Kenya’s tides of times have turned against the flow of progress. We are right back where we once were in 1989 – 1997, and slightly beyond. The country is in a treacherous state-driven free fall. Young people are asking, “What is happening to our country?” Older generations are saying, “We have been here.” And future generations will ask, “What was wrong with those people? Couldn’t they learn?”
The tides of the present times rudely flash you back to 1994 when Sheikh Khalid Balala, a fiery Islamic street preacher, was stripped off his Kenyan citizenship. His sin was preaching about a free and fair democratic society. Not so sure of how to deal with him, a panicky government outlawed him while he had travelled abroad. This week the world woke up to news of deportation of another citizen. Miguna Miguna of the NRM was rudely bundled out of his motherland for agitating for electoral justice. This is tragic mischief.
Yet it is not new. We recall how, three decades ago, advocates of political pluralism were manhandled into helicopters and ferreted to their home districts to answer to counterfeit political charges. The state later dropped the charges without any explanation. Three decades later, we have again witnessed the state romping about with a citizen and attempting to arraign him before a law court, hundreds of miles away from where he was alleged to have committed a political crime that they cannot even frame. Unlike 1991, the state has found an assertive Judiciary that has rejected to be complicit to misrule.
It is also recalled how the Kanu state once frustrated the push to free airwaves in the early 1990s. Mr SK Macharia of Royal Media Services fought numerous court battles before establishing Radio Citizen. The Nation Media Group was taken round and round in legal circles before it eventually sent out its first TV signal. Earlier, there was a clampdown on political periodicals, including Beyond, Viva and Society. Salim Lone, who published Viva, and Pius Nyamora of Society, were hounded out of the country, their publications banned. David Makali and Bedan Mbugua, who edited Beyond, were jailed for refusing to kowtow to state dictates through a compromised court system. Asked to choose between apologising for publishing the truth and going to jail, they chose jail. Citizens were directed to burn old copies of their papers. Those who were found with them were instantly sent to jail. Nearly 30 years later, the clampdown on the media is back. We have seen TV stations arbitrarily taken off air by a draconian Cabinet Secretary.
We also recall how the state deliberately poisoned inter-ethnic relations in the country, 30 years ago. Agitated spear-wielding tribesmen would stop buses to flash out people from other tribes. They would clobber them up senselessly, and even killed others. Charles Hornsby has documented this in the great work titled Kenya: A History Since Independence, published in 2012. The state balkanised Kenyans into ethnic cocoons and encouraged them to be hostile to each other. Parts of the country were declared “no-go zones” for political dissenters. Nakuru Kanu chairman Wilson Leitich issued an edict calling for chopping off of the fingers of anyone who flashed the two-finger multiparty symbol. A number of fingers were actually chopped off. Do we appear to be going right back there?
In that dark season, the Judiciary served at the beck and call of the Executive. There were no court orders of the kind that we see today, for the Judiciary was a frightened little rat that had been rained on. Today, the Judiciary stands tall as the last firewall in the fight against state autocracy. Barricaded in independence and operating behind the bulwark of security of tenure, the Judiciary remains our last hope. Yet, have we seen efforts to bring down this wall? The switching off of four TV stations last week was a huge threat to a sustained open society. Yet even worse was the defiance that met a court order to restore them. Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i’s glee was frightful not so much because of what he could do to individual dissenters, but more because of where he is taking the country.
The draconian conduct of the Jubilee administration since 2013 makes a strong case for training and induction of those privileged to exercise state power. This is about all of them, without exception. Right from State House all the way down, the attitude and conduct has been one of regal and monarchical autocracy. Those in power behave as if the country is their personal property. They treat citizens as if they were indentured slaves or serfs, squatting on this property. Communication from the top is full of sneering contempt and strongman attitudes. Uhuru Kenyatta’s handling of journalists covering one of his events told it all. He sneered, smacked and derided.
A road such as Kenya’s youthful Jubilee leaders have placed Kenya is not sustainable. Sooner or later, the country could snap. When you mingle with people freely outside State House and in other privileged forums away from the centre of power, you get to understand just how fragile Kenya has become. There is a restless and disillusioned population out there, waiting for the tinderbox of the state to explode.
There is a restless youthful generation that believes it has nothing to lose, except its chains. Such is the generation you saw at Raila Odinga’s function in Uhuru Park on Tuesday 30 January. It is a population that is getting on the brink. You take it for granted at your own risk and peril. Those attempting to roll the country back to the ‘90’s should reflect on this. They could be cutting off more than they can chew.
- The writer is a Strategic Public Communications Adviser. [email protected]
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