“[Kenya] was never innocent…You can’t ascribe our fall from grace to any single event or set of circumstances. You can’t lose what you lacked at conception…Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight. Our continuing narrative line is blurred past truth and hindsight. Only a reckless verisimilitude can set that line straight…It’s time to demythologize an era and build a new myth from the gutter to the stars. It’s time to embrace bad men and the price they paid to secretly define their time. Here’s to them.”
~ James Ellroy, “American Tabloid”.
In Kenya, every election since 2002 has felt like an opportunity to define what Kenya is. Something real and immense is always at stake. One can feel it in the thronging of the hopeful crowds languishing in the sun as each person awaits the cool, expiatory calm of the voting booth. Every election is “historic” and “record numbers of voters” are reported at every poll.
In 2002, it was the opportunity to rid ourselves—by rejecting the acolytes and political party—of a tyrant who had rigged and ruled Kenya for over two decades. The promise of multi-partyism would finally be realised. Everyone in the country had been mobilised to register and to vote; freshly churned high-school graduates talked excitedly with grizzled, weathered elders as the scorching sun burnished the face of Kenya and gave it the sheen of a golden future. The country was voting as one, for one thing: to repudiate one man. By sheer volume of votes—a deluge of righteous democratic decisiveness—any attempt at rigging would be ineffectual; and so it was.
In 2007, the great promise remained unfulfilled. After four years of a regional mafia monopolising the State House, we needed a change to purge Kenya of its demons: having replaced the tyrant with his long-time lieutenant, we could now replace him with the man we had never been able to elect. But the incumbent won. The chaos that erupted is, as we are now encouraged to think, history.
In 2013, the stakes were higher than they had ever been, more historic than ever, the queues longer. The country had been torn apart in 2008, so Kenyans had the opportunity in 2013 to force its leaders to account for that violence, to create a Kenya that would no longer tolerate the impunity of elites.
In each of these elections, the opportunity was to make Kenya livable, to make it a place which Kenyans could call legitimate, a state in which all Kenyans could rejoice and thrive. These elections could never be business-as-usual. The business of Kenya was still undefined, yet to begin.
I want to make some kind of a claim on what Kenya is, on what “Kenya” means. I want to make this claim because my heart tells me that there must be such a claim to be made. I want to say “Kenya” and not feel irony slip into that space between the word and the wistful exhalation that follows it. But would such a claim be a false one?
African national borders were drawn in a way that made sense to colonising powers, but they were arbitrary and divisive for the communities they fenced in. After independence, our governments agreed not to adjust those borders, recognizing that the ruling elite would have desires in common with their former colonisers. Borders demarcate regions of control of populations, of resources, and of wealth. The post-independence flurry, then, was a scramble to define and secure sources of wealth that could be captured by the state.
The Shifta War was essentially identical in its motivations to the Mau Mau rebellion, after all. But while the northern Kenya region’s struggle for self-determination was an existential threat to “Kenya,” Mau Mau goes into history as a struggle for independence. When it came time for Kenyans to deal with their own uprising, the government played the part of the British, brutally suppressing the Northern Frontier District to show the wealthier regions of Kenya—the Rift Valley, the coast, the lake region—that struggles for regional autonomy would not be tolerated. Any effort to subtract from the actual or potential wealth of the ruling elite would be met with force.
The haste and excitement of independence was also opportunism. The men behind Kenyatta had opened their minds to what individual wealth looked and felt like and to what could be done with it. While some saw Kenyatta as a means to guarantee national unity and independence, or as a tool to be manipulated—an old man, soon to die, and easy to outmanoeuvre—many others followed in Kenyatta’s footsteps wholeheartedly.
“Nothing is more important than a correct grasp of the question of land tenure,” Kenyatta wrote, in Facing Mount Kenya; “it is the soil that feeds the child through lifetime.” Land was and remains the most important form of wealth in Kenya, and Kenyatta would preside over the transfer of land from colonial powers to a landed and landlord class. He would re-imagine the past, pulling the ground out from beneath Kenya’s nascent “African socialism.” “[T]he land did not belong to the community as such,” he wrote, “but to some individual founders of various families who had full rights of ownership and the control of land.” Kenyatta and his ilk would preach “Uhuru na kazi” (freedom and work) through a system of concentrated land ownership, and as political patronage became necessary for success, land wealth became necessary for political power. When his vice-president, Daniel Arap Moi, said he would “fuata nyayo” (follow in the footsteps) of Jomo Kenyatta, Moi was signaling that he would continue to use land as a tool for political control and to concentrate political power and wealth.
The Kenyatta family is said to own land so extensive that it defies measurement. Certainly it defies questions. Uhuru Kenyatta refused to admit just how much land he had inherited but he was willing to acknowledge that he had “donated” three thousand acres to squatters in the Coast Province. What moral compass directed him to say “donated” instead of “returned”? It was the way that land was acquired that created squatters; much of it was taken from the very people who had the strongest of historical and traditional ties to it.
“Uhuru” is a name that directly recalls his father. “No Uhuru without Kenyatta” was the demand that Kenyatta be released from detention before Kenya could be made an independent republic. Uhuru Gardens is where Nairobi celebrated when Kenya became independent, and “Amani na Uhuru” (peace and freedom) is the abiding phrase in our national anthem. In his victory speech, Uhuru effortlessly channeled an innate sense of grandiose destiny by invoking the anthem as though it were his own personal charter.
Immediately after his election victory, one of Uhuru’s first actions was to visit the home of the former president Moi where they were photographed together, a picture of Kenyatta gazing approvingly from the background. Uhuru wanted the blessing of the man who tortured and killed numerous Kenyan citizens, who dismantled public institutions, and impoverished the entire country. Uhuru, too, would “fuata nyayo.”
I want to know what Kenyans feel about the violence of the last election. I want to know what they feel about the men who allegedly helped instigate the deaths of more than 1,300 people and displacement of over 500,000. The idea that the results of this election are a clear reflection of thinking about the repercussions of the prior election is difficult to countenance. Those numbers resemble the post-election violence that ushered in multi-party politics in Kenya in 1992, when Human Rights Watch estimated that 1,500 were left dead and 300,000 displaced.
The displaced expect Uhuru to resettle them; they voted for him and celebrated the confirmation of his victory. These are people too impoverished to be able to solve their predicament for themselves. With few choices, they have to look to Uhuru and his deputy, William Ruto, both of whom are accused of having had a hand in bringing about their dire situation.
Who are these dead, and who are these displaced? Are they the same families that were displaced two decades ago? Are they daughters and sons, now going through the same motions as their own mothers and fathers before them? Violence is woven into family histories, embedded in the grains of the soil that scores the feet that run, trudge, and crawl to safety. Political violence has been consistent. Violence is the ground on which our politics stands.
On the BBC show “World Have Your Say,” on the Monday after the election, a young journalism student at the University of Nairobi fulminates about the expenses involved in our president-elect and his deputy traveling to The Hague. Who will pay for all this flying back and forth, and accommodation? Tax-payers’ money will go to waste. He does not mention that our president is the richest man in Kenya. Other participants denounce the International Criminal Court, casting aspersions on whichever nefarious conspiracy funds the ICC. A journalist points out that the ICC’s funding is publicly disclosed on the website, that one of the largest sources of funding is Japan, but the Kenyans’ refrain of “The West…” still remains.
The journalists sound baffled. One chants the party line: Westerners don’t get it, that Africa is asserting itself in ways The West can’t understand, can’t interpret, and aren’t needed to interpret. Ironically, he is from “The West” himself. He is overeager, overzealous, trying to rouse the crowd. They are placid, imperturbable, even stupefied. Another journalist points out that Kenya voluntarily became a signatory to the Rome Statute, that Uhuru and Ruto are the same men who preached the necessity of going to The Hague. Kenyans praised Louis Moreno Ocampo’s arrival in Kenya. But the consensus today is that the ICC is irrelevant and we should abandon it.
To be sure, the BBC show was structured to guarantee a minimum of friction. Only those who voted for Uhuru Kenyatta were invited. I hear each one of their names and I recognize each speaker’s ethnicity. They are almost all, on the face of it, Gikuyu. But no one mentions ethnicity, the one unstoppable force that dominates politics and structures electoral results. Among the Kenyans on the show there is a prayerful unity, a curious harmony, the lack of even the slightest dissent. The journalists are muzzled. They are not there to excavate the murky interior of voting Kenyans; they are there to provide the aural veneer of debate.
This paranoia about “the West” infects how we think about the election. In his tendentious and muddled “The Western Journalist in Africa,” for example, Mukoma wa Ngugi attacks the biased reporting of Michela Wrong, a journalist whose work is perennial fodder for male armchair-politicians whose obsession with her has reached disturbing levels. When Mukoma contrasted her writing with that of Elkim Namlo’s satire, “Foreign reporters armed and ready to attack Kenya,” it was left to commenters to observe that Elkim Namlo is actually Michael Holman, Michela Wrong’s former partner.
Mukoma’s faux pas reveals a popular Kenyan (perhaps even African) compulsion: those with no direct experience of colonialism still need to point out and fight neo-imperialism. The battles our parents and grand-parents lived through animated and empowered their generations, but while we reap the fruits of their victory, we are left without a specific, visible evil against which to rise up. There is a vacuum and we fill it with spectres: in our night, a bush easily turns into a bear. Thus, Mukoma does not let the facts get in his way, placing the forward-thinking, perceptive, and satirical African against the racist, parochial, and paternal Westerner. Focusing on this relationship allows us to depict ourselves as continuing what our forefathers began. We can tell ourselves that we are their children, fighting their fight. Mukoma, specifically, can continue his father’s work.
Other thinkers were not immune to the charms of this narrative. Professor Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research and Professor of Government at Columbia University, understood the Kenyan election as hinging on the different ways by which the two dominant political parties approached the issue of the ICC. But he wrongly attributes the phrase, “Don’t be vague, [say] the Hague” to radical activists, what he calls “the human rights lobby,” and the losing candidate’s camp. In fact it was the deputy president-elect himself who spoke those words, before he officially learned that he was among the accused.
Mamdani describes the losers as the winners would, telling the winner’s tale. The big lie was that the losing party had embraced the West while the winning party was fighting against imperialism, which could explain how Kenyatta and Ruto went from being unelectable, a few short months before the election, to being the only viable candidates. If Mamdani had described how UhuRuto reversed their positions on the matter, and how their duplicity was embraced by the larger part of the country, his thesis would have been untenable and he would have had to write a more complex and nuanced essay. His failing was in simply reporting without checking the source, thereby failing at explaining why the election was won and lost, as well as failing to show how we, Kenyans, are being manipulated by politicians.
Even Binyavanga Wainaina, of “How to Write about Africa” fame, has seemed addled when praising the recent election, making no mention of the way it maintained the status quo. In praising our new presidency, he predicted it would be muscular and talk tough to the West, ignoring how such posturing has upheld injustices and impunity since independence. When asked why he was indefensibly silent on the most important issues, Binyavanga responded on Twitter that he did not want Kenyans to wash their “innerwear” (underwear) in view of the West, and added that he did not vote for the president-elect and his deputy.
These are our priorities, it seems: Not to air our dirty laundry in public, as though Westerners might be fooled into thinking that Kenya, unlike every other nation, lacks dirty laundry. Also: to praise the strength that supports impunity. This is a very Kenyan mood, to refuse to gaze behind us at all the skeletons strewn about. We prefer the bright, saturated, branded, brochure-friendly vision of our future.
Or perhaps that view is also unreasonable and paternalistic. Did the internally displaced really vote for these men, who bore so much responsibility for the violence? If those responsible for a war can bring peace to a region, why do they need the presidency in order to do it? The same question applies to the conciliatory Prime Minister’s post created for Raila Odinga. If the office was necessary for peace, doesn’t that indict the man who occupied it? If these men bring peace, what kind of justice will they bring?
Ngugi wa Thiong’o might have hoped for a revolution to reverse impunity and the marginalizing of workers but such a revolution to restore independence-era ideals of wealth redistribution could never be reflected in a presidential vote. There is no bridge from here to there, from the masses being oppressed by demands that they vote according to their ethnic group to a material politics unmotivated by ethnicity, or that evil word “tribalism.”
The poorest voted for the wealthiest men in Kenya. Ethno-political alliances were maintained, sustained, and strengthened.
I want to know what Kenyans want, real Kenyans, not us with our iPads, Macbooks, running water, electricity, our free time. Kenyans, however, never vote for what they want. They only vote against what they do not want, against what they fear, what they have been told to fear, and what they have been told to not want. Voters do not assert themselves; they keep the putative savages from breaking the walls and laying everything to waste. It is a siege mentality: There is no improving the situation; one can only prevent the worst.
Perhaps I cannot understand my country. It has been only fifty years since independence, but that history only shows gaps, omissions, unknowns. There is no anchoring narrative, no aetiology which can grasp Kenya all at once, once and for all. Perhaps it would reveal too much about things of which no Kenyan wants to be a part. Perhaps such a radical cleaving to the truth would lead to nothing less than a sustained violent uprising. Clouded with ghosts of the dead, our past echoes with the voices of the marginalised and the brutalised. Our landscape is its own exegesis of all that remains undone, of all that must remain undone in order for elites to retain power.
If the majority of Kenyans are poor and this is what they want, for which they have voted, for which they have camped at polling stations from midnight to midnight, then why should the politics of this country matter to those of us who are safe? To those of us for whom economic growth, security, and low inflation have meant easy access to credit, salary raises, funding, venture capital, abundant freelancing opportunities, scholarships?
Keguro Macharia pointed out that the post-election violence in 2007/8 “demonstrated how radically unstable middle-classness could be: it suggested that precarity was not a state one could comfortably move past. Indeed, the strikes by various professional groups over the past few years—doctors, nurses, teachers—have been about being part of the precariat. Unless one comes from established money, professionalization no longer offers the guarantee of social mobility.”
In the long shadow of post-election violence, Kenyans were called upon to maintain the peace, to work towards peace, and avoid incitement or hate-speech. If not continuously reminded to be at peace, Kenyans would apparently break out into violence. When Daniel Arap Moi was re-elected in 1988, The Weekly Review ran the headline “Peace Breaks Out.” Having quashed a coup, Moi had “saved” Kenya, and the nation was eager to believe that partial truth. Exhausted by the unwelcome possibilities, disruptions, and privations brought on by chaos, Kenya ached for order. Even the National Council of Churches of Kenya—the de-facto opposition in that single-party state—came together with other political leaders who had once been opposed to (and even imprisoned by) Moi, and all united in pledging their loyalty to President Moi.
Okiya Omtata, a fiery Kenyan political and human rights activist, noted that “calling for peace without demanding that justice be done” is, in reality, “calling for a ceasefire.” This past election—complete with a militarised and policed peace—has the same feel of a ceasefire. Focusing on one type of highly visible violence has caused us to ignore the existence of any other. By conflating violence with conflict, dissent is now seen as incitement and criticism is hate-speech. But the demand that we sacrifice ideological debate for a greater, more important goal, is itself ideological. In essence, it is totalitarian. We demand peace at all costs precisely because we know that, in reality, there is no peace at all, and violence is not far away. We are not safe. The trappings of safety and security aren’t a measure of progress.
No middle-class family has been middle-class for more than a generation: our parents lived in crushing poverty as children, were impoverished as young professionals, and only modestly prosperous during the Moi-era, a time when interest rates were at thirty-five percent, inflation ever increasing, when corruption was a tax always siphoning away the fruits of all labour, and when citizens were murdered, tortured, dispossessed or disappeared.
We must care about our political condition, not because of the economy, but because we receive the understanding that the violence we see meted out with impunity, to others, could just as easily be turned against anyone else. We must see the fragility with which our houses are built. We must notice that there is no peace without justice, without a Kenya that can be embraced by all of us within these borders. To say, believe, or accept that the middle-class is safe is to ignore how precarious any status must be, when hung between great poverty and absolute wealth.
We see that Kenya exists at the same time that it doesn’t.