Last week, President Uhuru Kenyatta witnessed the blowing up of a ship said to be full of illegal drugs. It was his “burning ivory” moment – a harkening back to then President Daniel arap Moi’s 1989 photogenic bonfire of a heap of elephant tusks which became an icon for conservationists around the world. President Kenyatta was supposedly signalling his determination to stamp out the illegal trade. However, his moment was somewhat spoilt by a Mombasa judge who had, a few hours before the fireworks, issued an order stopping the ship’s destruction an order the President promptly ignored.
Still, Kenyan media was full of stories highlighting the government’s new found enthusiasm for the war against drugs. As has become the norm, little was said about the legality of its actions or the emptiness of its rhetoric. After all, it has long been rumoured that many of Kenya’s most powerful people are behind the drug trade. In 2010, at least four Members of Parliament, including Hassan Joho and William Kabogo who are both County Governors and Gideon “Sonko” Mbuvi, who is currently a Senator, were being investigated in relation to drug trafficking (they were subsequently cleared).
Further, a damning 2006 US cable released by Wikileaks revealed that “Standard journalists and others” privately believed that the police raid against the Standard Group premises in March that year were prompted by suspicions in State House belief that the paper had documents implicating President Kibaki's family in “grand-scale corruption, possibly including narcotics trafficking.”
A Parliamentary report into the activities of the infamous Artur brothers said it was “abundantly clear that the two brothers were conmen and drug traffickers. That they enjoyed protection by the high and mighty in the Government is not in doubt.”
It is safe to say that President Uhuru’s administration is unlikely to pursue any serious investigations against his immediate predecessor. In this, he is again following on a well trodden path. In the 1970s, the Kenyatta family was widely suspected of involvement in the illegal poaching that decimated Kenya’s wildlife. Still, on taking over power, Moi saw fit not to look too hard into the past. Similarly, despite being implicated in massive corruption scandals, Moi’s family was afforded protection by the Kibaki administration.
As I have described before, the profits from these illicit activities are laundered through the Kenyan economy and particularly through the real estate market. This is driving up the cost of housing and making the dream of owning a home an increasingly distant prospect for most. However, it is not just money that’s being laundered. Reputations are too.
This week we were treated to a sterling example of this. As Moi celebrated his 90th birthday on Tuesday, Kenyan press was replete with a retelling of his time in power that almost completely ignored his brutal and kleptocratic ways. Instead we were presented with a vision of meekness, of a man who rose from humble beginnings to lead his nation, a peaceable lover of education who only wanted what was best for his country.
To be fair, the fawning was not limited to Kenyans. Former Tanzanian President, Benjamin Mkapa, similarly gushed about “ the visionary manner in which [Moi] introduced and managed the multiparty politics and system of government.” Little was said about the fact that it was Moi who turned Kenya into a de jure one party state, that he only acquiesced to pluralistic politics after Kenyans took to the streets and donors withdrew their funding. Few mentioned the political murders his regime was responsible for, the Nyayo House torture chambers, his single-handed demolition of the economy and the education system, his instigation of so-called “tribal clashes” in 1992 and 1997 in which scores lost their lives.
At least, one would think, we have alternative history in the form of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission. But even here, we have found it hard to resist the urge to edit history. Both State House and Parliament have tampered with the Commissions findings in an attempt to, in the words of Majority Leader Aden Duale, “improve” it. The Presidency pushed through changes to the land chapter designed to camouflage Jomo Kenyatta’s land grabs and, it appears, Parliament has arrogated to itself the power to “clear” those who are named in the report.
All this fits in to a disturbing pattern that has emerged over the last decade or so and that perhaps has roots that go back even further to the dawn of independence. It speaks to a determination to ignore the past. As a Swahili saying goes, yaliyopita si ndwele., tugange yajayo -which roughly translates to “the past is no disease, let’s cure the future”. We have been constantly and consistently encouraged to let bygones be bygone, to forgive and forget, to accept and move on. But the truth is that the past is a disease. We can no more ignore it than we can any of the other maladies rampaging through our country.
We are deluding ourselves if we think that airbrushing the uncomfortable moments of our history will provide more than a transient relief. Exploding ships and infernos of ivory may look good on TV or on the front pages of the newspapers, but they are no substitute for real action to tackle poaching and the drug trade and to bring culprits to book. Similarly, hagiographic retelling of our history is no substitute for truth and justice.
Photo-ops and makeovers will only take us so far. Eventually we will have to confront reality, whether we are dealing with illicit activity or with the effects of our history. And the longer we put off that confrontation, the harder and more traumatic it will be.