Habari Mheshimiwa? was how the conversation began.
“Mzuri boss,” was my answer as I immediately assumed that whoever was calling from a strange number must be from Nyeri, where I am involved in some activities that have led to that identity being used on me. “Siasa inaenda aje?” was the second question. “Salama,” I replied. I then immediately asked, as I usually do whenever I have a strange number calling me, “Nani mwenzangu?” Remember, all along I was sure that whoever was calling was someone from Nyeri, reaching out to me for assistance. The call was on speakerphone as I had been working on something in the office with a colleague.
Then it got interesting.
“Usijali,” he replied. He then continued speaking in Kiswahili and explained I should focus on my Nyeri politics and stop writing about things I do not understand. He concluded with the very ominous statement: “Do not start something you cannot finish!” He then hung up.
For a minute I was not sure what had just happened. In shock, I asked my colleague: ‘Did that guy just threaten me?” She was not sure, as she had not been following the conversation. However, I was sure of what I had heard, a stranger had just called me from a strange number, refused to identify himself, and then passed on what was clearly a warning for something he claimed I had written.
This was on Tuesday, March 1. The previous day the Star had, as usual, published my weekly Monday column: this time one on corruption. In my column I suggested that a key reason why President Uhuru Kenyatta was struggling so hard in the war on corruption was most probably because he was going up against a ‘corruption czar’.
I suggested that this man most probably headed a formal criminal organisation that was aggressively fighting back using the sections of the public service the cartel had compromised to undermine the government’s anti-corruption war. He is probably sponsoring political attacks against Uhuru and underwriting the bad publicity this government and its senior officials are getting, especially on corruption. I ended by asking who between the President and the czar would win this war.
The call I got suggests that I might have unconsciously gotten very close to the truth. In fact veteran journalists like Macharia Gaitho made quite interesting observations about my piece on social media. Apparently, an individual very similar to my hypothetical ‘corruption czar’ actually exists!
In the week since my article, I have learnt that a man exists who has done considerable government business over the years. He has then strategically leveraged his wealth into an institution around himself with the power and influence within government to fight back against any initiative he might not agree with.
If this is true, it is worrying that a personality somewhere in Kenya believes he is powerful enough to go head-to-head with government because he feels that the war on corruption disadvantages his business interests. It is also disappointing. I come from a conservative background and believe that we give governments power to do both good and bad things, as long as they are the right thing for the country. I would be worried that someone would be arrogant enough to believe they are above the law just because of the size of their wealth.
I’m worried at the audacity that would lead any individual, or his minions, to call a random columnist to warn him against writing about hypothetical corruption situations. In the five years that I have written a weekly column for the Star, I have never received such a direct threat. This despite the fact that in the 260 columns there are some very harsh and direct pieces against leading figures, including Uhuru, Deputy President Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. It is amazing that the threat finally came from a piece about a nameless hypothetical character!
I made an official report on the threat a few days ago. But as I follow up on investigations I pray that I will not discover there actually exists a man out there able to hold my government to ransom.
As a democratic country, we give our power to governments and then create institutions to check the government. No single individual can lord it over us, unless our system is broken. It would also be devastating to the war on corruption if we were to discover that the ultimate source of power and authority in Kenya comes not from the collective will of the people, but from money, including ill-gotten wealth.
The writer is a director of Change Associates, a political affairs consultancy.