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From Jomo to Uhuru: The rise of politics of the stomach in Kenya

By Special Correspondent | September 13th 2020
Opposition leaders, among them Martin Shikuku and James Orengo, during the Saba Saba rally in Nairobi in July 1990. [File, Standard]

Dissent in Kenya has strayed a long way from issue-based engagements of gone years to selfish focus in the political class.

Competition for control of the State among the political elite today makes everything look like pursuit of personal political agenda within the political cream.

The main actors are President Uhuru Kenyatta, ODM leader Raila Odinga and Deputy President William Ruto. They continue to dramatise politics in a manner that seems to have little focus on what is in it for the ordinary citizen, when viewed against the political competitions and agitations of yester years.   

At the height of the JM Kariuki assassination debate in Parliament in October 1975, Attorney General Charles Njonjo referred to a number of MPs as rebels.

These were vocal legislators, who demanded that the whole truth about the murder should come out. They were concerned that the State was trying to cover up vital facts, owing to what was seen as State complicity in the killing. The MP for Butere, Martin Shikuku, was quick to respond: “We are not rebels. We are just critics.” 

Shikuku went on to explain that criticism of State excesses was critical for a healthy democracy. If criticism and dissent in the Legislature was scuttled, he said, Parliament would die “the way they killed Kanu”. There was instant shock and uproar. Led by Vice President Daniel arap Moi, they wanted to understand Shikuku clearly. What exactly did he mean that Kanu had been killed? Rising on a point of order, the VP sought an explanation: “Mr Deputy Speaker Sir, what does the honourable member mean by saying Kanu is dead? Does he mean that I am dead?” 

Deputy Speaker Jean Marie Seroney waved Moi’s protest away, remarking that there was “no need to substantiate the obvious”.

For these remarks, the two MPs were sent to detention without trial. Moi, the VP and Minister for Home Affairs, signed the Detention and Restricted Persons Orders for the two. Apart from serving as Deputy Speaker, Seroney was also the MP for Tinderet Constituency.

Together with Shikuku, they belonged to a small but hugely fiery and popular cabal of MPs. Their public appeal was legendary, as was attested by their ability to pull crowds of keen listeners anywhere they stopped. In spite of strict public gathering regulations of the time, Kenyans would entreat them to address spontaneously assembled gatherings. Others in this matrix were Charles Rubia (Starehe), Yunis Ali (Langata), Burudi Nabwera (Lugari), George Anyona (Kitutu East), Chelagat Mutai (Eldoret North) and Kassim Mwamzandi (Msambweni). Others were Mwangi Karungaru (Embakasi), Mark Mwithaga (Nakuru Town), Masinde Muliro (Kitale East and Minister for Works), Peter Kibisu (Vihiga) and Waruru Kanja (Nyeri Town). These legislators, and a few others, made Kenya’s Third Parliament assertive to a fault. It remains the most assertive House since independence, despite awareness among members that danger loomed large. 

The Jomo Kenyatta State brooked no dissent. The president regularly reprimanded and cautioned dissenters that he would crush them like rats. He would censoriously declare in live transmissions on the national broadcaster that was the Voice of Kenya, “Nitawapondaponda kama panya (I will crush them like rats).” Hence, when JM disappeared on March 3, 1975, only for a Maasai herdsman Mosaite ole Tunda to discover his badly mutilated body in Ngong Forest, fingers pointed at the State. JM was in a class of his own for his scathing criticism against the Kenyatta State.  

Personal agenda

Dissent and political agitation has travelled a long way 45 years later, to migrate from the kinds of agenda politicians of yore focused on, to the narrow ethnic and personal agenda today. Remarkably, the schedule of dissenters in the Third Parliament reflected the face of Kenya. The eclectic nature of this class is clear from the names in this survey. Tellingly, however, is that while the Luo community has been in the vanguard of Opposition politics, it is difficult to recall any outstanding critical voice from the community in that assertive House. This is easily a factor of the reality that in the one party state at the time, Luo political stalwarts had been effectively locked out of Parliament.

The detention of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga in October 1969 alongside such other Luo leaders as Ramogi Achieng Oneko and Wasonga Sijeyo, among others, left the community politically voiceless.

Both the 1969 and 1974 elections did not return to the House any significant voices from the community, while the rest had been silenced, either through detention or political intimidation and fear mongering.  

The issues of the day were a continuation of unfinished business that had begun even before independence, and which had birthed the original conflict between Kanu and Kadu parties. Their articulation is easily synonymised with JM. They pertained to social and economic justice, land and national unity. The dissenters spoke for the country rather than for a tribe, or a cluster of tribes, based on the convenience of the day as happens today. On social justice, for instance, JM is remarkably recalled for stating in his campaign manifesto in 1974, “Every Kenyan, man, woman and child, is entitled to a decent and just living. That is a birthright. It is not a privilege. He is entitled to equal education, job and health opportunities, irrespective of his parentage, race or creed or his area of origin in this land.” 

JM had worked as Mzee Kenyatta’s personal assistant in the lead up to independence and had access to wealth generating opportunities. Some accounts have it that he was quite wealthy, by Kenyan standards. Yet he found time to speak for the poor and to empathise with them through practical interventions.

He lamented that ordinary citizens had been cheated in the land question. As European settlers gave up land in the White Highlands, it was not going back to the legitimate owners. A few privileged Africans were taking over the land. JM quipped: “I believe firmly that substituting Kamau for Smith, Odongo for Jones and Kiplagat for Keith does not solve what the gallant fighters of our uhuru considered an imposed and undesirable social justice.” 

This agenda remarkably found its way into Parliament and was the subject of numerous lively and mature debates under the watchful eye of Speaker Fred Mati, who took over from Humphrey Slade in February 1970, as the first African speaker. 

Slade, the inaugural Speaker at independence in 1963, waded Parliament through equally difficult and challenging years.

He started off with a multiparty House, with Kanu as the majority, followed by Kadu as the official opposition.

Minority tribes

Kadu was a defensive party, whose focus was on protection of minority tribe interests. Already, during the Lancaster House Independence talks in 1962, national chairman Moi threatened to break away a portion of the colony from the soon to be independent Kenya, if the interests of small tribes should not be protected by the constitution. He proposed a southern corridor linking West Kenya – including the Rift Valley – to the coast, through the Mara and Trans Mara regions. Ronald Ngala would be the president and Nakuru the Capital City. Ngala and a youthful Shikuku prevailed upon Moi to drop the secession agenda. In pursuit of consolidation of State power, the Kenyatta government outmaneuvered Kadu stalwarts to make Kenya a one party State. A smart team led by Tom Mboya, Njonjo and Mwai Kibaki used persuasion, sweeteners, threats and blackmail to get Kadu leaders to dissolve their party in 1964 and to join Kanu.

Their dissenting voices fell silent, or conversely now articulated State agenda, with focus on the Kenyatta succession. Dissent passed swiftly from Kadu to a new wing of radicals in the independence party. Accumulating around Jaramogi, they included legislators like Oneko, Pio Gama Pinto, Joseph Murumbi, and Bildald Kaggia. The essence of their dissent is summed up in the title of Odinga’s 1966 book, Not Yet Uhuru. Agitation and dissent was about differences on the kind of political economy the newly independent country should embrace. 

The radicals gravitated towards a welfare State that secured the citizen’s basic social needs. They were uneasy about the vagaries of raw capitalism in a country that had not evolved into capitalism in the manner that Europe had done. Such a citizenry would be vulnerable to the negative excesses of free market economies. The distinction was clearly ideological, unlike today when differences are tribe based, individual based and essentially about selfish roadmaps to the gravy train. 

Jaramogi and his radicals were hounded out of Kanu at the now infamous Limuru Conference of February 1966. By June of the same year they had been forced to a mini election, having left Kanu to join the newly formed Kenya Peoples Union (KPU). A majority of them lost their elections everywhere in the country, with the exception of Luo Nyanza. An elated Mboya boasted about the might of Kanu, scoffing at Odinga as a tribal leader and KPU as a tribal party. Pinto, the ideological brain among the radicals, had meanwhile been assassinated in February 1965. 

Yet, ironically and tragically, the guns in Kanu were trained against Mboya, the chief architect of the demise of Kadu and the cutting down to size of Odinga. His own day of reckoning was not too far. The plot ended in July 1969, when his detractors – suspected to be from the ranks of his former friends – took away his life with the gun on a sunny afternoon, in a Nairobi street.

Protests against the killing, ironically, came from the radicals – regardless that they were the remnants in Parliament, or those whose careers were floundering out of the legislature. The last four of the Kenyatta years are recalled as a troubled and restless season. The gap between the haves and have-notes grew apace. The radicals in the Third Parliament remained concerned about this, to the very end of Mzee Kenyatta’s life and tenure in August 1978.

Negatve ethnicity

Lawlessness was rampant, with recurrent bank hold-ups and robberies, coffee smuggling from Uganda, cashew nut scandals at the coast, poaching in the animal sanctuaries, negative ethnicity and a whole raft of other troubling civic activities. University of Nairobi students would burst into the streets every so often to protest against the state of affairs in the country.  

It was a troubled country with fissures of ethnic schisms that Moi inherited. He focused immediately on unifying the country under the clarion call of “Fuata Nyayo.” It was never quite clear how this should be interpreted. Moi himself explained that it meant following in Kenyatta’s footsteps. He explained further that this meant living at peace with one another, being united and loving each other. He called it the Nyayo philosophy. 

The Nyayo Era, however, turned into another nightmare, as what seemed to peak were the bad things under the previous regime. There was little toleration for democratic expression. Nyayo came to mean subservience. Those opposed to the way the country was going found themselves in detention or exile. Still this did not stop agitation for democracy.

The Nyayo regime attempted to clamp down with more detention, introduction of a one party State, and dictatorship within the single party. Yet dissent only grew by the day. Secret underground formations began taking root.

The Mwakenya movement in particular became a hotbed of underground dissent. At the peak of this agitation, the country experienced the August 1 coup attempt in 1982. The State responded with more heavy-handedness and purges within the ruling party.  

The purges became brazen and openly ridiculed democracy through the queue voting system of 1988. Those with the longest queues lost to those with the shortest. Vice-President Kibaki lamented, “Even if you want to rig an election, why don’t you do it with a measure of intelligence?”  

From now all the way to November 1991 dissent would be on restoration of democracy through multiparty politics. Jaramogi, Kenneth Matiba, Rubia, Shikuku, Muliro, Ahmed Bamariz, Philip Gachoka and Francis Nzenge became the new leaders of the dissent. Around them was the Church, the university community, and mushrooming civil society. A new breed of politicians christened the Young Turks boldly began leading Kenyans into the streets to agitate for democracy. Environmentalists, led by Prof Wangari Maathai, joined the fray. It was just a matter of time before the State would cave in. It did, in November 1991, when Attorney General Amos Wako announced that Kenya would restore multiparty democracy. 

Ahead of this, President Moi had appointed a task force led by Vice President George Saitoti to take views from Kenyans on which way the country should go.

While the Saitoti team attempted to smother issues and mislead the State, intelligence reports indicated that the prevailing unrest was not reversible, unless the State gave in to the pressure for pluralism.  

Political tensions

The political tensions in the subsequent periods would be around making multiparty democracy work, and the need for constitutional reform. For, while multipartyism had been restored, the necessary infrastructure and goodwill did not exist. Kanu took advantage of this to win two successive presidential elections in the new season. The matter of the constitution would not go away, however, until 2010, when the new opposition, now led by Raila Odinga, forced President Kibaki to give Kenya a new constitution.  

It is not so clear today what agitation is about, away from an intra-class struggle in the political elite class. There is talk about the need to review the constitution and go to a referendum on the matter. Looked at closely, the driving force would seem to be the need to build infrastructure for power-sharing at the top.

It is not clear that there is a citizen-based agenda, such as what the dissenters of the earlier years focused on. Outside the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) that drives the referendum agenda is another stand of the political class, wary of scheming within the BBI. Like the BBI drivers, focus seems, again, to be on how to secure their way to power. The citizen seems to be in a lose-lose situation as the giants of Kenya’s politics wrestle for control of the centre of the State. 

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