There is something about Kenya that many of our people don’t seem to fully appreciate.
This is that we are a vibrant democracy surrounded by authoritarian states. Indeed I would say that some of the nations in our neighbourhood are “militaristic authoritarian states”. Think about it for a minute.
In Tanzania, it’s only now for the first time that there is a genuine chance of the opposition parties wresting power from the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which has ruled since independence.
For all intents and purposes, Tanzania has been a single party state for the last 50 years.
Uganda is ruled by a man for whom power came from the barrel of a gun, and though he was very popular and won the first few elections by massive landslides, his recent victories have involved strong-armed tactics which are anything but democratic.
And, of course, the Ugandan constitution itself has been amended to allow for the perpetuation of Yoweri Museveni’s rule.
Totally authoritarian country
Somalia is a failed state, and has been so for two decades now.
It is a country where the only thing that matters is how many armed militiamen a leader controls, not how many votes he can get in a free and fair election. South Sudan too is heading towards being a failed state.
And in any case the two most important leaders there are men each of whom has his own military force, armed to the teeth, and ready to go into battle at his command.
Ethiopia is a totally authoritarian country, and currently boasts a parliament without a single opposition MP. Rwanda is only a little less authoritarian – and here too, we have a president for whom power initially came only from the barrel of a gun.
Eritrea is a police state in the fullest sense of the word. And in Burundi we have just seen a president force his way back to power, ignoring constitutional term limits.
In DRC Congo we have had endless chaos almost since the dawn of their independence, which was actually a bit earlier than Kenya’s independence.
So you ask yourself this: how is it that in Kenya we have a thriving democracy which with all its mistakes still remains a democracy?
People in leadership are constantly aware that every five years, the voters have the final say, and that they frustrate the hopes of ordinary Kenyans at their extreme peril. How did this happen?
Well, as one who has witnessed at first hand much of Kenya’s post-independence history, I attribute it to two key things that we now mostly take for granted; and to two men in particular.
First and foremost, our founding President Jomo Kenyatta, a man I knew, respected and worked with closely not just in Kenya but even before independence when were both in the UK.
Supremely sophisticated man
Jomo Kenyatta, people often forget, was a supremely sophisticated man. He may have later found it politically expedient to dress in those so-called “traditional robes” - leopard skin capes and the like.
But this was a man who spent decades in Europe: partially in self-imposed exile; partially in a lonely struggle agitating for Kenyan independence. Kenyatta understood in a way that few other Kenyans did, what it took to create a functioning democracy.
He had observed such democracies in Europe in the post- war period close up. He fully appreciated that a democracy must allow for and accommodate free speech.
For even at time when no one in the UK had any intention that the British empire should be dissolved, African nationalists like him were allowed to stand up in Hyde Park and argue strongly for the independence of their nations. Nobody harmed him.
At most someone may have thrown a rotten egg or something like that, but he was not in any real danger just because he was arguing for freedom for black people in Kenya: something which most Europeans at that time considered to be simply an impossibility, as people like us were considered to be, intrinsically, incapable of ruling ourselves.
So Kenyatta understood democracy, and he allowed democracy to thrive. Even when he fell out with his former close friend Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, thereafter, of those Luos leaders who made it into parliament a good number were appointed into the Cabinet.
I know because I worked closely with many of them. And when some of these people went for elections they could as easily win or lose.
Kenyatta didn’t guarantee to bring them back into parliament and hence into his cabinet through rigging - which would have been much easier back then than it is now.
He neither rigged in Luo leaders whom he liked to allow them to remain in office; nor did he rig out those he didn’t like. So I am talking about a situation where despite our having a one-party state, which in those days was widely seen as necessary (if only for a time) in order to bring the country into a better quality of unity, there was true democracy in Kenya.
Under Kenyatta there was freedom, including the freedom for people to elect the leaders they wanted. And freedom is something which once people get used to it, cannot easily be taken away from them.
Kenyans are accustomed to political freedoms of the kind which Ethiopians, Eritreans, South Sudanese and many others can only dream of.
But there is one other man who played an equally great role in ensuring that Kenya is what it is today and that was His Highness the Aga Khan.
What Kenyatta did in in the political arena, in the establishing of political traditions and political norms of freedom (which often are more important even than the law itself) the Aga Khan did for the media.
Those who know anything of the economics of newspapers will tell you that when you start one, you first lose money consistently for about ten years before you begin to make a profit.
It requires a man with a deep purse and an even deeper understanding of the importance of a free media to accomplish this in a country which is just heading for independence.
Now you have to appreciate the Aga Khan did not have to set up Nation media. He had many better and much safer investments available to him.
I happen to know that when, in 1958 he set out to publish a newspaper which would “identify with and reflect the aspirations of the African majority in Kenya” it seemed like an act of supreme folly to many other potential investors.
But the Aga Khan, purely on moral grounds and as a matter of principle, was determined that there must be a strong and independent media in Kenya.
He knew that it was something the country would need and he devoted his financial resources to ensuring that this happened – even though back then nobody could have foreseen that his idea would grow into the Nairobi Stock Exchange blue-chip, which is now the Nation Media Group.
Before that there had only been one daily newspaper which because it was essentially a monopoly, could more or less do what it wanted. That was The East African Standard (now known as The Standard).
But once The Nation came into the arena; once there was competition; then you had a real media establishment. If one paper did not report something, the other one would, in the competition for circulation.
That’s the sort of thing you need in order to have a vibrant media sector. And the Aga Khan played an indispensable role in bringing this about.
I look back with pride on the fact that I played a small role in this - by taking steps to block a hostile takeover of the Daily Nation by local political and business interests, who wanted to compel His Highness the Aga Khan to sell the paper to them.
I knew very well that The Daily Nation would not remain a neutral and professionally run publication in their hands.
Not an undiluted blessing
Don’t imagine that I consider the media in Kenya to be a pure and undiluted blessing.
I myself have suffered a lot of vilification in the media. Things have been written about me which the editors knew very well at the time to be false but nonetheless had them published.
Reports have been written which showed me in an extremely dubious light, and the editors did not at any point demand that their reporters call me and hear what my version was, of this story they were about to display prominently on their pages.
Misrepresentations, vilification, spreading of lies – all these I have endured at the hands of the Kenyan media. But none of that has ever made me waver from my conviction that a free and independent media is absolutely central to our functioning as a democracy.
But my bigger point in all this is the Aga Khan played a fundamental role in helping us establish a strong independent media establishment in Kenya.
The media provides an essential component of our institutional checks and balances. And to me, when a president or deputy president says that the local newspapers are only useful for wrapping meat or fish, I know very well that they are, in reality, acknowledging their failed attempts to control the media.
And for this I thank my old friend the Aga Khan. He did the country a great service in helping set up The Nation and its affiliated media products, thus introducing a competitive media establishment in Kenya which now has at least five powerful players: Nation Media itself; the RadioAfrica Group; The Standard Group; the MediaMax Group; and the Royal Media Group.
So the long and the short of it, is that Kenya has a modern industrial-strength media establishment whereas our neighbours have what I would call “cottage industry” media establishments.
Kenya has benefitted enormously from this strength in our media establishment. And for this the Aga Khan deserves a medal.