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Kenya and the anxiety of sudden freedom in the slave quarters

Feudal systems absolve their subjects of the responsibility of thinking

The transfer of State power and the instruments of office from former President Uhuru Kenyatta to Dr. William Ruto on the 13th of September 2022 was accompanied by the widely expected pomp that surrounds historical days and the carefully choreographed military ceremony that our British colonial history inculcated into our collective psyche. Amid all the perfect military choreography of the event, Deputy President-elect H.E. Rigathi Gachagua delivered a hard-hitting speech that berated the outgoing President and his administration for all manner of perceived repression meted out upon them for daring to run against his chosen successor. It was a speech designed to include all the unseemly truths that an incoming Head of State couldn’t utter at this point.

From the perspective of Kenya’s post-independence history, Mr. Gachagua’s most powerful words were “Freedom has come!” I wondered what this meant to a society like ours that has always been captive to its own lack of identity, creativity, and initiative. For the last 59 years, our society has been a snapshot of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s famous quote “Birds born in a cage think that flying is an illness”. As a result, few amongst us realize that the (relative) freedom that comes with independence is more about space than a new prescription by new liege lords. The outcomes of freedom are determined by what we do with that space – whether we decide to fly or to remain in the comfort of our cages. The issue with our elite is that they have yet to come to terms with the fact that flying (that is, reaping the benefits of our newly acquired freedom) requires intellectual work.

The birds refused to fly

Despite our accepted status as a Republic, Kenya’s political arena has been decidedly feudal in nature. Indeed, the first cabal of ethnic nobles was selected by the colonial administration to participate at the Lancaster house conferences (1960, 1962, and 1963) and take over from the departing colonial authorities in the personnel change that we loosely refer to as “Independence” or “Uhuru”. In actual fact, it was a strange case of our captors selecting our ‘liberators’, thus taking control of the independence narrative. This selection conferred power to these ‘liberators’ – the new lords – through the twin pillars of land and government-linked economic opportunities, either through business or state jobs. Land and state largesse are relatively blunt and primitive tools of power, but they have served European monarchies well over the centuries, only leaving their holders vulnerable in situations where intellectual aptitude or perceptiveness beyond the palace walls is required. Since 1963 therefore, these Kenyan lords and their scions have rejected the notion that true liberation requires intellectual work. They have directed political discourse from their financial and ethnic bases, reducing electoral cycles to simple market days, occasions for shifting seats and trading votes (‘numbers’ being mere currency at the dealing table) and not a mandate to make any substantial changes in the status quo.

Because of the 1963 arrangement, Kenya has cruel and entitled lords who consider the common people commodities and basically force their narratives upon us through control of media outlets and communication. The most unfortunate part of our plight is that the lords are faithfully served by a middle class who have deluded themselves into thinking that nobility is a status that can be accessed through servitude thereto. For decades now, the post-Uhuru middle class have had access to education, opportunities, travel, and even seniority in government. However, other than a very small minority, they have been uniform in their desire to join the entitled class rather than seek economic and intellectual growth for the country and society.

Legal scholars, scientists, educators, and even political scientists have undertaken to echo and cleanse the State’s shortcomings in these fields, rather than offer guidance or critique. Members of this segment of the society have been the most comfortable residents of the uncreative, unimaginative intellectual cage that Kenya has been for the last six decades, excelling at being disciplined, qualified and dedicated (yet decidedly anti- intellectual) functionaries.  This decadence came with numerous benefits, including highly paid jobs that enable them to privately access all the services that their inertia denies the proletariat. This group suffers from acute dissonance, often abstaining from voting, and posing as apolitical (out of sloth, rather than principle) yet they are direct beneficiaries of the political status quo. Consequently, they were the group most deeply traumatized by this unforeseen departure of the hoi-polloi from the political path prescribed by their respective ethnic liege lords.

The revolution will not be televised

In 2022, there was a sea change that would only make sense to the most discerning amongst us, evoking Gil Scott Heron’s 1971 hit ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’. In the run-up to the 2022 general elections, the outgoing president, Mr. Uhuru Kenyatta chose to support Mr. Raila Odinga, his erstwhile political nemesis following a ‘handshake’ or truce they entered into in 2018. This arrangement was at the expense of Dr. William Ruto, Mr. Kenyatta’s deputy. The first glimpse of “captive” thinking was evident in the way supporters of Mr. Odinga celebrated his transformation from a victim to a beneficiary of the proverbial “system” (a euphemism for State power). Mr. Odinga himself imbibed this sentiment and ran a campaign that was flavoured more like a procession to State House, rather than an electoral contest between him and a competitive rival. This was evident in the way he repeatedly solicited votes and managed intra-party nomination disputes by offering state positions in his government.

When August 9th, 2022 finally came around and votes were cast, Kenya found itself in a strange miasma where for the very first time, the perennial victims of perceived electoral malpractice were anxiously pinning their hopes of victory on the same vice. The results were transmitted and verified over a tense and agonizing five-day wait that laid bare our malaise. This time lapse was within the limits allowed by the constitution, but we Kenyans visited the agony upon ourselves with a torrent of rumours, falsehoods, prejudices, and innuendo shared on social media. To the keen observer, those five days exposed the intellectual shell that we had become, because political interests themselves fueled this “noise”, in the full knowledge that it didn’t have any effect on the numbers of ballots that had already been cast a few days earlier.

So, in 2022, a shift happened in Kenya and here is where the elite system completely lost its balance because the revolution was ‘not televised’. To every teething problem and policy challenge faced by the new administration, the middle class offered snide references to “freedom rather than the robust criticism that is the responsibility of conscious citizens. It then occurred to me that to the majority of my middle class compatriots, the references to terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘hustler’ (which is the new administration’s mantra) evoked in their minds images of proletariat-led ‘chaos’ and alarm at the loss of their positions (however lowly) in the old feudal order. Those who criticize feudal governance arrangements rightly point out that their subjects are denied space to think, but this view often misses a crucial fact hidden by perspective: Feudal systems also absolve their subjects of the responsibility of thinking. In societies like Kenya, which regard compliance as a higher measure of virtue than conscience, the absolution offered by feudalism is a highly-valued and jealously guarded ‘luxury’.  A number of occurrences in the last few weeks bear witness to this weakness.

One is the return to Kenya of Miguna Miguna, the brash dissident self-styled ‘General’ who was forced into exile by the previous government. There was an inexplicable expectation that his return would herald some major political realignments in Mr. Odinga’s support base despite the elections having just ended. As it happened, there were no major announcements from him, and he just attended to his personal affairs, which had obviously suffered neglect during his absence. When his return and the associated social engagements turned out to be low-key affairs, this was greeted by a strange mixture of derision and puzzlement.

Another is how our media houses, which are notorious for following rather than informing our society, have also been intellectually destabilized by the ‘untelevized revolution’. Having divested themselves of capable analysts over the years, these outlets find themselves unable to decipher Kenya’s political scene without looking through the prism of ethnic Lords. On diverse dates, the Daily Nation newspaper revealed its desperate need for lieges, on Ms. Winnie Odinga (a member of the East African Legislative Assembly) as “inheriting her father’s mantle” and styling the Deputy President Gachagua as the new ‘Mt. Kenya regional kingpin’. The Kenyan mainstream media seems to be paralyzed by reporting on our feudal history and totally lacking the analytical skills to reorient itself to new realities. The ethnic “Kingpins” were blinded to their decadence and blindsided by a proletariat who suddenly decided to make their own decisions. The ill-fated BBI (Building Bridges Initiative) move to entrench ethnic fiefdoms in the law was the last stand for feudalism and its rejection by the courts paved way for rejection of liege lords by the electorate. Instead of reporting on what politicians like Ms. Odinga and Mr. Gachagua actually are today, the media is undergoing mental exertion trying to report on what they think these politicians should respectively be trying to become. It’s an exercise in futility seeking to report on fiefs when the fiefdoms are gone.

Hopefully, there will be a lesson for Africa in Kenya’s exhausting (and often depressing) history. Freedom in our context is not a change of personnel, rather it is the opening of a space that is necessarily finite. We are the personnel, and our future depends on what we do with the space. The future belongs to those who were intellectually prepared to occupy the space that rightfully belongs to them.







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