Presently, driving through Parliament Road, Harambee Avenue, and pouring onto the Uhuru Highway, there are small and big billboards celebrating the life and times of Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second president.
Every day, I use this route on my way home, I wonder who has paid the millions for job. When I see one that calls him a peace loving father of the nation, I imagine what goes in the mind of those who were on the receiving end of his brutality, who had to endure a whole week of the Kenyan media celebrating as nothing but a saint that the country was extremely lucky to have.
Predictably, the media went on a hagiography drive. Every single virtue of Moi was extolled, the media ingratiating us around the clock about his unfailing punctuality, love for the bible, family, peace, diligence and hard work. While this was expected, given the nature of media ownership in Kenya, for a week, the country lost all sense of irony. One commentator on Twitter wryly observed that, “eish, at this rate, we will ran out of the detergent to sanitise him.”
The day after the state burial, The Daily Nation carried the horror stories of those who tormented or worse died from incarceration and torture at the hands of sadists in the basement of the Nyayo House. What basically the media was saying essentially was that Moi’s good deeds surpassed the bad deeds by a stretch, long enough to be ignored.
Throughout the mourning period, I camped on social media, the only place where alternative views about Moi’s presidency could be aired. I could see the impotence of the anger of those who wanted Moi’s true colours be made known to the country.
When all you have is 10,000 followers on Twitter, whatever set of facts you have about Moi, cannot counter the behemoth that is mainstream media which has a reach of millions. Not that online opinion about Moi, didn’t matter, but weighed against the gigantic acres of space in the mainstream, the cries invariably rung hollow, after a fashion.
I am one of the most vocal people online. Sometimes I am overly emotional, especially where I feel that facts support the obvious. For instance, the rumoured possible extension of keeping Uhuru Kenyatta in power makes me sick, but there are those who can rationalize such an idea.
I am not the only one presently who is afflicted with learned helplessness that comes with expressing anger digitally. Our anger online, rarely translates into anything tangible. We rarely can shame the powers-that-be, because they know, the anger ends with the full stop of our tweet or Facebook post. Besides, digital and political anger has a certain ethnic element to it.
To own a smart phone and be on Twitter, at the very least indicates that you have a college diploma or degree. And some of the most vocal people are actually in the middle-class with access to knowledge and information that helps to understand who Moi was.
This is the very class that finds itself with Learned Helplessness, a cognitive situation where people come to believe that they are unable to control or change a situation, even when there is a way out.
It is Moi who made the middle-class to be impotent. Because those who tried to oppose him or come up with different ideas in the 1980s, were silenced, sometimes painfully, and for some permanently. Many took off to exile. And the brain drain in the period may have cost our economy a fortune.
However much the public is willing to reexamine history, as long those in power are part of the history under scrutiny, they will keep buying bigger carpets to sweep the darker bits of history under the carpet of our collective forgetfulness. Those making noise online are lone voices in a wilderness of public indifference.
Those who remained behind learned to keep quiet. There was no free media at the time. There was no social media. Theatre died. Literary studies and the arts suffered generally. The 1980s and 1990s saw a steep decline of literary production throughout Africa, as dictators chased, jailed or killed vocal people like Ken Saro Wiwa.
I once asked Binyavanga Wainaina what happened that great writers stopped their production, and he told me, once, while visiting Achebe and his wife, he told me that he woke up one day in 1975 and learnt that most of his friends had died or disappeared. In the ensuing period of independence, the governments became more autocratic and undemocratic. Exile became inevitable. Many writers withdrew but kept writing but did not publish because they stopped believing that their writing mattered.
When you chase writers and philosophers out of the society, it is invaded by a certain emptiness, a certain moral bankruptcy, that we witnessed during Moi’s regime.
Whereas Kibaki first term was a reprieve, as the airwaves were liberated and the expanding economy, the only thing the FM radio could talk about was sex, playing American or Congolese music and selling us stuff. Little has changed.
Kibaki’s era brought us fast internet, and thus access to too much information that for the first time taught young people the kind of presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi were. For a period, we could forget about Moi. And focus in the economic recovery. Until 2007-08 post-election violence happened. This gave us something to talk about up to 2013 when KANU effectively resumed power and the regime is redolent with the worst incompetence, corruption, raw tribalism, disrespect to the rule of law, and seven years later, the whole nation bleeds.
Moi once predicted that KANU will rule for 100 years and what sounded like joke is now a scary prospect, and as long as KANU remains in power, Moi image is safe and will undergo more sanitization. However much the public is willing to reexamine history, as long those in power are part of the history under scrutiny, they will keep buying bigger carpets to sweep the darker bits of history under the carpet of our collective forgetfulness. Those making noise online are lone voices in a wilderness of public indifference.
This explains the highest military honours and the rewriting and recalibrating of history, where even those who once jailed had to say only nice things.
Very few dictators of the 1970s and 1980s lived to have a dignified death. Many died quiet, undignified deaths, often in exile. But Moi enjoyed his final years on earth, dying at a ripe age of 103 according to various family sources.
While he used every trick in the Dictator’s Handbook (cult of personality, brutality for those opposed to his rule, killing the opposition, propaganda), he managed to fly under the radar locally and internationally, because he avoided certain excesses common with dictators such as Idi Amin or Bokassa. Locally, as the economy went down the drain, the SAPS were blamed, and it wasn’t up to the Bosire Commission of Inquiry that we came to know the extent of the damage of the Goldenberg. More information about the rot of his regime is now readily available online. As he held the country together in mythical peace, those in the receiving end of his brutality were seen as deviants who deserved whatever befell them, for the sake of the country. His exit from power didn’t invite proper scrutiny of the damage and to date, some people believed every story that the mainstream peddled when he died.
What do you do when you are right, but a minority in a sea of people too burdened by the consequences of Moi’s misrule and the continued occupation of KANU in office?
That is the dilemma that angry folks online find themselves in.
Moi taught us fear. Ordinary folk to date fear and respect the government, an all-powerful entity that cannot be challenged. Any attempt to legally assemble is often thwarted. We have run out of blood at the blood bank, but we will never run out of teargas.
In my time at the university, my guardians used to be worried any time there were demonstrations, and they would call to warn me to stay as far as possible. On the night Oscar King’ara and GPO Oulu were killed outside our hostels along State House Road, at the University of Nairobi, we protested as students, withholding the body of Oscar King’ara with us. But when a contingent of the police was sent, our protests met the ultimate fury of police power. My cousin (bless his soul) who was a police officer in Nairobi called me and told me to run as far away from the university as possible because the number police dispatched was going to deal with us properly.
Real change is not toppling the government, necessarily, but it is creating an environment where those given power understand their responsibilities.
The fears the public has towards the police is justified, but sometimes not defensible. Because 18 years since Moi left, young men are still disappearing. Of course, you can survive if you opposed the government or insulted the president, but we have also witnessed the violent murder of Jacob Juma, George Muchai, Chris Msando, Crispin Mbai and the many nameless young men and women often killed extra-judicially reminds you of our powerlessness.
Beyond the helplessness
What the middle-class can learn from other countries like the Arab Spring, Sudan, and lately Hong Kong, change does not come from the cushy chairs and acting snobbish online. Real change requires people to step out of their homesteads, onto the streets to make their anger felt.
Kenya has done it on several occasions. During the clamour for multiparty and more recently during the mock swearing-in of Raila Odinga at Uhuru Park.
But it is the ordinary folk who endures the sun, the tear gas and the occasional stray bullet to bring change. Most middle-class folk are disengaged, and I believe if they harness their power, real change can come.
Real change is not toppling the government, necessarily, but it is creating an environment where those given power understand their responsibilities. It is ganging up to protest against noisy bars as it happens in Kilimani where residents are constantly at loggerheads with bar owners. It is protesting when the roads become impassable. We can’t afford to delegate responsibility assuming that somebody else will do the job for us.
Presently, roughly 1 million Kenyans have university degrees. That is like 2 percent of the Kenyan population. Still not a critical mass that can form an informed opinion based on facts and logic using their gained knowledge and judgement, but this is likely to get better in the next ten years.
Learned people need to know how to mobilise and organize and while at it be proactive, instead assuming dismissive airs towards the masses who make decision pegged on their immediate survival, to the detriment of all of us.