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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President

15 min read. DAUTI KAHURA recalls what it was like living in the Moi era.

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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President
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On a sunny Saturday afternoon, sometime in 1987, I was taking a stroll from Section 19 into Kitale town, then an agricultural, sleepy, settler town. I did not pay much attention to the beige VW Kombi that passed by me until after it had gone like 20 metres before it started reversing. I kept walking, and the Kombi reversed past me to stop near some school girls who were walking behind me. I had not noticed the girls either. They were in green uniforms and were from Kitale Girls, the school that was later to be renamed St Monica.

I stopped to watch as the passenger in the Kombi van rolled down the window and started talking to the girls. As he talked to them, his right hand reached to the glove compartment and removed a wad of neat Kenya currency notes, which he gave to one of the girls. No sooner had he given the money to the girls, who were by then giggling with excitement, the van zoomed past me, the passenger rolling up the window. I had heard that President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was a man who was besotted with school girls, but until then, I had never taken it seriously.

I will always remember this act of spontaneous magnanimity – of a president going about his business in an unmarked nondescript van (the Kombi became associated with Moi’s tours across the country) and stopping to chat up some students and hand them some cash. I went away thinking, what a kind man, a president who stops to engage with students along a road. That scene stayed in mind for a very long time.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

Three years after my close encounter with Moi, in 1990, I was a barman in Ukunda, which lies along Kenya’s south coast, five kilometres from the famous Diani beach. I had some special clients who worked at the Kwale Law Courts who patronised the club nearly every day. They were clerks, lawyers, magistrates and civil servants. I liked discussing politics with them. Many of them were from the Luo community.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

On February 12, 1990, the daily newspapers reported that Dr Robert Ouko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had gone missing. That evening, when the patrons came for their drinks, the point of discussion was the missing minister. I remember telling them that there was no way a minister could go missing, I do not know where I had gotten that information, but I recall telling them a president must always know where his cabinet ministers are on a daily basis. A minister must report to the president wherever he is, more so a foreign affairs minister. I told them the minister was long dead.

“Young man,” shot back one of the Luo civil servants, “what are you talking about? You are too young to know these things.” We left it at that. The following day, the papers reported that the minister’s body had been found at Got Alila village in Koru in Kisumu by a herdsboy. That day, my Luo patrons did not work, so they came straight to the bar at about 10.00am, carrying their newspapers. They ordered for their drinks, but could not drink them. They were very distraught. Conversing in Dholuo, one of them, overcome by emotions, broke down and wept. It was my first time ever to see a man weep uncontrollably.

“Oh God”, mourned the man, “they have done it again. Kenyatta killed [Tom] Mboya and now Moi has killed Ouko. Why, why, why, nobody likes us…we’ll always be on our own.” One could feel the indescribable pain the man was undergoing. As writer James Baldwin would write, my dungeons shook. Mboya was the mercurial Minister of Economic Planning and Development when on July 5, 1969, he was shot by an assailant, Isaac Njenga, at around 1.00pm as he stepped out of Chhani’s Pharmacy on Government Road (today’s Moi Avenue).

Close encounters

In 1991, I was back in Kitale. My friend, an architect, asked me to accompany him to go and see his client. His client was a well-heeled politician, as connected as they come. He owned a merchandise shop on Kenyatta St. On the day we went to see him at the shop, he was in a foul mood.

“Hawa waKikuyu wanafikiri hao ndio akina nani? Sisi tulialika hawa hapa Rift Valley tukawapatia mashamba ya kulima…sasa wanasema wanataka multiparty politics. Juzi mimi nilikua na mzee na amekasirika sana…ametuambia lazima tuonyeshe hawa waKikuyu Rift Valley ni ya kina nani. Wewe ngoja tu, baada ya miezi sita utasikia maneno – tutachoma na kufukuza hao kabisa.” Who do these Kikuyus think they are? We gave them farms to till here in Rift Valley…now they are saying they want multiparty politics. You know the other day I was with President Moi and he was very angry…he has said we must show these Kikuyus who owns Rift Valley. Just wait, in six months time, you’ll hear for yourself – we’ll burn their properties and chase them out of Rift Valley.

The politician assumed that I was a Bukusu from Trans Nzoia.

As sure as night follows day, six months after, ethnic violence – sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing – started sporadically all over the Rift Valley. Moi and his cohorts called them tribal clashes.

I had gone to school in Kitale, so I had made many friends across the ethnic divide. One of them was from a Kikuyu family that lived up in the Cherangani hills scheme, where his parents were crop and livestock farmers on a 10-acre piece of land. As “ethnic cleansing” sprouted all over Kitale and other places, my friend narrated to me how one night his family was attacked by Kalenjin warriors armed with bows and arrows. My friend said that that night, the family thought they would meet their maker. But when morning came, they emerged from their hiding places alive. But their livestock was gone – their cows were doused in petrol and burned alive. “We could smell the burning of raw meat…you can imagine the torture the poor animals underwent,” he told me.

Moi had instigated the ethnic cleansing of the Kikuyus in the greater Rift Valley province because he had been forced by the West to reintroduce multiparty politics. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and two years later glasnost and perestroika has set in in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as nation-states broke away to claim independence. Kenya had been a darling of the US and UK – barely four years before, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher had praised Moi as an African statesman when he went calling at Downing St. The West had turned its back on Moi by tightening the purse and asking him to conform to the new political dispensation. The Cold War had come to end and the US was now the unchallenged superpower.

“Moi’s double-faced beguiling character is something many Kenyans did not know,” said journalist Ken Opala. “Moi was a master manipulator of emotions, he could charm you out of your socks.” Sometime in 1996, Opala had an encounter with Moi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)’s state pavilion. Opala, then reporting for the Daily Nation newspaper, had gone to cover the state visit of Jiang Zemin, the President of the Communist Republic of China.

As he, Kipkoech Tanui (today the group executive editor at the Standard Group but then a rookie reporter, also working for the Daily Nation) and Manoah Esipisu (now Kenya’s High Commissioner in the UK but then working for Reuters), stood metres away from the state pavilion, President Moi leisurely walked towards them, his left hand in his pocket. When he approached Opala, he asked him:

“Eehe na wewe ni nani?” What’s your name?

“Ken Opala wa Nation”

“Juzi mlikuwa na pullout, mbona hamukutaja Moi na kazi ile serikali inafanya?” Moi queried Opala.

It was just after May 1st that Zemin was visiting and President Moi remembered that the Daily Nation had carried a pullout on Labour Day and apparently he was not happy with it.

“Nyinyi ni watu wabaya sana, munaandika tu mambo yenu…si ya kutengeneza nchi…kama vile serikali yangu inafanya,” Moi lamented.

“Lakini siyo hivyo mzee,” It isn’t that way sir, Opala interjected.

“Lakini nini?” Moi turned on the hapless Opala.

“Wacha flattery.” Stop the flattery retorted a stern Moi, poking Opala on the chest with his index finger.

Taken aback by Moi’s brash harshness, Opala knew he had annoyed the president by defending his employer. But Moi suddenly changed tact and moved closer to him:

“Opala wewe ni mzuri, Kwendo Opango ndio mbaya.” Opala you’re the good one, Kwendo Opanga is the bad one, said a demure Moi, almost cooing into the journalist’s ear. (Kwendo Opanga used to write a hard-hitting Sunday Nation column, which Moi disliked.)

As the Zemin’s plane taxied closer to the apron, where Moi was waiting to receive his guest, his security inched closer to him, signalling him to move away from the journalist.

“Wewe wacha, mimi na ongea na mtu yangu,” You stop, can’t you see I’m talking to my friend, said Moi to the security men. Vice President George Saitoti, who died in a helicopter crash in June 2012 in Kibiko, off Ngong town, seemed uneasy as Moi insisted on talking to the journalist.

Sisi ni wazuri, hao ndio wabaya, twende, twende tukapokee mgeni. Huyu rais ni mzuri anatuletea pesa, wachana na watu ambao wanaadika mambo ya fitina tu.” We are the good people, let’s go and receive the president, he’s a good man, he’s bringing goodies for us. Leave those people whose only work is to pen malicious stories.

Much later, Opala, humbled by the fact that the most powerful man in the country had taken time to engage with him, marvelled at the simplicity of Moi. He believed that the president was a good man who was misunderstood by people who did not know him well. The journalist began doubting whether all those bad stories about Moi were true after all.

Several weeks later, Opala had another chance encounter with the president. Thinking that they were already friends, and that Moi would remember him (apparently, Moi’s memory was legendary), Opala was surprised when the president ignored him and behaved as if he had never met him. “I couldn’t believe Moi, who had talked to me like his son, sharing with me some juicy anecdotes, would behave so coldly towards me like that: I almost wondered what I had done this time,” said Opala. That little experience nearly traumatised the journalist.

Kabarak School: Moi’s backyard  

A master of the game, Moi political life enacted such plays all the time in his political life. He conjured up schemes to keep his political friends and foes alike busy fighting each other as he continually plotted to antagonise them by creating mutual suspicions among them. “Sometimes we think that’s why he built Kabarak School,” said a top notch medical doctor, who is an alumni of the school Moi built.

Kabarak received its first Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE) “A” level students in 1979, four months after Moi ascended to the presidency. “That’s how powerful a Kenyan president is,” said my medic friend. The medic was in the second lot of the 1980/1981 “A” level lot. “I’d been called to Mangu High School to pursue Maths, Chemistry and Biology, but I got a letter from Kabarak and my father, looking at the fee structure, said the school had been built to save his meagre savings… the fees were rock bottom.”

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School in Baringo County, which is 25km from Kabarak and which is in his ancestral village of Sacho and Sunshine School, which is in Nairobi West, Nairobi County. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them. Sunshine School was even built on grabbed land – the land on which Sunshine School sits once belonged to the Prisons Department.

Kabarak began by poaching all the best students from other schools around the country. To start off “A” level class, it poached Kenya Certificate of Education “O” level students who had been called to both Alliance High Schools (Boys and Girls), Highlands Girls, (today Moi Girls Eldoret), Kagumo High School, Kangaru High school, Kenya High, Lenana School, Limuru Girls, Loreto Girls, Nairobi School, Nyeri High, Thika High, Maseno School – basically the top schools in the country then, as now. Moi also did the same with teachers. He picked the best teachers from these schools, and populated Kabarak with them.

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School and Sunshine School. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them.

Esther Koimett was among the first students of the “A” level class of 1979/1980. She is the daughter of Nicholas Biwott, one of Moi’s most powerful henchmen who later acquired the nickname “The Bull of Auckland”. Koimett is now the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Urban Development and Public Works.

Other better known Kenyans who passed through Kabarak include Mary Ijaya Mudavadi, sister to Musalia, Chepchumba Kandie, the daughter of Aaron Kandie, the former solicitor general, Sam Mwamburi Mwale, the former Permanent Secretary in Mwai Kibaki’s government, Orlando Lyomu, the Chief Executive Officer at the Standard Group, and Samson Chepkairor, aka Sam Shollei, also a former Standard Group CEO. (Chepkairor’s classmates of the 1980/1981 “A” level class cannot remember when he changed his name to Shollei.) Others were Robert Matano’s two daughters, Nick Salat’s two sisters and Margaret Nderi, the daughter of Ignatius Nderi, the powerful boss at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s rule.

Sometime in January 2005, I went to talk to Geoffrey Griffins, the Director of Starehe Boys Centre and School. Over and above everything else we talked about that afternoon, I remember him telling me about Moi, which he told me in strict confidence. When Moi become president, he approached Griffins and asked him to accept Kalenjin students. The director said that was not a problem, as long as they met the minimum qualifications. “This apparently did not please Moi because he expected me to say ‘yes, yes, Mr President’,” recalled Griffins.

Moi also wondered loudly why Mwai Kibaki remained the patron of Starehe Boys Centre, while Moi was now the president. “I told Moi, Kibaki remained the patron because the school’s management board, which included members of the British royalty, had settled on the former Minister of Finance and it was for them to decide who was to be the patron.” Soon after, Moi started Kabarak, where he became his own patron, and where one class each out of the four streams from Form I to Form IV was reserved solely for Kalenjin kids.

At Kabarak School, which was just a few metres from Moi’s house, he would invite Kanu political honchos and pit them against each other, right there in the school. “We witnessed many such incidents in which Moi would host two sets of warring Kanu factions and make them believe that each had his ear and exclusivity. One time, on a Saturday, he invited both Matu Wamae and Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru, the Mathira constituency (in Nyeri) titans, each not knowing that the other was also present,” said the ex-Kabarak medic. “Kabarak had many holding rooms where visitors to Moi’s house would be entertained. As Moi entertained Ngibuini in the house, Matu was kept busy at the school by Henry Cheboiwo, the first Baringo North MP and Moi’s confidant, Abraham Kiptanui, a former State House Comptroller and Aaron Kandie.”

Those who have been to Kabarak know that the home and school have two entrances on the Nakuru-Elgeyo Marakwet Road. Both entrances are guarded by the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce squad. Inside the school there is also a tarmacked road connecting the school to Moi’s house. As Ngibuini was being seen off by Moi’s handlers inside the house through the road leading directly from Moi’s house to the main road, Wamae was being ushered in through the link road between the school and the house.

Later both groups, Ngibuini’s and Wamae’s, would congregate at Stagshead Hotel (today known as Merica and owned by the Moi family) in Nakuru town. “Each confident that they had Moi’s ear and each having been given money to run the affairs of the Nyeri Kanu branch, they would begin their quarrels right there and Moi and his henchmen would be left in the house laughing their heads off,” opined the medical doctor. “We also witnessed Moi playing James Njiru against his perennial foe, Nahason Njunu from Kirinyaga.”

The semi-illiterate Njiru was the MP for Ndia, while Njunu was the MP for Gichugu. Njiru imagined himself to be very close to Moi, to the extent that when the president made him the Minister of National Guidance and Political Affairs, he knew he had the upper hand over Njunu. Njiru thought that he was so powerful that he could summon “errant” Kanu members and question them, which led the Anglican archbishop David Gitari, who hailed from Kirinyaga, to describe his ministry as the “Ministry of Misguidance and Political Thuggery”. The tall and slender Njiru and the short and stocky Njunu’s rivalry culminated in them once squaring it out in the precincts of Parliament in 1988.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd. “One Friday morning, Moi came to the school (he was always hovering around it), when we were on parade and raising the flag. His Kombi van stood some distance away and Moi disembarked. He walked briskly past the principal, Mr Joseph Kimetto, straight to his office. When Kimetto saw that Moi did not stop to talk to him, he abandoned the parade and ran after Moi. He found Moi in his office. The next thing we saw was Mr Kimetto running fast towards his house,” narrated the doctor.

“Mr Githongo, you’re now the principal and you Mr Kajwang, you’re the deputy principal,” announced Moi. Githongo was an elderly teacher who had been poached from Kagumo High School in Nyeri and taught Biology, while Kajwang was from Maseno, and taught Chemistry. “Moi made the prompt appointments just like that,” recalled the doctor.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd.

Kabarak was also a place that helped Moi avert loneliness, said the Kabarak alumni. “We’d see Moi in the dining hall, around the swimming area, in the playing field, walking past the classrooms, oftentimes stopping to listen to and watch momentarily as teachers went about their teaching. He was always at the school. He would order the school to pay school fees for respective classes. ‘This year Form I B, Form II D, Form III A and Form IV C will not pay school fees,’ it would be announced in the parade, courtesy of Moi, but of course this was taxpayers money.” He would do the same for Form V and Form VI.

The lonely kingmaker

Many years later, John Keen, his former Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, talked to me about Moi’s loneliness. In 2015, I was invited to his Karen home to attend a naming ceremony, an important occasion in the Maasai culture and tradition. One of his many grandsons was being named after him. I had gone to school with one of his sons and therefore I had known the senior Keen from the late 1980s. On that day, I spent the entire day talking to John Keen, until late into the night.

He narrated to me how some months before, Moi had sent an emissary to him: “Nimetumwa na Mzee Moi, anataka kukuona.” I’ve been sent by Moi, he would like to see you, said the envoy.

“I wondered what Moi would be summoning me for. I had not seen or talked to him for many years,” recounted Keen. Moi has asked that he go and see him at his home in Kabarnet Gardens, in the Kibera area. “When I reached there, I was ushered in to where he was. It was going to 2.00 pm and the hot sun was up, but guess what? I found Moi huddled next to the fireplace, warming himself next to the low-burning log fire.”

“I presumed he had an agenda for me, that there was something he wanted us to discuss…wapi, Moi couldn’t even recognise me, he didn’t even know that he had asked for me. He ordered that I be given some tea and then on and off, he would doze off. After three hours I left.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP), an opposition outfit that was once led by his long time friend Mwai Kibaki in the 1990s. “But also, when you grow old, you need a young wife to keep your fire burning and keep you warm too,” said Keenly cheekly.

Folklore has it that Moi kept The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli’s little bible of political brutality, by his bedside. “Moi was brutal,” some of the people who suffered his wrath told me. Mirugi Kariuki, the Nakuru lawyer who later became the MP for Nakuru town in the Narc government of President Kibaki, told me that Moi was “a brutal incarnate”. He was detained alongside his longtime friend Koigi wa Wamwere during Moi’s regime. Moi ordered that he be tortured by the prison warders at Naivasha Maximum Prison because “I was recalcitrant and unrepentant”.

When Moi released him in 1991, “he found me to be even more unrepentant. He was furious with me because I refused to beg for mercy from him. He wanted me acknowledge the detention without trial and be grateful to him that he had released me – for that I was supposed to go and genuflect before him. My answer to him was: he hadn’t done me any favours.”

Moi suffered from acute paranoia, said Mirugi, who died in a plane crash in April 2006, “and an inferiority complex, especially from people who stood up to him. But over and above he covered his brutality with his supposed love for children.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP)…

After the 1997 general elections, Moi started scheming about how to bring the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta into the political fold. When Moi, in the presence of Peter Mboya (the late son of Tom Mboya who died in a motorcycle crash in 2004) told Uhuru Kenyatta “nataka ungie siasa,” (I want you to get into politics proper),“Uhuru almost jumped out of his skin,” said a Moi relative who was present at the scene. “Hapana, hapana mzee,” No, no, protested Uhuru.

In 1998, after Uhuru was thrashed by a nondescript greenhorn, one Moses Mwihia, Moi asked some Kanu hawks to persuade him to vacate the seat for Uhuru. Mwhia refused. “So they turned to Mark Too, who was a nominated MP. After haggling for several weeks, Too acquiesced,” a Moi relative said to me. “Immediately Too agreed, they went straight to Kabarnet Gardens at 10.30pm. Moi came out from the bedroom in his pyjamas.”

“Mumekubaliana?” Have you agreed? Moi asked.

“Ndio mzee.” Yes sir.

“Haya sign hiyo makaratasi mara moja, hakuna mambo ya kungojea kesho.” OK, then sign those papers at once, there’s no need to wait until tomorrow. And that is how Uhuru become a nominated MP. The rest is history as they say.

When in 2006 William Ruto announced for the first time that he would run for the presidency, Moi was livid: “Ambia hiyo kijana awaje mbio,” Tell the young man to be patient, Moi told a close Ruto confidant. “Yeye bado kijana mdogo sana, kwa nini anakimbia namna hiyo? Mimi niko na mpango yake ya huko mbele.” He still very young, why is he in a hurry? I’ve got some plans for him for the future.

The truth was that Moi could not believe that Ruto had the audacity to declare an interest in the presidency. That was supposed to be the preserve of his favourite child, Gideon Moi.

Moi’s contradictions went beyond raw politics. When in 1989, he famously, alongside Richard Leakey, the then head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), lit the “ivory fire” at the Nairobi National Park, he sent a powerful message to the conservation world that Kenya was not going to tolerate the selling of contraband ivory. Ironically, he lit the mountain of 12 tonnes of ivory while holding his signature fimbo ya Nyayo rungu, his symbol of authority, which was made of pure ivory.

In December 2002, I went to vote at Uhuru Primary School in Uhuru estate. The person in front of me was humming, “yote yawezekana bila Moi” lyrics. All is possible without Moi.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness

12 min read. No Roses from My Mouth, Stella Nyanzi’s collection of poetry that was written in prison, and which has won awards, is a deliberately provocative – and apt – response to a dictatorial regime that fails to see the folly of imprisoning writers.

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Who Pinched My Buttocks? The Stella Nyanzi School of Radical Rudeness
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The drama of picking up the book would have been wholly farcical were the circumstances not surreal enough already.

The ridiculousness of furtive telephone calls in which names were neither asked nor given, the long, curving drive that skirted the city, suspicion as to why the boda knocked the car, and then arriving at the drop-off point only to be told the delivery man would not make it, underlined just how psychologically precarious it is to be in Yoweri Museveni’s Uganda.

It was bound to be that way the day Stella Nyanzi was sent to prison in 2018. The activist and scholar had opened what amounted to a second front in the fight against the Museveni dictatorship. The means the way such a war is fought is rarely visible, so that while the placid surface of a society going about its quotidian slog remains even, nerves are getting chewed thin underneath. Along with Bobi Wine, one a poet, the other a singer, both of them versifiers, Nyanzi has deployed weapons and tactics dictators are wholly unprepared for:

The reaction of the state apparatus when it moves in on creatives is to always get it wrong. It may have looked like victory to the goonery when Stella Nyanzi was jailed nearly two years ago. But the result has been an Oxfam and PEN International award, and counting. This has been quickly followed by a poetry collection that will now underpin Nyanzi’s repute and bring to all the sheer courage of this woman. As with censorship of books, the argument that not imprisoning writers is the best way to silence them never gets through the collective thick skull of tyranny.

And yet the forceful Nyanzi had made it impossible for Mr. Museveni to not act. Her provocation – for it was, and Nyanzi proudly owns it – was delivered in such terms that Mr. Museveni was doomed to respond, even though he may have been aware of the folly of doing so. How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand. But the history of Big Man-badly- mauled-by-activist woman is a long one. The late Kenyan President, Daniel Arap Moi, might have heeded wise counsel and kept clear of Wangari Maathai. But as with Nyanzi, Maathai too had set her challenge in terms that cornered the late Moi into attacking her. The day he laid hands on her was the day she won.

The diatribe Nyanzi aimed at Mr. Museveni more than found its mark; it paralysed the warmonger who is so used to operating from the outer limits of decency (and being feted for it, by no less than the World Bank), that the bounds of propriety are lost on him, a man who set fire to four, perhaps five, countries, killing millions of Africans and comprehensively corrupting Uganda. He stepped on everyone.

How this doctoral graduate with several degrees arm-twisted one of Africa’s more wily presidents into a fight he is badly losing is one we do not as yet fully understand.

He stepped on Stella Nyanzi. Like the feisty girls highschool boys live in fear of, Nyanzi has shrieked out in pain. Here, she describes graphically where she has been touched in language so stark that her attacker remains disoriented. Mr. Museveni has since stumbled from one vaguary to another, like a man searching for firm ground. He led an absurd anti-corruption walk of shameless self-mockery. He went on an aimless self-promoting trek retracing his bush war days, returning to the mythical ground of his self-declared “liberation” war, in what can only be a para-Freudian return to a time when he did believe in something. It was the subconscious speaking louder than the man could ever admit – that he has led a life of hypocrisy. Since Nyanzi spoke, we who pay attention have noticed declining changes in Museveni. There is no going back for him.

And so the irony that a man who in the 1990s used the feminist cause to build an impregnable bulwark of political support has been taken down by a feminist. We can only imagine what went on in Mr. Museveni’s mind when Nyanzi used the Luganda words “lutako” and “butako” to describe him. International media picked and amplified the translation: The Ugandan president had been called a pair of buttocks

“If you put your hands in the anus of a leopard, you are in trouble,” Mr. Museveni said in the heat of election campaigns in 2015. He had dangled a bawdy, self-assured illusion of himself. He was the first to use an obscenity against himself, a “crime” for which he still walks freely. But he had left the scatological door wide open and Nyanzi did not need a second invitation.

And so here we are. A plummet from the heights of the Marxist speechifying of the 1980s, when he had been a frequent guest of Kim iI-Sung in Pyongyang, to the whiplash, road-to-Damascus conversion and pre-eminent neoliberal economic mandarin of the 1990s, a shift done without missing a beat (so we doubt how much he had understood of either) as though Karl Marx’s middle name had all along been Hayek. The Museveni regime had at last hit a literal bottom:

“Means of production”, “macro-economics”, “leveraging comparative advantage”, “stabilising the economic base” – words (for they had really been mere words) that had one time been stock-in-trade of clever revolutionaries, had been replaced by “anuses and “thick thighs”, “vaginas” and “buttocks”, the classic declining narrative of cinema that opens with high-end screenings but find that pornography sells more tickets.

This then was where things Ugandan had ground

State reaction to Nyanzi has been a stumble from botched inelegance to overcooked crudity. Two charges – cyber-harassment and disturbing the peace of the president – were brought against her. The double charge was the judicial fishing expedition to guarantee a conviction. There had been an earlier attempt at stifling Nyanzi via the coarse chicanery of a mental illness test, which we can only assume would have been rigged and would have seen her locked up to rot in a mental asylum.

The Directorate of Public Prosecution, whose head at the time has since been elevated to a judicial bench, further besmirched the reputation of an office not wanting for infamy by going ahead with that framing, and then not stopping there.

That test never went ahead. They attempted another ruse. They offered bail, that special form of clemency within the gift of state power. Nyanzi saw through this. Acceptance of the offer of bail would mute the campaign, show that the state had been just all the while.

Makerere University, a tragic shambles under its current vice chancellor, was pressured to dismiss her from her job (we writers have all gone through employers who are forced to let us go). Vice Chancellor Barnabas Nawangwe, a man put there to make the university look stupid, terribly botched the dismissal – not that anything other than botched can be possible with Mrs. Museveni as Minister of Education.

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

The tragic disconnect is how tyrannical state goonery never understands how writers see the world. Judges and prosecutors (judicial guinea fowl with eyes firmly stitched to their legalistic navels) see prison as the ultimate tool of ostracism, for is it not proof of guilt that you are locked up?

And so with alacrity they paid for Nyanzi’s 18-month writing retreat by sending her to prison. As a bonus, they handed this creative research scholar thousands of captive respondents via which to study Uganda. Might the advisory council to Mr. Museveni, creaking under its own dead weight, have pointed out to him the folly of putting writers in prison and how that has always turned out?

It remained for a judicial appointee to declare Nyanzi “obscene, indecent, lewd, and lascivious”. The judge called her an “immoral person” who “was not properly brought up”.

Prison has at last given us and Nyanzi what had always been missing – a substantial enough work from which to see her outside of the high voltage media filter. Had there ever been doubt about her intentions, that has now vanished, and Nyanzi joins a stellar orbit of writers like Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Ken Sarowiwa, Jack Mapanje, and Alexander Solzhenitsyn whose voices were amplified.

Over the course of the past year, Stella Nyanzi smuggled dozens of poems out of prison. As she says in the book, dozens others were confiscated by prison officials, and presumably destroyed. Reading this collection comes with the urgent knowledge that there are bound to be consequences for Nyanzi and her colleagues.

No Roses from my Mouth has that rough and ready samizdat feel. The urgency to get it out was such that the conventions of publishing, the page-setting, the mulling over cover design, was not possible. Here and there, text overruns page, the guillotine chops words midway. There is no table of contents, and the wine-coloured cover feels more like a stain.

All of which do not matter.

Of those that contrived to sentence her to a mental asylum, Nyanzi says, via the poem, They Must be Schizophrenic: 

They want me to upbraid the
Dictator with sweet Apples,
To rebuke him with sweetened
Milk and honey,
To reproach him with a thick
Slice of red velvet cake.

No! In the eponymous poem, No Roses From my Mouth, the last stanza sets the terms of this front:

There will be no orgasm
Coming from my mouth
Who cares about pleasure during war?
Instead there is venom and acid

The fighting tone defines the work, as it defines the woman, through 159 poems, the urgency ranging across insights, observations, a haiku, a call to arms. We have not had a book like this in this region. It is hard to think of another writer doing what Nyanzi is doing. Her language is direct. It is more than direct. It long broke the boundaries of conventional politesse and set as its starting point the far reaches of the acceptable, and then it goes beyond that.

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers. It is not uncommon. We don’t hear too much of it because the people at whom it is often aimed, being aged men in power, rarely dare push their way to the point that this is called for.

When an elderly woman strips naked or uses obscenities, we do not ask if she is mad. We turn to the old man and say, “See what you have done? Mr. Museveni, have you no shame that now women have to strip naked?”

Nyanzi’s poetry is that. It is textual stripping, textual ritual shaming for an old man whose heedless actions threaten to destroy society. This is how we must read this book.

Thus the heavy sexual allusions, the references to castration in Missing Jewels, the provocative threat to “bitch-slap” the “tyrant” in He Cries at Mere Poetry. These are verse equivalents of clothes coming off before the masses, reading in public as a mother declares that the man in power has taken everything society has, so what is left to cover up? What does decency mean when the fount of honour is dishonourable?

This attack on Mr. Museveni has been called obscene (see the judgment). But in the African tradition, it is acceptable, if not ritual, to shame or protest through nudity – the elderly women in Nairobi who stripped naked in public to protest Moi’s regime in the late 1980s were not mistaken for pole dancers.

But naughtiness too. Who Pinched My Buttocks? is arguably the funniest poem here. Nyanzi’s narrative skill is plain to see. A poem that opens as a plaintive call for understanding, Who Pinched my Buttocks? sets off rhetorically, asking for understanding, to each her own, saying Let me do my bit to the best of my ability/Do your bit, too, as well as you can. Hence, those who speak diplomatically should not stop those who sing ragga. The religious must not drive out the demons of nude protestors. So it goes on, with calls to writers of legislation not to stymie the writers of tweets and Facebook. Fair enough. Except, that opening line was suspended and reconnects to the final lines thus…But let me grow my finger nail that pinch/When my time comes I want to be effective/The dictator will say, “Who pinched my buttocks?”

It is the tone with which the collection opens, the clarion call to action of A Plea for Decongestion. (Sure enough, four verses in, the F-word appears). Nyanzi proceeds to describe how prisoners sleep packed like sardines as…

My thighs pressed hard onto someone’s arse
My arse pressed hard onto another’s thighs
This sequence of adult thighs pressing adult arse
Is repeated in two rows of 30 women each

Nyanzi may be in prison, but her sense of humour is sharp at the ending of this poem:

If fighters of sodomy in Uganda cared at all
They would start by decongesting the prison

We will be led down this path only for sombreness to end in jest, again and again. And we have to be thankful for it.

The collection is a totality of prison life. News arrives to Nyanzi that Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina has died. She says in Is Binya Really Dead?:

Binya broke hard ground at a difficult time!
Binya took the bull by the horns
And inspired me with boldness.
Binya inseminated my mind. 

The closing sections of the collection are more personal and introspective. They are about Nyanzi’s family life. The lowest moments do come as she wonders in No Padlock on Your Loin whether her marriage will survive prison. Thoughts about her children come close to breaking her. She pulls up and says in How to Visit Prison that visitors to prison must not come with their tears because prisoners have trouble enough. Break down and dry after the visit is done.

It is painful to read Nyanzi retell how she lost her unborn child due to negligence by prison staff.

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula. These could be a separate collection by themselves. Though they are windows into the locked-away world of incarceration, they are really insights into the world outside. We count here what values society considers acceptable by examining the obverse. Solitary souls in prison, plucked clean off the margins of society from whence they had fought to survive, the mangos hawked by the roadside to feed the 8-month-old baby who must now survive six months motherless because the mother has been locked away, the young woman who needed just that stick of weed, just the stick from inside prison. The androgynous prisoner in Intersex in Prison, personalities viewed via versfication, poetry that captures snatches and glimpses of their being. It is their souls we feel, and what we feel lies heavy upon us.

And then the realisation dawns: But is this not what it is all about? Nyanzi’s struggle, lest we forget, began with the backtracking of the promise by Mr. Museveni during the election campaign of 2015/2016 to provide sanitary pads to all school girls if elected president. Once duly declared the winner, he sent his wife, who had been elevated to Minister of Education, to say that there was no money for the promised pads. Hence the fiery Facebook post for which Nyanzi is in prison. We must ask how many women might not be in prison had their education not been interrupted by menstrual cycles?

That is the asking price here. It is the stiff penalty. If Nyanzi’s language ensures that we don’t casually look away from class, ethnic and gender violence, how do we then address a female Minister of Education who says there will be no pads for young girls under her watch? Which is the obscenity – the language of Nyanzi or Mrs. Museveni’s sentencing into poverty and abuse millions of school girls?

The more endearing poems in the book are Nyanzi’s portraits of fellow prisoners. The delicate dedications to the downtrodden include The Mango Seller, Ganja Girl, Escapee, Asio Died in Prison, Epileptic in Prison, Deaf and Dumb in Prison, The Debtor, Intersex in Prison, and Masitula the Fistula.

The furore surrounding Nyanzi’s work has nearly succeeded in obscuring her poetry, how it is conceived, how it works. The judge that sentenced her declared that it was not poetry. And although Nyanzi responds emphatically to this in Your Aesthetic Standards (a title surely missing an expletive) with Pooh to your bourgeois snobbery!/Your aesthetic what-what again? We have now come close enough to Nyanzi’s mind as a writer to know that she need not to have mentioned “standards”. Arguing over literariness is a cat-and-mouse game we can play in this collection, but we would be missing something more important.

That her writing is a radical, political position is underscored by the poem, Your Aesthetic Standards, where she writes, of her writing:

Bitch, I penned my pieces on the prison floors.
My sounding boards were suspected vagabonds

…..

Druggies and junkies offered some rhymes

….

Convicts of common nuisance passed the meter
Sex workers and fraudsters approved lines.
Impersonators and thieves approved lines.
Suspects of murder and assault gave symbols
Suspects of manslaughter advised on ideas
Political prisoners cried at some stanzas
And just for size, Nyanzi adds
Prison wardresses confiscated some poems.

Far from gratuitous iconoclasm, Nyanzi’s ethos is a time-honoured tradition of radical criticism, which is also at the very heart of Marxist thought, of historical materialism. Here, the human body, as the material, is posited as the central platform upon which history is generated. Stripped to its essential, the human body is the active reagent of politics and economics, from black legs, arms, torsos and heads (needed together and functioning) being sold into slavery to generate the capital in Western capitalism, it is the parts of the human body called upon to operate tools, fingers that pick cotton, the human body that is targeted as the primary digestive tool and fat storage for the fast food empire, the feet that are covered by Clarke’s shoes, legs, buttocks and arms and shoulders that Vuitton and Hugo Boss target.

The colour of the skin you wear will, in America and England, determine whether the police pull that trigger or not.

The human body is the generator and archive of culture, what we do with the hair on top of it, which bits of flesh are trimmed, shaved and cut off depending on gender and religious persuasion. The body of Christ, for Christians, is the ecumenicalism that binds the religion together.

The human body is power. Entire civilisations convulse at the showing of an ankle, shoulders, breasts. Priests and judges police the human body more than they police anything else. When a tyrant wants to show who is boss, it is the eyes and nostrils at which tear gas is aimed, the head is for the baton, wrists and ankles for manacles, the heart for the bullet of the firing squad.

The body carries everywhere it goes, from temple to a football game, a litany of “unmentionables”. Breaking the command of priests and judges (the perennial handmaidens of dictators) by baring some parts while covering others at once dissolves their source of power.

In Nyanzi’s collection, the body plays the vital role of offering insight into society. There is the transexual with both male and female genitals whose elusive category erases gendered response: Does he/she have power or not? The state must break the body to acquire power, hence, the prisoners must sit on the floor, stooped, kneeling before the upright standing guards.

Nyanzi returns us to the basics, disavowing metaphysics (the acceptable politics of “beyond the body”) that can and often comes riddled with falsehoods. A return to the body is, in political terms, a handing of power back to the masses – the working, labouring “body” of society, away from the ruling “head”.

A return to the body is a threat to the ruling ethos, for once covered up and policed, those that decide what we wear, which parts we cover up, or which words we can use, can misreport to us what the body says – which is what culture and law and “civilisation” more or less add up to. A return to the body is insisting on seeing the exhibits for ourselves, to judge if what we are being told about human society is accurate or not.


No Roses from My Mouth is published by Ubuntu Reading Group, with an introduction by the writers and activists, Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. It can also be purchased on Kindle.

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Tedium and Cannibalism in America’s Democratic Primary

13 min read. As Democratic Party candidates hurl insults at each other, and fail to inspire voters, the Trump machinery is gearing up to prepare for another victory in the 2020 election. What future can liberals in Trump’s America expect, especially in an environment where rational debate has been replaced by idiocy?

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Tedium and Cannibalism in America’s Democratic Primary
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“Who the f**k are you, man?” Some awkwardly dressed long-haired pale kid asked out loud to a quiet bar at the appearance of six or seven of the candidates crowding the stage of one of the initial Democratic debates back in July 2019. Now, nearly seven months later, that statement, then met with tepid chuckles over 8 dollar draft beers and local artisanal fried cheese with “hand-made” aoili, rings truer than ever.

It still hangs heavy over the entirety of the Democratic Party; one that is now in a crisis of identity, and being repeatedly body punched in a fight that it does not fully understand. The question was asked in the heart of what has rapidly materialised as the singular most vital swing state in the entirety of the country; which is rapidly proving to be the mid-western state of Wisconsin (the one that looks like a mitten, north of Chicago).

The audience within that state, and one imagines, many other states, is rapidly erring on the side of indifference. In the crucial Democratic zone of Dane County in the overtly liberal capital city of Madison, Wisconsin, there have been sinfully few actual inroads towards actually doing the crucial thing – getting the base frothing at their mouths with a sense of urgency.

We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019. How to sum up these last six months of “serious” presidential campaigning on the Democratic side? Quite possibly, pointless, although it is honestly nearly impossible to tell – such is the minimal impact that the last half year seems to have had in influencing the mind of the “Democratic base voter” to be inspired enough to get out and campaign, to sign up their friends, to back a candidate, to even vote.

Truly, it should have been more memorable than it was, and therein lies the problem. The Democratic Party doesn’t realise that the entire year was seemingly spent whilst laying as little infrastructure and making as few viable inroads as they possibly could. Just as the race started to become solid, as one would expect the party to come together after the posers and long shots began to drop out across the latter months of 2019 and early 2020, the problems grew bigger as the campaign grew more “serious”— highlighted in bizarre on-stage fights between two of the three arguable front-runners, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, the former of which threw barbs at sexist sentiments; the latter whose supporters claimed vast establishment conspiracy.

We now sit in the early stages of 2020, the primary for the Democratic nomination having slogged through an absolutely numbing series of pointless debates and political jabs throughout the entirety of 2019.

Right now, key predictions are stating that there are four states that can be judged as “absolute toss-ups”: Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin.

Pennsylvania went to Donald Trump in 2016 – arguably the biggest shock of that awkwardly rolled-out night, the announcement coming shortly before John Podesta shuffled aimlessly out onto the stage in New York City to tell shattered Hilary Clinton supporters to go home, probably shortly followed by the chair of the campaign wandering home to stare into the depths of a bottle of Scotch and wonder when his failings would bite him in the ass. Pennsylvania will have blue (Democratic) money poured into it; there is next to no chance of it going for Trump again.

Florida, while it is called a toss-up, has the controversies of six political thriller novels every two years with each new election cycle. The deck has been rigged Republican in the state to ensure the suppression of votes – taking away voting rights, not allowing former prisoners to vote, or as in 2000, when all else fails, just giving shitty ballots to the states multitude of senior citizens (albeit the old liberal Jewish ones). It may be called a toss-up, but it will fall red (Republican) in the 2020 presidential ballot.

Arizona cuts the same way; consistently touted as having the potential to flip over to the liberal side of the voting trend, the state never truly arrives at voting “left”, and the same will almost definitely ring true in favour of Trump in 2020.

That leaves Wisconsin, and given the above estimates, if the predictions hold, it will put the electoral college score at a dead heat of 268-260 towards the Democratic candidate. (In this screwball American system of elections, it takes 270 to win and to the victor goes all the power.) Now it seems that the ball has rolled slowly to our feet; whether Wisconsin possesses any ability to pick it up and run with it is a drastically different story. Right now, indifference reigns supreme.

Hubris and hot air

The entire summer last year, it seemed to rain, and people seemed to get angrier every time the clouds broke long enough to melt the earth with a heat wave that would make Mombasa blush. The attitude surrounding the debates in the early and mid-stages of July wasn’t helped along by this acclimatic side effect to global warming; all of the candidates seemed to rise and fall, punching themselves out and then landing a knockout blow, only to be slapped down days later in a circular firing squad of their own demise.

Each formed their own fate and rapidly dug their grave on the small hill that they chose to die on on a separate occasion. For Warren it was continuing to address the claims of Native American heritage; for Kamala Harris, it was burrowing down the rabbit hole of staying the “most woke” as a former prosecutor in the state of California (albeit before she randomly dropped out to yawns on a Tuesday in early December); Bernie engaged and engaged on some of his former campaign staff (not him, specifically) being accused of sexism. Mayor Pete had a race relation issue as the black police chief of his city was controversially fired; Joe Biden continually tripped over his own dick at every possible turn and Amy Klobuchar kept getting slammed with terrible answers over her alleged abuse of former staffers.

Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain. John Delaney dropped out on January 31st, mostly to general surprise that he’d ever been in the race at all. Cory Booker dropped out in mid-January, having thoroughly missed his shot. Just three days before him, Marianne Williamson dropped out to much disdain as the race had been much more interesting watching her have assorted drug flashbacks live in front of a studio audience. Julian Castro, considered a long shot dark horse, dropped off shortly before Williamson and promptly threw all of his swing state clout behind Elizabeth Warren, resulting in much speculation towards vice presidential angling.

Trust me, I know even reading the previous paragraph is an exercise in exhaustion. After several bruising campaign events and debates, the knock-out and reemergence of seemingly irrelevant candidates at the said debates and a continual media firestorm to navigate, no one has truly emerged as a winner; even the clear front runners are met with trepidation, doubt and the lack of real cohesion among what is passing for the “base” in the Democratic Party. It has become politics by participation – no one deserves to lose yet, let’s just hear what they think, okay?

Steadily there has been a stream of drop-outs across the last three months, each met with varied degrees of disdain.

Even as one alleged competitor (albeit one with little claim to the throne), Beto O’Rourke, dropped out of the race (to assorted shrugs of indifference), another challenger with the cache and cash to go far, Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, has jumped into the Democratic fray. He has kicked up several weeks of bizarre ads (including a multi-million-dollar spot during the Super Bowl) and has still managed to fail to crack into the upper echelon. He has taken on the role of kingmaker, seemingly self-aware enough to know he stands little chance months into his run. He has vowed to play dirty and throw millions behind the eventual Democratic winner (assuming he is to inevitably lose). The whole affair seems to be a party held by the voters. Even typical political alliances are failing to take shape as the race progresses; no one is on anyone’s side, dogs are eating dogs.

At this point, trying to keep any rational track of the proceedings is akin to gaining your bearings in an all-out blizzard; the light at the end of the tunnel rapidly fades into a mirage.

In the meantime; Trump has continued to weather storms that would destroy anyone else: if they are ships to be sunk, he is an ugly little rock that gets battered by the hurricane and doesn’t go under the surface. It has been a summer and early fall that quite frankly came across as some kind of strange record: what that record would be categorised as is harder to pinpoint (douchiest quarter? Worst leadership month? Foreign policy fuck-ups per capita in an administration? Unforced errors in a day?)

Truly, the only way to properly see the scope of Trump’s mistakes since June of 2019 would be to sum them up in bullet form:

  • He held an unprecedented military parade on the Fourth of July;
  • He was booed at a baseball game in Washington DC;
  • He pulled US troops out of Syria, causing the Middle East to somehow become more of a quagmire in less than 12 hours. He gave into Erdogan for apparently no reason;
  • A massive scandal about Ukraine and quid pro quo broke. He admitted the scandal repeatedly. He called for investigations into those who were investigating him
  • He was linked to a notorious billionaire child sex trafficker who was then arrested and who committed suicide in prison under mysterious circumstances;
  • He callously mishandled the wake of major mass shootings the same weekend;
  • He was found guilty of stealing from a charity to bolster his own political efforts.

These events snowballed into a much-maligned months-long impeachment show trial, which once again the Democratic powers that be fell straight into, thinking that there were more than five “rational” Republican Senators left. (There aren’t.) On January 31st, 2020, Trump was all but acquitted when the Republicans held their line, put their middle fingers up to precedent and simply refused to even hear witnesses; ostriches with their heads willingly buried.

Yet, he doesn’t seem to have lost any real ground. There is talk of impending Republican collapse, sure, but talk in American politics is the cheapest of commodities, and right now Trump has a monopoly on that market. The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.

A classic counter-attack

The strategy of the Republicans is a classic counter-attack: in the face of impending disaster, send everyone into the opposition’s box to put shots on goal. Right now, it seems to be working like gangbusters. The Democratic Party has a rapidly dwindling opportunity, one that grows smaller and smaller every month. Meanwhile, there has been substantial consolidation by the right wing to influence possible battleground states.

This has always been a Democratic problem, and frankly, a Republican strength: that those on the right make awful politicians, but are utterly adept at winning in politics. It was showcased last fall when the Republican Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin, was handed a resounding defeat by upstart Democratic challenger, Andy Beshear, by an incredibly narrow margin. Defeat, however, may be a strong term, as Bevin is currently fighting tooth and nail to have the results nullified or even thrown out.

That race was the essence of the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans are Machiavellian; they’ll do anything to get ahead and win. The Democrats seemingly have no such ability; they repeatedly roll over, giving inches and miles, throwing in the towel before eating each other for not being woke enough. It begs the question often asked in post-colonial era elections in East Africa: If you know your opposition is going to play dirty and win, what’s the point of playing the game clean?

This is a ponderous question to be sure, but with all of this “polite” conversation, political angling and snippy remarks at each other, it is one that the American left wing is currently not answering with any real teeth. As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.

The strategy at the White House seems to be akin to the blitzkrieg at Ardennes: at your possible weakest moment, hit hard and fast and try to drive the better organised forces into the sea before they have a chance to know what happened.

On his part, Trump must be given his due, just as the devil is. He is currently leading a political machine and movement with a deft touch, despite not having the character to wield such power. Every three months or so, in an act that can only be described as masochistic, I watch the entirety of a Trump rally live on YouTube. Sober.

Yes, completely sober. The latest of these little exercises of burrowing deep into the strangeness came in October 2019 at the much-less-infamous-than-it-should-be Minneapolis rally at which Trump made hate claims against Somalis in the state of Minnesota, made extremist claims against representative Ilhan Omar, called Joe Biden’s children assorted names, publicly made weird sexual dialogue about the FBI’s role in the Russia investigation after the 2016 election, and repeatedly admitted to wrongdoing during his call with the Ukrainian president (while framing the phone call as “perfect”).

And yet, none of it is capitalised upon, no front running is found, all instincts of stepping on your political enemy when they’re down have seemingly been lost on 75 per cent of the Democratic candidates, while the ones that do “get it” can’t message their way around a free marijuana giveaway. If they have tried; it has been a pitiful effort against arguably the most flawed opponent in political history. If they were a boxer, the Democrats would have let up their opponent back up off the canvas, with their backs turned and hands raised in meaningless presumptuous triumph. So why haven’t any of the Democratic candidates stated the seemingly obvious (and court ruling-backed) truth: that Trump is a terminally criminal asshole and should be kicked to the curb.

As the candidates on crowded stages take their shots at each other, each trying to gain a foothold as the next Democratic star to lead “the movement” (whatever that means in this foul year), none have gained a substantial lead against the Trump political machine.

As drastic as the above language is, it serves a further point – that when dealing with meanness this extreme, and a political climate this drastic, all semblance of kindness and reasonableness should be thrown out the window at all possible cost. This very election seems to hold a kind of decade on the tail end of it; if Trump wins, his power will be consolidated for at least another decade.

In essence, the current election must be contextualised for the weight it truly holds for the future of the country, the region, global geopolitics, global warming and sentiments veering to the right on a global scale.

A quintessential East African election

The US presidential election of 2020 resembles Kenya’s in 1992, Uganda’s in 2011, or even Rwanda’s in 2010. The initial contrast between this year in the US and that of Kenya in 1992 lies in the stakes: Kenya had come through the autocratic era of the 1980s Moi regime and up the hill of struggle to gain multipartyism, only to have the dream shattered as Moi won controversially once again (marred by allegations of ballot box stuffing and voter intimidation) while in the Rift Valley pockets of brutal violence emerged along with the results. Similarly, in the US, Democrats’ efforts to throw out a man they deem to be a wannabe brutal dictator fall flat. Instead of the change towards a progressive future that Kenya had hoped for, the ‘90s for the nation were more of the same, even as the years of corruption steadily corroded the shilling. This could also reflect in this upcoming American election – all hope for getting back on course towards a sort of progressive political shift could slide back into another tedious decade of fear and anger.

There is further fear in the US ahead of the 2020 election of abject failings at a systematic level a la Uganda’s general election debacle of 2011. The vote pitted challenger Kizza Besigye against multi-decade ruler Yoweri Museveni, and early indicators showed that the incumbent may have vulnerabilities after sliding back on promises during his previous term and the country facing the possibility of economic turmoil. Instead, the proceedings saw rampant malfeasance, with Museveni in the end claiming a decisive victory even as local and international observers leaned heavily on the military’s intimidation of potential voters as a crucial factor in deciding the outcome.

There are similar fears in America – that minority voters will first face the struggle of getting past intimidation (some of which has been directly called for by Trump himself), and both local and foreign interference (once again directly called for with frequency by Trump) and in the end the results could be an utter foul-up. If the initial Democratic Primary Caucus election of February 3rd is any indication (in which the app used for tallying votes seemed to die due to the pressure of it all), this doesn’t uphold in the upcoming American vote running anything resembling smoothly.

In Rwanda in 2010, it seemed that the first presidential election since the nation mandated their necessity (in seven-year increments), the resulting vote seemed to be a referendum on the very future of the nation – a fruitful economic decade translated into much of the population overlooking any allegations of cracking down on anti-Kagame dissent and rumoured human rights abuses. The result? Kagame won with 93 per cent of the vote, an utter landslide and an utter rebuke to any naysayers within the country. As a result, his mandate was deepened and widened, his grip on the country, for better or worse, has been drastically legitimised. This is the fear among cynical American liberals three-quarters of a year away from the upcoming election: that much of the problem will see the band playing on with an endless stream of economic bounty- and capitalism-fueled orgies. The fear remains that the success is based on lies that both the American left and voters of Donald J. Trump simply are blind too; or perhaps even more worrying, that they’re aware of them and simply choose to ignore them.

It is exactly the same for the Republican Party. For the Trump faithful, this is a 2030 play and beyond: to make the future of the nation (and whoever America deems bombable next), economic inequality be damned and let the memory of ice caps fade away. What they fail to realise is that the temporary economic relief could give way to a much longer term disaster.

The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down. It is that brooding, constant question that many have asked prominent opposition figures: If you knew for certain that the incumbent was cheating in the election, why didn’t you cheat better?

In past elections (see Obama era), there were widespread watch parties and enthusiasm abounded amongst the “base”; there was something to galvanise there. Now, with less than a year to go, the rare battleground bar will play the political theatrics of a Democratic debate live; the atmosphere is almost too pervasively toxic. It seems as if many are afraid to even dare jump into that fray, as though the very notion of Trumpism could rear its ugly head in the form of a yelling “bro”, a drunk and disorderly patron, a disgruntled random who decides to go get his AR-15 and “finally show those libtards they should finally listen”.

Radicalised politeness

In the mid-west, especially in Wisconsin, there is a cultural norm that I once read described as “radicalised politeness” – the idea that politics shouldn’t be brought out into the light amongst decent people for debate; it could ruin an evening of Friday fish fries or (god forbid) an NFL game. From what I can tell, with the noxious fumes being spewed off over all things politic in this year 2020, the entire middle class in America is temporarily numb to it. Trump’s inherent gaucheness has goaded them into some kind of tepid silence, with lifelong pollsters desperate to gain some kind of rational grip on the polls.

The opposition simply must wrap their heads around the situation or be left to the doldrums of irrelevancy in the corridors of power. In pop culture parlance, all of this Game of Thrones angling on the Democratic side is cute; but Trump is riding a dragon and will burn it all down.

The ugly truth remains that as of right now, there isn’t a solid foothold to be found anywhere; if the ship is heading for the rocks, then the crew is squabbling over who should hold the wheel. It seems as though the honest direction of things is that Trump will maintain a grip on the White House in 2020, and that “liberal” America will try to take their last shot in 2024, probably to an even further depth of failure.

The stakes are high, but no one is there to meet them. At Thanksgiving dinner this year, in a house full of old-school union Democrats in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the essence of the problem was crystallised. Among the eight different voters at the dinner, not one shared a favourite candidate. The struggle for a political edge in the party has become a war of attrition to which voters are shrugging their shoulders.

Trump, on his part, continues to hurl idiocy in the air. Like so many tragically flawed opponents of dictators before him, the bait is being taken. What they seem to realise is that if they don’t manage to come together, there is absolutely no telling just how far down this rabbit hole could truly go.

I like comparing politics to driving; Americans, despite all their fancy roads and cutting edge cars, die in the thousands in car accidents every year. Why? Simple – they never anticipate a potential blind spot.

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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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