s residence, even today, is at the T-junction of State House Avenue and State House Road, right across the road from the official residence of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.

Because of their colonial roots, the mainstream churches had an uncritical relationship with the government, even after independence when both institutions were “Africanised”. The churches were firmly pro-establishment, preferring to “keep out of politics” and focusing on providing social services.

The Anglican and Presbyterian churches were formally organised under the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Formed in 1966, NCCK was an umbrella of 37 church organisations affiliated to the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. In 1978 (the year that Moi became president) NCCK was commissioned to undertake a theological study of three words: “peace, love and unity”. Peace, Love and Unity was the slogan underlying President Moi’s new political philosophy of Nyayo, as he called it. But Moi’s regime would end up being anything but peaceful, loving or uniting.

***

Moi was vice president when Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978. The constitution directed that the vice president take office upon the death of the president, but in the years that Kenyatta’s health began to fail, politicians close to Mzee had tried to sideline Moi – ostensibly because he lacked the political clout of Kenyatta, and was ethnically Kalenjin, whereas those establishment politicians were mostly Kikuyu.

In fact, that group had tried to change the constitution to block the automatic succession of a president by his deputy. Though they failed in that regard, Moi nevertheless began his tenure with a deep sense of political insecurity.

By 1982 that insecurity had turned into a fully-fledged political crisis. In the early hours of August 1st of that year, a group of Air Force officers commandeered state radio and declared a coup. Within hours, forces loyal to the incumbent president had crushed the coup attempt, but it would be the pivotal point in the downward repressive spiral of the Moi regime, with increasing surveillance, detentions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment intensifying in the mid- to late 1980s.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations. The study was published in 1983 as a book called A Christian View of Politics in Kenya: Love, Peace and Unity.

But as the political space became more constricted in the mid-80s, the NCCK became more vocal against the Moi regime. It must be said here that NCCK and the Catholic churches were ethnically disproportionately Kikuyu and Luo. This was possibly for historical reasons, as the early Christian missionaries were most active in areas dominated by Kikuyus and Luos.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations.

Possibly to counter the rising malcontent, Moi created an alliance with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical congregations who would come together under the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya (EFK) – and whose ethnic composition happened to be closer to that of Moi and his allies. Congregations, such as the African Inland Church (AIC), the Reformed Church of East Africa, Kenya Assemblies of God and the African Gospel Church were part of this evangelical fellowship; Moi himself was said to be a very religious man, an AIC faithful, whose habit was to wake up at 5am for prayer and reading the Bible.

Because of their closeness to the seat of power, the evangelical churches now came to occupy a privileged place in 1980s and 1990s Kenya.

The position taken by the EFK during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.

Meanwhile, NCCK and Catholic leaders continued to speak out against government excesses. The most vocal of these leaders were Rev. Timothy Njoya of PCEA (who for a time headed my mother’s congregation at St. Andrews), as well as Bishops Alexander Muge, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, all Anglican. Among the Catholics, the most outspoken was Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Nakuru Catholic diocese.

As the university community was harassed and diminished, especially after state repression, detentions and surveillance were ramped up in the 1980s, the NCCK became the major institutional challenge to Moi’s regime. The churches had the organisational network and national infrastructure to mount and sustain a form of protest politics in what was then a one-party state.

In turn, government politicians adopted a defensive stance and challenged the legitimacy of the church in discussing matters of politics. The evangelical fellowship, for its part, led by Bishop Ezekiel Birech of the AIC and Bishop Arthur Kitonga of Redeemed Gospel Church, often denounced NCCK in vehement Sunday sermons that were then printed in state-leaning newspapers. Kenyan churchgoers saw the acrimonous split along denominational lines, but few saw its ethnic and political dimension.

Moi won the 1992 election against a badly fractured opposition and on the back of state-sponsored gangs that suppressed the vote in much of the country. But by this time Kenya was in dire economic straits, with decay everywhere you looked – uncollected garbage, spiraling inflation and crumbling public services.

I was just a child at this time, but I remember the panic that seemed to seep into my parents’ conversations when they talked about money; the faint disgust with which my father handled the newly minted Ksh500 note (previously, Ksh200 was the biggest denomination). He said that this new note was a sure sign that Kenya was going to the dogs.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart. Like the Pentecostal congregation that I was a part of, they were radical, emotionally speaking, in terms of an ecstatic worship experience. But politically, they were solidly conservative – they offered a privatisation of solutions in the face of public dilapidation that seemed beyond hope. Claim your miracle. Reap your blessing. Accept Jesus as your personal saviour.

***

As I grew older and became more politically conscious and intellectually mature, my faith began to be a source of deep internal strife. I was increasingly uncomfortable with interpretations of Scripture that seemed to be obsessed with meticulous sexual policing, which of course was always directed at the girls (“be careful not to cause a brother to stumble!”) but made almost no demands on the boys.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart.

Perhaps it wasn’t incidental that many of our fathers were disinterested in the church – except when they were looking for a good woman to marry. Church was a place women learned, practised and refined their marriageability. Men didn’t need to. We were discouraged from dating casually, unless the relationship was headed towards marriage. That produced an incentive to declare things more serious than they actually were, or needed to be. And then the power play began – it fell upon the boys to proclaim whether that relationship was indeed headed towards marriage and upon the girls to demonstrate how wifeable they were.

One of the major traits of wifeability was the maintainance of the “purity” in the relationship. So we (the girls, mostly) expended enormous amounts of energy discussing “how far is too far” in relating to the opposite sex (Holding hands? Kissing? Petting? Actually, what exactly is petting?). And then, it seemed the boys would adjudicate whether the girl had adequately maintained the collective purity of the relationship or had fallen short of the glory of God. It was a bizarre dance that rested upon the presumption that a woman’s body was a kind of blank slate with no innate desires of its own.

This was during Mwai Kibaki’s first term as president. In the course of just five years, Kenya’s political mood made a full about-turn – from the joy and optimism of the 2002 election in which democracy had triumphed to the violent aftermath of the 2007 election.

Kibaki’s first swearing-in ceremony was the first, and I believe the last, political meeting my mother attended in her life; she walked from our home in South B to Uhuru Park to join the celebratory throng and watch a new democratic government take power. (Throng is a word I like. It is dense and heaving, as though people’s bodies were compressing and purging themselves, and each other, of the weight of dictatorship and failed dreams.) By then I was in my early twenties, and the friction between my mother and I would increasingly shift from being a dispute over denomination into one over politics.

Kibaki quickly consolidated power around his own Kikuyu elite, which seemed to me an obvious betrayal of the multi-ethnic and popular mandate that had brought him to power. But at family meetings, funerals and weddings, I would hear my relatives proclaim quite categorically that Kenya was much better off under a Kikuyu president. In fact, Kibaki was God’s anointed. At home I would constantly challenge my mother on those kinds of declarations, my voice shrill and my manner emphatic. How do we know that whoever is in power is God’s anointed? What is godly about chauvinism? Are we now saying that Anglo Leasing is the will of God? She would only wearily listen to me and wave me off.

Just five years later, in the aftermath of a disputed 2007 election, I watched in horror the smouldering remains of a church in Kiambaa, where a mob shut dozens of people in a church, blocked the door with a mattress and set the sanctuary on fire. As the smoke billowed on the television screen, my mother turned to me and calmly said the most cutting words she had ever said to me. “Do you think that when they come for you they will ask you who you voted for?”

It was clear what she meant. Kenya was a country where your ethnicity was everything. It could be the difference between life and death. And I hated to admit it, but she was right.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

I spent the next eight years of my life vaguely describing myself as an agnostic, “spiritual but not religious”, or generally avoiding matters of faith. It increasingly seemed absurd to me that one could be an African and a Christian, and even less a self-respecting, or at least politically conscious African, with any kind of serious commitment to social justice. Christianity is a white man’s religion, I thought. I don’t really know any African religions, so I will have none.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

***

First-century Judea was a colonial project. The land itself brought in little revenue to the Roman treasury, but by controlling it, Rome could control the land and sea routes to Egypt, which was the breadbasket of the empire.

Judea was also a border province against the Parthian Empire (in modern day Iraq and Iran), a rival of Rome in the east. The Bible records that the Jews had been taken into exile in Babylon some centuries before, and though they had returned to their homeland, the Jews were viewed as suspicious and potential fifth columnists by Rome, because of that lengthy exile to the east.

It was here that the New Testament records than God became incarnate into man. Jesus, as described in the Bible, was not only from Judea, but from a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian faith now reflexively associates Nazareth with the power, awe and authority of the Divine, but in the first century Nazareth was nowhere to be bragged about.

The historic Nazareth was an area of entrenched poverty in the ancient world. The people of Nazareth were on the bottom of society. When Herod the Great – the Jewish king who was little more than a Roman colonial administrator – died in 4 BC, the Roman armoury in Sepphoris, just outside Nazareth, was robbed. The Romans retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a public warning against such revolts. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery.

Less than a decade later, there was another revolt, this time against paying taxes. Another Roman crackdown followed, with many more crucified. The place earned a reputation for being a hotbed of unrest; young Nazarenes were labelled gangsters and thugs.

The elite one percent in Jerusalem – the priests, teachers of the law and Sadducees – looked upon those from Nazareth as uneducated and uncultured; Nazarenes were subjected to slurs on their purported lax morals and were policed for their lack of manners. The people of Nazareth were considered a Problem People.

One can thus understand the disciple Nathaniel’s jaded statement when Philip excitedly tells him that he has met the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” In fact, we ought to consider “Jesus of Nazareth” a politically loaded statement, akin to Jaymo kutoka ghetto. In the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is spoken about in this metaphor of Empire.

The Mediterranean world called Caesar sôtêr (saviour of the world). Caesar was the one who brought Peace, Love and Unity, Pax Romana, to the ancient world. So when the gospel writers used the word sôtêr to announce the birth of Jesus: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” (Luke 2:11) they were essentially undermining the authority of the empire.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

The way the Roman State tortured and executed Jesus and his early followers was not incidental. It tells us who Jesus was in relation to the state – crucifixion was done publicly, as a warning, in response to a perceived offence against the authority of Caesar.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

More than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched in the American South between 1900 and 1950. Lynchings were public events, sometimes announced in advance. Photographs were taken and used as postcards. Bodies were dismembered and parts handed out as souvenirs.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists, writes American theologian James Cone, who passed away this April. According to Cone, Jesus and blacks in America suffered a similar fate: both were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity, unfairly tried and quickly condemned, tortured and left to die as a public warning.

During colonialism, several Kenyans experienced similar indignities. Otenyo Nyamaterere was killed by a British firing squad in Kisii in western Kenya for resisting the advance of the colonial state in the early 20th century. He was beheaded and his headless body left on a bridge. Waiyaki wa Hinga, the Kikuyu chieftain who resisted harassment and forced taxation, was buried alive at a prison camp in 1890. Koitalel arap Samoei, the Nandi chief who fought British occupation for eleven years, mounting guerrilla attacks on the railway and colonial forts, was shot at point blank range by a colonial official who had asked him to meet and discuss peace; Koitalel’s skull was then carried off to Britain.

Then there was General Baimungi Marete of the Mau Mau, a leader of the armed rebellion of the 1950s that fought for Kenya’s self-rule. General Baimungi and his lieutenants held out in forest camps as Jomo Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, negotiated an independence treaty with the British. The colonial structures were left intact; Kenyatta would now head this new expropriating state.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

Kenyatta went on to publicly declare: “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated, and must never be remembered again.” The Mau Mau remained a banned organisation in Kenya until 2003. The colour of the administrators had changed, but the colonial logic remained intact.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

The fact that white colonisers would use the symbol of a Nazarene anti-colonialist to enforce and entrench the very project of colonisation is a testament to the twisted genius of white supremacy. But Jesus of Nazareth was no coloniser.

***

There’s a difference between priests and prophets, as religious scholar Jonathan Walton describes in his book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Priestly leaders believe that the structures of society are fundamentally good and that any political or social problems are the result of a few bad apples or degraded moral standards, as opposed to inherent flaws in the structures of society. Priests seek to nurture humility, patience and goodwill in their congregations in order to integrate them into the culture as productive and loyal citizens. By doing this, priests accommodate themselves and their parishioners to injustice without necessarily affirming it – at most, they encourage the congregation to endure those things that cannot be readily changed.

Priests generally seek to “stay out of politics”; whenever they do get involved in politics, it is usually to use their respectable social standing to have access to the ear of the powerful. Priests believe they can be a “good influence” to the ruling class, appealing to their moral goodwill to try and obtain justice. Pray for your leaders, they say. Touch not God’s anointed.

Priests are uncomfortable with social protest or real reform because it might lead to a loss of their social capital.

But the prophet is different. “The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

The prophet is social reformer with no moral middle ground. No form of oppression is consistent with God’s will, the prophetic witness declares, and is actually in opposition to the very physical form that God chose to be incarnated in first-century Judea. Turn around! the prophet declares. You’re going the wrong way! It seems to me that Christianity’s prophetic roots were never fully formed; they were prematurely twisted into an entwining conformity with colonial and neo-colonial states – Rome, Britain, America, Kenya.

“The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

I now see that the focus on personal piety and private redemption that energised my formative years ended up obscuring calls for social justice. The uncritical embrace of society’s unjust structures – especially the capitalist economy that has its colonial logic intact and the obsession with morals and manners – reflects the non-confrontational stance of the priest rather than the radical reform of the prophet.

The prophet is never neutral in the face of oppression. The prophet doesn’t want to “hear both sides”, doesn’t want to be “fair and balanced”, cannot be “objective”. The prophet is on the side of justice.

It is time for Kenyan Christians to live out their ministry for those caught on the underside of power today, for the “least of these”. In the words of James Cone, we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualising it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death.

The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

Author’s note:
Many thanks to Jeremy L. Williams for the many conversations that helped clarify my thinking for this article, and to Jonathan Walton for his ministry, and insightful books Watch This! and the forthcoming A Lens of Love.

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Christine Mungai is a writer, journalist, and 2018 Harvard University Nieman Fellow based in Nairobi, Kenya. She has written on a wide range of subjects and her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Al Jazeera English, The New Internationalist, and more. Currently, Christine is the curator of Baraza Media Lab in Nairobi, a co-creation space for public interest storytelling

Politics

Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic. With the elections that will determine who will be Kenya’s next president just two years away, the country is slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism.

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Saba Saba At 30: The Gains We Have Lost
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This Tuesday the 7th of July 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of the infamous and bloody Saba Saba Day (seventh day of the seventh month) upheavals that are still etched in the memory of the many Kenyans old enough to vividly recall those heady days of the struggle for the second liberation. It was a day of infamy, as President Daniel arap Moi, now deceased, unleashed his security apparatus on hapless, innocent Kenyans, killing and maiming many of them for daring to call for a return to multipartyism.

Three days prior, on 4 July 4 1990, Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia, former Kanu government cabinet ministers who had fallen out with Moi (both now deceased), and Raila Odinga—who had just returned from self-exile in Oslo, Norway—had been arrested on the orders of President Moi. The 4th of July is America’s Independence Day. Kenyan political analysts have always wondered whether it was mere coincidence or a conspiracy between Moi and the American government to have the trio arrested on the very day America would be celebrating its much vaunted independence day. Did the American government have something to do with their arrests? “Why would the Americans, who were friends of the three, allow Moi to detain them on their big day”, Augustine Njeru Kathangu, one of the architects of Saba Saba, has always wondered.

The Saba Saba demonstrations heralded the beginning of week-long urban riots that came to symbolise the determination of Kenyans to maintain their demands for an increased democratic and political space that had been throttled by a dictatorial Moi and a despotic Kanu party. The mounting pressure brought to bear on Moi was such that he was forced to quickly constitute a Kanu Review Committee (referred to as the Committee), which immediately started its work on 25 July 25 1990.

The formation of the Committee by the beleaguered President was, ostensibly, to seek Kenyans’ views on the current state of the country’s politics. But the truth of the matter was that Moi was trying to buy time as he figured out how he was going to acquiesce to plural politics without losing face. Chaired by the then Vice President George Saitoti, the Committee was peppered with Kanu loyalists such as Nicholas Biwott, Peter Oloo Aringo, Shariff Nasir, Elijah Mwangale and Mwai Kibaki, among others.

The Committee visited nine towns during the month of August: Eldoret, Embu, Garissa, Nairobi, Kakamega, Kisumu, Mombasa, Nakuru and Nyeri. It visited Nairobi twice; on July 25 and on 23 and 24 August1990. Among the more bizarre recommendations that the Committee made was “that Kenya should continue in its tradition of one-party democracy. That all leaders in every sphere of life particularly religious leaders, politicians, lawyers, journalists and other professionals, should cease their confrontational stance and adopt a positive attitude towards issues in order to build a more peaceful and prosperous Kenya”.

With these sorts of recommendations, a contemptuous Moi and dyed-in-the-wool Kanu party mandarins, it was obvious that Kenyans’ agitation for a return to multiparty politics was destined to continue to be bloody and confrontational.

“Moi’s Kanu dictatorship was not ready for changes, but the people had smelt an opportunity and they were willing to push ahead with political reforms”, said Kathangu. A former army man and a devout Catholic who never misses the morning mass wherever it might find him, Kathangu had been planning for the Saba Saba day for two months together with four other people,

“We started planning for the Saba Saba from May”, recalled Kathangu. “I had an office at Musa House on the third floor, on Landhies Road, where we would meet and plan how we were to mobilise for the big day”. Kathangu’s four other compatriots were: Edward Oyugi, a former Kenyatta University don and detainee; Ngotho Kariuki, a tax consultant, university don and ex-detainee; George Anyona, the political firebrand, former MP and ex-detainee; and Kariuki Kathitu, a university don.

Of the five, Kathitu is the least known of those who were associated not only with the planning of that first Saba Saba, but also, more generally, with the second liberation of the 1990s. “Raila joined us much later. Raila is my friend, but I’ve always referred to him as a witness to the Saba Saba movement. He was much more involved with the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy movement formed in 1991, than Saba Saba, which his father Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and others such as James Orengo, Martin Shikuku and Salim Bamahriz, helped form”.

“Matiba joined us later after he had read the public mood correctly, but also after falling out with Moi publicly”, said Kathangu. “Matiba had had an interesting special relationship with Moi. They had been great friends. When Matiba was the Permanent Secretary for Education, he used to coach Vice President Moi in the evenings, on the proper usage of the English language, mostly on the spoken English. So they knew each other well. Moi had been Matiba’s good student. But when Moi became the president in 1978, his man in Murang’a was Julius Kiano. Matiba’s entry into politics and his routing out of Moi’s man in Mbiri constituency was always going to create a problem between the two.”

Kathangu told me that it was Matiba who recruited Rubia. “Rubia was initially not in the movement for change, but his friend who was an area mate—they both came from the larger Murang’a—invited him along and that’s how Rubia, who had also been facing political frustrations from Moi, joined the opposition. Matiba came looking for us after he was disgraced by Moi. Matiba was a man who once he made up his mind, it was difficult to persuade him otherwise”.

Matiba’s falling out with Moi was triggered by Moi’s open rigging of the Mlolongo (queue voting) elections in 1988 in his Kiharu (former Mbiri) constituency. “Matiba’s queue was the longest for all to see, yet Moi decided it was the shortest so that he could prop up his friend Kiano who Matiba had beaten hands down. Matiba hit the roof, he had captured his entire election process on the video. It was clearly evident Moi was rigging Matiba openly. And that was the beginning of the political problems between Moi and Matiba.”

Boisterous and oftentimes overconfident, Matiba went ahead together with Rubia to declare the return of multiparty politics in Kenya without the agreement of Kathangu and his friends. “He had jumped the gun, that’s not how we had planned to do it, but hey, since Matiba had already let the cat out of the bag, we went along, we didn’t deny them, neither did we deny that that is what we all along been planning to do”, observed Kathangu. “It was one of the first of the mistakes that Matiba would make as we fought for the second liberation”.

Although taken aback by Matiba’s pronouncements, Kathangu and his friends still went ahead to mobilise for Saba Saba day. “Our intentions were to mobilise people to congregate on the sacred grounds of Kamukunji. We’d coordinated and mobilised people from different parts of the country to travel to Kamukunji. People were to come from Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu, Mombasa, Murang’a, Nakuru and the other major towns in the country.”

To start off the day, and as a curtain raiser, the organisers planned football matches at the Kamukunji Grounds in the morning. “The matches were to be supervised by Kathitu and they were to help attract and assemble people at the grounds. At around 1p.m. Anyona and I drove into the grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. When the people saw us—they had been waiting on the wings around Gikomba Market, in Majengo and Shauri Moyo estates—they started moving into the grounds.” The organisers had hired buses to ferry people from upcountry and those buses had arrived in the morning.

“A police officer who later I came to learn was called Cheruiyot—I can’t remember his first name—and who had also camped at Kamukunji Grounds, apparently spotted us entering the ground”, reminisced Kathangu. “Once he saw us and once the people saw us enter the grounds and followed us, Cheruiyot called for extra support and soon combat police came. They beat people mercilessly with their batons and killed many youths with their live bullets”. As the police beat people in Kamukunji Grounds, word got around in parts of the country that mayhem had broken out in Nairobi and consequently, there were riots in Githurai, Limuru, Kisumu and Mombasa”. Kathangu observed that Moi ordered the arrest of more than 3,000 youths for the simple reason that they had supported the political changes being called for by opposition leaders.

Senior Counsel Paul Muite recalls the events of the day vividly: “My friend, the American ambassador to Malawi George Trail, had come to see me in my office at Electricity House in the city centre. He was from the US on his way to Malawi. Trail had been the No. 2 at the US embassy in Nairobi and we had become friends. Mohamed Ibrahim, a lawyer and today a judge of the High Court of Kenya had also passed by to see me on a legal matter. I’d planned after finishing with the two, I head to Karen Country Club to play golf. So I asked them we leave early to beat the lunch hour traffic jam”. He was going play golf with F.T. Nyamu, a Nyeri tycoon who later became the MP for Tetu constituency.

“It is at the club that my wife called me to tell me Matiba and Rubia had been carted away by the police”, said Muite. “In those days if police took you away, you knew you were headed for detention. After I parted with Ibrahim, the police, who had seen me leave my office with him [Moi had always stationed police to watch Muite’s sixth-floor office at the lifts area and on the ground floor], followed him and asked him to tell them where I had gone. Ibrahim didn’t know I’d gone to play golf. When Ibrahim told them he didn’t know my whereabouts, they didn’t believe him”. The police had detention orders with them and as they were talking to Ibrahim, they placed the detention order book on the table and he saw that the first detention sheet was signed and had Paul Muite’s name. The other order was not signed and didn’t have any name. “What the police did was fill the order with Ibrahim’s name and that’s how Ibrahim was detained on the spot by the police”.

Moi also ordered the arrest of Gitobu Imanyara and John Khaminwa, who together with Ibrahim became the most prominent lawyers to be detained Moi during the crackdown on the Saba Saba movement. Gibson Kamau Kuria, who had been detained in 1986, went to hide at the American embassy which then was under Smith Hempstone’s watch. Muite, who had all along ben staying at his house in Karen, escaped the crackdown, all because the police didn’t think he was “hiding” in his own house. “Hempstone piled pressure on Moi to release the lawyers, Imanyara, Khaminwa and Ibrahim and Muite, but Moi was in a dilemma, his government didn’t know where Muite was, so how was he going to also release him?”, said Muite.

It is then that Moi pleaded with Muite to come out of hiding and meet him at State House with an apology for inciting the Saba Saba day riots. “Moi blamed me for the riots and had asked me to write him an apology letter. I didn’t but I still went to meet him”.

The Saba Saba movement gave momentum to the first multiparty political rally held at the hallowed Kamukunji Grounds on 16 November 1991by the opposition leaders of the fledgling and nascent Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), So determined were FORD leaders that they told Moi they were going to hold the meeting “with or without a licence”. Aware of the mounting pressure, internally and externally, Moi grudgingly allowed the meeting to go ahead.

Kenyans were itching for a second liberation, to free themselves from the political stranglehold that had culminated in the sham 1988 mlolongo elections. Buoyed by the winds of change sweeping through eastern Europe—the advent of glasnost (openness and transparency) and perestroika (restructuring), the disintegration of the Union of the Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989—Kenyans seized the moment to challenge Moi and his brutal Kanu party, the supposedly baba na mama (father and mother) of all Kenyans as Kanu party stalwarts liked to put it

On the third anniversary of Saba Saba in July 1993, pro-democracy and reformist clergyman Timothy Njoya observed at the All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi that, “If we can have Moi Day as a national day to thank Moi for the contributions he made to himself, we can also have Saba Saba declared a national day to mark the contribution the martyrs of multiparty movement made to the Kenyan civilisation”. Twenty-seven years after Njoya made that remark, is it time to again reconsider his proposition?

How has Kenya faired 30 years after Moi sent the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) to brutally quell a people’s desire to congregate at the Kamukunji Grounds in the sprawling Eastlands area, home to the Fanonian wretched of the earth?

Going down memory lane to recapture those heady days, I spoke to Gacheke Gachihi, a founder-member of Bunge la Mwananchi (the people’s parliament), founder of the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and above all, a long-time member of that urban underclass of Huruma which bore the brunt of state brutality. Gacheke is a child of the Saba Saba protests and the reformist political forces that came to define the upheavals of that time. Originally from Molo, he came to the city as a child and was swept up in the political agitation that was taking place in the urban slums.

“Although I was only 12, I was very much aware of what was happening politically”, said Gacheke. “I knew there was something wrong with the country’s politics, because I’d just come from an area that had suffered political violence and was palpable with political fears, tensions and great suspicions”. Now 42, Gacheke observes that his home area of Molo was a theatre of ethnic violence from where many people were internally displaced. “There was a lot of genocidal talk then”.

I asked Gacheke, whether the country had learned anything from the Saba Saba day and what those like him—activists who were initiated into politics by the tumultuous 1990s and the runs-ins with the state’s organs of violence—thought of the anniversary. “The anniversary comes at a time when the country is polarised by the politics of succession of 2022. If Saba Saba was agitating for increased political space in 1990, in 2020 Saba Saba should be reminding us Kenyans of the necessity to vigilantly protect the freedoms that have been gained over the years, fought through blood and great sacrifice”.

Gacheke said that in the 1990s, the youths fought hard to be heard, to exist and to hopefully break the barriers of ethnic consciousness and balkanisation. Now it looks like we’re slipping back into those bad, black days of Moi and Moism. “The youth of this country has never been able to act together, to forge a united front and capture political power and help change the trajectory of politics”. The youth caught in the vicious web of disillusionment and dispossession, nevertheless continue to be easy prey for politicians whose only agenda is to perpetuate their hold on power. It is a paradox of politics that today’s champions of political agitation were yesterday’s champions of political of status quo.

Independent researcher and political analyst Jeremiah Owiti was a political science University of Nairobi (UoN) student in 1990. “Politics then were hot and exciting. Kenyans looked forward to political changes that would meaningfully impact their lives. The people were hopeful and optimistic. Not anymore.”, said Owiti. The two biggest political protagonists today—President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta and William Ruto who now threaten to tear the country apart—were apolitical when the first Saba Saba protests took place. Uhuru was barely 30 and Ruto barely 24 years old.

Owiti said Uhuru’s friends cut across the ethnic divide, he is a nominal catholic, while Ruto is a fervent revivalist born-again evangelical Christian. “Today, Uhuru, surrounded by Kikuyu sub-nationalists, has become a master [at] evoking tribal emotions and openly calling the Kikuyus to first mobilise on ethnic bases. Similarly, Ruto has become a master of rhetoric and subterfuge, rallying the Kalenjin people to see themselves first as Kalenjin and secondly as Kenyans”.

The behaviour of the two, who were never part of the political reform movement, completely negates the cardinal lessons of Saba Saba, said the analyst. “The very essence of the Saba Saba movement was to fight for political pluralism, not political sub-nationalism as now being espoused by Uhuru and his political-friend-now-turned-nemesis. Their retrogressive brand of politics—whichever way you look at it—is a tragic throw-back to the days of Moi-ism and Kanu-ism. The crux of the matter is that both were tutored by Moi and therefore, they do not know what it is to be a political reformer and what apolitical reforms are all about”.

The analyst said Ruto deems himself a latter-day reformer, anchoring and extolling his reform credentials on the doing, rather than on the talking: “I am a reformer because I act, I don’t talk”, Ruto likes to remind anybody who cares to listen.

Owiti said Saba Saba epitomises the struggle by Kenyans to free themselves from the shackles of the politics of balkanisation, ethnic sub-nationalism and the monolithic politics of us vs them. “Unfortunately even with the promulgation of the new constitution, which was supposed to usher in a new political dispensation, the politics that is being played by both Uhuru and Ruto, champions of ethnic jingoism, does not augur well for the epochal succession politics of 2022”.

The researcher said that, by seeking to congregate at the historical Kamukunji Grounds in 1990, the Kenyan people were saying that the constitution was the supreme law of the land and if it did not allow them to assemble, it needed to be overhauled.

The 30th Saba Saba anniversary comes at a time of great political apprehension, with the country in the throes of an economic meltdown and in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic, and the elections that will determine who will be the country’s next president just two years away. The succession politics have already split the ruling Jubilee party into two diametrically opposed camps and made President Uhuru Kenyatta one of the most unpopular presidents Kenya has ever had.

“All the changes we fought for have been reversed”, observed Kathangu. “We’d hoped for an empowered society—economically, politically and socially. We’d also hoped to have a sustainable education system that did not constantly change after every five years. We too had hoped that the land question would be fundamentally addressed. Land is still a big problem in this country and unless and until we solve it, Kenyans will not rest easy”.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power

The seismic Saba Saba event was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance in Kenya. However, thirty years on, many of the people who were at the forefront of the movement have died or have been accommodated by the rapacious state. Nonetheless, the struggle for people-centred democracy continues.

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Saba Saba and the Evolution of Citizen Power
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Hands stretch out into the air, flashing the two-finger V-salute as the Toyota pick-up truck, with loudspeakers mounted on its roof, careens over the kerb and back onto the rutted road.

That iconic image of Martin Shikuku, James Orengo, Philip Gachoka and Rumba Kinuthia is etched in the minds of some 20 million Kenyans who were alive on the fateful day that marked the struggle for political pluralism in the country. The November 16, 1991 picture is a re-enactment of what should have happened on July 7, 1990 – the day known by its Kiswahili translation, Saba Saba, in reference to the seventh day of the seventh month.

The men perched atop the car had just changed vehicles after police shot at their truck’s tyre in an attempt to stop them from entering the barricaded Kamukunji grounds on the rim of Nairobi River, which was darkened by sewage and grease, and whose smells fused with clouds of tear gas in the air. It had been 16 months since the first attempt to hold a rally at Kamukunji failed.

On the gray cold morning of Saturday, July 7, 1990, reaching Kamukunji had acquired an urgency symbolising a break in the dam of political repression.

An attempted coup d’état by junior air force officers eight years earlier had floundered and given Daniel arap Moi, only four years into his presidency, the excuse to turn the screws on all opposition.

Dissent had been brewing in Kenya since Moi began consolidating political power by changing the constitution to ban multiparty politics and detaining critics (some of whom fled into exile. But the failed putsch emboldened Moi to take away judges’ security of tenure, and to blatantly rig the 1988 elections, which filled Parliament with his lackeys.

The lone government-owned radio and television service ruled the airwaves, alongside “free” newspapers that would not go to press until State House supplied its front-page photograph of Moi, and whose editors regularly fielded calls from the president. In those days, Kenyans relied on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s Kiswahili Service to learn what was going on in their own country.

Five months prior to the planned Saba Saba meeting, Moi’s foreign minister, Robert Ouko, had been brutally killed. Ouko’s dismembered body was dumped on a hill in his rural constituency. It was widely believed that his murder had been planned by people close to Moi.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience. He had declared debate on multiparty politics stirred by clerics closed even before it began.

Open defiance seemed like the only channel for starting a national conversation.

As its opening gambit, the Moi government declared the Kamukunji meeting illegal, and arrested Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia and Raila Odinga, three of the senior politicians who were organising it, before subsequently detaining them without trial.

Kenya was suffocating under the armpits of Moi’s single-party regime. He held the bureaucracy and the security apparatus in a firm grip; Parliament sang his song; and the judiciary was cowed into sniveling subservience.

Other countries confronted with dictatorship in Africa had often gone the way of the muzzle with military coups d’etat; Kenyans put themselves on the line at the risk of permanently separating body from soul. The men on the pick-up truck were the second-tier leaders, and there was another tier below them, and yet another across the length and breadth of the country.

A movement – dubbed “The Second Liberation” – began to form in spite of restrictive laws on assembly and association, grouping people together in organising cells.

Saba Saba had been prefaced by the mysterious appearance of leaflets secretly printed and dropped around the country, inviting people to the meeting. Relying on a network of football clubs and private sector transport workers (matatu touts) travelling across the nation, people were put on buses to Nairobi for the day of confrontation. It put a match to the tinder that had piled across the country and exploded into four days of confrontations between the police and the public. The wall of fear had cracked.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Saba Saba was the first serious organised challenge to repression through defiance. It was meant to be the first of eight public rallies – one in each province – to rally the public for plural politics and open government. Frantic attempts would subsequently be made to negotiate down demands for freedom by offering internal reforms in the ruling political party monopoly, KANU, but they were insufficient to stem the tide of change.

When national newspapers and the international media chalked up the tally, there were 39 dead, 69 injured, and over 5,000 arrested – with over 1,000 charged with looting and rioting.

Sixteen months after Saba Saba, Moi grudgingly capitulated and agreed to term limits and to repealing constitutional bans on multiparty political organising, only to use this as an instrument for fanning ethnic animosity. Within months of the return of political pluralism, some 19 new political parties had been registered by dint of the efforts of state operatives, who also engineered a split inside the opposition Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) party.

A miscarriage of democracy

Moi retained power for two terms despite securing only a minority of the votes in the 1992 and 1997 elections. The spirit of Saba Saba revisited the country in a series of protests on July 7; then August 8; September 9 and October 10, 1997 in attempts to demand free and fair elections.

Moi split the movement by offering compromises to share slots in the electoral management agency with the opposition and repeal laws constraining public assembly. Once again, it seemed that the Saba Saba campaigners had only achieved a Pyrrhic victory.

The euphoric victory of the joint opposition candidate, Mwai Kibaki, in the 2002 election when Moi was retiring imbued the nation with a new sense of optimism and the possibility of citizens reclaiming their power. But this optimism was quickly dashed by regression to some of the old wily ways, including mega corruption scandals.

It took the violent and bloody protests in the aftermath of the 2007 election – a citizens’ revolt against loss of confidence in the judiciary and the electoral body – to produce a new constitution in 2010. The post-2007 election violence recorded over 1,300 deaths, over 5,000 injuries and rapes, as well as massive displacement – which invited the attention of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The digitised movement

Many of the people who were at the forefront of the Saba Saba protests have died or have been accommodated in the rapacious state. As the state grows more dangerous in deploying deadly force in a throwback to the dictatorship of yore, the public appears friendless and with few defenders.

Still, the spirit of citizen power that fuelled Saba Saba still roams the land like a vagabond. The pain, angst and trauma of decades of protest have blunted the desire for public-spirited action, only interrupted intermittently by fresh outrages.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback. Changes to the executive to share its power with county governments continue to be undermined; Parliament appears to have lost power and public trust; and the judiciary is fighting daily for its independence.

Plural politics and expanded public voice have not resolved many of the problems that make life in Kenya a seesaw between hope and despair. Police routinely break up peaceful assemblies and turn them into riots, complete with clouds of tear gas, truncheons raining down on bodies and bullets cutting through crowds.

Yet, some things have changed. Citizens may still not control the organs of the state –and there is great frustration with the government from which they are alienated – but they continue to claim their power through an intersection of greater awareness, increased voice and technology.

The Kenyan state remains colonial in its true nature, ceding nothing even when it offers backhanded half measures to stall demands for citizen power. Cycles of reform have delivered piecemeal change in slow, grudging steps that are often also characterised by blowback.

Sometimes, these strides can appear insufficient, but citizens have overcome their fear of dictatorship, and continue to evolve new tactics to make their voices heard even in the potentially repressive context.

Between that seismic Saba Saba event and the passage of a new constitution in August 2010, some 17.1 million Kenyan children were born and continue to walk the earth. The children of Saba Saba, progenies of the legacy of struggle, have come of age but they have not always been shielded from the scars of the history that birthed their freedom. They are better educated, more expressive and greatly aided by technology, but they continue to wallow in want, are beset by unemployment and are confronted daily by police brutality.

With 45 million Internet subscriptions, Kenyans are the continent’s second largest social media users, after South Africa. Young Kenyans are most active on WhatsApp and Facebook, but it is the fabled Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) who routinely take down the country’s critics and wage war on perceived moral or ethical wrongs within and across borders.

In April 2020, Deputy President William Ruto blocked US-based Kenyan law scholar Makau Mutua on Twitter over the latter’s criticism of him. Last year, President Uhuru Kenyatta suspended his social media accounts – only a year after deactivating multiple accounts when he came up for air from a deluge of criticism that threatened to engulf him online.

Freedom is never given; it is won. The lesson of Saba Saba needs to be preserved through the generations because it reproduces the courage of the independence struggle in which ordinary people stand up to those who bully them.

It remains to be seen whether mobile phones and computer keyboards will be sufficient to hold the dam.

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The Spirit of Saba Saba Lives on in Devolution

Despite various setbacks, devolution has produced tangible results and demonstrated that Kenyans are determined to have a form of governance that is responsive to people’s needs and desires. In many ways, devolution embodies the spirit of Saba Saba.

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Chaos has never stopped Kenyans from building the country they want, and if there was ever a moment that summarised this spirit, it is Saba Saba – the date of a meeting that never took place.

It has been 30 years since opposition leaders Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia announced that they would lead a public rally to press for the return of multiparty democracy. Whatever their political motives, Matiba and Rubia triggered a tsunami and unleashed the thunderbolt that is the Kenyan spirit.

President Daniel arap Moi went to extremes to kill the idea, using every possible public institution to try and disrupt and scuttle the meeting. He ordered the detention of key supporters of the movement on 6 July1990, banned gatherings and issued myriad warnings through the police, his cabinet, the media and every state organ. On July 7th, 1990, the date of the meeting, roads were blocked and baton-wielding police stood as a visible threat all over the city of Nairobi and towns across the country. Blows rained down on people heading out of the slums. Hospitals and clinics scrambled to tend to those injured. There were tear gas-burned eyes and lungs across the city, but especially near the Kamukunji venue that had been ringed by police.

The meeting never happened but the day-long run-ins with power demonstrated what had been born – and has never died.

The political chaos of that moment only emphasises the spirit of Saba Saba – the spirit of Kenyans’ determination to have the country they want. A year later, political pluralism was a reality, and with it began the expansion of the democratic space. Almost immediately afterwards, the push shifted to reforms with multiple milestones.

Twenty years later, in 2010, a new constitution was in place, and with it the promise of a different country.

True reformists vs. impostors

When fully implemented, the 2010 Constitution will permanently disrupt the way Kenya has been governed, and will guarantee a basic quality of life and dignity for every Kenyan. But a lot has to happen before then.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

The shift saw one-time supporters of the oppressive KANU regime take to wearing the proverbial sheepskin, learn the language of reform and insert themselves back into the machinery of government, thus interfering with the design like badly written computer code. Behind the scenes, the abuse of state instruments, primitive accumulation of capital and rabid theft of public resources took up again as it had since independence, thereby slowing down progress.

But while impostors are clogging the pipes of government delivery, an army of Kenyans across the country, including a growing number within the political leadership, are keeping the spirit of Saba Saba alive, and are now quietly working to unblock the system and put things where they should be.

If the spirit of Saba Saba launched the vision of the 2010 Constitution, devolution of power, as directed by the Constitution, provided the tools. And more chaos.

Devolved governance through the 47 countries is bringing government closer to the people. For some counties, such as Mandera, devolution has brought basic services and infrastructure, such as tarmacked roads, for the first time. Despite a lack of equipment, doctors performed the first ever Caesarean section at Modogashe Sub-county Hospital in Garissa County in 2016, safely delivering a baby boy and saving the life of his 18-year-old mother who had been in labour for two days. That was just days after doctors at Balambala, another ward level hospital in Garissa, conducted a similar procedure.

These stories of first time medical operations in what were once abandoned rural areas have become almost ordinary as counties take control of health services by upgrading and building facilities, recruiting staff, and ensuring that equipment and medicines are available.

The ongoing construction of the 750-bed Kakamega County Teaching and Referral Hospital will change the face of healthcare beyond the county and tick many boxes for health sector needs in the region. This health facility will be the third biggest referral hospital in the country in terms of bed capacity. The first phase of this Sh6 billion investment is scheduled to open later this year.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties. The Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA) and the Ministry of Health currently run like a monopoly medical store that the counties are forced to buy from. Governors have tried to negotiate with the central government to have KEMSA restructured and give them a bigger say in management and control so they can plan collectively for the whole county and leverage economies of scale to get the best price and quality for drugs and equipment. To no avail.

In mid-2015, and after much protestation, governors from all 47 counties caved in to pressure and signed onto a Sh38 billion medical equipment leasing deal, despite the concerns they had, including the lack of specialists to operate and maintain the equipment and the fact that no one had assessed local priorities for health in the different counties. Around 100 hospitals were arbitrarily designated to receive a package that included dialysis machines, ultrasound machines, theatre equipment, intensive care unit (ICU) equipment, incinerators, sterilising units and an assortment of cancer treatment machines. The bill for all this was sent to county governments.

It is not as straightforward as it seems. Despite health services having been devolved, the central government has not relinquished control of the structures that should support counties.

With that controversial move still unresolved, mid-2018 saw the central government telling counties they must now pay double for the leased equipment – a collective bill of Sh9 billion each year, according to Isiolo Governor, Dr Mohammed Kuti, who heads the Council of Governors Health Committee. Enquiries were casually brushed off by the Principal Secretary for Health, Peter Tum, who told the media that the central government needs to buy more equipment due to a rise in demand. Meanwhile, a report released this year by the Institute of Economic Affairs entitled “The Leasing of Medical Equipment Project in Kenya: Value for Money Assessment” found that some of the equipment lying in county stores was gathering dust while other equipment is yet to be supplied.

The case of Nairobi: A return to dictatorship?

The chaos – authoritarian style – serves as a constant backdrop to the progress and fits the tradition in which Saba Saba came into being.

It is a style that was very much in evidence early this year when the central government moved in to take over the running of Nairobi City County. The usual political shenanigans on display, Nairobians watched in bewilderment as Governor Mike Mbuvi Sonko found himself at State House at the televised signing of a document that gave away the keys to Nairobi City County coffers. A new Nairobi Metropolitan Services (NMS) was hurriedly imposed on the county in February without consulting the electorate that put Sonko in the seat of governor. Treasury quickly allocated and disbursed Sh26.4 billion to NMS.

Nairobi has been through some crazy times, with the governor at odds with almost all the executives he himself appointed. Sonko’s governance style included quarrels with the elected members of the county assembly (MCAs), dismissals of staff and allegations of corruption made against Sonko and by Sonko against other county officials.

Despite the political noise, Nairobi city has for the first time in a decade gone through a rainy season without loss of life or property to flooding. Like it or not, credit goes to the Sonko-led clean-up that saw months of drain-clearing last year. Street lights are working, potholes have been filled, fire stations and county clinics have received facelifts. Working with the Kenya Urban Roads Authority, Nairobi City County gave the road network in Eastlands an unprecedented makeover, with the repair of 38 roads totalling almost 80 kilometres.

Accolades aside, Sonko should never have been the Governor of Nairobi, not least because of a criminal past that he himself admits to. But as the political chaos goes in Kenya, behind-the-scenes machinations gave Sonko a clean pass to the position; he was even awarded the national honour of the Elder of the Burning Spear.

Early efforts to impeach and remove him from office on grounds of abuse of office, corruption and violation of the Constitution would have been the right way to go but stalled when MCAs withdrew their motion. However, the forceful takeover staged by the central government is difficult to understand, and predictably, a court declared the takeover illegal in June this year.

Annual audits of county government’s financial accounts by the Auditor General have found many gaps and reports of corruption and abuse of office are common. No sitting official has yet been removed but several impeachment motions are flying in.

Devolution is oiling local economies

Sonko’s counterpart from Kirinyaga County, Ann Waiguru survived an impeachment hearing in June that spoke to concerns about the state of health service delivery in her county, among other issues. What was most interesting in the testimony given against her during hearings before the Senate was the emerging fact that residents now travel to the neighbouring counties of Embu and Meru where specific health services apparently work better.

This is the oil of devolution. Devolution is working and people now have more choice as to where they get their services. Beyond impeachment, the competition between counties will eventually underscore the effectiveness of leadership – and that is pushing governors and county leaders to work harder and faster than ever.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges. When power was first switched on last year, and residents were able to buy milk from a store fridge for the first time, small businesses immediately began to think bigger, eyeing the massive food demands of towns in the vicinity, like Garissa, Malindi and Mombasa.

A 10-kilometre tarmac road changed the face of Maralal and the activities conducted there when it was launched in 2016 along with almost 35 kilometres of street lights in the town centre. Wajir County also got its first tarmac road, properly finished with drainage, foot paths and street lights, in 2018. The 25-kilometre stretch built at a cost of Sh1.2 billion is a local tourism attraction in the county.

Rural roads into the interior of every county are multiplying although not as fast as some would like.

Once more, counties hit the political wall when the chairperson of the Council of Governors, Wycliffe Oparanya approached central government to request the transfer of authority and money for feeder roads directly to counties. Currently, funding goes to the Kenya Urban Roads Authority and Kenya National Highways Authority who are quick to act on big highways but move slowly on roads that affect the lives of millions of rural people. Again, the counties’ request was denied.

Power has reached Ijara in Garissa where the residents had never needed electric bulbs, water pumps or fridges.

Such strictures have caused counties to try a different approach. It started with a few counties in the Lake Victoria region coming together to discuss shared problems and a growing realisation that working together on common interests had considerable advantages. For example, the issue of malaria as a health concern is a greater issue for Lake Basin counties than it is in non-Lake areas and the opportunity to tackle it together made sense.

The Lake Region Economic Bloc was born and is now a formally registered institution created by 14 counties and headed by a Council with the secretariat located in Kisumu. This allows it to leverage economies of scale in contracts and encourages inter-county trade as a collective. It has so far raised has Sh1.3 billion for its proposed banking initiative from contributions by counties. Other initiatives proposed include a ring road around Lake Victoria to encourage trade.

It is a model that has sparked much excitement and six economic blocs now exist. Last year, the six economic blocs met in Kirinyaga to learn from each other where it emerged that one of the blocs, the Frontier Counties Development Council, has already benefited from a Sh120 billion World Bank grant for projects. Compared to the 2020/2021 county share of national revenue of Sh369 billion to be shared between 47 counties, the potential of these blocs to move resources for development is clear.

The Frontier Counties Development Council comprises 11 counties. Jumuiya ya Kaunti za Pwani brings together the six coastal counties. North Rift Economic Bloc has eight county members while Mount Kenya and Aberdares Economic Bloc consists of 10 counties. The newest is the South Eastern Kenya Economic Bloc that comprises Makueni, Machakos and Kitui counties. Nairobi, Narok and Kajiado counties are not members of any bloc.

While this bigger devolution picture is emerging, it can never displace the foundations being shaped on the the ground. The development strides in Makueni County have inspired many news headlines. But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

Sitting at an official public meeting in the capital Wote often feels more like a social gathering as Governor Kivutha Kibwana ends meetings by reciting the poetry he writes in Kikamba or by provoking shrieks of raucous laughter from the audience. The sense of community is reinforced when the Senator for Makueni and other local leaders regularly chip in. (Kibwana’s latest poem is about COVID-19.) In 2018, Makueni hosted governors from the other 46 counties for a benchmarking conference on the county’s successful public participation approach.

But more than the bold economic investments, the expansion of healthcare and social safety nets, Makueni represents a refreshing take on what leadership can be.

As he approaches the end of his second term as governor, Kibwana is gunning for the presidency. Other governors expressing the same interest are Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega, Hassan Joho of Mombasa, Amason Kingi of Kilifi and Alfred Mutua of Machakos. That field is likely to expand, and for the first time since independence, Kenyans will be offered a field of candidates with a track record they can measure.

A different presidency will emerge if a former governor takes the helm in this changed environment where new rules are establishing, new players are emerging and citizens are the indisputable referees.

Until that time, like the athletes who have brought this country such fame and honour, Kenyans continue to press forward undaunted by the distance that remains, taking in the political hurdles and chaos as they come and always intent on the goal.

Embodied in the celebration and remembrance of Saba Saba is this spirit of Kenya – patient, determined, resilient and unfazed by chaos.

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