It has been an eventful last few days in Nairobi.
Monday saw dramatic scenes at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport as the government attempted to prevent the return of Miguna Miguna, whose citizenship it had revoked and whom it had deported as punishment for participating in opposition leader, Raila Odinga’s self-inauguration as “the People’s President” on January 30, following last year’s disputed elections.
The commotion at the airport was significant for more than the threat it poses to the country’s ambitions to begin direct flights to the US. The government’s blatant defiance of court orders that had suspended the withdrawal of Miguna’s Kenyan passport and required it to facilitate his re-entry into the country has demonstrated the limits of engaging the state through the legal process. Three senior members of the Uhuru Kenyatta administration have been found guilty of contempt of court, but it is unlikely they will actually suffer any consequences as a result.
Further, the fracas happened in the presence of Raila, who had gone to the airport to attempt to rescue Miguna, and showed just how helpless he, and the political class he represents, were in the face of a state determined not to play by the rules. Just three weeks ago, Raila had met with President Uhuru, and announced a political programme to begin to heal a country left deeply wounded by the election and the dispute that followed. For the many Kenyans who were skeptical of the “Harambee House handshake”, the scenes of Raila scuffling with security officers at the airport underscored just how far his star had fallen. More importantly, it indicates the salvaging of the country and the reform of the state can no longer be entrusted to the machinations and deal making of the political class.
Then on Tuesday, eight respected columnists for the Nation abruptly and publicly resigned, decrying the interference in editorial independence at NMG’s print and broadcast outlets. This, too, is significant because many of these columnists are luminaries of Kenya’s struggle against the dictatorship of former President Daniel Moi, from the late 1980s and 1990s. However, their resignation was not just a protest against the state, but also a challenge to the unholy alliance between the state and Kenyan media which, in their words, had resulted in the ““circumscribing independent voices”.
"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?" Moi’s successor as president, Mwai Kibaki, posed in 1964, as related by Daniel Branch in his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, 1963-2011. The question is even more relevant today and the answer remains the same.
Those, including Kibaki himself, who have become part of the New Establishment following the end of the Moi dictatorship in 2003 and the constitutional change of 2010, have behaved little differently from their predecessors who inherited the colonial state from the British. Kenyans may finally be waking up to the fact that it is they, in their multitudes, who are the ultimate check on the behaviour of their elites, not power-sharing arrangements between politicians, an independent press (as important as that may be) or even nice words engraved into a constitution.
This realization is perhaps what has fueled the rise of the likes of the obstreperous, populist and misogynistic Miguna. His refusal to acquiesce to the old politics of compromise which has seen Kenyans repeatedly thrown under the bus by the same cast of characters for the last half-century, feels like a breath of fresh air to many. It is, perhaps, a feeling many Americans may be familiar with. During his failed run for the Nairobi governor, Miguna had few qualms about comparing himself to Donald Trump, vowing to “make Nairobi great again” and to “drain the swamp”. Though the government finally succeeded in deporting him on Wednesday night, this is likely not the last we will hear of this. By its treatment of him, it has given him a larger platform and more legitimacy than he could have ever hoped for. Like Trump, he may end up being the “human Molotov cocktail” that the public throws at a system that has woefully failed them.
A version of this article was first published in The Washington Post