As published on The Standard newspaper.
The passing on of President Moi (pictured) this week invites us to reflect again on the essence of the Nyayo Era. What is the enduring memory of that regime (1978 – 2002)? Where did it derive its energy? Long after Mzee Moi’s bones have been interred, Kenya will still be talking about him. What will future generations be made to remember most about him?
I deliberately use the expression “be made to remember most,” rather than “remember most.” History records can be very selective. Stories are told from the interest of the storyteller. Its substance, accordingly, only shapes a certain narrative. Even eye witness accounts can be tilted to serve a certain agenda.
Guided by such caution, we must still ask, “What will future generations be made to recall most of the Nyayo Era?” I had only recently stepped out of my teens, when the Nyayo notion happened upon us. It descended suddenly. Soon after his swearing in, as the Acting President on the afternoon of August 22, 1978, the temporary head of state pointed out the way forward.
He was going to walk in the footsteps of his predecessor. He urged us to embrace the spirit of love, peace and unity – and to be mindful of each other. We would hear so much of this that it became a formation of words, and hardly much more. Songs were composed to extol love, peace and unity. It was rather increasingly clear that we were a fragile nation. We needed to be reminded of the glue of love. It brought peace and unity. The three idioms quickly transmuted from pleas, into a spirit and on to a philosophy.
To be asked “to follow Nyayo” was no longer a plea to embrace the spirit of love, peace and unity. It was a philosophy. The challenge was that it was never broken down. As a student of philosophy at the University of Nairobi, a year later, I wrestled with the logic of this mantra – love, peace and unity. The pieces refused to fit. There were gaps in this jigsaw puzzle.
Why was it that the centre could not hold? What was missing? My professor of philosophy was a Dutch, called Joseph Donders. Together with Dismas Massolo, Odera Oruka and Jesse Mugambi, they held the sub-department together. They migrated with our imagination into theoretical spaces. Something solid and practical remained, however. Logic. This was the missing link in Nyayo – logic. What we failed to do practically we attempted to do through a mantra – a cacophony of echoes of love, peace and unity. We chanted without ceasing. The logical thing to do, some thought, was to look for the pillars of love, peace and unity. No, we thought that love, peace and unity were themselves essential pillars that did not need to rest on anything else. We were wrong. And this was the waterloo of the Nyayo Philosophy.
Unity, we discovered, was as good as the purpose for which we united. You could not ask the horse and the horse rider to unite. The relationship was unequal, the unity a distortion. That challenge remains today. Peace, equally, required justice as its logical foundation. Provided that people sensed injustice in the management and distribution of opportunities, it would be difficult to have peace. Was a just and equitable way of doing things the missing link?
Does this legacy remain with us today? Do we rob the masses to feed the classes? Do we push segments of the population to the wall, so that they begin to believe that they have nothing to lose, in the event that “peace” collapses?
Love, on the other hand, refused to define itself as sentimental outpouring. It was a practical selfless desire to defeat wickedness. We seem to have missed this train in the Nyayo Age, however. Everyone strived to justify himself and to defeat everyone else in showing how they were more Nyayo than the rest. We bred hate. In the end what reigned was not love, peace and unity. It was hate, suspicion and fear. But we had migrated from the Kenyatta years to the Moi Age with these things. Those who had made hay under the Kenyatta sunshine were afraid of losing it under a President that did not belong to their club. They tried but failed to block him from ascending to power.
Their fears did not go away, however. Those who had lived outside the circle of opportunities in the Kenyatta Age were afraid of being pushed to the extremes of poverty. They nervously barricaded Moi. They did not brook any criticism. So long as the centre of power and opportunities moved, they could live with anything else. They urged the President to crack the Nyayo staff, and he often did.
Yet, even the new centre of power was itself afraid. It was afraid of those desperate to snatch the power. We staggered and stumbled from one conspiracy theory to another. The notion of persons perceived to be “anti-Nyayo” was itself a betrayal of fear, by those in power. Those who did not like this state of affairs were afraid of talking about it. They feared that state apparatus would come down on them.
The fear was here, the fear was there. The fear was everywhere. Everyone said the problem was everyone else. In the end, we said Moi must go. We said all was possible without Moi. Moi has eventually heard and heeded the sound of distant drums . . . Far away. He’s gone. The fear that ruled us in the Nyayo Era remains, however. Across the ridges, regions, tribes and classes, fear reigns still. It is the essence of our lives. It derives its energy from deep feelings of injustice across our divides.