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By remembering Dark Days, we can avert return of oppression

Lawyer Pheroze Nowrojee during the presidential petition at the supreme court, Nairobi on 2nd September 2022 [David Gichuru, Standard]

What are the Dark Days that one hears of in so many political discussions? Dark Days turn up in interviews, newspaper columns, blogs, Letters to the Editor, podcasts and rallies. Why are they recalled, held up as warnings, identifying the dangers to us today?

The Dark Days were the times of difficulty when the Kanu regime under its leaders was in power from 1964 to 2002. It was a time of great oppression and heavy institutional damage to the country.

The tenure of judges was abolished in 1986, of the Accountant-General in 1982, of the Attorney-General in 1982, the secret ballot for elections in 1988; publications were banned, corruption and injustice were rampant. The professions were also damaged. They could have prevented all this. Because bad governance does not depend only upon the endless line of corrupt sycophantic politicians.

Bad governance relies heavily on bad professionals. Bad governance takes hold when professions fail. Bad governance cannot take hold where the professions stand to their own beliefs and ideals.

All this is why certain events in the present are signs of real danger to us today; that the present Executive may move to acquire the same authoritarian power that the Kanu Executive had unlawfully captured. The current attacks on the judges is such a sign, and real danger. When judges become subservient to the Executive, the only effective remedy of the people against oppression becomes completely blocked.

The lesson from the Dark Days is clear. Whether openly or clandestinely, the current attacks are the clearest sign that the Executive wants to make the Judiciary subservient and obey the Executive’s wishes. It will leave people suffering injustice from the State and its agents without any remedy.

Another big lesson of the Dark Days is that many different sectors of the country must unite in speaking out against this danger; not just grumbling to themselves and keeping public silence. That does not lessen the danger. It does not help honest judges or the institution of the Judiciary.

Another danger from the Dark Days of the greatest relevance to us today is when the Executive treats civil servants as the private ‘casual labourers’ of the Executive. This too is gravely unconstitutional. The Public Service is there to obey but not to obey unlawful orders. The integrity of the Public Service is as important as that of the Judiciary.

The President cannot appoint whoever he likes where he likes; nor can he sack any public officer at his own wish, nor demote, nor transfer the officer summarily to Lokitaung to punish him. This law is to prevent the President using such steps to instill fear and therefore obedience, to make civil servants do things for the Executive which they are not supposed to do. It is a major sign of unconstitutional government and oppression. When the police service is then used to break up and shoot at other peaceful remedies, the police officers become an army against its own people.

This is of special concern to us today because such lawlessness and control by the Executive also by-passes and weakens the key institution of devolution. It creates a clandestine and illegal provincial administration, which is loyal only to the one-man power, regardless of the Constitution.  This is centralised power. The Dark Days taught us that when there is centralised power, there is centralised wealth. It is no coincidence that all our past presidents have become the wealthiest person in Kenya in their time.

To keep power, all oppressors keep increasing oppression as resistance increases. In the Dark Days, the Kanu government built special torture chambers in the basement and the top floor of Nyayo House in Nairobi. When the Kanu regime finally fell in 2002, the torture chambers were opened up and shown to the public. The premises were supposed to be kept as a museum to serve as a reminder not to go that way again. But the museum was never set up. Now we have forgotten what had happened in that building, which many thousands use every day, unknowing of its soiled past.

This lesson from the Dark Days was clarified by the Czech freedom fighter writer Kundan Milera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We must not forget. Only by remembering can we recognise the dangers and prevent the return of oppression. And more dark days.

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