Ngugi Wa Thiong'o reflects on Mwai Kibaki's presidency, the proliferation of what he terms paper parties, and the need for African democracy to speak for and to African peasants and workers - the marginalized majority.
I am not a member of any of the contesting parties. They don’t adequately embody the vision of the unity of the small farmer, the worker, the jobless and landless Kenyans across all the regions of their birth and residence. They don’t seem to recognize sufficiently that Kenya like Africa as a whole has only two tribes: the haves and the have-nots. Membership in the two camps comes from all regions and communities. But there is a misleading tendency in the haves of one community and region to point at the haves of another community as the only haves. They then set themselves as the defenders of the entire haves and have-nots of their own community against the entire haves and have-nots of another community and region, thus setting the stage for personal fiefdoms and political warlords.
A political party must take responsibility for the development of the entire country. The condition for the real development of any one region must be development of all regions throughout the country. Real development must be measured from the standpoint of those at the bottom of the mountain and not those at the top.
But even with those misgivings, I celebrate with my fellow Kenyans the present moment in our country. We can now exercise the right to form and join a political party of one’s choice, without fear of prison, detention camps, exile or death.
We must not forget that this uhuru to form and join political associations of one’s choice did not come of itself. We owe it to the Mau Mau and all other patriots who stood up to the might of British Empire and opposed the settler colonial state. Let us not forget that we also owe this uhuru to those maimed, jailed, exiled, disappeared and killed opposing the Moi dictatorship. The resistance against Moi’s dictatorship was waged inside and outside the country led by groups who believed in the unity of the have-nots of our nation and Africa.
In the years of struggle against the Moi dictatorship, Mwai Kibaki and I were on different camps. The famous statement likening those who were struggling against Kanu to a person trying to cut down a M?gumo tree with a razor blade is enshrined in a document called Struggle for Democracy in Kenya in London, copies of that document were smuggled into the country during the Moi regime. The image of the Kibaki who made that “razor blade cutting a M?gumo” statement clashed with other more positive images of him that I carried in me from three previous encounters.
My first encounter with Kibaki was in 1961 at Makerere University, Kampala, Uganda, where I took his classes in Economics. Shortly thereafter, he left us to join Kenya African National Union (Kanu) as its executive officer. Kanu, of course, was the party that crossed over Kenya to Independence. With the death of Achieng Oneko recently, K?baki now remains the most prominent figure living with linkage to the Nationalist Kanu of Jomo Kenyatta and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Kanu took power with a manifesto of one Kenya one people. Theirs was opposed to Kadu’s majimbo program. Kadu’s manifesto was said to have been drafted by a group of white settlers who wanted a weak central government for Kenya. The British settler colonial state had always opposed the formation of African political parties that cut across the different regions and, until the advent of Kanu and its predecessor KAU, the colonial regime would only legalize political parties based in regions, at one time restricting their formation to districts only.
Most of us students, at that time, shared Kanu’s nationalist vision and rejoiced at its victory over Kadu. The joy exuding in the famous picture of the triumphant trio, Jomo Kenyatta, Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, dancing in the streets at the party’s victory was shared by millions across the whole country. It spoke hope. Years later, Kadu, the party of “uhuru pole pole” took over Kanu, the party of uhuru Sasa. Kadu then undermined Kanu’s nationalist credentials and social vision of African socialism.
My second encounter with Kibaki was in 1964 after I had published the novel, Weep not, Child. I had joined the Nation Newspapers as a reporter and feature writer. K?baki was then an assistant Minister in Kenyatta’s government. One evening he gave me a lift from Sans Chique, a restaurant and bar near the old Nation House, on what was then Government Road, to the YMCA near United Kenya Club where I was staying. Just before I stepped out of his car, Kibaki took his time and talked movingly about the vital importance of the freedom of the Press for democracy. I had not thought of the role of journalism in society in the way he put it.
The third and last encounter, but one forever engraved in my mind, was in July 1977 on the occasion of the publication of my novel, Petals of Blood. The novel was very critical of conditions in post colonial Kenya. It castigated, for instance, the close economic ties of dependence between Kenya and the West. It also castigated the chauvinism and the grab-and-eat mentality of the rising African middleclass.
Mwai Kibaki was then Finance Minister and he agreed to an invitation from the directors of Heinemann Educational Books to launch the book at Nairobi’s City Hall. He praised the novel and said he did not agree with everything in it. Nevertheless, he observed that the very publication of Petals of Blood, despite its critique, was a manifestation of democratic space in Kenya. Once again Kibaki dwelt on the importance of free exchange of ideas in a democratic society. It was really a call for tolerance, as against the intolerance then coalescing around then Attorney General Charles Njonjo who later made critical comments about Kibaki’s launch of the novel.
Five months later in December 1977, I was in Kam?t? Maximum Prison. There are some who claim that Petals of Blood as much as the play, Ngahika Ndenda, was the real reason for my incarceration. Years later, looking back to the political situation at the time, I came to realize the enormity of Kibaki’s courage in accepting to launch the book. But it was not just his courage; it is the fact that on those two occasions he had talked about democratic space he had absolutely nothing to gain from me.
The memory of those encounters influenced my belief that Kibaki meant it, when, on assuming national leadership in 2002, he talked of accountability, performance, stability of institutions, and commitment to democracy. Under the euphoria of Kibaki’s victory many people looked for social revolution from him, which I did not or even expect. But I was secretly fascinated to see whether he would keep to the democratic values that he had stated – which seemed to have come from deep conviction and commitment.
The five years of Kibaki’s presidency are known in Kenya and the world. I am optimistic Kenyans will vote on its record. I have not been in Kenya for long periods so I cannot fully assess the impact of his rule on the different classes and communities. But I can say that despite the fact that when my wife Njeeri and I returned home in 2004 after 22 years in exile we were victims of a brutal attack engineered by anti-ngugi forces and executed by hired hands, I have been very impressed by the atmosphere of free speech prevailing in the country. There is no terror in the eyes of Kenyans as it used to be. I have not seen people looking over their shoulders as they speak in support or censure of his government.
There are of course negative marks like the attack on the East African Standard newspapers; the very nationally embarrassing episode of the Armenian brothers; and the recent allegations in a report by the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights of extra-judicial killings of those suspected of being involved in crime. No crime however hideous can justify police becoming prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Crimes and insecurity which haunt a country undermining personal peace, production and internal investments has to be tackled vigorously but within the law. The social roots of crime must also be tackled. There have also been stories of corruption with the Anglo-Leasing episode reminding us of the endemic corruption of the Moi era. Corruption is also an economic crime against the nation.
But in the main, these are the first five years including colonial and post colonial times of Kenyatta and Moi when Kenyans have not been killed, exiled or imprisoned on the basis of their political views and political positions. No one has been imprisoned for attacking Kibaki either in Parliament, outside Parliament or from within his own Cabinet. And nobody can deny that there has been a vigorous opposition no matter what one may think of its tactics.
It gives me pride as a Kenyan and African to hear of an increased economic growth largely financed from within instead of its being brought about by a crippling and humiliating dependence on handouts from foreign sources, as in the past. It is a case of national capital asserting itself. This may not always please global financial lending institutions or those who take it that Africa cannot stand on its feet without golden crutches provided by western charities. What Africa needs are its feet firmly on its ground and not crutches however golden.
As a writer I try to get glimpses into the big picture through small things. I have seen a very improved courtesy in the Kenya embassies to which I have gone for services, especially in Los Angeles, Johannesburg and London, a far cry from the previous era. I was excited to read that Mau Mau had been declared a legal organization, an act that the previous regimes could not bring themselves to do. I was even more excited when I saw the picture of the statue of Dedan Kimathi in the heart of the city, or when I read about the Koitalel Arap Samoia museum. Our relatives from Mang’u, Limuru, and elsewhere in Kenya, have told us of their excitement for accessing electricity in their villages under the rural electrification program. Others have told us how they have started taking care of their coffee and maize because they are now certain of the market and fairer returns for their efforts. There have been similar stories from those with a cow or two to milk. We have also read of revival and rehabilitation of critical production facilities like the Kenya Meat Commission; Kenya Cooperative Creameries; Hamisi Sugar in Mombasa. The first time I heard of the popular CDF, was from a letter from the village.
But people can only speak from their own experiences and encounters. Every Kenyan has to ask and honestly respond to the question: are we better off now than we were before Kibaki took over? Does he deserve a chance to build on the positives of his rule? Are there others who can do a better job?
The advantage of having a political track record is that people have a basis for taking positions. This applies to all seeking public office. The electoral period should be the time that people scrutinize the track record of all candidates and their position on the national, regional, continental and international scene. People should be debating the economic, political and social programs of the parties. Questions of bread and butter are always important; and people, from the professional classes to the ordinary farmer and worker, will no doubt take them into account.
But there are other pertinent questions. What are the political parties’ positions on the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and imperialism in general? Where do they stand on the relationship between national and foreign capital? What about the relationship between the Kenya’s middleclass and rest of the people? What about the parties’ positions on the unity of the nation, East Africa and the African continent? What is their take on pan-Africanism especially now that Europe is uniting and the USA is building blocs all over the world? It is almost tragic that while the rest of the world is uniting to be in a better position to control their own resources and ours, Africa is not doing the same. Instead, the tendency is to retreat behind national boundaries, and worse, behind regional and clan barricades.
So while Europe and the USA will be bargaining from a unified position, we in Africa will be bargaining with these Western blocs as separate nations, regions or even clans. Now is the time to raise issues. It is the time to demand a clear answer to the big question: what are the political parties’ visions for Kenya in the world?
Unfortunately, focus on issues is often the first victim of political election fever. Instead of holding a candidate to account, some look to the candidate’s pockets. And from the supporters of the contesting parties comes demonization of their opponents with incredible distortions and downright lies.
Some want to silence others with violence. Yet others base their judgement on the ethnic origins of the leader they oppose or support. They forget that being a member of an ethnic group or gender is not a matter of political choice; it is a result of biological fact. If I tell you that I am a M?g?k?y? or Mjaluo or Mgiriama and proud of it, which of course I should be, that does not tell you where I stand on policy. Even people of the same gender, ethnicity, and faith can have different views on social issues.
We should always link the present to the past and to the future: where are we coming from; where are we now, and where are we heading to; and what are the best vehicles and drivers for taking us there? If you think of a political party as a vehicle, then you have to look at its political program and manifesto, its structures and organs of power. Then take a good look at the history and soberness of the driver. Obviously you do not want to board a vehicle, no matter how beautiful, driven by a driver, under influence.
Unfortunately, and despite the existence of several parties, there are now in Kenya no real parties - except perhaps Kanu - with a history, and a questionable one at that, to examine. They are paper parties, mostly, or like vehicles driven by drivers always poised to abandon them for new ones. Sometimes they leave the old vehicles with engine running, as a fallback position just in case things don’t work out for them in the new vehicle! The party represents the leader, not the leader representing the party. Or rather the leader is the party.
We have moved thus from a one party state to a “paper-parties” state. We have even turned these paper parties into commodities for sale. This is a very poor heritage for the Kenya of tomorrow. These paper parties may in the end negate the very democracy which enabled their birth. A country needs stable political parties with clear mechanism for change of leadership within them. Stable parties are also important for ensuring smooth change in the leadership of the nation.
In the absence of reliable parties, the choice of a leader becomes even more important. It means examining carefully the character of each contestant; what he has done in the past; and the likelihood that he will take us to the direction and destination he has promised. The choice we make could affect the very future, character and integrity of the Kenya nation.
Unfortunately, I am one of thousands of Kenyans abroad who will not be able to cast their vote in the coming elections because there are no provisions for us to vote at our embassies and consulates. Despite the fact that I am not able to cast my vote, I urge all Kenyans to do so.
Whatever the outcome of this year’s elections, the struggle continues for a prosperous Kenya, from the standpoint of those at the bottom of the mountain. Hopefully, with continued stability of institutions, there will emerge parties that, in their history, programs and practice, will embody the vision of a united self reliant Kenya, a united nation certain of its base in the people as it engages with East Africa, Africa and the World in a rapidly globalizing space.
We have to create a Kenya in which the worker and peasant can see all they have fought for in history finally placed at the center. In that sense, the struggle continues no matter who wins in the elections..
*Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, and Director of the International Centre for Writing and Translation, at the University of California Irvine.
*A version of this article first appeared in Kenya's Sunday Nation.
*Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org
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