December 27, 2002. 10 in the morning. Donholm Primary School. Embakasi Constituency. I am in line to cast my vote in the most important election in the country’s history up to that time. It is also my second election having voted for the first time in the 1997 election for the dynamic Charity Ngilu and her Social Democratic Party (SDP), who lost to Moi. Now in 2002, as I stood quietly in line and thought about the election I was to take part in, I was quietly confident since my favourite politician had banded with many others to form a coalition against Daniel Arap Moi’s preferred candidate, Uhuru Kenyatta. As the line got closer to the school gate, I noticed that there were posters on the floor with the message Uhuru Ni Moi. These posters had images of both the outgoing president and the presidential candidate and the jogoo that represented the political party that had been baba na mama to me for all my life. The message was simple enough. Voting for the new party leader was the same as voting for the outgoing leader.
The Moi leadership was real to me. As a child born in the 1970s and growing up in the 1980s, I would observe the leadership of this man from Sacho keenly. As a child, I was the biggest fan of Baba wa Taifa, Mkulima Number One, Everything Number One. The image of the tall, lanky man getting into the dirt to help build gabions with fellow Kenyans on VOK (now KBC) was seared in my memory. Favourably. I was one of the many children singing praise songs of the dear leader as a member of the Nairobi Primary Schools Mass Choir at the Nyayo National Stadium on national holidays.
I grew up seeing the President taking part in events every day on the television, but my life was also touched by him and the projects of his administration. My personal favourite was the free milk that would come to school every Tuesday that we knew as Nyayo Milk. The orange packs with diagonal white stripes held delicious milk. And it was free. Then there were other projects that made me proud to be a child of the land of Kenya. The All Africa Games in 1987 which brought the continent to Kenya and Michael Jackson’s brother Jermaine to perform at the opening ceremony. The Nyayo Pioneer – my country had built its own car. While the car, driven by the president at Nyayo Stadium, didn’t run for long, we could brag that we had our own car as a country like Japan had Toyotas, France had Citroen, the UK had Land Rover and the USA had Ford. In my young eyes, my country was perfect.
Goldenberg would introduce the country to the concept of “billions”.
The first time that I realised that things weren’t as rosy as they seemed in my mind was in February, 1990. I had just started my form one classes at Upper Hill School and I was headed to get public transport in town when I found drama on the streets as riot police chased citizens around town. The cause of the riots was the slain body of the then missing Foreign Minister, Robert Ouko, had been found and people were unhappy. The well-spoken, polished minister had been my favourite in the cabinet of my still beloved Nyayo. As the weeks and months went on, my carefully constructed view of the leader of the country started unravelling as more people spoke out in protest against his administration. The scales were falling from my eyes.
Not long after, we would hear of a term -Goldenberg- which put to shame all previous scandals that had been creeping into the Kenyan consciousness. Goldenberg would introduce the country to the concept of “billions”. Before then we would speak of things in hundreds, thousands, millions and hundreds of millions. This madness saw our currency devalued by one third overnight leading to hyperinflation that was never seen before nor since. The economy would almost grind to a halt and would only really recover after the dear leader had left office in 2002.
The human cost of the presidency was also steep. Kenyans would die mysteriously in Molo, Burnt Forest and other areas to subvert the elections of the 1992. With a little over 30 percent win, Daniel Arap Moi was announced President by Zacchaeus Chesoni, who was then rewarded with the Chief Justice position. Other Kenyans died in Likoni and Rift Valley in 1997, leading to the incumbent remaining in office as Samuel Kivuitu announced his “second term.” When people weren’t dying because of elections, many who had been critical of the dear leader would die in mysterious circumstances. By car accident. Shot. Others would appear broken after being tortured by state operatives. Those who weren’t dying were fleeing the country like rats off a sinking ship.
By 2002, when I was casting my vote, the country was so broken that everyone had to gang up and vote off the administration from the Survivor Island that Kenya had become. I joined my country and voted for the opposition. The tribe had spoken. We expected freedom like never before. We would have three years of plenty democracy, two years of bananas and oranges and five years of what appeared to be an uncomfortable unity government under Mwai Kibaki.
Another election was in the offing. This was again the most important election in my lifetime. It’s funny how every election is the most important election in our lifetime.
August 8, 2017. 4pm. Highway Secondary School. Starehe Constituency. Another election was in the offing. This was again the most important election in my lifetime. It’s funny how every election is the most important election in our lifetime. As I walked towards the secondary school gate, I would see some other discarded election posters as I had at previous plebiscites. Most were from activist Boniface Mwangi, who was running for area MP. While we were chatting, the security guard at the voting station gate left me to let in a truck filled with army personnel. At the sight of that many soldiers in the sleepy South B suburb, my blood went cold as I walked in to make my mark on the ballot in this latest “most important election.”
It was a half hour affair as I walked into the polling station, got my voting papers and made my decision in the booth. Choosing not to waste my vote, there were only two possibly candidates for me for the Presidential ballot: incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga. Between the two, mine was a simple choice. It was either to stick with the incumbent who had a record over the last few years or go with a new man who was as yet untested where executive powers were concerned.
The incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, had come to power facing charges at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity for his actions during previous elections. The same applied to his running mate, William Ruto. It looked bleak for him but against the odds, he won the election, took over the State House and started pretty well. He promised free laptops for all Standard One pupils in government schools. Businesses even tendered for this project. In the end, this signature project went nowhere because of irregularities in the tendering process.
He promised a new era of leadership but what we got instead was mega corruption exposes. Arap Moi’s modus operandi had been crushing the economy with scandals like Goldenberg and bankrupting every government agency and parastatal. This new guy’s specialty was nothing short of magic. Billion dollar loans called Eurobonds disappeared mysteriously and those connected with some of his cabinet members carted off money in sacks. Then there were family members at the centre of many of the administration’s scandals that were faithfully exposed by the opposition. The worst part was that the amounts involved were gargantuan compared to his political godfather who had been running the country down for close to quarter of a century. On grand corruption, the student had outdone the master.
On grand corruption, the student had outdone the master.
The human cost of his administration hadn’t been the best either. Many people who had been witnesses to the cases at the International Criminal Court had disappeared. People who had views that differed from the country’s leadership with names like Abubakar Shariff, an imam known as Makaburi, and Sheikh Aboud Rogo, were gunned down in broad daylight. In just under 5 years, the student had learnt to use violence with the same vim as the teacher.
It was, as mentioned before, as simple a decision as I had made in 2002 when I ticked the presidential ballot and left to follow the proceedings from my house.
Friday, September 1. 11:00am. The Supreme Court was ruling on an election petition by Raila Odinga claiming that the election, which had seen Uhuru Kenyatta declared the President-Elect, had been a farce. The whole country was on tenterhooks as we waited to hear the ruling. It had been a tense few days since the final hearing of the Presidential petition in Kenya. A couple of weeks since we went to the polls with nearly thirty people killed by the state’s security machinery in that time. Chief Justice David Maraga read his ruling: the election was nullified and the country would be going to another Presidential election.
A few hours later, we would see the President, red-eyed and furious, accepting the justice of the court but undermining the court with his statements. As this voter saw him trembling from anger and possibly other substances, he remembered that poster he saw on December 27, 2002. It was right after all.
Uhuru ni Moi. Only worse.
By James Murua
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.
Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.
This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.
First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.
The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.
The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?” In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!
The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.
These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.
Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.
This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.
I Know Why God Created Makeup
I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.
It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.
You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.
There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.
The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.
Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.
You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.
For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital. Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.
Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!
On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.
You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.
Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.
Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look. Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.
At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.
The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.
A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.
Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.
I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.
In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.
The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.
When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.
When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.
When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.
Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.
As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.
Long Reads1 week ago
The Possibilities and Perils of Leading an African University
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
The Charles Mugane Njonjo Kenyans Suffered
Politics1 week ago
Shambolic Migration to New Kenyan E-Passport
Politics1 week ago
Battery Arms Race: Global Capital and the Scramble for Cobalt in the Congo
Politics1 week ago
Mozambique: The State Has Lost Trust and Remains Unaccountable
Politics1 week ago
Kenya’s Battle with COVID-19: The Highs and Lows
Photos1 week ago
Diani’s Changing Waters
Op-Eds1 week ago
Stories That Shaped 2021