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Uhuru’s idolisation of colonial era fight is political game plan

A recurrent theme in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s official speeches is Kenya’s suffering under the yoke of colonialism and the heroic role in liberating the country. The only other president that had as much to say about colonialism is Jomo Kenyatta, his father. Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, the two presidents sandwiched by the Kenyattas, did not particularly have strong views on the subject of Kenya’s colonialism.

“Kenyatta Day,” now Mashujaa Day, was initially a defiant commemoration of the declaration of a state of emergency following which the senior Kenyatta and five others were jailed in Kapenguria, an occurrence that marked the beginning of the country’s war of independence.

In his first speech as Prime Minister when Kenya commemorated Kenyatta Day in 1964, Kenyatta explained that “the day that bears my name...reminds me very vividly of all the phases and milestones of more than forty years of work and service, dedicated to the freedom and the dignity of Africa, and to pan-African ideals.”

Thus, Kenyatta accepted the naming of the day after himself explaining that it was a just reward in his role as a nationalist for Kenya, and for continent too.

Speeches by the younger Kenyatta contain strong rhetoric on Kenya’s heroic struggle for independence, something he shares with his father.

In the father’s 1964 speech, the senior Kenyatta addressed the already-controversial subject of the relative contribution by different segments of Kenyan society in the struggle for independence, saying:

There have been murmurs here in Kenya about the part played by one set of people, or another set of people, in the struggle for Uhuru. There has been talk of the contribution made, or refused, by this group or that. There has been—at times—vindictive comment, and a finger of scorn has been pointed at some selected race, or group, or tribe. All this is unworthy of our future here.

Dismissed the claim

In that speech, the Prime Minister was addressing a claim that because the Kikuyu had played a greater role in the liberation movement than other communities, they were entitled to a greater share of the fruits of independence. While, on the occasion, Kenyatta dismissed the claim as “unworthy,” he eventually publicly embraced it seven years later. According to Daniel Branch, in a speech by Kenyatta in 1971, the late president said:

Some want to tell us that Kenya belongs to all the people. Granted, I know that much. But I have a question to ask: When we were shedding blood, some languished in prison and some suffering in the forests, fighting for uhuru, where were the bloody other? ...If you want honey, bear the sting of the bee...

Under the first Kenyatta, the centrality of references to the independence struggle was inevitable, especially since colonialism had only just ended.

However, his views also imposed two ideologies: the first was a presentation of his personal role in Kenya’s liberation in messianic terms and the second was a categorisation of citizens into multi-layered hierarchies, the highest being those from communities that had played the greatest role in the independence struggle and lowest those who had not.

The younger Kenyatta took power in 2013 on a platform of Kikuyu nationalism, invoking the now-latent ideologies of his father that cast both their family and the larger ethnic group into an exclusive role as the direct antagonists of the British and their friends, who were now trying to harm them, and Kenya, a second time through the International Criminal Court. 

At one level, the younger Kenyatta’s continuing idolisation of the founding fathers and colonial-era suffering is a resuscitation of the ideology of laying a larger claim on Kenya, while “othering” those regarded as less deserving because of their lesser contribution. In the manner that he employs this ideology, the current Kenyatta seeks to achieve a number of objectives.

The first is to maintain the messianic claim that his father made over Kenya and from which the son asserts a hereditary claim. If the first Kenyatta maintains his messianic status, this also shields the son from the legitimacy deficit presented by the unresolved questions around his election.

Secondly, this ideology is needed for maintaining the cohesion of the sub-national identities that supported Kenyatta in 2013 and 2017, and which the president may still need when transacting his exit from office. Thirdly, the ideology warns his political competitors that Kenya has a hierarchy of entitlement, a glass ceiling, which they must understand and must not breach.

Fourth, Kenyatta’s strong anti-colonialism rhetoric lessens the burden of Kenya’s accountability to the international community, by reminding the world that those who colonised Kenya and who now control global opinion, are not fit to throw the first stone against the country.

Fifth, Kenyatta’s rhetoric seeks to excuse government failings by blaming everything, past and future, on colonialism.

- The writer is the executive director at KHRC. [email protected]