I was surprised by how positive much of the commentary on the 40th anniversary of the death of Jomo Kenyatta was.
I guess some of that is because of our human trait not to criticise the dead, especially on “their” days. But I also think that part of it is the unspoken comparison between Kenyatta Senior and Junior. And here, the son is a poor shadow of the father—and he knows it—which is why he has publicly blamed the new Constitution for his shortcomings.
Generally inferior, lazy, ineffective or corrupt leaders will blame everything but themselves. But in Kenya today, it is absolutely not the Constitution’s fault that corruption has run rampage! It is not the Constitution’s fault that one or two communities feel entitled and have excluded the rest of Kenya but for a few crumbs. And it is not the Constitution’s fault that elections keep getting stolen, people are killed by the state, and debt has spiraled out of control to levels that will put us in the economic ICU in a few months. Actually, the marvel of this regime is how effectively they have managed to subvert a Constitution deliberately crafted to curtail these exact failings! That is an amazing feat, and I can only think of Idi Amin in Uganda who was as efficient in taking a country backwards.
So what can we say about Jomo’s legacy with the benefit of hindsight and more information now than then? There is little debate that Jomo played a role in our getting independence though many others played bigger roles than he did and are not as heralded. The economy did well in his time too, especially at a time when we were expected to go backwards. But he failed miserably at forging a nation state, which is one of the main reasons for the tensions that haunt us. Such was this failure that Kenya is as fragile and divided as DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
Growing up on the slopes of Mt Kenya, Kenyatta was revered by the people of the region but with some disquiet and quietly murmured discontent. There was a feeling that even northern Mt Kenya had contributed more to the Mau Mau struggle, the people of the region had been short-changed compared to the Kiambu residents who had been known as the bulwark of the home-guards, and had included Jomo’s own son Peter. The assassination of J M Kariuki, a son of Nyeri, increased the disquiet especially as it was clear that the assassination was the work of regime insiders protected by Jomo Kenyatta’s regime.
Part of the core of the Jomo Kenyatta legacy is assassinations, detention without trial, and focused repression of Luo leadership. Starting with Pio Gama Pinto, then on to Tom Mboya and JM Kariuki, assassinations of political leaders define Jomo’s regime. He could not abide dissent and competition and dissenters were simply killed or detained without trial, a tactic inherited from the British colonial rulers.
As Ngugi wa Thiong’o (detained by Kenyatta in 1977) says the worst part of detention without trial is never having a date to hang your hope for release on. And remember the detention edict stated that one was detained at the “pleasure of the President!”
Jomo Kenyatta’s regime also authorised official corruption in Kenya especially by the few powerful while limiting it for others. I suspect the ongoing, strategy-less war on corruption is hoping to recreate a similar situation where only a few benefit instead of the current free-for-all.
Authorised, because allowing civil servants to do business meant corruption was inevitable. The appointment of Duncan Ndegwa, a civil servant already engaged in business, to head the civil service, could only have one result. There years of the Kenyatta regime brought in a sense of superiority within the Kiambu mafia ruling Kenya. They benefited politically, economically and socially. Hence the “change the constitution” efforts of 1976 which would have made sense were they not about maintaining Gikuyu hegemony, which followed the oathing of Gikuyu people in 1969.
Paradoxically, this sense of ethnic entitlement and superiority only increased in the 24 years of Kanu rule which weakened the few foundations that had been started, due to incompetence and deep corruption that destroyed forests, grabbed public land including playgrounds and riparian land. The Kenyan economy was on its knees by the time Kanu lost power in 2002.
The Mwai Kibaki regime restored the economy and put money in ordinary people’s pockets. Growth rates were high and significant domestic and international investment ensued. Sadly these early successes fed the sense of entitlement and superiority which led to the refusal to leave power in 2007 after losing the elections.
The coalition government while slow and cantankerous was perhaps Kenya’s best government. Growth rates soared, there was a sense of inclusivity, and corruption was mitigated as each side exposed the other.
Ironically, it is perhaps Uhuru Kenyatta’s regime that will finally put to bed the idea that one community is especially efficient, entrepreneurial and suited to govern Kenya, by the mess he has caused. That could well be his legacy.