Elections in Kenya

In feudal Europe, every five or so years, a grand festival was held. Everyone was invited: the rich as well as the poor. For the powerful and the powerless, the rulers and their subjects, this was the day that expressed a universal fraternity of all. On this day, the precursor of modern day role-playing in our political asylums had the rich dressed as the poor and the poor dressed as the rich. The swagger of wealth, the measured steps of poverty, the foolhardiness and laziness of the poor, the courage and swiftness of the rich, the misery of the rich, the mishaps of the poor, whatever it was that each class perceived of the other, it was to be displayed for the day. It was a festival that released the valve of social pressure in the anecdotal, in costumes made to fit the occasion and smooth or chaffed skin was to be resumed the following day. Arms that the night before were interlocked in drunken comradely love would separate at the break of dawn. The anger that would have otherwise spilled over in spontaneous mass action or found expression in the Nyandarua forests of the time, had been lost. And god forbid the poor, who after having tasted the swagger of power thought of permanence: for the guillotine did not become any duller or more forgiving and it was back to the business of off with their heads.

Such is the farce of our African elections that we legitimize with our vote. In the early days of independence, the one party state was translated into unity on the argument that too many parties would lead to ethnic divisions. It was also argued that the people were not well educated in the manners of politics and therefore needed a strong and unified leadership. And the best argument for the one party state: since everyone was behind the ruling party as the recent referendum so clearly illustrated, what was the point of having two or three parties just for the sake of having them?

It was this kind of logic, first used by present President Kenyatta and then by President Moi, that was found to be inadequate by the struggling people and saw the first multi-party elections in Kenya in 1992 and again in 1997. It is this logic that is about to receive yet another blow in December of 2002. A closer, or perhaps even a cursory glance, reveals that this thundering fist that we heave from polling station to station is gloved: it shakes the wall but it does not threaten to bring it down. We have been given a mirage for water yet we wonder why we don’t get any nourishment. But to get to this electoral farce, it’s important to trace its roots; to trace each thread as it is weaved into the mask, each fact before it was mystified.

There are two main threads that weave and at times stand in opposition. One is the Kenyatta-Moi neocolonial thread. For the two presidents, image is everything. It is on image and image alone that they will flourish or wither. The mask at all costs and indeed for it is only when the mask falls that their power ebbs away. The other thread that is always threatening to undo the mask is the frustration of the people: their organizing, the brutal repression they face, their reorganizing, their resilience.


As early as 1952, before his ascendancy to the helm of a ship sinking into neocolonialism, Jomo Kenyatta had already denounced the Mau Mau as terrorists. These Kenyan freedom fighters, reminiscent of the Palestinians of today, had struggled practically alone in a world that had refused to embrace their cause. Echoing the British in denouncing the Mau Mau as terrorists made it clear where Kenyatta’s allegiances lay. Were it not for the gown of nationalism that he wore well, especially after the revolutionary stamp given to him by the British when they detained him, Kenyans would have seen that indeed the emperor was naked. It is not surprising therefore that at the independence celebrations, as the Union Jack was lowered, the lights were dimmed to lessen the pain of Prince Phillips and his settlers who after a blatant colonial experience now would have to maintain their power behind black shadows. (see Not Yet Uhuru, Odinga Oginga).

No Kenyan would he allow the pleasure of seeing at last, in full light, the symbol of tyranny slide down the pole and promptly shipped out of Kenya. On assuming presidency he tracked the remaining Mau Mau fighters who had refused to lay down their arms. Hundreds of Mau Mau were rounded up tortured, killed or detained . It only followed that Kenyatta would not recognize their struggle and would instead relegate them to footnotes of Kenyan history as written by the British. The irony, that the Mau Mau suffered their final defeat not at the hands of the British but by home guards dressed in presidential suits, should not go unnoticed. It is the essence of neocolonialism.

Whatever colonialism could not do once it was unmasked, it left to what Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth called its gatekeepers. Thus Kenyatta, at the moment when he decided that the lights were to be dimmed, was only declaring in not so metaphorical terms what was already in the open, that his government would do most of its dealing with the British and (with what Africans were to simply call, after Patrice Lumumba’s assassination with the direct complicity of the American government) the West.

Under the cover of preserving Kenya’s unity, under the guise of nationalism, Kenyatta consolidated power not for national development, not for industries that bear his name, not for an education system that even though named after him eradicates illiteracy, not for fame or glory, but for personal gain. For his presidency, from 1963 to 1978, Kenyans have nothing to show except dreams and bones crushed under his weight. He wasn’t a dreamer, a visionary who went astray, or one who was betrayed by the historical times he lived in as might be said of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania – he was, ultimately a common thief who wore the mask of nationalism to go after the gold.

But during Kenyatta’s reign, Kenyans from the very beginning were not silent. The historical law, that oppression breeds resistance, was in full effect. The people began to realize the freedom that Kenyatta spoke of was a gimmick when the dawn after independence celebrations found them still wielding hoes in the tea and coffee plantations.

Odinga Oginga, Kenya’s first Vice President had within the first few years seen through the shallow nationalism of Kenyatta and moved to the left and the Mau Mau platform of Land and Freedom. He at first tried to awaken the conscience of the government but realized it did not have one – in fact it was rewarding colonial chiefs and collaborators (home guards) with governmental posts. He called for justice, for an end to neocolonialism and a recognition of Mau Mau history. Another revolutionary, Pio Gama Pinto, a socialist, was amongst the first to fall in Kenyatta’s regime. He had been instrumental in getting arms and money to the Mau Mau, as well as in the formation of an independent press and trade unions. After independence he continued agitating for an independence that was not set in imperialist rails. He was assassinated in 1967. In the same year of Pinto’s assassination, Odinga resigned from the ruling party and formed the Kenya People’s Union (KPU). It was banned two years later and he was promptly thrown into detention. Tom Mboya, a refined (it has been said) anti-socialist crusader and a Kenyatta man was assassinated – it is not clear by whom but historical fingers point at Kenyatta. He was becoming too popular. Competition in political despotism is literally cut-throat. Dictatorships eat their young ambitious cubs. Moi was to years later take Kenyatta’s example to heart and kill his most popular foreign minister, Robert Ouko in 1990.

By the 1970’s the forces of neocolonialism and anti-neocolonialism that had come together to lower the British flag, that had united under the nationalist mist in which shapes and positions kept changing, were standing on opposite sides of it: On one side, there were those who wanted to see the flag become a symbol of the people’s struggle, and on the other those that simply replaced symbol for symbol, the Kenyan flag in place of the Union Jack. And Kenyatta’s government would not acquiesce anything. The one party rule even though not constitutionalized as it would be in 1982 by President Moi, was being maintained by silencing the opposition.

In 1975, J.M. Kariuki, a former Mau Mau detainee who refused to join the chorus of singing Kenyatta’s praises was assassinated in a most appalling manner. It was he who applied the statement, “a country of ten millionaires and ten million beggars,” to Kenya. It was a statement that captured the relationship of poverty and capitalism that Kenya at that time was promising and by the 1990’s was to have fulfilled. University students took to the streets on learning of Kariuki’s assasination. Detentions were rampant. No one was safe but even in atmosphere of fear, the silence the government had hoped to achieve did not come about and repressive measures kept getting heavier and heavier. In 1977, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer, was detained at Kamiti Maximum Prison (the same prison where Dedan Kimaathi, the leader of the Mau Mau was hanged by the British and where he still remains in an unmarked grave). At the prison he found that he was not alone: Martin Shikuku, Koigi Wa Wamwere and many other political prisoners were there to welcome him.

Arap Moi

In the August of 1978, Kenyatta died. The elite grappled for power but Daniel Arap Moi finally took over. He released the political prisoners and gave the press a bit of freedom but soon proved he was not mincing words when he said that he would follow in Kenyatta’s footsteps. Those that he released in 1978 were back in jail or exiled by the mid 1980s.

In 1982, Moi’s government faced a military coup attempt. Junior air force members attempted to take over the government but the rest of the army sympathized with Moi and helped subdue the airforce. In what has become a staple of African Coups, the radio and television stations were the first to be taken. A little more strategy and less media coverage might have helped. The army, behaving like an occupying force; raped, looted and killed thousands of innocent of people. Moi took advantage of the opening to further consolidate his power, codifying the prevention of political parties. He rounded up those that had spoken against him even though all evidence pointed to the coup having been an isolated affair. But the radical voices were not pressured into silence and they coalesced into a movement they named – MWAKENYA (A Kiswahili acronym that stands for Union of Patriots for the Liberation of Kenya). MWAKENYA itself was an off-shoot from another radical movement, The December 12 Movement that had been formed in the mid 1970’s ). The government began its search for MWAKENYA members, not with surgical but blunt instruments. Even those that sat on the political fence were hurled into courts after torture in the hands of the secret police. Others were tortured and simply killed. Maina Wa Kinyatti, a Kenyan Mau Mau historian and a lecturer at Kenyatta University, was in 1982 jailed for attempting to record Mau Mau’s involvement in Kenya’s struggle for independence. He spent six and half years of his life in the same Maximum prison in which the Mau Mau leader was hanged and buried. In the same year, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, while in London learned that the government, on his returning to Nairobi was planning to detain or kill him and he opted, as much as one can opt under the circumstances, for exile. Those in exile at some point are practically all Kamiti Maximum Prison graduates. A University student summed up the resiliency of struggle, when instead of asking for mercy as a long torturous sentence awaited him, he stood before one of the kangaroo courts and simply stated, “I refuse to be part of the silent majority”.

As the country became more radicalized, the Moi government moved closer to the West. It was under Moi that Kenya finally rested on its knees, fractured, with political divisions set on ethnic rails, with ethnic warfare just on the horizon, and truly became the perfect pedigree of neocolonialism. This descent was concretisized by an American military base in Mombasa. Moi like Mobutu was hailed as a democrat in the West but the toll of carrying him was also becoming heavy. Eruption was a few months away. Either it was to be contained or the neocolonial ship, with Moi at its helm, was to leave.

Moi’s techniques, which surely must have appeared archaic to the Western governments who have perfected crowd control by the use of the media and elections, only fueled the calls for change. Something had to give. The IMF, the World Bank and Western countries did not want a revolution on their hands. They tied their loans to a democratization process and an economic reform package that took from the poor and gave to the rich. The structural adjustment programs that saw the poor deprived of already meager government resources like education and health would ordinarily have been a call to arms, but by calling the multi-party elections at the same time these programs are being implemented, instead fuelling the calls for radical change, the elections themselves were taken for the radical change, the second independence that would once again rectify all that was wrong. In that manner, what they pretended to give with one hand and what they actually took more of with the other was what the average Kenyan never had and they always had – power and leverage. The neocolonial system was guaranteed to stand, what was not clear was whether Moi would remain the main guardian or somebody else would take his place. He of course was not very happy with this arrangement that undermined his hold over Kenya but with his coffers almost running dry and under him a population that will not accept his government on the other as it was, he had no choice but to acquiesce.

In 1991 the constitution was amended to allow for a political parties. Unable to decide what route Kenya would take in international waters since his was following an international capitalist chart, unable to declare himself chief pirate for life, the only power left him was the ability to undermine the process of election itself. And in 1992, he stopped at nothing to ensure his remaining at the helm.

Parties, Moi realized, there had to be parties, it was a stipulation of the I.M.F. if money was to come his way. But what kind of parties? Nobody cared: neither him nor his western sponsors. He decided, logically so, on parties that he could best control for his personal survival. In case they were not as controllable and he lost, certainly parties that would not subvert the status quo, change the cozy relationship of Kenya and the West. Kenyans were watching the mask being woven and even before it was in place, the eager IMF and World Bank, now armed with only a shred of legitimacy, once again flooded him with money. Many in the west do not understand just how morally bankrupt these two noble institutions are in the eyes of an African who has seen them at play in the democratization game time and time again. With their high level meetings, business suits and people friendly language, after a meeting with Moi they declared him serious enough about democracy.

He has been in power the last twenty fours years, fourteen at the time of business meetings with the I.M.F. and ten of them after the second wind of change that they blew our way. But to continue it is the moderate voices that Moi fanned into existence and they were only too willing to play the role. With one hand strangling radical voices and the other fanning moderate voices that he fragmented just for good measure, Moi managed to hold on to power. The 1992 election, the first electoral festivals did not come to signify the triumph of radical voices, the culmination of years of resistance but rather to signify their defeat. And true to form, true to the government’s agenda of subduing patriotic voices, Karimi Nduthu, the Secretary of Release Political Prisoners- Kenya was assassinated by the government four years into the democratic lease. In this same period, the government was accused of sponsoring ethnic cleansing in the Rift Valley. In Northern Kenya, first the Kenyatta and then Moi government has been waging low intensity warfare against the Kenyan Somalis that erupts into full massacres every few years leaving hundreds sometimes thousands dead. In the year 2001, Amnesty International reports that in Kenya:

Scores of prisoners of conscience were arrested and held for short periods after police stopped public meetings, theatre performances and peaceful demonstrations by human rights groups, politicians and others, sometimes violently. One human rights defender was killed in suspicious circumstances. Torture of criminal suspects by security officials continued, resulting in a number of deaths in custody, including six prisoners on death row. Scores of killings by security officials in circumstances suggesting possible extrajudicial executions were reported. Prison conditions remained harsh. At least 25 people were sentenced to death and more than 1,000 people were reported to be on death row at the end of 2000 .

Now, as the elections scheduled for December 2002 get closer we can expect an escalation of government sponsored violence and continued repression of the more radical voices. Political violence arises in times when the government is desperate, when it sees violence as the only safe-guard to its power. And since Moi hopes to rule through Uhuru Kenyatta (we shall look at him shortly), since only on Uhuru’s shoulders is he assured that his legacy remains doctored in law courts as well as in history books, we can be sure that he will do everything to get him into power. It is wrong to suggest that he covets Nelson Mandela’s elder statesman role in the world, as has been suggested in a few circles. President Moi like Kenyatta before him is not a dreamer: he too at the end of the day is a rogue in a presidential suit. He does not covet a legacy, he simply wishes to remain outside of prison– and wisely so for there is no way he would survive a jail term.

But the tragedy does not lie with Moi’s thievery, it lies in the fact that elections such as these knock the wind off the sails of change. They become a catharsis that gives new lease to the landlords that oversee the continued marginalization of the African people. Elections are a controlled slowing down of revolutionary consciousness, a misdirection that spells the loss of momentum towards real change that has been generated.

The December Elections

After the subduing of radical voices, on the political platform, what is to be found? A quick glance at those who have answered power’s roll call will show us that they hold no platform, they scream democracy, equality and freedom, all catch words that they give for political vision. Practically all of them served under Kenyatta’s regime and now Moi’s. They are only making it clear to President Moi that their time has come to sit at the helm of the pirate ship and they aren’t going to change policies, they simply want their turn. They want the presidency turned into a game of musical chairs, but only for participants with full stomachs and large appetites.

Take Mwai Kibaki for example, who for years was Moi’s Vice President. Never during his tenure did he speak of or for the people. He could not follow Oginga’s example and at least try to resuscitate the government’s conscience. Now at the age of 78, he leads a coalition of opposition movements that have merged to become, Kenya’s National Alliance for Change (NAC). The concept of an alliance is in itself is a new innovation in Kenyan electoral politics. In 1997, the opposition lost in part due to its fragmentation as each opposition sought to be the sole power. And they maybe onto something, for NCK’s leading candidates for president, prime minister and vice president captured 47.7 of the vote. Raila Odinga whom we shall speak of shortly captured, 10.9 and President Moi, 40.1. Can Mwai Kibaki, a former KANU Vice President change the course of Kenya’s neo-colonial policies? Can he reform? Would he even want to?

There is Raila Odinga, the son of Oginga Odinga, who garnered 10.9 percent of the vote in 1997. He is living proof that sons do not necessarily take after their fathers. Moi was quick to take Raila to the KANU camp after the 1997 elections. Raila believed that by linking himself to Moi he could inch into the presidency. It was shocking for the living to see Raila sharing a platform with KANU, the party that symbolized all that was wrong in Kenya. As for the dead, those that had died in the streets in pro-opposition marches against state sponsored militia, or in government sanctioned ethnic clashes, they had effectively lost a voice. With Raila’s eye on the golden stool, the memory of the dead, the living poor or even his own memory of having been detained by Moi three times faded into oblivion. He was quick to cross the floor and accept not only KANU membership but a ministerial position in his cabinet. Power was at last within grasp. But by wedding himself to KANU he had not foreseen one secret that everybody else seems to be privy to—that Moi eats up his young, that there are no loyalties in political despotism. Instead of being nominated by Moi to run on a KANU presidential ticket, having used him for all he was worth, Moi left him out into the cold. In the eyes of the people, he is already compromised.

Now, Raila finds that he has no place to go. He cannot go back to the Kenyan people without even a pretense to legitimacy having revealed his political hand too early in the game. He does not have a national base, he can only fall back on a ‘tribal’ base. He can only appeal to the Luo people because he is Luo and if the Luo vote for him as a Luo, they will only be dividing up the opposition vote. What he hoped to get from Moi, longetivity in the political arena, Moi got from him. It still remains to be seen what exactly Raila will do, but his history shows that Kenya is better off with him outside presidential mansion. In the meantime he has been quoted in the papers saying that he has no intention of being thrown out KANU, that he will contest for the top seat on a KANU ticket in an upcoming KANU convention. Raila can either stay in KANU and end all his presidential hopes, join the opposition– which amounts to the same thing as they have their own candidates, or form his own party– which also amounts to the same thing as it would only fracture the opposition vote. With his 10 percent, he can only go so far. It is very unlikely that he will be sitting on the coveted golden stool for the next five years.

Moi still has the at his disposal all the underhanded techniques from the past years and he has time and time again shown his eagerness to use them. His preferred candidate is Uhuru Kenyatta, son of Jomo Kenyatta. Uhuru will sail through the KANU nominations and, if Moi has his way straight into the presidency. Nothing is known about the young Uhuru except the most rudimentary of facts. He is married with three kids, and that he has a degree from somewhere etc. Nothing about his political platform is out in the open. But in Kenyan politics a clear political platform is not the norm, so what about his political track record? At least with the others we can consider their long years at the despot’s side and speak as the Americans do of better the devil we know. Uhuru is an inexperienced politician by any standards, even Bush’s. He has been in politics for only five years and practically all the posts he has held from Member of Parliament to local government minister and vice chairmanship of KANU have all been at the behest of the president. He has been groomed not into a political figure that stands on its own but as a figurine, one molded in his benefactor’s image. Besides his wealth accumulated during his father’s reign and his appeal as his son among the few Kenyans mostly Kikuyu’s who feel that their ‘tribal’ voice died with Kenyatta, he doesn’t have much to bring to the national table.

For Moi, Uhuru couldn’t be a better candidate. First and foremost, Uhuru inexperienced and grateful, will be easy to control. If Moi leaves power, it is only logical that he will want to live out the rest of the years without interruptions that would range from investigations and prosecutions for some his blatant human rights abuses that range from political assassinations to torture and theft. If the President is his surrogate and he remains the ruling party chairman, he remains for all practical purposes in power thus keeping his criminal past under the carpet. Uhuru will not only reconcile the Kikuyu to the Kalenjins (Moi’s ethnic group, which is a minority) therefore ensuring that there are no reprisals, but he will also dip into the Kikuyu votes considerably weakening the opposition. Moi has perfected not national politics and platforms but ethnic based politics. He has given up on the Luo, the second largest ethnic group, for the largest ethnic group. Finally Uhuru, a wealthy businessman, will not try and undermine the neocolonial system. He too, in more ways than one than one will follow in his father’s footsteps. “I can foresee a Kenya where all citizens are equal regardless of what they own or their community of origin ” Uhuru said. He cannot see the contradiction in his statement for ethnic politics, the polarization of Kenyans, has been sanctioned by the government precisely to protect the inequalities that he wants to erase by words and not action. Or perhaps, he is simply stating (simply) that this Kenya of inequalities will be accepted by all under his hand.

The Historical Problem and Solution

How then shall we measure our candidates? That question cannot be answered until we articulate what the problem is. Even though Africa was not as egalitarian as some historians try and make it, it is safe to say that most of the political and economic problems we are facing find root in colonization. One can of course go back further into slavery but they are all of the same historical movement: one led to the other so the principles that were set in motion by slavery are more refined in a colonization that mutates into neocolonialism. Colonization succeeded only as far as it oppressed. Believing its margin of profit could only be increased by the extent that it exploited the Africans, it was ruthless and brutal. It set up structures whose sole purpose was to protect and exploit this relationship between the colonized and the colonizer. At independence not only were the structures protected, the relationship between Kenya and Britain remained the same. This is the essence of neocolonialism and why Fanon would call people like Kenyatta, Banda, Mobutu etc. gatekeepers of western imperialism in addition to being good for nothing.

And there is nothing abstract or even mystical here. The Kenyan who was poor before independence and who afterwards remained poor could be heard to say, “nothing has changed”. The Kenyan peasant who was toiling for the white settler on land that was owned by their parents, continued to toil for Kenyatta, and his litany of ex-home guards. The twin problems of peasant and worker exploitation, the relationship of the peasant and worker to the government, to the police, to the army, to education basically to all the arms of the government remained the same. No matter how much the government, the IMF and the World Bank attempt to hide these in words, the Kenyan cannot but know the truth. The exploitation and poverty they are living in is the evidence of these policies. They are part of the same colonial movement that mutated to neocolonialism. The rules of the game and the players remain the same. There are no spectators, only toilers in the tea plantations and factories.

Land redistribution is so urgently needed– for the inequalities are so glaring, so blatant, so brutally policed– that no presidential candidate should stand on a platform above the land issue. Let not Moi, his litter of candidates or for that matter Thabo Mbeki point a finger at Zimbabwe, for they are simply trying to make us forget that we are in the same slave ship. You see, as it said, the colonizer came with his bible pointed to heaven and asked us to pray. When we closed our eyes the land was swept from under our feet or rather, we were swept off our land and put into labor camps. Now that we have no land and are still in the labor camps, what do our leaders use to try and hide the truth of our condition from us? Sloganeering but never without the whip. First it was Kenyatta’s Uhuru na Kazi, then it was Fuata Nyayo with splattering of the Harambee spirit. Now the new slogan on which our freedom rides is democracy in capitalism and of course, from our western counterparts the new tune, history is dead. Well, as someone remarked, you might think you are done with history but history is not done with you. Let justice be done by the workers and peasants of Zimbabwe. If in Zimbabwe the land goes back to the peasant, then let the factories go back to the workers. There cannot be one or the other, one without the other. And if President Robert Mugabe stops in the rural areas, then let the workers take to the streets. The Kenyan or the South African must not let their leaders claim to have liberated them, when the conditions remain the same an independence that liberates only in name. What kind of a witch doctor’s brew is this that liberates only in name and not in deed?

Therefore, if the problem is as stated above, if the problem is indeed a historical problem, then we must by necessity measure the promises of these political parties by the problem. The Mau Mau were quite clear on what they understood as the problem: their platform and their name – Kenya Land and Freedom Army. As pointed out earlier, Kimaathi is still buried in Kamiti Prison. The Moi regime cannot set him free, for to speak of the Mau Mau is to remind us of our betrayal and lack of freedom. Certainly a Uhuru Kenyatta regime will not free this revolutionary history. He succeeds only as far he keeps it buried for to bring it to the surface is also to unleash its revolutionary potential, to once again let it find root in the people.

The solution lies in the political vacuum left by defeated radical movements. It is to this space that we must attend. We simply have to restore a radical discourse, we have to use the existing space and continue the struggle brought to maturity by the Mau Mau. History does not repeat itself, it stays under girded by the same economic, political and social laws. The farce is the pretense that it has changed. The farce is the hand that finds momentary freedom in the vote only to be once again handcuffed. This farce can only end once the historical laws that breed ten millionaires and ten million beggars are subverted. In a last letter to Maina Wa Kinyatti dated March 7, 1996, 16 days before he was assassinated, Karimi Nduthu wrote:

I am therefore more and more convinced that in order to get rid of the dicatorship, to root out Moism with or without Moism, we have to intensify our political work under and above ground. We have to forge the broadest possible unity to show that the problem in Kenya is not Kalenjin, or Gikuyu or Luo or Somali or Kamba. It is the dictatorship and the politics of greed which are the real enemy of us Kenyans. Moi and KANU must go, but more importanly, Moism as a neo – colonial system must be uprooted from our midst. If the Mau Mau could organize against the might British colonialists, I don’t see why we cannot do the same against the neo-colonial dictatorship .

We need to march history from its past to bear onto the present.


(Maina Wa Kinyatti, Peronsal Interview, Oct. 8 2002)

Nduthu, Karimi. A Life in Struggle. Vita Books, London, 1998


Sunday Nation, September 22, 2002

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