I remember a time when anybody who opposed any government position whatsoever, or was even just imagined not to be adequately loyal to the powers of the day, was labelled with terms like ‘puppets of foreign masters’ , ‘enemies of development’ , ‘self-seekers’ , ‘disgruntled elements’ , ‘traitors’, ‘dissidents’ and other choice terminologies.
This included persons that protested institutionalised corruption and the rampant theft and mismanagement of public resources, people that advocated for political pluralism, people that challenged tribalism and cronyism in government, people that protested police brutality and justice-for-sale, and people that dared suggest that Kenya deserved better. It was the era of Mkulima No. 1, and Mwalimu No. 1 and everything else No.1 – an omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent leader that knew everything and did everything, and brooked no alternative viewpoint.
It was the era of ‘transparent’ queue voting when shorter queues actually won elections, and anybody who scored a certain percentage of the votes at nomination in the single-party primaries was declared elected ‘unopposed’. It was the era when those that dared suggest there could be political opinions other than those of the single party were recommended to seek psychiatric care. It was the era when to read, write or think in any way other than that defined by the power barons was an offence punishable by the loss of employment, business, limb and even life.
It was the era when a nondescript old man called Mbaraki Karanja was arrested by security agents, and disappeared without trace – even as tens of graves were opened up to find his body after he was allegedly shot dead by police while attempting to escape from ‘lawful custody’. It was an era when you could be arrested because you happened to use a toilet where state agents had planted ‘seditious’ publications. It was the era of the Nyayo Professors – loyal scholars and academicians who for their boot-licking sycophancy were rewarded with lucrative jobs and opportunities for grand corruption – while the likes of Maina Kinyatti, Mukaru Ng’ang’a, Willy Mutunga, Edward Oyugi, Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiong’o were either forced into exile, detained without trial or jailed on trumped-up charges.
It was the era when the theft of public land was not considered theft, when Prof Wangari Maathai was beaten to a pulp by hired goons younger than her own children because she dared go water seedlings at Karura Forest. It was the era of overnight millionaires and billionaires, wet-nosed young yuppies who had never held a job in their lives but were generously rewarded for their loyalty to the party and their betrayal of the most fundamental ideals that distinguish us from beasts. It was the era of ‘Youth for KANU’.
It was the era when semi-literate elderly buffoons dominated different parts of the country with the power of absolute monarchs in the service of the president, men whose intellect was barely above ‘cretin’ but whose cunning and callousness had no limits. It was the era of Mulu Mutisya, Shariff Nassir, Ezekiel Barng’etuny, Wilson Leitich, Kariuki Chotara, Okiki Amayo, Kuria Kanyingi – names that struck terror in the hearts of Kenyans.
It was the era when the mainstream media were cowed into compliance and cover-up, when only publications like ‘Society’ run by Pius Nyamora, and ‘Finance’ run by Njehu Gatabaki, and ‘Nairobi Law Monthly’ run by Gitobu Imanyara and ‘Beyond’ run by the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) dared tell the truth as it was. It was the era when Maendeleo ya Wanawake and even the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU) were swallowed by Kanu, and similar suggestions were made for the Law Society of Kenya and even the NCCK! It was an era when there was only one right opinion, and everything else was heresy. It was an era when if you dared disagree with ‘the Government’, you suffered untold pains and sufferings – as did your spouse, your children, other family members, and even your business associates who did not move fast enough to disassociate themselves with your traitorous acts. It was the era when those that dared to speak were brought broken and bleeding before spineless judges and magistrates in the dark of the night or at weekends, and when lawyers who dared represent them faced a similar fate.
It was an era when we spoke in whispers, when children were evicted before any ‘serious’ conversation lest they repeat ‘dangerous’ things in the wrong places. It was an era when we all lived in fear – lest we incur the wrath of some well-connected politico or security agent, who literally wielded the power of life and death. It was an era when ‘rights’ existed only in the dictionary and in the sick minds of political trouble-makers serving the interests of their foreign masters.
But not all were cowed! There were those that had the personal conviction, the strength of character, and courage of spirit to take on the single party dictatorship – despite all the atrocities it was capable of and willing to commit to preserve itself. There were clergymen who were true shepherds of the flock – Alexander Muge, Henry Okullu,Timothy Njoya, Ndingi Mwana’Nzeki, Manasses Kuria, Mutava Musyimi, and many others. We had political figures like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, George Anyona, Mashengu wa Mwachofi, Chibule wa Tsuma, Abuya Abuya, James Orengo, Chelagat Mutai, Koigi wa Wamwere, Mukhisa Kituyi, Raila Odinga, Wanyiri Kihoro and many others – including former establishment figures like Kenneth Matiba and Charles Rubia. We had intrepid lawyers like Gibson Kamau Kuria, Paul Muite, Kivutha Kibwana, Martha Njoka (nee Karua), Beatrice Nduta, John Khaminwa, Oki Ooko Ombaka and many others; we had university student leaders like Mwandawiro Mganga, Wafule Buke, Hassan Omar, and Titus Adungosi and many others; we had the aforementioned scholars and the aforementioned media people. And we had countless, nameless, faceless citizens who attended ‘illegal’ demonstrations and rallies that were one and all put down with extreme brutality by the police.
And we had activists from civil society, those that we now blithely call ‘evil society’; they documented the perversions and depredations of the police state against the people; they let the world know what our local media were too scared or compromised to report; they provided a channel for resources from friends overseas for both material and moral sustenance of a people bent double under the weight of relentless tyranny; and they worked tirelessly for a change of laws and a unified coherent opposition against the Police State. Organisations like CLARION, and Kituo Cha Sheria, and Transparency International, and the International Commission of Jurists, and the Medico-Legal Unit, and the Kenya Human Rights Commission were friends of the people when friends were few and far apart. The Greenbelt Movement and Operation Firimbi were dwarfs that took own the Goliath of the one-party state on our behalf, winning remarkable victories.
But those days are long gone. Those that lived through them barely recall them, while a huge percentage of the population were oblivious children when these things happened. In fact, the average Kenyan only knows second-hand what was won, and what could be lost. That is why we have no qualms about vilifying those that fought for what we now enjoy; that is why we blithely condemn those that would insist that the provisions of the Constitution and other laws must be observed; that is why we would without a second thought use the very terminology that the Oppressor of the past used against those that fought so hard and sacrificed so much to loosen the evil grip around the nation’s neck. That is why we would see no evil in a media that would voluntarily gag itself at a time when all must speak honestly and objectively to preserve the gains made. That is why we would remain silent and even advance the mission of persons hell-bent on destroying institutions that we so desperately need to carry the country to the next level. And that is why we would condemn those that speak truth to power, instead insisting that they must be subservient and compliant.
Why is it that any allusions made to human rights, rule of law, transparency, accountability, justice and integrity have now become part of a great Western imperialist plot that insults our sovereignty and assaults our dignity? Why is it that any suggestion that the IEBC may not have fully lived up to expectations is now treated as near-treason? Why is it that persons that we have in the very recent past hailed for their stand against corruption and bad governance suddenly become villains to be lampooned and derided? Is it that in this matter of elections a citizen has only one right – to agree with the results as announced by the IEBC? Is it that a great error was made in writing our Constitution when a provision was made for judicial intervention should there be a dispute, or was that provision intended purely for cosmetic purposes?
The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and we should be commending those that have taken-up positions on the defensive wall, armed with the guarantees provided by our Constitution! We should never ever again criminalise dissent, or get caught up in the euphoric politics of expediency where those we support are always right and those in opposition are always wrong. To do so will be the beginning of a perilous slide back into the abyss of rule by personal fiat rather than by law, and the glorification of sycophancy and conformity above independent thought, personal sovereignty and innovation.
Because we have voluntarily and with open eyes chosen to go back to vomit that is years old, like some clueless mangy mongrel that is all hide and bones, we shall suffer the horrendous fate of those that forget and forsake history. Like lambs to slaughter, we shall surely be led to the abattoir without any inkling of what awaits us; and we shall only realise we were complicit in our own slaughter when the steaks are sizzling on the hot grill!