Message-ID: <>
From: Matunda Nyanchama <>
Subject: Kenyan Political Transition: what chances for real change?
Date: Sun, 15 Sep 2002 14:30:00 -0400

Kenyan Political Transition: what chances for real change?

By Matunda Nyanchama, 15 September 2002

Toronto, Ontario, Canada—Political intrigues and jostling for power in Kenya remains continue to fascinate us all. At no time in the country's history have we seen such heated political temperatures, activism and open defiance to a sitting president. The psychological impact on mwananchi will be substantial and will have long-term reverberations on the Kenyan political landscape. No longer will one man's word be law, as has been the case since the country's independence.

The political machinations have obscured the big picture that Kenyans crave for: real political change. Will Moi's departure bring needed change that will genuinely usher a new era? In other words will the evils associated with the president's tenure go away with retirement? Or will his departure be cosmetic with little impact on mwananchi's and the country's fortunes?

To attempt to answer this question let's revisit three landmark points Kenya's history: independence day, Moi's ascendancy to presidency and the coming of multiparty democracy in 1991.

Examining these transitions will give us some insight on what we expect to come in the impending post-Moi era.

Kenya's independence struggle was a protracted affair. The coming of independence is perhaps the most momentous occasion the country has witnessed. On December 12, 1963, with pomp, grandeur, pride and a sense of patriotism, the Kenyan flag was raised to replace the Union Jack, which had come to symbolize oppression and exploitation of the African by colonial powers and their local henchmen. With that, national leadership transitioned from the colonial governor to Jomo Kenyatta and Kanu that had won the elections.

Independence had come after a protracted struggle in which many lost their lives while others were detained and punished for supporting the struggle for freedom. Just before independence, Jomo Kenyatta had become a rallying point for all major political parties. His ascendancy to lead the country was undisputed, despite recent history that downplays his role in the independence struggle.

Kenyans entered the independence era psychologically liberated. No longer will big men be addressed as boys! No longer shall we be servants of colonial masters. Instead we would be masters of our destiny, politically, culturally, economically and otherwise.

The period following independence saw major strides in national development. Following Mzee Kenyatta's Uhuru na kazi rallying cry, Kenyans saw unprecedented transformation. There was a rapid expansion of services ranging from free education and health services that saw improvement of major indicators as reduction in infant mortality rates, increased levels of literacy, heightened economic output, among others.

On the international scene, the country continued to shine. Kenya was a household name at the United Nations, played a major role in the founding of the OAU while Kenyatta played a major role as mediator in many conflicts.

It was a time of good economic times despite political fallouts such as led to the formation of the Kenya People's Union (KPU) in 1966 and its proscription three years later. With the cold war raging, and Kenyatta openly western leaning, there was little chance of emergence of a leftist, communist-loving powerhouse that Oginga Odinga (post-independence vice-president) and his KPU represented. Tom Mboya's murder may have shaken the political establishment but did not substantially impact mwananchi substantially, although it would offer a chance for Odinga and KPU's banishment.

Good times rolled nonetheless even as seeds of oppression and corruption were being sown wantonly. By the mid-seventies political tolerance had reached an all time low with a number of dissenting politicians in detention without trial. JM Kariuki paid the ultimate price with his life for openly challenging Kenyatta.

The situation at Kenyatta's passing was ripe for change, as Kenyans yearned for change from the suppression of the Kenyatta regime. Granted today blame for this oppressive environment is placed on the late president's age and waning faculties and the advantage taken by the Kiambu Mafia to pursue their own interests.

Enter Daniel Arap Moi, former Kadu chairman and the nation's vice-president for 12 years. Humbly professing to follow in Kenyatta's footsteps (nyayo) the new president was a breath of fresh air from the repression wrought by the Kiambu Mafia. The nation rallied behind the new president with hopes for better times. Even as those that had lost power called the change a passing cloud, most Kenyans looked forward to better times.

And the president did act magnanimously in a number of cases, choosing to ensure continuity and consensus. Soon all Kenyatta detainees were released with the government offering medical treatment for a number of them.

Change had come, Kenyans sighed! Even university students, usually a skeptical crowd, supported the president's political approach.

In retrospect, Moi was pulling wool over Kenyans' eyes. Even as Kenyans praised the president, he was limiting political space, for example excluding many of the same people he had released from detention from running for office. The 1979 elections fiasco of barring perceived opponents of the political system revealed more about Moi's true character than many were willing to admit. In many ways, Moi was truly following Mzee Kenyatta's footsteps! His true colours would become clearer with time.

The rest of Moi's reign is well-documented: making the country a one-party state, falsely prosecuting and jailing dissidents, narrowing the political space for many that disagreed with him and his cohorts, entrenching corruption, openly pillaging national resources, etc. Under Moi's watch, one of his most loyal ministers was murdered with an enquiry pointing to people close to him as culpable. The list is endless!

Meanwhile, the country has declined from self-sufficiency in food production to become a net importer, cash crop exports that were the mainstay of the economy reached at an all-time low, a number of commercial ventures folded, while the AIDS situation grew to become an epidemic under the president's watch and national denial. In Moi's time, Kenyans have fled to exile seeking better opportunities in unprecedented numbers.

Enrollment in the school system reached lower levels than it had ever been, crime reached unprecedented proportions and Kenyans dread what might happen next: an accident, an robbery, an eviction, an ethnic cleansing, name it!

If Kenyans hoped that a post-Kenyatta era would bring desired change, they were disappointed by the conduct and political dispensation of the church-going president.

The fight for multiparty democracy was a natural offshoot of this subjugation. The struggle reached a peak in 1990 with the detention of key advocates for change. However, in spite of this, the clamour for reforms could not be dampened. Come 1991, Moi yielded and once again, anticipation for change built! With multiple parties, many Kenyans saw Moi's defeat and a chance for change. With Moi's defeat, many saw an opportunity to usher in a new era.

Eleven years and two elections have created more skeptics than optimists that real change will happen. In the 1992 elections, political manipulation, Opposition fragmentation, use of state resources, gerrymandering and ethnic cleansing ensured Moi's win. Most, about 66% of the voters, were disappointed with the turn of events.

Despite that setback, Kenyans soldiered on under Moi witnessing further deterioration of national well being. A glimmer of hope was kindled in 1995 as the president announced that it would be a year of constitutional reforms. 1997 saw the election story repeated and Moi romped home with less than a majority vote but a win nonetheless.

Since then, Kenyans have agitated for constitutional reforms, almost to a person, a process scuttled by the Kanu-NDP alliance. A lot of time and resources have been expended to the subject of changes to the constitution. Even as the commission soldiers on to write a draft constitution, it is unlikely Kenyans will go to elections under a new constitution. The president's departure, the only other thing Kenyans appeared to be resigned to, is coming and soon. And with that, once again, there is yet anticipation for change. Real change.

Many Kenyans can be forgiven if they express skepticism that real change will come with Moi's departure from the scene. They have been cheated before, and once bitten, twice shy.

Reasons for this view abound. Current political agitation seems targeted solely at the removal of Moi and his henchmen from power. The strategizing and maneuvering happening currently are largely focused on acquiring power. A few politicians have identified an agenda for turning the country around while majority of them have not even thought about what they will do with power should they win. Listening to many of them speak, one can understand why our development has not had much traction. Some of these would-be presidents do not even comprehend the magnitude of the challenges facing the country and hence cannot even come close to proffering solutions.

The few that seem to talk solutions get short shrift in the media that appears to tell Kenyans that a change in the presidency is all that matters; it is clear that Kenyans' fascination with political intrigues will indeed be our national Achilles heel! It is possible that we will end up with some of those that know just to politic but know little how to tackle the country's problems since they have not even understood the scope, challenge and magnitude of these problems.

At independence Kenyans' hopes were high. Change did come, both psychological and well being. In the period following independence Kenyans' well being improved while the national psyche was satiated by the fact that now we were independent and could run our own affairs. These positive achievements were, however, negated by the rise in absolute power, limiting of political space, murder of political opponents and entrenchment of corruption.

When Moi came to power, Kenyans whet their appetites in anticipation of a new era. Instead, we got more of the same with the major well being indicators declining all round. A poisoned political atmosphere, rising crime, corruption, lowered life expectancy, low school enrollment, detention and jailing of opponents, and a political murder are what we got from the nyayo presidency.

The multiparty political era rekindled Kenyans' hopes for change once again. Once more, Kenyans' expectations have been dashed over the last 11 years. This period has seen political opportunism, complicit national plunder of resources, ethnic cleansing, suppression of the popular will for constitutional reforms, entrenchment of corruption and more. Leave alone the decline of national infrastructure, the growth of crime industry and the fa├žades that are our cities.

Dalili ya mvua no mawingu (appearance of clouds are signs that it will rain) is apt considering where we are presently. The politics appears to be the same, played from same script in Kanu and Opposition, and largely by the same players that have been the scene in the last two decades.

Even as hopes for real change rise once again in anticipation of Moi's departure, the political goings on suggest that such change may only be cosmetic.

Kenyans should be wary of this potential outcome and work to avert the eventuality. And the start must be asking the right questions: why are we where we are now? What needs to be done about it? How can it be done? What role does each one of us have to make that happen?

With answers to these questions, we can then all move ahead and do what is right for the country that will include voting in the best candidates that understand our problems, have realistic prescriptions for the problems and have a chance to realize their programs when in power. Again here, history should be instructive: we know most of the candidates and what they stand for.