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November 17, 2018

How despots are made: Are we guilty of turning democrats into tyrants?

Miguna Miguna of NASA Coalition addresses the media at Okoa Kenya offices where he urged all NASA Supporters to pull down portraits of President Uhuru Kenyatta from their premises and replace with that of Raila Odinga whom they recognize as their legitimate president. February 1, 2018. Photo/Jack Owuor
Miguna Miguna of NASA Coalition addresses the media at Okoa Kenya offices where he urged all NASA Supporters to pull down portraits of President Uhuru Kenyatta from their premises and replace with that of Raila Odinga whom they recognize as their legitimate president. February 1, 2018. Photo/Jack Owuor

The famous painting by celebrated French artist Édouard Manet depicting the killing of Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico has been the subject of much debate.

Released in 1867, the painting has been the subject of long discussions with various interpretations of what exactly Manet wanted to depict, when he painted several soldiers in the firing squad facing the emperor and one man, in civilian clothing, turning his back on the soldiers and facing the viewer.

One art critic explains that while the Mexican soldiers were guilty of killing the Emperor, Manet also extended the guilt to the people of Mexico for also being complicit in the heinous act which happened in June 1867. According to him, the people of Mexico shared the guilt in the death of the emperor, perhaps by first inviting him to be their ruler then turning their back on him.

This week’s surprise deportation of Miguna Miguna has got many people talking. Many have argued that the government overreached itself, ignoring court orders and running roughshod over the opposition. Miguna responded to his deportation by naming Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto as ‘despots’.

The big question is whether he, Miguna, his friends and, indeed, the rest of us, have had a chance, even a remote one, in the transformation of our leaders from ‘democrats’ into ‘despots’.


All our Presidents – Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel Moi, Mwai Kibaki and now Uhuru Kenyatta – have, at one point or another, been described as despots. Each began with great promise at the inauguration, spelling out what they wanted to do, did what they did and, in the end, were described as ‘despots’.

A despot is a tyrannical ruler with absolute powers.

Absolutism suggests a political system in which there are no legal, customary, or moral limits on the government’s power. But Kenya, unlike many nations, has some of the most progressive laws and a Constitution billed as one with the longest Bill of Rights in the entire globe. Even with constitutional and legal limitations, we have only been ruled by ‘despots’.

And now, Uhuru has just been slapped with the same tag. The harassment of opposition lights, the deportation of Miguna, the harassment of civil society groups, the media shutdown, ignoring court orders and refusal to hold talks aimed at reforms, have been part of the drama we were treated to this week by the Uhuru administration.

But did he call it on himself or did we made him that way? Did we contribute to making him behave the way he did?


Following the oathing of Raila Odinga on January 30, the government shut down some television channels and harassed journalists, threatening the much-cherished media freedom provided for in the Constitution. It blatantly ignored lawful orders to return the television transmission of two out of four stations, arguing it is conducting investigations for evidence of subversion.

Now, the government had been praised for the fact that nobody died in the mock swearing-in ceremony, but what we thought would be a temporary shutdown became a prolonged one, with only two stations being opened after seven days.

The government has always had an uneasy relationship with the media and indeed blamed it for being partisan and also overrun by the opposition. It then instituted what has become perhaps the largest ever crackdown on the media in living memory in this country.


Just months into Independence, on July 5, 1964, Home Affairs Minister Oginga Odinga ordered the expulsion of four Britons, among them journalist Richard Kisch, the Nairobi correspondent of the Tanganyika newspaper The Nationalist.

The other was Ian Henderson the published author of the best-selling book The Hunt for Dedan Kimathi and part of the team that arrested him. Right from the start, the Kenya government proved itself very sensitive to critical Press reports and journalists, who dared to write against it; they either got deported or were detained.

There were many other expulsions through the 1960s and, indeed, there was pressure for local publications to Kenyanize, a term that was used to mean the active removal of non-Kenyan staff and Europeans to reflect a more African (read: Friendly) outlook.

But that outlook was never really friendly as journalists who pointed out what was actually happening in government had big problems. The Press was heavily censored and that was to continue right into the Moi regime. After lots of pressure, Moi would eventually allow for some media freedoms deep into his 24-year-long regime.

He licensed the second television station, the Kenya Television Network, to compete with the state broadcaster, KBC. As he reportedly sat in his living room taking a cup of tea on Christmas Eve in 1991, the news anchor on KTN announced to the nation that Mwai Kibaki had defected to the opposition in Mombasa and now headed the Democratic Party. Boom!

It is said Moi’s cup of tea fell to the floor and smashed to pieces. He immediately called spy chief James Kanyotu and (rightly) demanded to know why he was first hearing this from the news. That was also Kanyotu’s last day in his job, as it was for KTN news editor Rose Lukalo, who had allowed the story to air.


The big question is whether despots are born or made.

This is probably the same argument as to whether leaders are made or born. Whatever your persuasion, my considered opinion is that despots are made not born. It is the people, who, like Manet had observed, make them. Let’s see how we made our own despots.

Back in 1961, Kenyatta was the most popular politician alive. You would never say anything against him and be heard by anyone, except of course the soon-to-depart Europeans.

At a 1961 BBC interview, Odinga showered glowing praises on the still detained Kenyatta, saying of him that he was more advanced than the rest of us (you can see a portion of the interview in Kenyatta 1973 Documentary) on YouTube).

The interviewer asks Odinga, “But surely, you are all rather more advanced than he (Kenyatta) is in your thinking about politics. Wouldn’t you be embarrassed if he was really let go of now?” Odinga replied, “We cannot be. We cannot in any sense be more advanced than our teacher and master, whom I think is much more advanced in the political outlook in this country than we are. We are still in the stages of learning politics from him.”

On December 10, 1964, Kenyatta named Odinga Vice President. Three days later, Odinga would unveil the Kenyatta statue at Parliament Buildings. Only a year later, the two would fall out and Odinga would identify Kenyatta as a great despot. Perhaps the consistent barrage from the opposition and his own insecurities as a leader would see Kenyatta slide down the scale towards absolutism, with each year seemingly making him worse.


The little General Election of 1966 ushered in a more authoritarian Kenyatta and human rights abuses in that period heightened. You can say there were two or perhaps three Kenyattas — one between Independence and the 1966 ‘Little General Election’, the second after 1966 and the third after 1969. It is very debatable the role, if any, that was played by the Odingas in bringing out a more despotic Kenyatta in those three periods.

When the challenge to his authority was presented in 1966, he became much more autocratic and by the time he died in 1978, there were numerous political prisoners in Kenya.

Some, such as Jean-Marie Seroney and Martin Shikuku had even been identified as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International, and several other MPs (mostly opposition sympathizers) remained in detention without trial. The longest of these was former Gem MP Wasonga Sijeyo, who spent nine years behind bars without ever being tried.

Did the events of October 1969, in which Kenyatta was heckled and stoned during the opening of the Russian-built hospital in Kisumu, coupled with an attempted military coup in 1971 as well as several other incidents produce the repressive Kenyatta?

Raila had only just returned from Europe the day before the opening of the hospital and on the morning of the Kenyatta visit, he had gone to Kondele, the famous Kisumu slum, where he met youths ahead of the opening. It is not clear in his biography Flame of Freedom what may have transpired during the meeting with the youths, but suffice it to say many of them were dead later that day after turning up to boo Kenyatta.


When Moi took over from Kenyatta, there was great promise of a fresh start. But like the Founding Father, Moi began well but was forced to go into self-preservation mode and become more autocratic when he was faced with a major challenge to his authority.

The military coup-attempt of August 1, 1982, was a watershed moment in this country’s history. You can say there were two or perhaps three Mois – the one before 1982 and the one after 1982 and the other after the coming of pluralism.

The role of the Odingas, too, in all the three dispensations is very clear. From the coup-attempt to the clamour for multipartyism, did the Odingas shape the autocratic Moi? Did they play a role in pushing him into autocracy?

In responding to the challenges to his hold on power, he ushered in a repressive regime that saw everyone — from journalists, university students, lecturers, labour leaders, civil society organisations and others — suffer severe reprisals. Perhaps it is fitting to remind ourselves of the Kalenjin proverb that says, “The antelope said he would not curse whoever killed him, he would curse whoever startled him out of his hiding.”


Raila wrecked Kanu as a parting gift to Moi. His famous divorce from Kanu and running to join NAK left Moi and the ruling party severely damaged, and unable to find its space in the 2002 election.

But even after joining Kibaki and helping him win the presidency, Raila’s unbridled ambition came to the fore, yet again, when he led a spirited campaign against the constitutional referendum of 2005, which severely crippled the authority of the Kibaki administration.

Like the other Presidents, there are two or perhaps three Kibakis – one before the 2005 referendum, the other before and after the 2007 General Election. In the middle of all this was Raila as the not-so-silent bogeyman. Kibaki became more authoritarian.

Internal Security Minister John Michuki led serious reprisals against proscribed groups such as Mungiki and we were treated to media attacks led by the government and the infamous Artur brothers. Even the First Lady led her own charge against the media.

The 2007-08 post-election violence was, however, Kibaki’s defining moment in his antipathy with Raila. It would, however, not be the last. One of the outcomes of the altercation was a new Constitution, which we all thought would solve our governance problems. Now we know it can’t.


Uhuru also got his defining moments. His infamous fallout with Raila over the elections last year and also their great differences over such matters as corruption, appointments, government spending and others, have seen Uhuru emerge from the cocoon of innocence to becoming what Miguna has described as a despot. Analysts agree Raila’s oath was largely a provocation to irk the government. It really achieved just that.

Remember they had consistently insisted they did not recognise the legitimacy of Uhuru and went on to establish such outfits as the NRM, whose apparent mandate is to destabilise the government.


If indeed all our Presidents have turned out to be despots, who really is to blame? This is the point of debate that begs for an answer. Since we are not led by angels, does the personal failings of a leader in dealing with constant criticism or his desire for self-preservation count him as a despot?

At the end of the day, we must also accept our role in the making of our very own despots. That is what Manet told the people of Mexico in his painting.

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