A disputed election, ethnic cleansing and widespread poverty – a lament for his homeland by one of Africa’s greatest writers.
The title of Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, best captures the complex mixture of emotions I felt as I watched televised images of fire and death stalking Kenyan streets. An otherwise smooth election marked by a spirited competition of views among citizens went awry at the moment of tallying. The result of the tallying became a dance of absurdity, with claims and counterclaims of rigging by the main contesting parties: Raila Odinga’s Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) and Mwai Kibaki’s Party of National Unity (PNU). The chairman of the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK), whose word would have helped those not at the scene make sense of it all, declared a winner, handed him the winner’s certificate and then said he knew the true presidential winner. The aggrieved party went to the streets but refused to go to the courts.
The dance of absurdity became a dance of death. Government agents shot at marchers, while allies of the opposition went about ethnic cleansing with impunity. Others destroyed property in an orgy of nihilistic fury. The image of a child hurled into the flames of a burning church while attempting to run away is indicative of Kenya’s plague of poor-on-poor violence, stoked by a hard-hearted middle class that advocates regional ethnic cleansing while enjoying a cosmopolitan lifestyle in gated city residences, purified of the poor except those who come to serve.
What has unfolded is rooted in the colonial past of an uneven geographic and social development, a legacy of British settler rule from 1895 to 1963. Regions near and around hubs of capitalist activity gained from the fallout; those removed from the concentration gained less and less in proportion to their distance from the towns and cities. Kenya’s regions coincide largely with its ethnic communities, hence the regional disparities in visible development. But every pillar of progress, in whatever region, stands on mass poverty – what a politician once described as a state of a few millionaires on the shoulders of millions of beggars. The recent conflict also speaks of the failures of post-colonial governments to meet these challenges.
Jomo Kenyatta, the first President of the post-colonial republic, responded to organized criticism by imprisoning opposition leadership, turning the country into a de facto one-party state of the Kenya African Union (KANU). Writers were not spared. In 1969, a leading poet, Abdulatif Abdalla, was imprisoned for writing a pamphlet entitled Kenya twendapi? (‘Kenya, where are we heading to?’) It was my turn in 1977 for my play, I Will Marry When I Want, and novel, Petals of Blood. I was in a maximum security prison in 1978 when Kenyatta died and his vice-president, Daniel arap Moi, took over.
Though I was happy that Moi released me three months after his ascension to power, I soon realized that he had emptied the jails of hundreds of Kenyatta’s political prisoners to make room for thousands of his own. Where Kenyatta had imprisoned me for my writing, Moi sent three truckloads of armed policemen to raze to the ground the community theatre where I worked, eventually forcing me – and many others – into exile. By 1982 he had turned Kenya into a de jure one-party state with KANU as the sole party. The failed 1982 Kenya Air Force coup turned the ‘Big Man’ authoritarianism Moi had inherited from Kenyatta into a dictatorship so vicious (and at times comical) that it once sent police agents to arrest the eponymous hero of my novel, Matigari, thinking that he was a living person committing treason by asking questions about truth and justice. Not amused to find that Matigari was a fictional character, the dictatorship ordered the book arrested, forced off the shelves of Kenya’s bookshops and out of the publisher’s warehouse.
Farcical as the incident may be, it typifies a post-colonial situation where fact and fiction become interchangeable, a common feature of ‘dictator narratives’ from Africa and Latin America. In my second novel, Wizard of the Crow, a dictator in the imaginary African country of Aburiria is nudged by Western powers to experiment with democracy, following the end of the cold war. The Western powers fear that the Movement for the Voice of the People, an underground resistance organization battling the regime, will take over and make changes harmful to its interests. ‘You can even allow your loyal ministers to form opposition parties,’ an envoy from the West tells the dictator. Sound advice, it turns out, for, in the new multi-party dispensation (what the fictional dictator dubs ‘baby democracy’), the Movement for the Voice of the People is sidelined as a struggle for the spoils of a war they did not fight breaks out among the new lookalike political parties.
This fictional scene parallels the reality of Kenya in 1991, after the Moi dictatorship legalized multipartism as a result of years of pressure from social forces within Kenya, as well as pressure from Kenyan exiles and the international community. Having been forced to work underground or in exile, the remnants of these real fighters for a new democracy could not regroup in a strong, unified way, on a national scale, to take advantage of even the limited space of supervised multipartism.
The above-ground voices of those internal social forces – mainly coalitions of civil societies, which tried to continue the struggle for the overhaul of Moi’s system – became increasingly feeble and marginalized. Not having been wounded, those who had worked with the Moi dictatorship simply regrouped and re-emerged in the leading positions in the new parties. The members of these parties talked and behaved as if it was they who had brought about the multi-party dispensation – or as if the dispensation had happened through the grace of God. They did not have an alternative social vision – the competition was for the powers of the presidency without due regard to the social ends to which that power would be put. Increasingly, the debate was no longer about how to get out of the Moi system, but how to work within its terms, and even how to take advantage of its crooked methods. Every major party ended up working within the Moist right-wing consensus.
No single opposition party was strong enough to dislodge the dictatorship from power in the electoral attempts of 1992 and 1997. By the time of the third multi-party elections in 2002, it was clear that only an alliance among the lookalike political parties could dethrone the Moi dictatorship. Hence the sudden emergence of the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), a hasty electoral marriage of Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga, Charity Ngilu and the late Michael ‘Kijana’ Wamalwa. NARC’s two main players, Kibaki and Odinga, were already tainted by their past association with Moi.
For the record, Kibaki was for many years Moi’s vice-president. Although Odinga had fought against Moi and was connected with the attempted coup of 1982, he had later flirted with Moi, becoming Secretary General of Moi’s party and Minister of Energy in his government. Odinga only resigned from this position when he realized that Moi was not going to anoint him as his successor.
NARC was, then, a marriage of political convenience. But the joy with which millions of Kenyans greeted NARC’s electoral defeat of Moi’s dictatorship was unmistakable. The populace had become weary of the jailing, exiling and killing of the political opposition; weary of ethnic divisions; weary of the country’s dependence on foreign handouts. Weary, indeed, of the two decades of Moi’s reign of terror. They felt as if they had woken from a nightmare they thought would never end, relieved that they were still alive at the dawn of a new day.
In trying to understand the current tug of power I keep going back to the moment in December 2002 when it seemed that historical reality would render Wizard of the Crow’s imaginary Aburiria irrelevant, while the real Kenya entered a new century of freedom. From my exile at the University of California, Irvine, I was seduced by the collective sigh of relief and declared that my twenty years of exile were over.
But I remained cautious. In the six years it took me to write the early drafts of Wizard of the Crow, I had lived too long in the world of dictators and their mutations to be fully seduced by the excitement of change and the promise of democracy. Besides, I had witnessed a similar euphoria at Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963, during which people seemed not to notice that the Mau Mau, who had waged a relentless guerrilla struggle against the colonial state, were being sidelined by the government of Kenyatta, the founding president of the new nation.
I must have sounded unduly pessimistic when, in a preface to my novel A Grain of Wheat, a mere three years after Independence, I said that what the Kenyan peasant and worker had fought for was being conveniently forgotten. That warning increasingly became a grim reality in the reigns of Kenyatta and then Moi. For the majority of ordinary Kenyans, the hopes generated by Independence had been dashed. It was a disappointment of monumental proportions, the theme of many fictional and poetic narratives that emerged from Kenya.
After NARC’s victory over the Moi dictatorship I sensed a similar disappointment. To me, the catchy NARC campaign song – ‘yote yawezekana bila Moi’ (‘without Moi all is possible’) – had emphasized Moi, the individual, and not the social system of which he was simply the executive head. Once again, I thought I would caution Kenyans.
In an interview I gave to Nairobi’s Sunday Nation in February 2003 I said that the danger hovering over the nation was Moism without Moi. Many people thought that I was talking about the NARC government only. But what I meant was that the two decades of the Moi dictatorship, like Kenya’s seventy years of British colonialism, was a cancer in the body politic. Nothing short of a systematic national inquiry into the depth and breadth of that cancer would suffice. We should have learnt from Kenyatta’s earlier tinkering with the colonial cancer. You don’t tinker with cancer. You uproot it.
It was clear that the new NARC government of Kibaki and Odinga was not about to embark on a systematic inquiry into the cancer, much less uproot it. The thinking seemed to be that if the cancer could be ignored for a while, then it was possible to plant new organs on those already infected.
My misgivings about the intention and capacity of NARC to uproot Moism were confirmed by the emergence of a secret document called the Memorandum of Understanding (known by the acronym MoU) between the leaders who had formed NARC. The MoU had not been debated in the open. It was a secret, even to the supposed followers of the constituent parties of the NARC alliance. As it turned out, the memorandum was about the cut each leader would get from the baby democracy. It was a contract – not with Kenyan people but on the Kenyan people – detailing an understanding among the three leaders as to how they would share the spoils of war: Kibaki received the presidency and Raila the premiership (a position created especially for him). There was no talk of a social vision.
Unsurprisingly, quarrels about power sharing emerged among NARC’s tripartite leaders, with Odinga and Ngilu accusing Kibaki of not adhering to the terms set out in the MoU.
In my view – and although it would have remained a contract on Kenya – the MoU should have been honoured or renegotiated among those who were part of the original deal, and then submitted to the nation to be approved or disapproved. Kibaki unilaterally broke the agreement. The aggrieved parties behaved as if all Kenyans had been privy to the contract, as if, in voting NARC to power, Kenyans had also knowingly voted for the mysterious MoU. Thereafter, all the posturing and bickering within the NARC government, in parliament and outside, were through glasses heavily tinted with resentments about the broken contract.
Even 2006’s referendum on the proposed new constitution (which was excellent in many ways) was fought through the prism of the fallout over the MoU. Under the symbol of the ODM, Odinga led opposition to the constitution proposed by the very government that he served. Kibaki dismissed Odinga from the cabinet, alongside other ministers. The war between the two men intensified. NARC broke into two factions – one within the government, the other outside – both attracting Moi’s lieutenants.
The quickest way of understanding the current Kenyan political alignments is to see Odinga’s ODM and Kibaki’s PNU as offspring of the original NARC still fighting over the war’s spoils. Only the fight over the MoU has now been waged over the results of a secret ballot. The accusation of rigging echoed the earlier accusations of a broken contract. In both instances, Kenyan people had done the right thing, the leaders the wrong one. The voting had been peaceful; the tallying of the vote violent.
The stand-off between the warring parties reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s play, The Caucasian Chalk Circle where two women claim motherhood of the same child. One is the biological mother, who bore the child but abandoned it in times of hardship; the other the foster mother, who rescued and raised the child. Both women make similar and equally compelling claims on the child before Judge Azdak’s court. Unable to decide on the evidence before him, Azdak, like the biblical Solomon, finally draws a circle, puts the disputed child inside it, and asks each woman to pull a hand of the child, essentially requiring them to split the child in two. One of the mothers is willing to do so; the other declines, knowing it will result in the child’s death. She would rather lose her rights to the child than regain her rights at the expense of the child’s life. Azdak therefore recognizes her as the true mother.
In February, Kenya cried out for its true mother as it looked to Kofi Annan to make a judgment of Solomon on the murderous tug of power between Odinga and Kibaki. A genuine solution to Kenya’s crisis must address the twin problems of democratic rights, now desecrated by the rigging scandal; and of human rights, now destroyed by ethnic cleansing and the internal displacement of thousands. Whatever settlement Annan proposes, its effectiveness will depend upon the extent to which the leadership of the two camps will give their minds and hearts to its implementation. I would be the last person to swear that they will give much of their minds and hearts to it at all.
It seems to me that the hope for Kenya may depend on the social descendants of the real fighters for democracy and social change reaching out to each other, regrouping and energizing the nation with a renewed dedication to uproot all forms of Moism and the secret MoU from the Kenyan body politic. There has to emerge a third force that is guided by a determination to look into the problems of uneven geographic and social development. A prosperous middle class rooted in mass poverty will always be a prescription for disaster no matter the individual and the party in power.
The solution to Kenya’s problems, then, is long term. But ‘the urgency of now’, to use Martin Luther King’s phrase, requires that progressive forces from within and without the warring camps lean heavily on the leaderships to hearken to the voice of reason and not tear the country apart.
Photograph © Kanaka Rastamon