King-Making in Kenya

Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta traveled to Muranga in Central Kenya and was anointed “King of the Kikuyu.” He is one of six Kenyans summoned to appear before the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity related to the country's 2007–08 post-election violence. Kenyatta has been an outspoken critic of the Court and has been accused of leading a public campaign against it by stoking ethnic solidarity. His visit to Muranga, and his new title, have been criticized by many in Kenya as furthering such tensions. This article, which originally appeared in The Star, compares the current situation with that under Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, president of Kenya from 1964–1978.

My dearly beloved King:

I am torn on whether to felicitate you on your recent enthronement in Muranga. This is not personal: it is just a reflection of the times. You see, under the new constitution (even the old one actually), there is no provision for anyone to be my king. In fact, it states the direct opposite: "All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya…" and provides that "The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives."  The only state organs to whom sovereign power is delegated are parliament and the legislative assemblies in the county governments, the national executive and the executive structures in the county governments, and the judiciary and independent tribunals.  See, no kings allowed for here.

Secondly, this is not really a propitious moment for kings in Africa. This not only applies to kings of the hereditary kind such as King Mswati of Swaziland, that famous enjoyer of the reed dance, who has lately been attempting to forcibly stave off a rebellion among his subjects. It also applies to those in political office who had assumed absolute powers over their people: for example, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and, of course, Muammar Gaddhafi in Libya who had styled himself the "King of kings."

The reason I am writing to you my beloved king is that I am worried. I am worried because, despite my constitutionally entrenched fundamental rights and freedoms, I am learning that your enthronement could constrain my ability to disagree with you. I have heard murmurings in the kingdom that those who are thinking of taking a different path from yours have been "advised" that it is not in their best interests to do so. This is very worrisome; for it seems to be a patent case demonstrating that there will be a lack of tolerance for dissent under your kingship. And although my mentor Professor Makau Mutua recently wrote a very penetrative piece distinguishing you from the greatly revered late Jomo (President from 1964-1978), this points to some fearful stirrings of him in you. It calls to mind how in June 1973 Nyeri MP Waruru Kanja characterized how debate on sensitive issuesin this case the land questionwas handled: "Whenever we mention that problem either in this House or outside we are accused of payukaring (bickering)."  With questions such as the IDP question and extra-judicial executions joining the list of sensitive issues, will those discussing these questions be similarly accused of payukaring?

This, obviously, is not helped by the Muranga declaration where you were quoted: "All of us should follow our muthamaki (great leader) Kibaki... I want to tell all the leaders here that if any one of them fails to toe the line, they should know that their politics is over. If Kibaki tells us to go to the left, we should do so, just like Ruto tells his people to go one way and they all do so."  For it is recalled how at the height of his powers, great Jomo in November 1969 warned dissenters, "We will crush you like flour. Anyone who toys with our progress will be crushed like locusts."

How this played out was frightening, as those on the wrong end of this message can attest. Take, for example, Martin Shikuku, who remarked in Parliament that the ruling party KANU was dead and was hurriedly subsequently carted off to detention without trial. Am I not entitled to begin to fear that such fates await those who will make similar unwelcome remarks?

My concerns, hence, are not just about quirky historical coincidences that tie you to Jomo such as the accusation that both times KANU has died it has been with one of you at its helm. No. It is about a historical legacy that could be easily repeated to the detriment of Kenya. This was the warning of the late and greatly lamented J.M. Kariuki whose brutal murder in 1975 still remains a mystery: "a small but powerful group of greedy, self-seeking elite in the form of politicians, civil-servants, and businessmen has steadily but very surely monopolized the fruits of independence to the exclusion of the majority of our people. We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars."

For when I look at your coterie of political friends, associates and acolytes, I see a band of non-reformists and anti-reformers; your current primary political partner William Ruto, for example, championed the unsuccessful "No" campaign against the new constitution while another key associate Kalonzo Musyoka was characterized as a "watermelon." Should I not rightly be concerned about the company you keep and what they stand for? Or more appropriately, who they stand on?

My king, your ascent has been hailed as a new beginning; new tidings are to be expected. Yet, what I see from you and your circle of friends are the same old bad tabias (habits): business as usual. Under the threat of prosecution at the ICC, for instance, you have led a loud, cacophonous public campaign to stoke ethnic solidarity; reminiscent of the oath-taking ceremonies among the Gikuyu of 1969 when there was great fear of political upheaval following the assassination of Tom Mboya.

Given these parallels, will your legacy be that of Jomo’s?  Here is how renowned author Ngugi wa Thiongo captured it in his book, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary:

My reception to his [President Jomo Kenyatta’s] death was then one of sadness: here was a black Moses who had been called by history to lead his people to the promised land of no exploitation, no oppression, but who failed to rise to the occasion, who ended up surrounding himself with colonial chiefs, home guards and traitors... Kenyatta was a twentieth-century tragic figure… He chose the Lilliputian approval of the Blundells and the Macdonalds of the colonial world, warming himself in the reactionary gratitude of… exploiters and oppressors rather than in the eternal titanic applause of the Kenyan people, sunning himself in the revolutionary gratitude of all oppressed and exploited.

My dearly beloved king, have you been freshly anointed to lead us down the same old, weary path?

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