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The majority of Kenyans will have nothing to celebrate on Kenya’s 60th Independence Day this year. It has dawned on us that we are still a colony, this time of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is not just dictating economic policy to our legislators but also drafting tax laws that are hurting citizens and sinking the economy.

We now know that our leaders are nothing but agents of imperialism and that independence has always been an illusion. We did not become independent in 1963 and have remained enslaved since then. The difference now is that the leadership is not afraid or ashamed to admit this. President William Ruto’s advisers and lackeys openly talk of pleasing the IMF, not the people of Kenya, who overwhelmingly rejected the Finance Bill 2023 (no doubt drafted in large part by the IMF), which has now been passed as law despite strong public opposition to it.

Our arrogant legislators have forgotten that in a democracy, the will of the people is paramount. The Kenya Constitution says that sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya.  Yet, a majority of parliamentarians, who are supposed to represent the people, passed a Bill this year that the majority of Kenyans rejected loudly and clearly. Their vote is a reflection of their contempt for the people of Kenya. No doubt the threats and bullying of parliamentarians by the executive played some role in this massive betrayal.

What’s worse, promises made before the 2022 elections, including to reduce taxes on fuel, are being unashamedly flouted. The saddest part is that President William Ruto’s chief economic adviser, David Ndii, has been mocking and blaming Kenyans on X (formerly Twitter) for believing the president’s lies before the election. It is a new low, a reflection of how little we value honesty and integrity in this country, even though Chapter 6 of the constitution clearly states that integrity should be a condition for leadership.

The death of Project Kenya 

There is a deep sense of shock across the country that has almost numbed us into silence. As Kenyan historian Bethwell Ogot once declared, it seems that “Project Kenya” has died and disintegrated, despite a progressive new constitution that Kenyans fought so hard for. There is no sense of national identity or pride. In my 60 years of existence, (yes, I am as old as this country) I have never seen so many Kenyans look so fearful and dejected. From the cashier at my local supermarket to the tuk tuk driver who brings me home, there is a joylessness that I haven’t seen before.

There is a reason for this.  The cost of living is unbearable, punitive new taxes are killing the economy and impoverishing millions, the leadership is arrogant and insensitive to ordinary people’s plight, and the looting of public funds continues unabated. Businesses are shutting down or laying off people. Manufacturers are looking to relocate. Fuel and food prices have skyrocketed and the scandal-ridden Kenya Power threatens more levies on electricity. We are told this is all because of the excessive borrowing of the previous government but no one is explaining why excessive borrowing is continuing under President Ruto.

Meanwhile, Western leaders, who once supported pro-democracy and human rights movements in the country, are only too happy to see another African country fail. But maybe that was the plan all along – to ensure no African country would stand tall enough to make its own policies and choices because doing so would threaten Western corporate interests. (Look at what happened to Thomas Sankara and other African leaders who defied Western imperialism.) The difference is that the mask is off now, as evidenced in Gaza, where thousands of civilians are dying at the hands of a US-supported dictatorship. Few Western leaders have spoken up in defence of Palestinians whose massacre has all the hallmarks of a genocide. There is no more talk of human rights violations in Kenya because Western leaders have found in Ruto their Uncle Tom, the “good house negro” (as defined by Malcolm X) who will oppress his own people to please his master, a Mobutu who will plunder his country’s resources and sell them to the highest bidder while his people wallow in abject poverty.

The new colonialists 

We never gained independence. Kenya has remained a colony of Western powers and international (Western) financial institutions. During colonialism, the colonialists co-opted local chiefs whose primary responsibility was to recruit cheap labour and to collect taxes. A “Hut Tax” imposed on every household forced thousands of indigenous people to migrate in search of paid work. This allowed the British to gain access to cheap labour. To add insult to injury, these migrants were then forced to carry a kipande (pass) which was used to monitor their movements and keep track of their employment histories. Those who could not pay the tax were used as free labour on roads and other infrastructure. The “Home Guard” – as the loyalist chiefs and specially appointed agents who were in the service of the British were known – were rewarded with plots of land, trade licences and tax exemptions. How the colonisers imposed taxes on people after stealing their land is one of the biggest heists of the 20th century. (Ruto’s Housing Fund tax seems to have borrowed heavily from the Hut Tax.)

There is no more talk of human rights violations in Kenya because Western leaders have found in Ruto their Uncle Tom, the “good house negro”.

When Kenya gained independence, the former home guards became the biggest beneficiaries of land left behind by the departing British. Funded resettlement schemes were manipulated in their favour, and many dispossessed Kenyans found that independence did not result in freedom from want.

The new elite class of post-colonial rulers who had benefitted from the colonial system decided to continue with the plunder and exploitation of their own people. This was the original sin. The Mau Mau movement, which had struggled to regain land from the colonialists, was outlawed and its members found themselves either landless or forced to eke out a dehumanising existence in slums. In essence, the departing British colonisers never left – they left their agents behind – their mnyapara – who could be relied on not to disrupt Britain’s hold on its former colony.

Kenya has since colonialism remained a predatory state that only benefits a small elite and has entrenched a pernicious form of ethnic bias – an “It’s Our Turn to Eat” mentality that has ensured that power remains in the hands of just two tribes – the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin – who have ruled the country since independence. Not that this has resulted in prosperity for everyone who belongs to these two groups (the majority of Kikuyus and Kalenjin remain dirt poor), but it has entrenched a sense of entitlement among its members that has alienated other ethnic groups.

The new elite class of post-colonial rulers who had benefitted from the colonial system decided to continue with the plunder and exploitation of their own people.

There was a wave of optimism when Mwai Kibaki became president in 2002 but even his rule was soon tainted by corruption scandals and tribalism. He was accused of “Kikuyunising” top positions in government. But at least he fixed the economy that his predecessor Daniel arap Moi had ruined. Then when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto were declared winners of the 2013 election (despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court) we saw these leaders continue to promote just two tribes and go on a reckless borrowing spree that left Kenyans heavily in debt. Under the UhuRuto duo, anyone who was not a Kikuyu or a Kalenjin felt like an orphan. And corruption in government escalated by leaps and bounds. (Uhuru famously admitted that his government was losing 2 billion shillings daily and that there was nothing he could do about it.)

The Uhuru government managed to reverse almost every economic policy of the Kibaki administration. Uhuru was not just bad for the economy, he also failed to implement the recommendations on addressing historical grievances spelt out in the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission’s report, which implicated his father Jomo in land-related injustices. Most significantly, he embraced the IMF, which Kibaki had shunned because he knew that loans from the IMF come with stringent conditions that increase hardship and lead to higher poverty and inequality levels. (At the time Kibaki took office, Kenya had just been through a decade of punishing IMF-World Bank Structural Adjustment Programmes in the 1990s.)

Collective sense of disillusionment 

One of my more optimistic friends tells me that we are much better off than neighbouring countries, which have broken systems and are in constant threat of civil strife, and so I should not despair. I agree with her on some points. Kenya is still doing well on several fronts. It has among the highest literacy rates in the region and a highly educated workforce – a consequence of successive governments’ investment in education (which, sadly, is being eroded by the IMF as students are being asked to pay higher fees and as more parents withdraw their children from school due to lack of jobs). We have among the best hospitals and doctors in the world. We have not had a civil war in the last 60 years, although wa came close to having one in 2008 after the disputed 2007 election. But even that near-civil war lasted only two months; it did not drag on for years, as some wars have in neighbouring countries. Some sections of the economy are still thriving despite all the hurdles placed on them by the current regime. Our athletes are among the best and world-renowned, and some of our most talented and committed people have gained international fame. We indeed have a lot to be proud of. But why is it that now it feels like we are in a sinking ship with no lifeboats?

The reason, I believe, is that even during the Jomo, Moi, Kibaki and Uhuru presidencies there was a feeling that the leadership may be greedy and corrupt and even dictatorial but to save face or to win the hearts of the people, these leaders would eventually succumb to the will of the people. Jomo got away with political assassinations, including those of Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki, and blatant theft of land and other assets because he took over the country when people were still in the heady throes of optimism and hope about the future. Kenyans were willing to forgive his excesses because they could see the benefits of independence. Education was free as were many other services. People could feel the benefits of freedom.

His successor, Daniel arap Moi, might have been a good leader had the 1982 attempted coup not occurred. After that, he became paranoid and clamped down on the opposition. But after more than a decade in power that saw many people incarcerated and tortured for opposing his regime, Moi eventually succumbed to pressure and reintroduced multipartyism. Moi’s successor Kibaki resisted changes to the constitution but even he was forced to eventually hold a referendum on a new constitution because he saw the bloody consequences of not listening to the will of the people in 2007 when the country erupted into chaos after a disputed election. Uhuru reintroduced fuel subsidies when it became obvious to him that not doing so would cost him popular support. In all these cases, public pressure and public opinion held sway.

But there is something very different about the current administration and the people in it. They don’t care. In fact, they don’t even pretend to care. There is a Trump-like Utado? quality about the leadership that is very scary. In one year, Willam Ruto has broken almost every promise he made before the 2022 election and he is yet to apologise for it. He has threatened Kenyans with more taxes and more fines and fees, and has not once shown any remorse for the pain he is inflicting, not just on human beings but on the environment as well. Despite claiming to be a climate champion, he has legalised logging in once protected forests.

The president has surrounded himself with sycophants who display the same Trump-like qualities and who believe they are above the law, and can do anything because their boss will protect them. Instead of reassuring Kenyans, leaders are issuing threats, like the recent one by the Health Cabinet Secretary who announced that those Kenyans who do not enrol in a proposed new health insurance scheme will not receive any government services. There is a ruthlessness in the leadership that is frightening.

In one year, Willam Ruto has broken almost every promise he made before the 2022 election and he is yet to apologise for it.

Even the media, which dared to challenge Moi directly during his final years, is subdued. The opposition is compromised, thanks to “the handshake” between Uhuru and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Activists have resorted to tweeting their grievances instead of taking to the streets – because the last time people took to the streets, many were killed by the police. There is a collective sense of disillusionment. Things are so bad that even church leaders are coming out and asking Ruto to show some mercy and humility. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

Sixty years after independence we are in a worse position than we were in 1963. Levels of impunity have reached astronomical levels. Thanks to the IMF and an insensitive leadership, we are likely to see poverty and unemployment levels rise. The education sector will be strangled and qualified Kenyans will look for ways to leave the country. Kenya, one of the few countries in Africa that has not produced refugees, might see a surge in economic migrants.

No, there will be nothing to celebrate this Jamhuri Day. It will be an unhappy 60th birthday.