Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Inside stories by the wazee of The Nation: John Bierman (Nation 3)
Editor, Daily Nation, 1960-63
ONE of the frustrating things about being in charge of a newspaper is that when the really big news breaks, you have to stay in the office while your reporters are out covering it. Life was full of such frustration for me between March 1960, when we launched the Sunday Nation, and March 1963 when I left the Daily Nation firmly established as an important voice in East Africa, for it was a period rich in incident and drama.
But only once did I give way to the temptation to leave the office and cover the big story of the day myself. That was the day, in April 1961, when the colonial authorities allowed the world to press their first opportunity to see and talk to Jomo Kenyatta since his conviction, eight years before almost to the day.
Clearly, the old lion’s exposure to press, radio and television was going to be a prelude to his eventual release, but I couldn’t wait. I was overcome with curiosity to see for myself what sort of man this legendary enigmatic figure really was.
Only 12 months before, the Governor, Sir Patrick Renison, had denounced Mr Kenyatta and announced that he could never be allowed to return to public life. It was a statement surprisingly out of keeping with what we took to be the trend of British official policy following Mr Harold Macmillan’s remarkable “wind of change” speech in South Africa.
And, indeed it was not too long before Whitehall’s wishes and mounting African pressure were to pull the rug from under the feet of the hapless Sir Patrick.
But Kenyatta was still some way from freedom when in June 1960 the Sunday Nation caused a minor sensation and infuriated Government House by publishing exclusive new pictures of the African leader in restriction in Lodwar.
Who took the pictures, and how, must have puzzled the authorities who had set up what they thought to be impenetrable defences around the old man to keep out prying journalists.
The explanation was quite simple. Margaret Kenyatta had smuggled a camera in when she went to visit her father and her pictures –seven of them good enough to reproduce in a newspaper—had found their way into my hands.
They showed a robust, vigorous and commanding figure far from the shambling wreck some among his ill-wishers had hopefully predicted.
Soon members of the colony’s then multi-racial Council of Ministers were to be allowed to Lodwar to see for themselves. But it was the Nation which gave the public at large their first glimpse in seven years of the man who was ultimately to lead Kenya to independence and far beyond. When the world’s newsmen did at last meet McZee at Maralal, what was my impression of him? Memory is bound to be coloured by hindsight, so here’s what I wrote on my way to Nairobi in a bouncing light aircraft:
“In a marathon three-hour present conference, Jomo Kenyatta put on a display of verbal eloquence and political one-upmanship which would have been remarkable in a man half his firmly declared age of 71.
“In a series of quickfire questions and answers, he gave his views on everything from Kenya’s current constitutional deadlock to the climate at Lodwar… And at the end of it – after going entirely without food or drink – he emerged looking quite capable of sustaining another three hours of what is certainly the most gruelling (for the subject) Press conference I have ever witnessed over three years in 13 continents.
(I can now add nine and half years and three more continents to that, but I have to see Mr Kenyatta’s performance bettered).
“His voice was clear and firm. His eyes – at times widening to almost saucer-like dimensions above his prominent cheekbones – flashed at the thrust and parry of the questions.
“Sometimes he ducked behind the defensive position of being unable to give an opinion because of his ‘disadvantage of being in restriction’. Sometimes he sallied forth to do verbal battle with a questioner he considered hostile. Sometimes he groped for a phrase in English… At other times the words flowed freely and forcefully. And at the end of it all, what had we learned of this man? To more than one observer –including this one—the enigma remained an enigma. Most of what he said has been said by his successors without arousing ungovernable passions.
“He declared that he had been, was now and always would be an advocate of non-violence, whose sole aim was to achieve freedom for his people by constitutional means.
“In fact, if one were asked: ‘Has the leopard changed its spots?’ one would have to answer that by his own admission he has not. He merely claims, most forcefully and skilfully, that he was never a leopard at all.”
Enigmatic or not, one thing was absolutely clear to me, and I think to most of the journalists who met Kenyatta that day: He was to be the decisive figure of Kenya politics from that time on.
When I arrived in Kenya in 1959 to help launch the Sunday Nation, independence in the foreseeable future seemed unattainable or unthinkable, according to one’s point of view. By the time I left in March 1963, it was inevitable.
I sometimes wonder how much our newspapers did to help prepare public opinion of all races to rise to the challenges of that inevitable outcome.
Bierman went on to achieve a sterling career in BBC television journalism, winning an award for his coverage of the Bloody Sunday shootings in Londonderry. He won further accolades as the BBC correspondent in Tehran and Tel Aviv. Bierman also went on to write several books including the bestseller about Swedish wartime hero and diplomat Raoul Wallenberg who saved so many Hungarian Jews.
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