The months of February and March mark the anniversaries of several significant massacres and assassinations that have haunted post-independence Kenya.
This year the period marks 25 years since the murder of Dr Robert Ouko, 31 years since the Wagalla Massacre, 40 years since the killing of JM Kariuki and half a century since post-independent Kenya’s first political assassination, that of Pio Gama Pinto.
Going a little further back, it also marks 58 years since the hanging of the Field Marshal of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, Dedan Kimathi.
It is perhaps not surprising that, at least within official circles, these anniversaries passed without much fanfare, given the fact that both the government and Kenya’s murderous political elite would like to keep their involvement in them quiet. Those in powerful positions today owe much of their wealth not just to the termination of these men and but also to the brutal suppression of their ideas.
Following in the footsteps of the colonial administration, the Kenyan elite have sought to build their empires on a foundation of forgetting.
The colonial powers had already discovered that erasing a people’s memory of its history was the easiest way to enslave them. As the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville said, “When the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness”.
Thus, until recently, Kenya’s official history largely glossed over the misdeeds of government. Even today, the alternative ideas of what independence and development meant other than the substitution of black oppression and thievery for white oppression and thievery, are hard to come by. Alternative visions of Kenya seem to have been interred along with bones of the victims who imagined them. Today, people like Pinto, JM, Tom Mboya and Ouko are, if at all, remembered as a series of dates, and as stains upon an otherwise glowing governmental reputation. Their critiques of, and challenge to, the governance arrangements of their day, which arrangements inevitably gave birth to the asymmetrical and stunted Kenya of today, are either largely forgotten or reduced to a few pithy statements, the import of which seems forever lost.
For example, while many will vaguely remember Pinto as a youthful hero cut down in his prime, few can say exactly why. Few would recognise the Dorian Gray like image of the Kenyatta regime painted by Pinto’s brother, Rosario, in a tribute uncovered by former Daily Nation chief reporter Cyprian Fernandes. “Pio was murdered to silence him and put an end to his dream to implement socialism, the ideals for which the people of Kenya had formed government. Now that Independence had been gained, and the armed forces’ loyalty had been bought, those in power considered it a convenient time to assassinate Pinto as a warning to other dedicated nationalists.”
What were these ideals? What were Pinto’s and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s alternatives to Tom Mboya’s Sessional Paper No 10, which put the country on an unequivocally capitalist economic footing and which the Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission described as “a facilitator of economic marginalisation rather than a mitigator of inequality”? What were JM’s ideas about how to ensure a more equitable model of development in which delivered for more than a few Kenyan families? How about Dr Ouko’s? How did the people of Wajir historically resolve the inter-clan disputes that formed the pretext for government massacres?
Similarly, memorials to Dedan Kimathi come complete with the obligatory bemoaning of the fact that we have been unable to locate his grave and give his remains the national interment they deserve. Yet all we seem to remember is that he died. What he actually fought for, the society he envisaged beyond the wooly notion of independence, is deemed less important. His establishment of a Parliament in the forest and his election as Prime Minister, his 1953 Charter, the letters he wrote from his Nyandarua headquarters, such as one in 1955 in which he declared that “only the revolutionary justice of the struggles of the poor can end poverty for Kenyans” are mostly unknown to Kenyans.
The famed author Ngugi wa Thiongo wrote: “The dominating try to control the sources, agents and contents of information. They want the dominated to view the world through the filters of the dominating.”
We should be wary of eulogies that replace memory with hagiography. Where we are encouraged to view our heroes “through the filters of the dominating” and the where the circumstances of their deaths are more notable than the ideas and visions that that animated them and their compatriots.
We must understand that far from being fixed, the past is constantly contested and that reclaiming our history as well as our memory of it was, and continues to be, essential in asserting the dignity, humanity, and freedom of our people.
This is an abridged version of an article to be published in the next issue of The Platform magazine