Kenyatta, the Father of the Nation?
Kenyatta’s well-cultivated myth of the unquestioned “father of the Nation” was severely tested when on 25th January 1964 African soldiers at the Lanet Barracks mutinied over discrimination by their expatriates over salaries. The African members of the Kenya Rifle broke the armory in Lanet Barracks and demanded a forum with Kenyatta to discuss their grievances. To the Mutineers, Independence heralded a new era where the Africans will determine the African destiny. Further, Kenyatta’s personality as a freedom fighter, just like much of independent African leadership, was built around fierce anti-imperialism rhetoric. And the soldiers thought he will be sympathetic to their plight, instead to resolve the problem sought British’s help, and decision, led to a series of agreements with the British by which the former colonial power agreed to provide military support in the event of any domestic or foreign threat to Kenyatta’s government. For Kenyatta, the attempted mutiny became a perfect bogeyman deployed conveniently against any domestic opponents. Kenyatta elevated the presidency by making it the be all and end all, and effectively placing it above the law. To consolidate his rule, Kenyatta employed five strategies; 1) at the party level; he purged ruling party KANU; off any dissenting voices he considered alternative centers of power. 2) He established a firm grip over the economy through strategic patronage using members of his ethnic group. 3) He deployed the full force of security and the intelligence to address both real and imagined threats. 4) He instrumentalised the liberation struggle by crafting an alternative convenient national discourse and ruling philosophy using his “gift of garb”, especially, the Swahili language. 5) He used the law. This became the template for all the subsequent administration.
Moi, Fuata Nyayo za Kenyatta
Just like Kenyatta used the 1964 Lanet Mutiny to consolidate his power, Moi used the August 1 1982 failed coup to shed his “Mister Nice” image. After the coup, detention and arrest of pro-reform movement became rampant any perceived threat real or imagine was brutally suppressed. And with it, any residual veneer of Moi being different from Kenyatta was shattered. From there on, the state laid down the marker- reform was interpreted as an underhand attempt at state capture. But Mwakenya, a progressive movement largely aligned with the progressive left was undeterred. They started organizing in the urban areas and university halls. But when the state got wind of it, they ruthlessly pursued them. Moi ruled by fiat and fear.
Simultaneously, just like Kenyatta, Moi cultivated an endearingly myth of Baba wa Taifa– Father of the Nation. And a larger than life personality was created around this myth that was celebrated in songs, institutions- schools, hospitals, universities etc, and roads named after him. Moi was always at pain to present himself as a man with his hands on the pulse of the man on the street.
Avenues of challenging the status quo were formally closed through a constitutional change. Even within the ruling party dissent was not tolerated. The party established a severe disciplinary committee to streamline the party’s operations. Unlike Kenyatta who cared little about the political party, to Moi, the party was another avenue of control-a fulcrum around which he consolidated his rule, although it was by no means the only one. When all avenues were closed, the pro-reform movement went underground and some went into exile.
The West tolerated Moi’s domestic repression because Kenya was in the Western bloc. But the end of the Cold War changed the Western countries calculus regarding Kenya as a vanguard against communism, signaling the end of an era of tolerating Moi’s malfeasance. After years of refusing to allow multiparty despite relentless pressure, arguing, multiparty will deepen ethnic division and violence- a self-fulfilling prophecy because all the subsequent violence were state engineered, Moi begrudgingly accepted the introduction of multiparty. But before accepting multiparty Moi ensured he has created his ruling party, KANU’s exclusive electoral blocks through forceful evictions of potential opposition population in the Rift Valley and coastal Kenya, the two places that became synonymous with electoral violence.
Kenyatta II, the post-Westgate warrior?
Even ardent Kenyatta’s supporters will gladly admit his election was a protest vote against external intervention, especially the ICC. Many admit their vote was not for Kenyatta, but against the ICC. And by joining with William Ruto, Kenyatta coasted to victory on the crest of anti-ICC rhetoric. Kenyatta has always been cast as a child of privilege; his father was Kenya’s first president. And he was not “presidential” enough. But even trenchant anti-Uhuru would be hard pressed not to admire his presidential performance during the Westgate attack. Since the West gate attack Kenyatta’s statesmanship has given way to reflexive criminalization of spaces for dissent. Since his elections campaign sprung from protest against external interference, he has turned the same rage machine domestically on the two institutions that are not in his exclusive ambit- the media and the civil society. But these institutions especially the civil society faced scathing part of his election campaign rhetoric. They were called the evil society; they received external money to prevent his accession to power. In parliament Kenyatta has super majority, which has reduced the opposition into cyclic impotence outburst. Free of parliamentary censure Kenyatta turned on the media and the civil society by proposing laws that will cripple them financially. Part of the new media law proposed special quasi government body that will police the media and impose prohibitive fines are the major thrust of the media bill that was passed 5 December 2013. However, the NGO bill failed to garner the requisite number in parliament. If passed the NGO bill would have placed them under de facto government management and capped international funding for NGOs at 15% of their budgets, notably hindering a key source of cash for many rights groups and anti-corruption watchdogs. This was designed to hit the NGO’s where it matters most. The bill was defeated 83 to 73 votes, with eight lawmakers abstaining, marking the first significant defeat for the ruling Jubilee coalition.