The months of February and March mark the anniversaries of several significant massacres and assassinations that have haunted post-independence Kenya. The killings, all of which were perpetrated by the government, touched both the elite and regular folk, whose tombstones are the depressing landmarks littering Kenya’s descent into dictatorship.
February 10 marked 31 years since the beginning of the ordeal suffered by thousands at the Wagalla Airstrip in what is today Wajir County. In what has been described as Kenya’s worst human rights atrocity, about 5,000 Kenyan citizens were then taken to an airstrip and prevented from accessing water and food for five days before being executed by Kenyan soldiers.
Exactly 6 years later, on the morning of February 13, 1990, a herdsboy named Shikuku stumbled upon a burning corpse at the foot of Got Alila Hill in Kisumu County. It would be another four days before police confirmed the body to be that of missing Foreign Affairs Minister, Robert Ouko. His murder and the subsequent cover up implicated officials at the highest levels of the Daniel arap Moi administration, though, to date, as with the Wagalla Massacre, no one has been held to account for the crime. The aptly named fall guy was former Nakuru District Commissioner, Jonah Anguka, who was tried (twice) and acquitted.
By the time of Dr Ouko’s murder, assassination had become an occupational hazard for prominent Kenyans who dared to oppose the people in power. A quarter century before, on February 25, 1965, independence hero and journalist Pio Gama Pinto had become the first Kenyan politician to be assassinated following the formal end of colonialism. The outspoken socialist was shot at close range while waiting in his driveway at his home on Nairobi’s Lower Kabete Road.
One Kisilu Mutua was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder even though the judge admitted that the court might have concluded the trial without having the real culprits before him. Kisilu, whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, would spend 35 years in prison before being pardoned in 2001 by President Moi following a campaign by his family, lawyer and pressure groups. He maintains his innocence to this day and claims to have been framed after being forced to sign a confession. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission found, as with Dr Ouko, “that there is sufficient circumstantial evidence, including the failure by the government to uncover the truth of who was responsible, to conclude that the government was involved in the killing of Pio Gama Pinto.”
A decade after Pinto’s murder, on March 3 1975, a mutilated body, with fingers chopped off, eyes gouged out and face partially burned by acid, was found by a herdsman, Musaita ole Tunda, in a thicket at the foot of the Ngong Hills. It turned out to be that of Josiah Mwangi Kariuki, popularly known as JM, who at the time was the MP for Nyandarua and and Assistant Minister for Tourism and Wildlife in Jomo Kenyatta’s government. JM had last been seen alive the day before at Nairobi’s Hilton Hotel, accompanied by Kenyatta's bodyguard, and it would be another ten days before the government would admit that the body was his.
In the days prior to his murder, the first bombings in independent Kenya had been set off, the first two going off in February inside the Starlight night club and in a travel bureau near the Hilton hotel. The day before JM disappeared, a bus exploded at the OTC terminal in downtown Nairobi, killing 30 people. JM had reportedly booked a bus ticket to travel to Mombasa on that day. The bombers were never found and many speculate that it was the work of government agents. If this is indeed the case, then it is telling that the first use of terror tactics in the country was by the government itself, and also provides historical grist for suspicions that some of the more recent bombings in the capital and at the coast have also been the work of the government.
Like Pinto before him, JM was a vociferous critic of the stark inequality that has characterized Kenya’s development (he famously warned the country was turning into a nation of ten millionaires and ten million beggars), and antagonized powerful people within Kenyatta’s inner circle who feared his rising popularity. In 1969, he had been the only Kikuyu politician to set foot on Rusinga Island for the funeral of yet another popular young leader murdered at the hands of the government, Tom Mboya. Despite a Parliamentary Select Committee investigation implicating senior police and government officers and politicians, no one was ever punished for JM’s murder.
It is perhaps not surprising that, at least within official circles, these anniversaries passed pretty much unobserved, given the fact that both the government and Kenya’s murderous political elite would like to keep their involvement in them quiet. Those in powerful positions today owe much of their wealth not just to the termination of these men and but also to the brutal suppression of their ideas as well as the rights of the citizenry in general.
Following in the footsteps of the colonial administration, the Kenyan elite have sought to build their empires on a foundation of forgetting. The colonial powers had already discovered that erasing a people’s memory of its history was the easiest way to enslave them. As the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville said, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness”.
Thus, until recently, Kenya’s official history largely glossed over the misdeeds of government. Even today, the alternative ideas of what independence and development meant other than the substitution of black oppression and thievery for white oppression and thievery, are hard to come by. Alternative visions of Kenya seem to have been interred along with bones of the victims who imagined them. Today, people like Pinto, JM, Tom Mboya and Ouko are, if at all, remembered as a series of dates, and as stains upon an otherwise glowing governmental reputation. Their critiques of, and challenge to, the governance arrangements of their day, which arrangements inevitably gave birth to the asymmetrical and stunted Kenya of today, are either largely forgotten or reduced to a few pithy statements, the import of which seems forever lost.
For example, while many will vaguely remember Pinto as a youthful hero cut down in his prime, few can say exactly why. Few would recognize the Dorian Gray like image of the Kenyatta regime painted by Pinto’s brother, Rosario, in a tribute uncovered by former Daily Nation Chief Reporter, Cyprian Fernandes. “Pio was murdered to silence him and put an end to his dream to implement socialism, the ideals for which the people of Kenya had formed government. Now that Independence had been gained, and the armed forces’ loyalty had been bought, those in power considered it a convenient time to assassinate Pinto as a warning to other dedicated nationalists.”
What were these ideals? What were Pinto’s and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s alternatives to Tom Mboya’s Sessional Paper No. 10, which put the country on an unequivocally capitalist economic footing and which the TJRC described as “a facilitator of economic marginalisation rather than a mitigator of inequality”? What were JM’s ideas about how to ensure a more equitable model of development in which delivered for more than a few Kenyan families? How about Dr Ouko’s? How did the people of Wajir historically resolve the inter-clan disputes that formed the pretext for government massacres?
We should be wary of eulogies that replace memory with hagiography. Where our heroes are more notable for the circumstances of their deaths than for the ideas and visions that that animated them and their compatriots.
On February 18, we marked the 58th anniversary of the execution of the first “Field Marshal” of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, or MauMau as we know it, Dedan Kimathi, complete with the obligatory bemoaning of the fact that we have been unable to locate his grave and give his remains the national interment they deserve. Yet all we seem to remember is that he died.
What he actually fought for, the society he envisaged beyond the wooly notions of independence and land, is deemed less important. His establishment of a Parliament in the forest and his election as Prime Minister, his 1953 Charter, the letters he wrote from his Nyandarua headquarters, such as one in 1955 in which he declared that “only the revolutionary justice of the struggles of the poor can end poverty for Kenyans” are mostly unknown to Kenyans. Similarly, most are unaware of that the Mau Mau activities continued after 1959 and that they produced a Policy Document which was presented at the 1961 KANU conference and which warned of “a calculated plan on the part of the economic elite to partially dissolve racial barriers in order to consolidate its position along class lines and to use Africans as front men and spokesmen for its interests ... 'Africanisation' is the term used for the process…” Few though can deny that the warning came true.
This is a form of erasure, a denial of the past, which also leads to a culture where we celebrate the dead while ignoring the living. Who are the heroes of today? Why is it that the dead Mau Mau fighters merit more remembrance than those still living today? A blogger describes one former Mau Mau “General” as "hard put to understand why those who successfully evaded bullet, bomb and grenade are less praiseworthy than the one who got caught."
Erasure also takes the form of a racial bias, a blindness to the contribution of those who do not entirely fit into the racialized narrative of oppression. So the efforts of members of the so-called “Indian” or “European” communities have simply been ignored. And that extends to their vilification and exclusion from much of Kenyan national life throughout most the last half-century. Similarly, the contrived “official” histories of groups such as ethnic Somalis whom the government sought to paint as “alien” or “bandits” to justify its continuing marginalisation and oppression of these populations. These narratives are constantly renewed and re-invented to delegitimize both communities and individuals perceived as hostile to the existing order. In a very real sense, history is constantly rewritten to justify new oppressions.
One might here think of the contributions of people like Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee to the struggle for equal rights and memory in Kenya, including his founding of what we today call the Standard newspaper and his association with the African nationalists of his day, Manilal Desai who published Harry Thuku’s articles and pamplets, and in later years, the likes of Makhan Singh, Ambu Patel and Shirraz Durani, most of which are ignored in official recitations of our history. The fact of Somali resistance to colonial rule, that they were the targets of the most, and the most punitive, colonial military expeditions, is similarly swept under the national carpet, the implications for today’s policies ignored.
Our forgetting finds one of its more egregious manifestations in the fate of the TJRC report which appears to have suffered the same fate as the numerous reports of Commissions of Inquiry that line government shelves. Instead of sparking a re-examination of the past that would then illuminate the path to a better future, the report has essentially been buried in Parliament.
The 40,000 or so statements collected by the TJRC, the largest number of statements of any truth commission in history, represent a living history of the troubled times that Kenyans have endured (and continue to endure). It is not a history that you will read in any of the textbooks that purport to teach our children about the travails of independent Kenya. And it is neither a perfect, or even complete, history by any means. It is, though, a valuable start in demolishing the walls of myth, lies and official silences that have surrounded traumatic events, and shedding light on some of the darkest chapters of our common history.
One would have expected our journalists and historians to dig into this treasure trove and to begin to reconstruct the history we have for a long time been encouraged to forget. However, two years later there seems little interest, at least publicly, in pursuing the potential lines of inquiry and discovery opened up by the report. It is ironic that a document meant to begin the process of lifting the veil on a forgotten past is itself in the process of being forgotten.
Many of the hopes and dreams our citizens had at independence have since been betrayed by regimes that sought to appropriate rather than dismantle the colonial edifice. Along with it, they retained the methods that had worked subdue the natives and render them compliant in their own exploitation. Central to this is the erasure of history, or at least of alternative histories to the superficial tale spun by officialdom.
The famed Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiongo, in his introduction to Shiraz Durrani’s book Never Be Silent, which documents efforts by both colonial and post-independence governments to suppress popular Kenyan histories in favour of official narratives, wrote: “The dominating try to control the sources, agents and contents of information. They want the dominated to view the world through the filters of the dominating… But the dominated do not just absorb the information as packaged. They will read between and behind the lines. But more important they will also try to collect and package information which will counter that of their enemies”
We must understand that far from being fixed, the past is constantly contested and that reclaiming our history as well as our memory of it was, and continues to be, essential in asserting the dignity, humanity, and freedom of our people.