By JENERALI ULIMWENGU
Some statements made by individuals who cannot be accused of the sin of intellectualism say it more clearly than all the published theses by all your egghead pontificators put together.
Like this senior citizen, who was recently quoted in a Nairobi newspaper as saying, “I have witnessed Independence twice, the first time in 1963 [the date of Kenya’s formal Independence] and today [the day the referendum delivered a massive Yes verdict].”
As if to endorse that poignant sentiment with a military stamp, General Jeremiah Kianga, chief of the Kenya military, has hosted a military bash — parades, march-pasts, flypasts, tattoos, the works — like no one has seen since 1964, on the occasion of the promulgation of the new Constitution that will usher in what has been termed the Second Republic of Kenya.
Between that elderly citizen and the General, a whole nation is in the grip of the kind of effervescence that in African societies is associated with the arrival of a new baby — and that is exactly what the Kenyans are calling the adoption of the new Constitution, the “Rebirth of a Nation.”
The euphoria accompanying this momentous event is understandable in the Kenyan context, but it should also be understood by all of us in Africa who may want to learn a lesson or two from the Kenyan experience which, though particular to Kenya, is not necessarily peculiar to it.
We all share a similar if not identical colonial experience, and have all drunk deep from the cup of disillusionment as we saw our post-independence dreams and aspirations scuttled by new masters who hardly distinguished themselves as champions of their peoples’ full emancipation.
Our various independences across the African continent were the handiwork of a handful of African nationalist leaders in congress with the departing masters in locked rooms in palaces with strange names — Lancaster, Marlboro, etc — to which the great African masses (even those few who could have made sense of them) were not privy.
Granted, only a few could have represented us, but where was the follow-up in the process, that is, the intra-national Kamukunji wherein representatives of all the vital forces of our respective nations should have gathered to decide what to do with the newfound Independence, how to govern ourselves, what institutions, laws and processes suited our nations?
This kamkunji is the one massive missing link in our national narrative that Kenyans seem to have put their finger on.
So let’s sit up and take notice.
Handed over to collaborators
Lancaster and Marlboro transferred the instruments of power from foreign elites to domestic ones, all the while taking care that the new birth does not do away with the umbilical cord, so that the domestic elites would remain beholden to the metropoles as sources of intellectual and political as well as economic sustenance.
In some cases, military and security arrangements undergirded this relationship, helping to thwart any uppity native insurgent out to rock the boat.
It is in this context that the negotiated Independences between the two elites somehow skirted around the true sons and daughters of our respective lands, those who had given their lives for the freedom of their peoples, and handed over state power to collaborators, pliant chiefs, spies and other good boys, secure guarantors of a certain continuity.
The grim struggle to right this and other historical wrongs — a liberation struggle in its own right —threw to the fore a formidable array of activists who have gone down in the history of Kenya as the heroes of its Second Liberation, carriers of the flame lit by pre-Independence icons such as Dedan Kimathi, General Tanganyika and General China (of the Mau Mau fame) on the one hand, and people like Fred Kubai and Bildad Kaggia on the other.
The new fighters became active in the 1980s under the Moi regime, which was becoming ever more oppressive without the veneer of legitimacy that had seen Jomo Kenyatta revered to his grave and beyond.
This crop included pro-democracy stalwarts such as Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Masinde Muliro, Kenneth Matiba, Charles Rubia, Martin Shikuku and others. They were followed by younger activists, including Raila Odinga, Paul Muite, James Orengo, Wangari Maathai, Ngugi wa Thiong’o and others.
Looking back on the Kenyan struggle for the second liberation one cannot but admire the tenacity of its protagonists, both old and young, who braved all manner of difficulty, arising from so many treacherous sources, including intermittent warfare among themselves, jostling for position in the pecking order, revolving doors of alliances built today and pulled down tomorrow, and above all, a singularly brutal regime that not only turned the torture dungeons beneath Nyayo House into a sinister instrument of governance, but also was not above resorting to the most extreme form of exclusion, physical elimination: Pio Gama Pinto, Ronald Ngala, JM Kariuki, Robert Ouko, et al.
The indomitable will demonstrated by the campaigners for democracy — some still alive, some since departed — has been informed by the continuing growth of a rich tradition of citizen engagement, which has not only guaranteed popular support for serious progressive political agendas in the face of state terror, but also provided insurance against opportunists cutting base deals behind the people’s back.
It is this civil society — vast, varied, and valiant — that has been the most visible element of the midwifery that has delivered the new Constitution, and which can be trusted to chaperone it into maturity.
Beyond the horizon
This is what sets the Kenyan process apart from other experiences wherein a bunch of experts, guided by narrow partisan political projects, cobble together ephemeral legal platforms that allow the various contending factions around the table to exist for a few more years, basically looking at the faces and gauging the appetites of those present at the table.
The Kenyan people have opted for the long-term view, they have set their sights beyond the horizon and they have seen a tomorrow that works.
Still, the tasks remain daunting and the challenges forbidding.
The hatchets of yesteryear will not lend themselves to easy burials, nor will the anachronistic pulls of ethnicity and sanctimonious religiosity coil up and die.
But we can trust that those who have had the forbearance to step back from the precipice will have the wisdom to navigate what perils the future brings.
To paraphrase Ngugi, the Kenyan people, having been dismembered by a fractious politics, are finding in themselves the power to remember, in the twin sense of the calling back of their lost memory and the re-gathering of their scattered constituent limbs, to make themselves conscious and whole again.
This is an enterprise we must all join.
Jenerali Ulimwengu, chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper, is a political commentator and civil society activist based in Dar es Salaam.