Every nation has its foundation myths. The Koreans, for example, have Tan’gun, the scion of a son of the gods and a bear-turned-into-woman who became the first human king of the people of the peninsula. Kenyans are not to be left out. Whenever national holidays roll around, the air is always thick with talk of forefathers and tales of the dreams that supposedly drove them to found the nation. Believing it has always required a little suspension of disbelief.
This past week was no different. President Uhuru Kenyatta used his Jamhuri Day address to remind us about “the unity our fathers believed in, and enjoyed, unity without which they would not have won the Independence war.” Never mind that the Mau Mau actually lost the “Independence war” and our “fathers”, and his father particularly, were hardly paragons of solidarity.
If we are called “to honour the heroism of those who won our liberty” as the President asserts, we must begin by being honest about what came before us, how the past gave birth to the present and what we must change to create a better future for ourselves, and for generations to come.
Being honest requires accepting some uncomfortable truths. Our “forefathers” did not found Kenya. It was created and built by the British. Here’s the rub. The state and its institutions were specifically designed to oppress and to extract from the local population, and to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of an elite few.
The Mau Mau Uprising was the culmination of a resistance against this system that dates back to the dawn of colonialism. It is this system the many who went to the forest to fight, and the many who helped them were committed to overthrowing. However, and this is a second uncomfortable truth, they lost. And though their efforts did expedite the grant of Independence, it was not they who would inherit the state. Rather, it was handed over to a new, black elite that had little interest in reforming it.
“Will the elite, which has inherited power from the colonialists, use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes, or will they succumb to the lure of wealth, comfort and status and thereby become part of the Old Establishment?” future President Mwai Kibaki asked in 1964. In fact, as the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission confirmed, the “Old Establishment” was never overthrown and the colonial state endured.
So a third uncomfortable truth is that Independence did not translate into liberty. President Kenyatta was lying when he spoke of the “first age of heroes” who “joined hands to overthrow the colonial order.”
The oppressive colonial state persists to this day and has subverted almost every sincere effort to reform it. The first attempt was via the 1962 Constitution. A paper written 30 years later by the current Attorney General spoke of a “misguided attempt to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the Constitution was effectively downgraded.”
After decades of struggle, six years ago, we embarked on yet another attempt to reform the state. And, perhaps predictably, the heirs of the “Old Establishment” are again at work trying to do to the 2010 Constitution what their fathers did to its predecessor. They have maintained the authoritarian structures, such as the provincial administration, and introduced laws meant to curtail constitutional rights, and have consistently operated in ways that either disregard the document or actively undermine it.
Being honest about our past will allow us to appreciate that the struggle against subjugation that began in the last decade of the 19th Century continues to this day. It will open our eyes to the fact that while our oppressors may have changed colour, their methods and aims remain largely the same. It will also allow us to choose which of our “fathers” we wish to emulate. Those who stood up for the rights of the people, or those who became part of the Old Establishment? On that choice, our future will hang.