Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Of foundational myths

According to the online version of Merriam-Webster, there are two possible definitions of "founding father", that is,
"a person who helps to create or establish something : a person who founds something"
"a man who had an important part in creating the government of the U.S.; specifically : a member of the American Constitutional Convention of 1787."
The one apposite to our circumstances is the first definition: "a person who helps to create or establish something : a person who founds something." The phrase "founding father" has been used in relation to Kenya's independence in 1963 and in many respects, it is an accurate description. But it also hides a lot that has happened since then.

Few of us care enough to wonder how the Lancaster House Constitution became the foundation for a one-party dictatorship that lasted between 1969 and 1990, a full twenty-one years, or how it became the foundation for a presidency for life, literally, and a twenty-four year hegemony that saw Kenyans' human development almost wither and die.

Whereas the Unites States celebrates its founding fathers, even as its citizens question many of the individual deeds by their founding fathers (such as Thomas Jefferson's rape of Sally Hemmings), Kenya has, of late, been reminded again and again of the largely dispiriting role its founding fathers have had on the fate of over forty million people. From land to banking, the odious influence of the founding fathers pervades everywhere, like a blanket of mustard gas, choking the life out of the miserable who didn't have the foresight to put on their gas masks.

David Ndii makes a remarkable claim in his latest article: The founding fathers quarrelled over whether to grow rich first and share later, or to share first and grow rich later. This was anathema to the Ujamaa ethos that Mwalimu Julius Nyerere attempted in neighbouring Tanzania, where sharing was decreed by the ruling party and whose effects can be felt today where more Tanzanians identify themselves as Tanzanians than those who don't, mainly the peoples of Zanzibar and Pemba, whose politics has always been very complicated. 

Mr Ndii asks a simple question: how many Kenyans see themselves as Kenyans first? Are they more than those who don't? In his mind, more Kenyans identify with tribe first before they identify with their nation. He argues, persuasively, that we are a nation only in name; but in neither cultural nor civic ways are we a nation.

Kenya may have its foundational myths, burnished by decades of the institutionalised hagiography of the founding fathers, but most of what we think is true, is not. First, the Mau Mau were first known as the land and freedom army and their insurgency was deeply rooted in the colonial government's land policies that privileged white settlers and colonial home guards over everyone else, with the Mt Kenya and the North Rift suffering disproportionately compared to, say, Ukambani or Luo Nyanza.

Second, the Mau Mau didn't have a plan other than to get their land, then their freedom, back. There was a lot of thought put into the kind of government they wanted, but it wasn't reduced to a draft constitution. It is how Kenyans who had very little to do with the "freedom" struggle (by then they had forgotten all about the "land" part) travelled to the United Kingdom in 1960, 1962 and 1963 in what came to be known as the Lancaster Conferences, and engaged in a negotiated end to the colonial experiment in British East Africa. Kenyans did not know that they had been sold a bill of goods until the famous 1963 "Forgive and Forget" speech and the betrayals and corruption of the Million Acres programme. We already know the sordid story of settlement schemes and forest excisions.

Third, the seeds of the overt ethnicisation of the Government were planted with the proscription of the Kenya People's Union and the detention at the president's pleasure of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and, later on, of Jomo Kenyatta's personal secretary, Ramogi Ochieng Oneko. The assassinations of the socialist Pio Gama Pinto, the hyper-critical JM Kariuki and the ambitious Tom Mboya, and the accompanying insinuations of a "Kiambu Mafia" at a time when many real life mafiosi were fleeing Southern Italy for Kenya's North Coast, especially Malindi, put paid to the idea that the Government was interested in a cohesive nation.

Fourth, the Nyayo Philosophy of Peace, Love and Unity, was a cruel mockery, because between 1982, when it was officially espoused, and 1990, when section 2A of the Constitution was repealed, Kenya may have known a measure of Special Branch-enforced peace, but the love of the people for their Government and, by extension the  nation, had been poisoned and the only people who were united were those high government officials who were squeezing the last shilling out of the national treasury using a mix of guile, coercion and insider knowledge.

Mr Ndii agrees with the contention that nationalism does not have the deep intellectual support that even odious -isms like Marxism had, or continue to have. It is an assertion that exposes the nationalist to ridicule when all his pro-nationalism rhetoric is exposed for the hot air that it is. However, it is not without a deep tradition; the founding of the United States of America is one such example, as is the Indian nationalism that came about with the Free India Movement of the late nineteenth century. The Federalist Papers and the counterarguments of the royalists provide a rich and vivid detail about what compelled the founding fathers to challenge the United Kingdom and strife off as a new nation. The letters and papers of Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Dadabhai Naraoji, Syed Ahmed Khan, Gopal Krshna Gokhale and Lal Lajpat Rai propose a moral and political foundation for the Quit India Movement. It has been almost 60 years since Dedan Kimathi was hanged by the colonial government, yet what he thought and why he thought it are not required reading for Kenyans or their patriotic overlords.

It isn't enough to whine that Dr Ndii is simply praying for the bloodshed that he predicts if we don't change only so that he could say, "I told you so!", a trap that has ensnared many a quasi-public intellectual. For a proper debate, 5there must be a true intellectual foundation for the argument that Kenya is a nation and that David Ndii's divorce is an extreme reaction to a historical bump in the road. So far, Kenyans have been denied that debate by the cheerleaders of the build-the-monument bandwagon busily burrowing inexorably towards the national treasury. By the time they are building the ten millionth laptop-for-tots, they may yet find their factory surrounded by the remains of their victims. Before a nation is seen in its monuments, it must come alive in our minds and our hearts. I don't think it has.

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