Monday, August 27, 2018

Putting the genie back

When I was a child in primary school, I partook of Maziwa ya Nyayo - and loved every cold liquid ounce of it. After all, I was one of the watoto wa Nyayo. I even took part in the 10 Years of Nyayo Era celebrations in 1988 when thousands of children from across the country paraded in splendid colours at the Moi International Sports Stadium in Kasarani. There's photographic evidence of me in my colourful athletic attire somewhere in mum's house. We loved the whole of the experience, especially when we went away to camp at the Kenya Teachers Technical Training College in Gigiri.

Back then, when it was Voice of Kenya and not the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, everything was about Nyayo. He was a constant, reassuring presence. When he urged us to slow down mmonyoko wa udongo by building gabions, he turned up in person to throw in his share of rocks into the soil erosion preventing walls. When he asked us to be good Christians to one another, he did so by praying with us in our churches every Sunday without fail, bible in hand. Nyayo was Moi and Moi was Nyayo.

But even as a child, I knew well enough to be afraid of him and everything about him. You could see it by how even small children knew who in Buru Buru was the "Special Branch" guy among the three that roasted maize by the side of the road. You knew well enough not to say anything bad about Nyayo when in school. You were constantly conscious of the fear that pervaded everything your father did when he went to the office or drove us to shags over the holidays. Nyayo was benevolent most of the time and ruthless whenever it suited his needs. All the Maziwa ya Nyayo in the country couldn't erase the fact that even children knew enough to fear Baba wa Taifa.

I didn't really appreciate how schizophrenic Kenya was until I went to India. Vast, multi-cultural, multilingual and vibrantly, chaotically, loudly, exuberantly democratic, it was an amazing place to learn about dissent, discourse, democracy and politics. I stayed for a long time. I couldn't believe that actual communists won popular elections. Or that many minority communities enjoyed constitutional job quotas in government. It didn't come as a shock that some dissent in India was violent, in which decades of violence had led great misery and death, but that it had stopped intellectuals, artists, novelists and musicians from telling their side of the story. I found it astonishing that the Supreme Court of India had decreed that a state of emergency was unconstitutional, leading to the fall of a government and the jailing of the prime minister. More astonishingly, she had rebounded, and reclaimed her position in the party and in government.

Coming back home three years after Yote yawezekana bila MOI!, I was confronted by the spectre of the Nyayo Era where we would go out of our way to avoid embarassing Government and all its minions, factotums, nawabs and Brahmins. Even Mwai Kibaki's laid back, reticent style didn't hide the fear that still pervaded every facet of our lives. It is why the initial exuberance built on free speech was no longer there. There were many more new subjects which we could publicly explore - including the competence or otherwise of our president - but to suggest that we had to fundamentally reform how we were governed, policed, educated, treated, transported, or informed, were bridges too far. Today, more and more subjects are being effectively outlawed. Moi-ism is creeping back. You can see it in the intensity, and opacity, of the second Kenyatta succession. What we can and cannot say about it is now measured by how many people are afraid to even broach the subject in public, among strangers. The schizophrenia is back.
 
In India, it was clear what a democracy looked like and what a money-focused machine required. In India, even odious politicians needed to sell their politics in the market of political ideas. The most persuasive, not necessarily the best, won. Next door in China, the party is the state and the state is the party and what the state wants is total submission to its will, even among its highest ranking apparatchiks. It is why when one steps out of line, challenges the party's received wisdom, one is punished together with his family, friends and known or suspected associates. So it is no surprise that the Chinese way finds favour with those hell-bent on re-imposing the Nyayo philosophy. They are working overtime to put the post-Moi genie back in the bottle. I will not put it past them to succeed. I really wouldn't.

They all fall, eventually

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