Kenya: Behind the Façade of the Ideal State a Rule of Fear
Last weekend’s attempted military coup in Kenya shocked most people who have come to regard it as a stable African country. CYPRIAN FERNANDES, a Herald journalist who was born in Nairobi and left Kenya in 1973 recalls that political division was deeply entrenched at independence in 1963 and it was only Kenyatta’s power that stopped it surfacing.
JOMO Kenyatta, Kenya’s first President who died in 1978, was all powerful, ruthless and ruled with fear. For over 13 years as a journalist in Kenya, my family and I lived with that fear — fear of detention without trial, deportation or the plain fear of death, if I did not toe the Kenyatta line.
It was this fear that was injected into every sphere of life that enabled Kenyatta to maintain the façade of Kenya being the epitome of the ideal African State; stable, democratic and moderately prosperous.
The key to survival in Kenya was the many things one didn’t do:
• Don’t criticize Kenyatta and all things Kenyatta in private and especially not in public.
• Don’t laugh at Kenyatta, crack anti-Kenyatta jokes, lampoon Kenyatta in political satire, in jest, or in any way that would make a monkey out of him.
• Don’t write or say anything that might displease Kenyatta.
As several foreign journalists were to find out in the 1960s the price of any criticism was a quick plane out of Kenya. Why did everyone in Kenya fear the man? Everyone knew what the Mau Mau had done during the emergency of the 1950s. Kenyatta’s role in the movement was well-known but never proven, and so the psychology and the terror of his past reputation were enough to frighten even those who had remained in the Mau Mau after independence in 1963.
Soon after the first batch of deportations and detentions in 1964 and 1965, the two local dailies, The East African Standard and the Daily Nation, adopted a form of self-censorship until proper channels which were often headed by the present Minister for Constitutional Affairs, Charles Njonjo, reflected Kenyatta thinking. He vetted editorial copy on anything from international reports to a local tribal killing — anything that might even slightly embarrass Kenyatta.
I was fortunate enough to have grown up with the ministers in office then. As Chief Reporter on the Daily Nation, I also travelled with most ministers to international conferences all over the world. At least on one occasion, I was not able to write the full story, because I knew what the consequences would be.
At the CHOGM summit in Singapore in 1970, a brilliant procedural manoeuvre by the British Foreign Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, quashed what had looked, potentially at least, like an African uprising over the British arms sales to South Africa.
Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya’s current president, then Vice-President, was leading the delegation, but he knew very little about the issue and would have been quite useless (as it proved, since he made little comment) at the family talk-in suggested by Douglas-Home, knowing full well that most African heads of delegations would be silent without foreign ministers and advisers.
At a poolside meeting it was agreed by the Kenya team that Moi would feign illness and the Foreign Minister would take his place. Charles Njonjo, who was Kenyatta’s right-hand man at the time, had other ideas.
Njonjo said then: “I don’t know why you people (the Kenya delegation) are bothering with all this. If it was up to me, I would open diplomatic relations with South Africa tomorrow.” There was a silence that was almost deathly. In the context of African politics, this was the worst kind of blasphemy.
The next morning the Foreign Minister who had spearheaded the anti-arms sales campaign through the Organization for African Unity, the non-aligned nations summit meeting and the UN, breakfasted early and was rearing to go to present his case at the talk-in.
Sometime during the night, Moi had had his mind changed. The minister was standing in the lobby of the Ming Court hotel when Moi swept past him on his way to the meeting. The anti-arms sale campaign which had threatened to split the Commonwealth was not silenced at the conference table; it was killed dead in that lobby that morning.
I mentioned it to my editor and he suggested that I best forget what I had heard, since Njonjo reflected Kenyatta’s thinking; this was very dangerous for both of us.
With the press silent, only two other elements threatened Kenyatta: the Kenya People’s Union which was led by the Luo leader, Oginga Odinga, and university students and their academic seniors. Odinga, who represents the second largest of Kenya’s 150-plus tribes, was detained at the first opportunity along with other officers of the party and the party summarily banned. Students who took to the streets were bashed silent by the para-military unit, the General Service Unit, whose members hit first and never stop to question, just silence their victim. The academics were easily frightened into submission.
This then was Moi’s inheritance when he was elected to the presidency after Kenyatta’s death in 1978. At first it looked good, Moi repealed the dreaded detention without trial. But he was always insecure. He knew that he was allowed the presidency only because in-fighting within the Kikuyu had failed to produce a leader. Besides, when Kenyatta was alive, the question of a successor was never raised; he didn’t like it. Moi was going to be the man for convenience.
News-generation Kenyans were coming of age and the academics who had remained silent now asked for a more democratic Kenya, rather than the autocratic path that Moi was taking to ensure his own position. If Kenyatta did it why couldn’t Moi? So he ,too took to detaining without trial and hence the attempted military coup.
Life, in Kenya, is not going to get any better. For some, it will get worse. Now that it has had its façade blown away, foreign investors will start thinking twice. The depressed state of the world market will continue to pose its economy problems. Moi will not be in a position to appease the mass of the people with any instant solutions. The attempted coup will spur others to question, where once they had stood silent. Those in power will find it harder to remain in power. Moi himself could as well have an assassin’s bullet aimed at him right now.
The ideal looked so good. The reality was a different matter, but until African politicians learn to lose (gracefully), the situation will be no different from anywhere else in Africa.
The Sydney Morning Herald – Wednesday, August 4, 1982 (Page 7)