I am not an old man, by any stretch of the term. Far from it. In fact, by our own nation’s definition, I am a young man. I am part of its “youth.” Life, with all its myriad joys, stretches out in front of me (or so they tell me). And I am looking forward to it. But I am not so young that I do not have memories. I am not so young that I have nothing to remember (or forget, for that matter). My memory may desert me at times, but I have many treasured recollections. And this morning, I am remembering.
Yes. Thousands of miles away from home, I am remembering the verdant slopes of Uhuru Park, a place I have walked through from the Haile Selassie Avenue entrance to the Kenyatta Avenue/Uhuru Highway exits many, many times. I am remembering how lovely those grass-clad slopes look after a week of refreshing rain. I am remembering how that same hill looks when juxtaposed against the Government buildings on Community Hill.
I am remembering how forbidding the Park looks when black clouds, heavy with imminent rain, hang low over its brow. How many times I have rushed by, oblivious to the dark beauty in the scene, bent only on beating the rain! Anyway, this morning, I am remembering.
What we had
I am remembering how apt the name “Uhuru” Park must have seemed that glorious afternoon in the late December of 2002. I am remembering what the country felt like, now that the second liberation had actually occurred. I am thinking, now, how fitting it must have been to hold the new President’s inauguration there. Truly there could have been no other venue. No stadium, no other site was fit to hold that inauguration ceremony.
I am remembering how the usually grass-clad slopes were alive that day – alive with people. Photos in the eagerly-awaited paper the next day seemed unreal. Never was the phrase “Kenyans from all walks of life” used more fittingly. Thousands upon thousands of Kenyans had made the pilgrimage to Uhuru Park. Perhaps for some, it was to confirm for themselves whether it was really true that we had toppled KANU and replaced it with NARC. Kenyans stood, sat down, and stood up again. A small number of Kenyans scaled the few available trees to get a better view of the proceedings. There were Kenyans everywhere! Happy Kenyans. Impatient Kenyans. Even a few irate Kenyans – irate that Moi still had any part to play at all in the ceremony. Such was the momentousness of the occasion that even those of us who had hitherto been apolitical were drawn to the spectacle. I recall that some fellow Campuserians, including a Ugandan medical student, actually made their way to Uhuru Park. It seemed the nation had made the impossible possible, and that the improbable had come to pass.
I am remembering sitting close to the little two-tape-deck Goldstar radio at home, and listening to the Inauguration ceremony. I remember hearing the President-Elect swear to protect the Constitution. I remember the conviction in his voice as he delivered what has elsewhere been called “a soaring speech full of regime-change passion and dynamics.” Unable to rely on a TV to follow proceedings, I looked out over the shamba at home and watched the green maize fronds frolic in the breeze, as the sounds of the inauguration ceremony filtered into the sitting-room.
I remember that it was not a cripple I listened to that afternoon, either. No, that was no wheelchair-bound, neck-braced cripple. After decades of Moi, our generation was now listening to/watching – not a President that the fates had forced upon us, but rather – someone an overwhelming majority of Kenyans had put in power. The idea of a President who was “ours” – novel concept! – was imprinting itself onto a Kenyan consciousness that responded with wonder. It was a stupendous moment! So it was very easy to believe, that day, as he spoke with a power in his words that belied his temporary physical state.
I particularly remember how I felt as he said: “…corruption will now CEASE to be a WAY OF LIFE in Kenya.” In all of that speech, that is the one phrase that will never leave me. It was, and is, the one phrase I can never forget. That phrase enthused me. It enlivened me. It galvanized me. That for me was the moment I knew that “change had come.” The delicious vehemence in the President’s tone was filed away in the labyrinthine libraries of my memory forever.
I am remembering the Kenya we all woke up to in early January 2003. I remember how when an extra public holiday after New Year’s Day was announced, it chimed right in with the feelings of national joy and euphoria that swelled in our collective breast. I am remembering those long-lost, heady, now-distant days when a Gallup International Annual End of Year Survey said we Kenyans were the most optimistic people on God’s green earth. If you have ever had the pleasure of taking large gulps of clean, cold, rarefied, early-morning, out-of-town air, then you know what the political atmosphere was like in Kenya in early 2003. It felt like it was dawn in our country. And, perhaps, it was.
This morning, I am remembering a Kenya where the entire Presidential motorcade consisted of three cars. Yes. Just three. And in fact, only two were Government vehicles. The other long wheelbase S-Class Mercedes (I loved those cars) was the President’s personal car. And it had been modified to take his wheelchair.
I am remembering how for six months at least, we were one. There were strikes at export-processing zones, I remember, because folks wanted the change they had voted for yesterday to show up inside their wallets today. But we were one. There was freshness in the air. Oneness.
And most of all, I am remembering a Kenya where corruption was fought not just by Kenya’s Government, but by her own citizens as well. A Kenya where at least one policeman who thought that he could still stop matatus for bribes and get away with it received a rude awakening as incensed passengers descended from the matatu, staggered him with a short but pithy lecture on the concept of a “New Kenya”, forcibly dispossessed him of bribes he had taken up to that point, and proceeded on their journey. This incident in particular represents the high-water mark of my entire existence as a Kenyan citizen. As I said, I am not an old man. But I still remember.
Alas. It was all of it a lie.
What we’ve got
In less than 10 months (by October 2003), no lesser publication than The Economist was reporting that Kenyans were disappointed in their new Government. The article was occasioned by the “apparent assassination” of Dr Crispin Odhiambo Mbai, a man who at that time had been involved in drafting the new Constitution. In the article, that worthy periodical reported: “…the speed with which Mr Kibaki’s presidency has become synonymous with the interests of a small group of his Kikuyu tribe, Kenya’s largest, and its cousins from the Mount Kenya region is extraordinary.”
Perhaps we have forgotten that Kibaki had promised Kenyans a new Constitution in 100 days. Dr Mbai’s violent death was merely a sign of things to come, for we all know that that we only got a new Constitution over 3,500 days later, and that because it was forced upon the Principals by the terms of Agenda IV of the National Peace Accord.
We all know that nearly 10 years after the Goldenberg Commission of Inquiry, no-one is behind bars for their role in that scandal. Actually some of those who are said to have been involved were given a hero’s sendoff upon their untimely demise. Others of those who are said to have been involved are running for the Presidency today. All this, fellow Kenyans, we know.
We also know, from the contents of The Githongo Dossier and the book It’s Our Turn To Eat (Michela Wrong, 2009), that the NARC Government by this time had rolled up its sleeves and was knee- and elbow-deep in the mucky business of stealing KES 21 Billion from taxpaying Kenyans through Anglo Leasing, with the current President’s complicity. That looting started on May 29 2003, a scant five months (almost to the day) after that glorious afternoon on December 30th 2002.
And that Presidential motorcade, @Roomthinker tells me, is now not 3, but 23 cars long, not counting outriders.
We were deceived
True deception, I discovered earlier this year, occurs when you don’t even know you’re being deceived. It is when you don’t know what’s happening that deception is complete and total. And folks, in 2002-3, we were deceived. The morning and the promise of early 2003 did not lead to the bright day of prosperity that we all expected. Nay, that morning has instead given way to a long and protracted darkness. That rarefied atmosphere of hope has been replaced by the fetid stench of a rotting, nameless, shapeless filth, Augean in its proportions. The dawn is long gone, and in its place is a soiled and Stygian night that has lingered far too long: a night of rampant, pervasive, and Government-sponsored corruption, the fevered and clannish protection of narrow tribal interests by the political class and some of this nation’s citizens, and the looming spectre of ever-deepening poverty for far too many of our nation’s people. Today, Kenya staggers under the burden of the thousands of transgressions that have been visited upon her undeserving citizens by a remote and distant political class. What is worse, a distressingly large number of small-minded citizens are perpetuating this cycle, both wittingly and unwittingly.
Yes, we were deceived. And we are being deceived again.
Before we vote again, next year, before we return unhelpful, harmful and downright dangerous politicians to positions of power, we must ask ourselves: WHAT HAPPENED? That in Kenyans’ souls that made them forcibly dispossess policemen of their bribes – where did it go? Where is that force that relegated tribe to the back of our thinking for at least half a year? That essence that made us proud and happy citizens of one nation for six short months, where did it go? Is it gone for good? Can we get it back?
Will we ever trust one another again? Will a belief in a common ideal of what Kenya should be, and not what she is, ever unite us again? Will we as a Kenyan people ever be energized, catalyzed, enervated – one – again? Or are we doomed to stagger through another decade led by distant, self-serving and self-seeking leadership, even as the Tana burns, the Coast erupts, and scandal after filthy scandal hits our headlines?
Will we trust any leader, ever again? If so, upon whom are we going to bestow the precious gift of that trust? Are we going make it expensive for leaders to win our trust, or will we sell it cheaply and repent at leisure even as that trust is cruelly betrayed? Will the cheap politics of costly handouts continue to appeal to us, or will the March 2013 election encounter an altogether more mature electorate? Will we think before we vote, or will we vote first and think later?
That Kenya we had – and lost. Can we get her back?