I am reluctant to refer to some matters which a lot of people would rather forget than talk about. But in 1978, the government of President Jomo Kenyatta detained Ngugi wa Thiong’o to join other Kenyans detained before him like Achieng Oneko, Wasonga Sijeyo, Martin Shikuku, Jean Marie Seroney and Koigi wa Wamwere. Thirty-seven years later, President Uhuru the son of President Jomo Kenyatta invited Ngugi wa Thiongo to State House, maybe to offer a hand of reconciliation on behalf of his father. Days later, Charles Njonjo invited his one-time political antagonists Koigi wa Wamwere and Abuya Abuya for lunch at the Sankara Hotel.
For the sake of national unity, it was good for President Uhuru to invite Ngugi wa Thiong’o to State House, and it was equally good for Ngugi wa Thiong’o to accept the President’s invitation to him. It was also good for Charles Njonjo to invite Koigi and Abuya to lunch, and equally good for the former Bearded Sisters to accept Njonjo’s invitation.
The meeting of people of different political minds at State House and Sankara Hotel can be seen from many angles. It was an opportunity for Uhuru to cleanse his family’s history and ease the conscience of his father. It was a sign that our democracy is maturing. It confirmed that Kenyans can have political differences without being enemies. It could have been an opportunity for President Uhuru to gauge the possibility of putting Ngugi to some good use. At best, as President Kenyatta told a meeting of colonial settlers in Nakuru, maybe President Uhuru simply wanted to tell Ngugi – and others like him that, we may have our political differences, but Kenya is large enough for all of us.
In one way, Uhuru’s invitation of Ngugi to State House was a first one. While I have heard some invitation of Kenyan economic exiles back to Kenya to help build the country, I have not heard government inviting political exiles like Ngugi back home to help rebuild Kenya.
But inviting Ngugi to State House and back to Kenya is not really a matter of inviting an individual and his family back to Kenya, but inviting back home all political and economic exiles to help rebuild Kenya. Unfortunately, some Kenyans who have decided to return back to Kenya to help rebuild the country have found obstacles placed in their path of establishing businesses, which forces one to wonder whether Uhuru believes in what he says or merely wants to sound good for public relations.
But should Ngugi take the President’s challenge and come home?
One thing is for sure. As long as Kenya has even one political exile out there, her freedom and reputation are compromised. So the sooner political exiles come home, the better.
In any case, my experience in exile was that however well one is treated in a foreign land, one is never fully at home. Unfortunately, though much has changed in Kenya, we are not out of the woods yet. But as long as one is relatively safe, it is better to be in one’s country than elsewhere.
I returned home without work and then struggled to self-employ. But I will not advise anyone to return home if they feel they are in danger. While exiles can return home without work or self-employment, their lives must never be threatened. At best, the government should employ returning exiles, and especially young ones. If it cannot, it should assist them to self-employ in business.
And when is best time to return home?
Ngugi should return home as soon as the safety of his life is guaranteed, and the government has enough goodwill to employ him at some University like the late Professor Mazrui.
Unfortunately, despite Ngugi’s invitation to return home, the Jubilee government does not seem to be in a hurry to employ anyone who antagonised Kanu government.
When Kibaki came to power, some former political exiles like Willy Mutunga became Chief Justice, and Professor Ngotho Kariuki was absorbed in the Vetting Board of the Judiciary. But this window seems closed unless it is reopened for Ngugi.
Apart from guarantee of personal and family comforts, nonemployment of political exiles is a sign that, while Kenyans have basic freedoms that allow them to struggle for changes more effectively and without fear of detentions without trial, there is still oppression, and Kenya is not out of the woods yet.
Equally, we can say, though for 40 years we travelled from the Egypt of colonialism, crossed the Red Sea of Mau Mau war and languished in the wilderness of one-party dictatorship, we have yet to reach the Promised Land by eradicating bad leadership, bad system, corruption, negative ethnicity and poverty of body, mind and soul.
In coming back to Kenya, exiles must not forget that despite the gains and the more political space we enjoy, the struggle continues because good leadership, democracy, freedom and integrity still have enemies; while corruption, primitive capitalism, negative ethnicity, poverty of people’s minds still have powerful friends, advocates and propagators. Despite appearances of progress, most Kenyans are poor and oppressed and need a Joshua to rescue them.
Despite fighting hard before, exiles must come back to Kenya to push the struggle to its logical conclusion.
Tragically when Kenyan leaders invite exiles to return home, it is not to fight against corruption, bad leadership, bad system, poverty of the people or negative ethnicity that divides and turns people against each other, it is to tame them with opportunities to steal and become rich. Exiles must not return home conquered.