My abdomen clenched like a fist, my bladder tightened, I wretched and recoiled in disgust. I reflexively ducked out of the prison cell toilets.
I have grown up in boarding school, and had lived in the poor areas of Nairobi city, but nothing can prepare you for the three-foot-tall mound hill of human faeces that was slowly decomposing, two walls away from the office of the police officer in charge of Kilimani Police station. How did he survive here? How could he allow this in his police facility?
I fled back to my cell, barely three metres away. I realised how important it was that the cell had only bars where there had probably meant to be windows, otherwise the odour would have driven detainees to insanity.
I had never been incarcerated before; I had only heard about prison from reading and watching popular television shows and movies. But now my real-life journey through the so-called correctional system had begun.
I instinctively hated school all my life. Now in the prison system I knew why. School, like prison, is an instrument designed to break your will, to condition you to surrender. Not just your rights – to food, to dignity, to being treated like a human – but your free will itself, your right to choose.
In school, we were always asked, “Any questions?” But we knew the questions you could ask and the questions you couldn’t ask, even when you were deviously encouraged and prodded with, “Ask any question.” After many years of schooling, we intuitively self-censored. You knew that no teacher could actually entertain any question. When they asked if you had understood, you were supposed to say yes. The school rules, the syllabus, and the textbooks were your truth; they were all that was relevant. The truth was irrelevant.
Prison is kind of like school. I was in jail because I had distributed a leaflet containing thoughts and ideas that were outside “the approved syllabus” to the public. I had asked why young Muslim men were disappearing at the rate of four-a-week in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim area, and their tortured bodies turning up the Tsavo National Park. Others lost forever. I had asked why the leaders who purported to speak for Muslims were silent on the spate of state-sponsored killings but loud on pledges of allegiance and calls to voting during elections. I had read speeches endeavouring to wake my fellow citizens, my “school mates” in this school of life, up to the fraud being perpetrated upon us.
I had asked “Why?”
“Why?” to the tyrant is “terrorism”. The tyrant feels terrorised. “Why” isn’t just defiance, “why” is to challenge the basis of his order, the very foundation of his rule.
It is the one question you can never ask, either in school, or outside.
My odyssey was just beginning.
I was shuttled between police station’s cells, as my lawyer endeavoured to have me incarcerated in the Anti-Terror Police Unit’s (ATPU) holding facility, explaining to the magistrate that the devilish intention of the arresting officers to hold me while innocent in police cells was to inflict mental torture, as they knew what a few weeks in their stinking decrepit infrastructure would do to a human being. The magistrate granted our appeal, but how could she follow-up and monitor implementation? Once you are out of the magistrate’s court, the police do as they will.
Back to Kilimani Police Station. The cell I was in had a number of steel rings jutting out from the floor, two thirds of the circumference emerging from the floor, while the other third remained embedded in the cement floor. None of us in the cell could tell what purpose they served. They served no aesthetic or functional purpose we could think of.
Two days later, an apparent veteran of the prison system made his regular visit. He explained to us the rings were from the colonial times. Rebellious natives wouldn’t just be locked in, they would be chained to the floors of the cells they were held in. It was horrifying to imagine. But what struck me the most is that the colonial penal infrastructure is still intact. There wasn’t even a cosmetic makeover. The buildings are the exact same ones, the cells, even the cells doors are the very same ones the British imperialists built. At “independence” no one thought to rip up these degrading rings that held our grandfathers down like animals.
I was told Kilimani Police Station was the preferred holding facility where elites asked to be held when arrested. I was afraid to imagine what the rest were like.
I was transferred to Muthaiga Police Station over the weekend, after a week of interrogations about everything, except a possible crime or misdemeanour. Not once was I asked or told what crime I was being held for.
Three questions were repeated in different order and context: ”Do you believe in jihad?”, “Do you support Kenya Defence Force’s war in Somalia?”, and “Have you ever been to Somalia?”
It was odd, I thought, that they knew I had committed no criminal offence but they were content to persecute me. How did they live with this moral dilemma? How did the police go home everyday to their children and manage to find sleep knowing they had their fellow human beings locked up in inhuman conditions?
John Laurits writes in this insightful article that police training and institutions are designed to completely destroy a human being’s moral agency. Moral agency is the ability to choose between right and wrong. The militaristic chain of command takes away individual officers’ sense of moral responsibility and abstracts it all into the realm of bureaucracy. “The result is that nobody can be held responsible and the officer becomes an inanimate tool in the spooky hand of an unseen and unaccountable bureaucracy — the police officer becomes no more than a vessel for policies, totally devoid of agency and free of its consequences.” To know this from reading, and to experience it first hand, were completely different phenomena. Was this the dissonance Nabii Yusuf suffered as his brothers lowered him into a hole in the wilderness?
I was brought to Muthaiga Police Station on Friday evening. It was dark, dire and strangely very sparsely populated. I sighed with relief, but my comfort was to be short lived. “Ngoja uone,” (wait and see), my cellmate warned ominously.
At approximately ten o’clock that night there was a loud bang, commotion outside, and shouts of, “Ndani!! ndani!!” (Move in!! move in!!). Over a hundred people flooded in and were crammed into the three cells, each about nine square metres. A few were stoned but the rest seemed like anyone you’d pass by on the street on any day of the week. And as it turns out, they were.
It was dark but we could make each other out in the light reflected from the yard outside. When one of them established eye contact I asked, “What is going on? Where are you all from? What are you all doing here?”He explained to me he was netted in an “operation”, while on his way home from work. “How?” I asked incredulously. This world was new to me; his polite tone made me confident enough to ask him.
He explained that every Friday, the police would randomly cordon off different areas of public roads in Mathare, a nearby slum area, and sweep everyone caught in between into waiting police trucks. If it was your unlucky day, c’est la vie.
“What!? No!” This sounded preposterous; in my mind I thought there must be some legitimate reasons for these so-called “operations”. They could not just be mass shakedowns, it was unfathomably malevolent, it was simply unbelievable. But quietly, he told me this happened every Friday.
We fell into silence, with the occasional scuffles and fights as the drunks were disciplined by their sober comrades, who in this space had little patience for shenanigans. It was so cramped that we had to lock into each other’s thighs in squatting positions to settle in for the night and try and get some sleep. But the cramps and the freezing cold wouldn’t let any of us sleep. Why on earth would they do this? Who on earth would do this to his fellow human beings? I knew the police to be inhumane but again, to know and to experience is a world apart.
At Muthaiga Police Station, the outhouse — where one could relieve oneself — was literally outside the cellblock. We had to beg, bribe, grovel, hurl insults and vitriol at the on-duty office to let the desperate visit it. The corridor often ended being the temporary crapper.
At about 2 a.m. there was a loud shouting and banging on the doors. We could hardly see, the lights in the yard had been switched off. The police stormed the cells with torches and ordered everyone who heard their name to cross the floor where they stood armed with rifles and batons. Apparently it was roll call. I felt thankful for the rude interruption, the movement would allow us to walk and relieve the cramps.
Little did I know the open door was a gateway into another trial. As names were called out the police would randomly beat up detainees as they crossed the open space between them, roll call was running a gauntlet, literally.
Nights are long when out in the cold, but in Kenya’s jail cells nights last forever. You become certain that death from cold will find you long before the dawn does. But our will to live is stronger than we often think, and dawn does come, even in hell for a believer. When morning arrives, you are served two slices of bread and hot tea and a chance to visit the lavatory. Then you are locked up again, to begin the wait.
“Wait for what?” you might naturally ask. Not for your sins to be read, not for redemption, not even for damnation — this is the Kenya Police Force, sorry, Police Service, not God. You wait for extortion; you wait for your ransom to be read.
The caricature of an OCS (Officer in Charge of Station) waddled into the yard outside our cellblock at 9 p.m. We were swept out of the cells double time. Everyone could tell by the obsequiousness of the constables that he was the King here; his word was law.
He held out a two-foot-long book like a scroll. He read out the names of about seven of us and we were escorted back to the cells, where we watched the proceedings through the elevated barred windows of our cellblock.
The list of approximately one hundred plus detainees was read out without pause. At the end, in the guttural voice of a terribly unhealthy 100kg+ bully, he announced that every single individual whose name he had called out was charged with being drunk and disorderly and would have to pay Ksh2,000 for their freedom. He cued the police constables to herd them all back into the cellblock.
“Why on earth would they do this?” I had wondered the previous night. Then it hit me; this was why the cells had been empty when I’d arrived, they’d been cleared for the herd that was to be brought in for the night!
The one thing you have plenty of in jail is time. We all got to know each other. I sat next to the polite young man I had talked to the night before and we got talking. Sometimes I intentionally asked probing questions, looking for contradictions that would reveal deceit, but I found none.
John worked as a temporary worker at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Nairobi Industrial area and was on his way home from work, the same route he used everyday. He told me he didn’t take alcohol, and I believed him. He had a homely, mommy’s boy kinda feel to him, he struck me as the kind of guy who left work to go straight home to his wife every day, a decent human being in every sense of the word. He told me it was not the first time he had gotten caught in these “operations”. His wife knew what to do; they had a process. He would call her from the Muthaiga Police Post jail cell — the police availed a cell phone for detainees to use to call their loved ones to come and bail them out. She would go to the drawer where he kept his ATM card, she’d withdraw some money and come and bail him out. Yes, they had kidnap insurance.
But as luck would have it, his wife’s phone had been stolen a few days before and he had lost his ATM card. Therefore even if he could reach her, she had no way to access the emergency fund quickly enough to bail him out in time to go and save his temporary job at the Coca Cola plant. He was going to lose his money for no reason other than extortion, he was also going to lose his job as he was not going to report to work the next day — Saturday — and possibly also on Monday. This absence would be without reason, as far as his employer would know.
During the rest of the Saturday and Sunday, all manner of people were brought in for one, sorry reason, or another. From traffic violations, domestic quarrels, exam cheats, business disputes… the list of problems that brought people in was endless, but the answer that led out was only one: cash. The correctional system was a revolving door with free entry but paid exit.
When I thought about it, it dawned on me, that it everyone was guilty of some offence. If you were driving and in motion, a traffic violation. If stationary, a potential parking violation. If not driving, just walking was potentially loitering. If standing, you were possibly trespassing. If resisting arrest, well, drunk and disorderly. If in business, tax violation, tripwires criss-crossed everywhere around you. Every single action a human being could possibly perform in public was laced with a potential felony or misdemeanour, in a system of menacing laws and by-laws, one that ensured we were always guilty of one crime or another.
All the police needed to do was walk out into the street and arrest anyone or everyone they could. It helps them that everyone has been “educated” to cooperate with the legalised oppressors, it costs less. Therefore ten policemen will easily herd a hundred innocent people like sheep into jail. Once at the station, they can and do charge you with anything.
The police, the judiciary, the prisons…are all one business, a large extraction industry.
The industry’s mine is the country, its minerals are the people. The entire territory is a large prison, with ever increasing tripwires and contracting walls configured as laws, by-laws and boundaries. The population works to earn money to pay taxes that will keep the walls from contracting on them or their family members, and to prevent the tripwires from triggering the leg-lock traps.
Kenya, the entire Westphalian nation-state-capitalist system with all its glitter and promise is just one large mine of slaves, run by over-glorified guards and taskmasters. The slaves work in different parts and different levels of the mine, in order to serve time in specific cells and cell blocks with different levels of comfort and space. It is a panopticon equipped with an intricate system of locks and permission levels, to control movement either horizontally or vertically within the cells and cell blocks.
For instance, the other six “terror suspects” I had been brought in with were Maasai herders from Tanzania. They had been picked up in Narok, a town in the southern part of Kenya, for failing to show ID. They didn’t have passports. How Maasai herding goats in the Rift Valley, something they have done for centuries, had become a “terror offence” was beyond me and beyond them, given they didn’t even know what “terror” or “terror suspect” meant, but here they were.
Fortunately, there is nowhere angels sent cannot reach you, even in the darkest dungeons of Firaun. Mine was sent in the form of my Investigating Officer. The Muthaiga chapter of my odyssey ended early the following Monday morning.
That morning, my name alone was called. It immediately struck me as strange. I stepped out into the yard to find my Investigating Officer waiting for me. He had come to rescue me from my ordeal, I felt an overwhelming surge of fraternal affection for him. Now I understand Stockholm syndrome.
I walked out in slow uncertain steps. I was burdened with mixed feelings. Even as my heart soared in what it saw as my escape, it was weighed down by guilt. My fellow “terror suspect” detainees, the Maasai herdsmen who had suffered with me throughout the weekend, had looked at me with desperately hopeful eyes when my name was called out of the first light. “Wametukujia?” (have they come for us?), they asked desperately, hoping we would all be returned to the Terror Unit holding facility, with its working toilets and urine-free floors. I could hear them calling me, but I couldn’t look back. I still can’t. In hell, no man will care about his fellow man’s plight. You can barely bear heat of your own fires, how can you bear someone else’s?
I do not know if John lost his job at Coca-Cola, let alone if or when he was released.
I was at the Anti-Terror Police Unit holding facility for only a few more days before being promoted to full remand in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison’s Solitary Confinement Block. To await either conviction and release into the general prison population of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, or acquittal and release into the general prison population of Kenya.
This is Hotel California*, “… you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave!”
*”Hotel California” is the title track from the Eagles’ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977.
I Accuse the Press
8 min read. The trend of knee-jerk public reactions of sympathy to heart-wrenching stories in the media, where ordinary members of the public rally in support of the highlighted case, masks a deeper problem. On the one hand is the troubling pattern of media profiling of the suffering poor to gain high audience ratings and, on the other, the exclusion of millions of others whose stories never get heard and hence receive no attention or assistance.
On the 21st of July 2019, Citizen TV aired an investigative news feature, described as the “heart-rending” story of a young Kenyan man who, despite years of hard work and an excellent academic record in some of the country’s best schools, ended up homeless in the rough streets of Nairobi. The young man, Kelvin Ochieng’, is a 24-year-old who scored straight As at the famous Maranda High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi where he studied Actuarial Science and graduated with a 1st class honours off the back of a Higher Education Loan and a scholarship.
Prior to the exposé, it had been reported that Kelvin resided in the Kosovo area of Mathare, where he was being hosted by a friend—Christopher Oloo—who had rescued him from the streets and taken him into the refuge of his tiny single room which he also shared with three other men. Kelvin had sought employment with several companies without success despite his impressive academic qualifications. Returning home to his rural home where he grew up was not an option. He remained acutely aware of the grinding poverty of village life and he bore the burden of the shining star of the family who was destined to change their fortunes thanks to his academic success. His failure to meet his family’s expectations weighed heavily on Kelvin and he confessed to having contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. Kelvin could not even afford the four thousand shillings needed for his graduation, let alone attend the ceremony.
Kelvin’s story is shared by hundreds of thousands of the unemployed youth who place all future prospects on the value of their academic qualifications. Kelvin was among the top-ranked in Maranda High School class of 2011, when the school topped the country in the KCSE exam school rankings and seemed assured of a spot in the university and on the path to secure employment. When the television cameras found Kelvin, he was one among the many young men who scramble for cars to clean at a car wash in Nairobi city. The television report ignited an engaging public response on social media and a lengthy debate on how the education system fails Kenyan youth.
The trend of knee-jerk public reactions of sympathy to heart-wrenching stories in the media, where ordinary members of the public rally in support of the highlighted case, masks a deeper problem. On the one hand is the troubling pattern of media profiling of the suffering poor to gain high audience ratings and, on the other, the exclusion of millions of others whose stories never get heard and hence receive no attention or assistance. What is the plight of those young people with a fraction of Kelvin’s level of education who are forced to grapple with harsh daily realities? The ones living in Mathare, like the selfless Christopher Oloo? Like myself? It is worth noting that the altruistic benevolence of Kelvin’s graceful host was mentioned only in passing, that his story was easily shunted aside as a normalcy to be used to draw greater attention to the “special” case of an unemployed graduate. Which is why I dare state, without fear of contradiction, that the report was insulting.
Allow me to put this into context. The general analysis of how degrading it is to live in a filthy environment with no proper sanitation and to endure the heavy stench of raw sewage was valid. But they were wrong to continue perpetuating on national television the single story of Mathare Valley as one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi, and that you’ve got to watch your back because armed men live here. They had very quickly forgotten that what had brought them all the way down into the valley was indeed an act of great kindness.
What the news report was insinuating is that people with first-class degrees don’t deserve to be homeless or without income and that the insecurity and stench of Mathare is the preserve of the “less educated”. Mwalimu Wandia Njoya boldly refers to it as an “education-based discrimination” perpetrated by a kleptocracy. I couldn’t agree more. Nobody deserves to be poor, educated or not. Every person should be economically empowered regardless of his or her level of education. But as bad governance, impunity and class betrayal prevail, tolerated dehumanisation will only continue to escalate. Today I purpose to not only tell the story of Kelvin Ochieng, but also that of Christopher Oloo, who represents an infinite number of untold narratives of young Kenyans whose future is being greedily swallowed up by grand corruption which is stealing the resources that should go to development and potential job creation. Christopher’s story is my story. And I am neither on the outside looking in, nor am I on the inside looking out; I’m in the dead center, living the experience.
Mathare is rarely understood from a resident-centered perspective. Specifically, youth in Mathare are construed as being central to a critical urban problem of criminality and idleness, which constitutes the crime of which I accuse our mainstream media: that through their misguided reports they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives either through ignorance or through an established culture of bias. The media has a profit-driven mentality that has put the kibosh on its ability to assume the role of ally to the marginalised urban youth in speaking truth to power. It appears that the news agenda is solely to retain and expand the horizons of viewership. For many youth from urban ghettos, the media owners are seen as the authors of devastation who use media stations as propaganda machines to manipulate and exploit ethnic animosity among the working poor during election cycles.
Kenya is a country that sends its youth to the slaughter like innocent lambs. Most of us in Mathare did not choose to be born here and we face the odds that we face in life because we are poor and for no other reason. The limits of our ambitions seem forever set and we continue to be stereotyped as “dirty”, “crime-driven” people who are a threat to public security. The police operate in the valley as if it is the only place they need to control in order to tackle the problem of drugs and weapons.
Here, an encounter with the police is to be avoided at all costs. These wakubwa are the epitome of legitimised robbers. They stop any young man in sight on a whim and vigorously search them for clues of illegal possession, or so they make you think, while in reality this is just a strategy to check how much cash you have on you, giving them enough leverage to start building a case against you. Next, they sniff your fingers and in some cases ask you to spit on the ground to check the state of your throat and ascertain if you are a marijuana smoker. It is always important to remember that you are guilty until proven innocent. Everything has a price, too. Should the smell of marijuana be detected on you, negotiations about the purchase of your freedom begin at a thousand shillings, with an actual blunt costing you about two to three thousand shillings more. Think of this what you may, but failure to grease the palm of the mkubwa in question could earn you a painful whack on the back of the head: “Nyinyi ndio mnatemebea bila pesa mkisumbua watu hapa!” You are the type that walks around without money while causing disturbance here! Follows the threat to push you into the trunk of a nondescript car. You dupe yourself if you imagine your situation to be different and make the blunder of claiming that you know your rights. The only time you ever hear a change of tone and the words “Kijana, rudi hapa”, come back here young man, is when you have parted with “something small”.
People like to say, “If the poor don’t like the ghetto, why can’t they just leave?” and I wonder where one can really go when this is all the life they have known, where they have raised their children and have invested their little capital, if any. Go where? The few lucky enough to “make it out” of Mathare often only end up in another immiserated part of Eastlands, where the home will usually be a more spacious and solid structure, but with the same level of limited access to basic amenities, or worse. Following a fire at our house about two years ago, I helped my mother move to Githurai where I was convinced she would not have to worry about her belongings going up in flames, but less than three months later I was informed that she had moved back to the Kosovo area of Mathare. It took me a while to understand and make peace with her decision, and finally accept that she ached for a more familiar environment where she knew and could trust people, where she knew all the life hacks needed for survival. You know how they say that an old broom knows the room’s corners all too well?
The 2019 International Youth Day was themed “Transforming Education”, highlighting the efforts of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda to make education more relevant, equitable and inclusive for all youth. As kids, we were taught that in order to lead a good life, we needed to work extremely hard in school. I am more informed and mature now, more persuaded that education is meant to help you understand the world and its systems, that it should lead to effective learning outcomes, with the content of school curricula and pedagogy being fit for purpose not only for the future of work and life, but also for the opportunities and challenges brought by rapidly changing social contexts. More profoundly, it is supposed to provide the basics of a subject, then you decide on what you are going to do with the knowledge. However, Kelvin’s story is a sad commentary and a serious indictment of the state of the education system in this country. Students are not being equipped with skills that can help them survive after school. While it is a good thing to complete the education cycle and acquire some qualifications, graduating with stellar grades is not enough to set you up for success in the real world. Degree holders should also graduate in the school of life, to venture beyond the theory of the classroom and design solutions for the everyday problems facing the common man.
Less than twelve hours after Kelvin’s news story, some 1,000 job vacancies suddenly sprouted within a great number of companies around Kenya. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why the offers for employment had not been made before. I bet a multitude of those corporations had already received Kelvin’s CV in the past. What had changed so drastically as to avail all those positions in such a short time baffles me. I now like to think of ours as governance by acts of magic. To make meaning of one’s life, therefore, youth have been left to rely completely on the beneficence of unfair advantage: family fortune and connections. The rest of us have been condemned to lower our expectations in the system, be patient and hope that things will get better eventually. Again, Kelvin was singled out when his story should have been used as a case study from which tangible solutions to youth unemployment can be derived. I mean, Kelvin is sorted out; then what? And this is the sad reality of youth only being presented with opportunities when it is expedient for institutions to exploit the situation. In the end, there are never really any sustainable solutions to young people’s issues. We wind up tied to short-term fixes that have more to do with harvesting cheap labour through catchy words like “platform”, “stipend”, “youth inclusion” and so forth.
Worse still, youth agendas are largely discussed in their absence, through cosmetic symposiums and panel discussions. Important decisions are often made without their invaluable input and perspectives being taken into consideration. This in turn strips young people of the power to determine their own futures, thus perpetuating generational sabotage. In Mathare, young people are putting away their imposed differences of religion, tribe and education to rely on themselves and organise around economic empowerment with the little in their pockets, whether this means registering a youth group to formally operate a car wash, boda boda business or go into urban farming. It is a step forward towards economic liberation, a rebellion against the status quo that dictates that we should be blindly patient and hopeful that opportunities will be thrown our way one day. For until the youth are allowed to own their spaces and shape their own futures, nothing substantial will ever emanate from these conversations.
Moi: The Passing of a Father Figure
7 min read. We are a generation that seeks closure yet the death of a father figure only seems to have opened an old wound that we thought had healed. Therefore, we are called upon to engage in an honest introspection of the Nyayo era in order to understand what it takes to initiate the exercise of healing and reconciliation.
Nyayo! The word Nyayo conjures up the image of a past president and the experience of living under his regime. The term Nyayo had fallen out of usage for many of my peers until it was revived following the death of the former president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. I felt the power the word evoked before I knew its literal meaning. Nyayo means footsteps in Kiswahili. By the time Moi vacated power in 2002, I had become a proud member of a generation that believed in second chances and the eternal hope of a new spring. 18 years after Moi left power, his legacy still casts a long shadow. And so, for my generation, his death and memorial has created a moment for deep reflection.
I completed my 8-4-4 journey during Moi’s presidency. My first recollections of Moi are in primary school. This is the shared experience of a generation. I read with amusement several accounts of other Kenyans describing the anticipated presidential meet-and-greets, usually nothing more than a wave of the hand and a word of encouragement. From places as diverse as Turkana, Kitale and Nairobi, we shared the same stories. Each spoke of the reverence they accorded to a close encounter with the president. Many still speak of the Nyayo school milk programme with nostalgia. I remember the loyalty pledge and recall the words to the many songs composed in praise of Moi and his rule. These are the good memories we hang onto because the other memories of Moi’s rule are not pleasant.
After the failed coup attempt of August 1982, the sense of uncertainty grew as the regime’s aggression became more brazen. A normalisation of violence permeated society and the police operated like a predatory force. I remember the feeling of suppressed anger among the adults as life in Kenya became ngumu.
Moi was the nation’s father figure and therefore 24 years of Moi’s discharge of the role of fatherhood, both in the public and private spheres, was bound to have a tremendous influence on Kenyan patterns of masculinity. They say children ape what they see. Baba Moi was presented to us as the epitome of virtue yet what we experienced was the immorality of his power.
Baba wa Taifa, the fatherly figure I had grown accustomed to in primary school, had turned into an ogre in high school and by the time I joined university two decades later, he was a despot whose rule had become untenable.
The theme of fatherhood is a big part of Moi’s life journey. During his memorial service, his political protégés, President Uhuru, Deputy President William Ruto and opposition politician Musalia Mudavadi, all fondly remembered him as a father figure. Moi began his presidency in 1978 with a demand for blind loyalty and a public declaration that he would follow in the footsteps of the founding father of the nation, Jomo Kenyatta. Moi coined the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity, which was no philosophical treatise at all but a command to comply unquestioningly. Moi took on his role with a zeal that in Mzee Kenyatta was never witnessed. He led from the front, touring the country building gabions and manifesting sporadic acts of generosity.
From the outset, Moi encouraged a culture of political sycophancy that thrived in the 80s. I became accustomed to seeing highly accomplished members of his cabinet heaping praises on Moi and pandering to his ego. No longer dazzled by the spectacle of majesty, I started becoming conscious of the contradictions of life under Nyayo and learning the place of fear in the patterns of duplicity I noticed in adult conversations. We rarely discussed politics at home or said anything negative in public about Nyayo because walls had ears. Witnessing those who suffered the consequences of engaging in anti-Moi politics drove us deeper into denial.
Moi the man, as many who met him have testified, was disarmingly charming. He was the head of a large family that he shielded from the spotlight. I knew of his famous sons—the late Jonathan, ace rally driver, and Gideon the polo player—as men of the world enjoying the perks of privilege. The other members of the family never, ever got any media coverage and were not easily recognisable.
The details of Moi’s marriage to Helena Bomet were never open to public scrutiny; better known as Lena, she was erased from public life and remained a mystery even after her death in 2004. (The grapevine did whisper, though, that the former president maintained a discreet bevy of mistresses.) We therefore readily accepted Moi as a bachelor by choice. A tall man who maintained good posture, dressed impeccably and exuded authority, Moi cultivated an ascetic persona and his robust form was attributed to a disciplined lifestyle that embraced a strong work ethic, eschewed alcohol and made sound nutritional choices. Moi also portrayed himself as a good Christian, scrupulously keeping up appearances of religiosity. He was the embodiment of the Jogoo (KANU’s party symbol), the dominant cockerel in the homestead, reinforcing his virility with a phallic symbol in the form of a rungu, a ceremonial club that became the subject of intense fascination among the youth.
I didn’t know anything about Moi’s own father or the stories of his childhood and how his upbringing influenced his adult life. That part of his life remained shrouded in mystery and in its place was the single story of an orphan boy from a humble background who, despite the adversity of the early years, was divinely destined for leadership.
Moi mirrored the stern father figure in the patriarchal tradition and Kenya was thus caricatured as a household with diverse personalities dominated by a harsh father who terrorised all into submission, a father who brooked no dissent and was consumed by anger. This is the male persona many of my generation experienced as the norm and Moi was just the extreme manifestation of a familiar parental figure. And so, while his methods were questionable, his motivation could be rationalised. He was the product of the prevailing cultural mindset.
Fathers start out as heroes to their children. The father epitomises the ideal a child aspires to become. It is the role of the father to bless the innocent child as he welcomes it into the world. A father who loses the capacity to bless becomes a curse to his children. So when a father turns abusive, the loss of trust overwhelms the psyche and pushes the child into a state of learned helplessness. A friend described being forced to watch as his father viciously caned the problem child of a large family as a more traumatising emotional experience than the actual physical punishment.
The overbearing personality of the father of the nation was familiar within many Kenyan households. But it is only after I became a father that I began to realise that a father’s bravado and outward show of strength is often a cover for vulnerability and in a culture where vulnerability is a sign of weakness, the façade is maintained even after the death of a patriarch.
Moi was not a relaxed man. He was rigid and vindictive. So when Mwai Kibaki came along with his unhurried manner and famed love of beer, the physical and emotional contrast between the two men was glaring. Kibaki came accompanied by a first lady, Lucy Kibaki, who had her own voice. The country witnessed the drama of a president’s private affairs playing out in public and a sense of vulnerability never previously seen from the holder of that high office. Kibaki was not pretending that he had it all together and he did not seem particularly bothered to be judged weak. Kibaki’s successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been humanised by the calm presence of his wife Margaret Kenyatta, despite the overriding sense of an irresponsible father completely divorced from the effects of his actions on those under his care. However, it remains apparent that Moi’s exaggerated masculinity has become the default position for political posturing. The Nyayo years birthed an alpha male complex that is still thriving and where politics is a charade of might, on display for the single purpose of retaining power, and that often involves violence.
It is difficult to mend a relationship with a father who uses violence to obtain validation. The refusal to forgive becomes an act of justice for those who have endured suffering. One can respect the context of the offender but forgiveness is much harder to arrive at without the active and honest participation of the offender. So many adopt a victim mentality, since we are socialised into a culture of violence that arose from the legacy of colonialism, and brutality is accepted as a rite of passage into adulthood.
The betrayal of a father figure and the shame the victim endures feeds an anger that can become self-consuming, leaving one feeling helpless. This is a national condition that has set in with the complete loss of trust in the ruling elite’s motivations, and is compounded by a sinking sense of entrapment because, even though Moi—personified as the original tormentor—is dead, his disciples still rule in the house that he built. It is the collective trauma of a generation communicating loudly in a silence that has been mistaken for solemnity. Death offers some exoneration, for it allows for courage to voice out one’s truth as an exercise in closure and as part of the process of forgiving a father shackled by his own notoriety.
In a society that retains rituals that build and preserve the community of the ruling elites, the citizens who are held hostage and turned against each other in the contest for power by the elites lose all hope of justice. After the conflict, the elites perform elaborate rituals of redemption and reconciliation while the citizens, torn by violence, are left with the bitterness of sharing space with their offenders. The leaders, guided by firm precedent, are never accountable for their excesses and those who have suffered under them learn to grieve in private.
The elaborate charade of Moi’s redemption ritual has been exhausting, knowing that those who share responsibility for the transgressions of the Moi regime continue to manufacture their own narratives of conversion. As justice is deferred, memory becomes the last space for contest but even that is no longer sacred.
To achieve closure for past atrocities and inhumanities and bring healing, one has to remember correctly. Though we are socialised to forget our pains through the doctrine of “accept and move on”, Sigmund Freud warned that we repeat what we don’t want to remember. Memory is necessary for healing for it aids in scrutinising the motives of the offender and the circumstances that gave birth to those motives so that we do not end up becoming what we hate. Psychologists talk of the limitation of focusing hate on a father when the problem lies beyond him. In understanding the circumstances that created the father, we gain a real chance to liberate ourselves from the bondage of our past.
We are a generation that seeks closure yet the death of a father figure only seems to have opened an old wound that we thought had healed. Therefore, we are called upon to engage in an honest introspection of the Nyayo era in order to understand what it takes to initiate the exercise of healing and reconciliation. Beyond the apportioning of guilt, the bigger task is to restore the broken social fabric that is devastating our communities. We need new rituals in the face of an impotent justice system, to get the offenders and the victims to share the bitter herb of truth lest we give over our whole lives to defending our positions and forgetting the value of restoring the disrupted social harmony in society. And it starts with acknowledging that Nyayo broke us and that our pieces were scattered to the four winds.
The Contested Narratives of a Dead Man’s Legacy
8 min read. Kenyans are passionately split into two constituencies: those that remember the late former president Daniel Arap Moi as vile and reprehensible and those that remember him as a benign Baba. But it is our duty to critique him, to hold him accountable for his wrongs, and to allow the stories he suppressed to be told. This is necessary as it is also cathartic, an exercise that can be the beginning of an exorcism that this country’s troubled soul so desperately needs.
The death of former president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi has drawn mixed reactions from various quarters. On social media, there are those who are feting his strengths, from his health and discipline in keeping physically fit, to the Maziwa ya Nyayo school feeding programme, to keeping Kenya “an island of peace”. Then there are those who remember him as the man who ruled Kenya with an iron fist, under whose regime there were several hugely controversial and still unresolved murders, most glaringly that of former foreign affairs minister Robert Ouko. Then there are those others who, in cynical Kenyan fashion, are demanding a public holiday because, well, am not sure why, but that’s just the Kenyan condition, in its fearful and wonderful glory. To say the reaction to Moi’s death is a mixed bag is an understatement. That different people have different ideas of his legacy should not be something to be resisted but something to be accepted and celebrated.
I remember as a child in the early 90s sitting with my late dad, an avid historian—and my sisters, watching Moi on television addressing a huge crowd. One of my sisters wondered why people would choose to come out and cheer such an awful politician with such a terrible political record. (For context, I was born and raised in a region that made no bones about its disdain for Moi. Combine that with a household that approached politics with a critical fascination and that conversation wasn’t out of place.) It is my dad’s response that I so clearly remember: “Regardless of what we know or think about him, look at that turn-out, history will judge him as a popular man”.
In a country with a short memory, a terrible grasp of history and a hugely youthful population where more than two-thirds is under 25 years, it may be difficult to recall a time when the level of expression and openness we are currently experiencing was unheard of. That we can say what we think about the late president should be celebrated as a sign of freedom of expression, one that wasn’t available under his regime. Moi is like that elephant in the old poem that several blind men touched and interpreted to be different things. Just like the elephant was a wall, a fan, a tree, etc., Moi was a dictator, a tribalist, a corrupt individual, a political strategist of Machiavellian genius, the man who ruined a country, the tree planter, the gabion builder and, of course, just Baba. Baba who walked with his ivory rungu (with all its phallic symbolism), the emblem of his power and exclusivity. Moi was all these things to different people.
However one felt about Moi, we can collectively agree that Moi made his presence felt everywhere. It was in the way his activities dominated the news bulletins, in the way graduation ceremonies were at the mercy of his diary because he was chancellor of all public universities. It was in the way we were reminded of his benevolence through the milk that was periodically delivered to primary schools. It was in the way development projects were withheld from areas of the country he perceived as opposed to him. It was in the way schools and other public institutions were named after him. It was in the way he hired and fired senior government officials on a whim and kept them glued to the one o’clock news. How he mastered and liberally weaponised divide-and-rule politics, creating and destroying political careers like the all-powerful sovereign he had fashioned himself to be. It was in the various random acts of kindness he extended to certain citizens, for which the recipients were eternally loyal whilst others viewed them as nothing but exercises in pious performativity. It was in the way he named a public holiday after himself and on the very first Moi Day got the popular Congolese musician Mbilia Bel, then in the prime of her career, to re-write one of her hits and perform the song live, in praise of his regime. And it goes without saying that the song was played all the time on national radio. Many other songs were composed in his praise, ad hoc compositions for the numerous Harambees he attended. Moi also captured the national imagination with his almost invisible private life. The wife we only heard about but never saw, not to mention the rumours of the incident that led to her banishment. Moi captured the state, made the ruling party KANU his domain, and remained a fixture in the visuals and imagination of Kenyan citizens. He was The Sun King of his time, l’état, c’est moi could have been his alternative slogan, it certainly was the zeitgeist of the time for those who remember his rule.
It is Moi’s luck that he ruled at a time when the flow of information could be controlled by the government. With limited independent news and TV stations outside of the compromised state broadcaster, it was difficult to get news narratives outside of what the government wanted reported. Distances, in terms of geography, and lack of freedom of speech meant that we got to hear what the government wanted us to hear and any alternative stories were quickly killed, and if they couldn’t be contained, they would be easily delegitimised. Of course, it really helped that his regime existed in a technologically different time, before the era of citizen journalism. He did not have to deal with the narrowcasting headache of citizens practising everyday resistance by filming, shaming and naming his political misdeeds, socially organising beyond geographical limits and demanding political accountability.
And so there are stories that we will never know unless we actively endeavour to record them as part of our history. We will never know the accounts of the victims of tribal clashes in Kenya, particularly the 1992 clashes. The Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Kennedy Kiliku compiled a report, popularly known as the Kiliku Report, but it was shot down by Members of Parliament and its findings aren’t available to the public. One of the few things we do know is that six cabinet ministers were adversely mentioned in the report and they wasted no time in pre-emptively lawyering up. This is but one example of the histories that we have failed to record under the Moi regime.
Reminders of Moi’s violence are present with us, physically and metaphorically. They are in the Nyayo House Torture Chambers where unspeakable acts of violence were committed against people whose only crime was to have a contrary imagination of societal happiness. They are in the shame of our complicit national silence, that we refuse to honour these individuals who risked so much to give us the political freedoms we enjoy today. The freedom that allows me to write this article, which at the time of my birth would have been labelled seditious material, eliciting dire consequences. It is in the failure to open the torture chambers to the public as a memorial to our dark history. We are reminded of him by the Nyayo Monument at Uhuru Park which looms over the city like an avenger ready to whip errant citizens back into line.
Perhaps Moi’s greatest political legacy is being felt today as his political acolytes of the early years of his rule now run the country. In a country that is struggling economically and experiencing a social breakdown of order of sorts, many have been quick to draw the symmetry between the current times and the economic dire straits of the Moi regime, especially from the 90s to the early 2000s. The Jubilee government has been kind to Moi, sanitised him some will say, and helped erase his little black book of political misdemeanours, leaving in its place the image of a benign granddaddy/Baba whose leadership Kenyans fondly miss and yearn for. More glaringly for those pursuing the symmetry angle, is the transition politics Kenya is currently undergoing. Deputy President William Ruto is facing hostility and frustration from sections of a government that he is part of, and this has been linked to efforts to prevent him from ascending to power in 2022 when President Uhuru’s term comes to an end. Ruto—who entered into a political pact with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 as a way of countering the charges brought against both of them at the International Criminal Court in The Hague—has been likened to Moi, who faced humiliation and opposition from a section of President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime.
As Kenyans get to express their various opinions about their second president, he will also be remembered abroad. For the people of South Sudan, there will be those that will remember the support Moi gave to the Sudan Mediation Process in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, a process that, under the stewardship of Rtd General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and ultimately to the birth of South Sudan as a nation state in 2011. During the Sudan civil war, the Kenya government gave the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leadership tacit support, allowing them and their families to live in Kenya and taking in refugees from South Sudan. Kenya’s role during the cold war cannot go without mention either. As a littoral state, geographically positioned in the horn of Africa, Kenya was of great interest to the Cold War powers. The country allied itself with the western capitalist bloc and proved to be a significant American ally, signing military agreements giving the US naval access at the coast. At a time when most countries in the Horn were deemed to be socialist-leaning, Kenya became a key entry point for the capitalist bloc in the proxy Cold War excursions in the Horn of Africa.
A lot can be written about Moi; these contested narratives about him should be taken as a boon, an opportunity to write the complete and contrary histories of this man who ran a country for 24 years as head of state but whose political career preceded the birth of Kenya as a nation state. This was a man who joined the Legislative Council in 1955, was part of the Lancaster House delegation of Kenyan leaders that negotiated our country’s independence. Moi was in the first opposition government of newly independent Kenya as a member of Kenya African Democratic Union, KADU. He served as a cabinet minister and eventually as vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta. All this took place more than two decades before he ascended to the presidency. All Kenyans, and specifically the critical thinkers of our time, ought to explore the structural consequences of Moi’s regime on the Kenyan condition. While Moi might have been credited with keeping Kenya peaceful during his tenure, as events in 2007/2008 would show, this was but a Potemkin village whose internal contradictions eventually unravelled. The vagaries of Moi’s regime, the physical, economic, political and psychological violence all took a toll on the nation state; something had to give. He perpetuated a political legacy that he had inherited, where the country was at the mercy of powerful political and economic interests keen on extracting and enriching themselves. Beyond the political repression were the economic consequences of his regime: rampant looting and corruption. It is our responsibility to critique these political and economic actions and their effect on the social breakdown of our society.
That we must deconstruct and interrogate Moi’s political career is not just about freedom of expression. It is our civic duty. It is our responsibility to future generations whose only glimpse into who this man was will be in the written and oral histories we will leave behind. We should as a nation engage with this man’s political career especially since he was present during so many critical political moments in Kenya’s history. Part of understanding our history involves understanding pivotal political personalities around this history. So we must critique him, we must hold him accountable for his wrongs, we must allow the stories he suppressed to be told. This is necessary as it is also cathartic. This exercise can be the beginning of an exorcism that this country’s troubled soul so desperately needs. From Moi’s death we can find life, we can choose to reconstruct what our country will look like into the future as we discard the ills his regime and those before him foisted on us. From these contested narratives we can set a new trend where we honour dead public figures by thoroughly examining what their life as public leaders was. This is how we create a culture of transparency and accountability, holding our public leaders accountable in life and even in death, particularly those whom we couldn’t fully hold to account during their lifetime. Ours is a nation with a troubled soul and this could be the beginning of our healing.
Moi’s death will certainly expose Kenyans to an experience similar to what Zimbabweans went through following the death of their founding father, Robert Mugabe, in 2019. There are those that will love him and will let that love come shining through. There are those that will hold him accountable for the grievous political, economic and social injury he inflicted on the country and its citizens. For those whom he wronged, the victims that never received recognition, compensation and/or closure, they will experience a myriad of emotions; from anger at justice miscarried, to sadness. It is a time they are likely to relive their trauma at the hands of the former president. The Kenya government position is clear: instructions for flags to be flown at half-mast, national mourning up until the burial, and a state funeral. A hero’s send-off. Given that the President and Deputy President have a shared history with the late former president, this doesn’t come as a surprise. For the rest of Kenyans, we are passionately split into two constituencies: those that remember him as vile and reprehensible and those that remember him as Baba. Then there is that other constituency that couldn’t care less, the one that just wants a public holiday.
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