Sunday, August 22, 2010

It Was NOT Obvious That I Would Live This Long....

Onyango Oloo Looks Back on an Improbable Half Century

I celebrated my fiftieth birthday on the 19th of August 2010.

This was a special occasion for me in many ways.

First of all, it was never a given that I would live to see this day.

My generation-I am talking of Kenyans born in the late fifties to the mid sixties- have had a rather bumpy roller coaster ride throughout our brief existence on this Mother Earth.

Born during the heady, hopeful and optimistic Uhuru Sasa days, we were kids when giants like

Kwame Nkrumah, Abdel Nasser, Oginga Odinga,

Amilcar Cabral, Mwalimu Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba, Jomo Kenyatta, Nelson Mandela, Milton Obote, Tom Mboya, Martin Luther King

Malcolm X
dominated the wider African liberation scene.

Our parents were enthusiastic nationalists and Pan Africanists- that is why you find so many forty something and fifty something Kenyans bearing names like Lumumba, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Oginga and others.

We were literally conceived and born during the Decade of African Independence.

But even before we turned teenagers, we could see the bitterness and sense of betrayal in the eyes of those very mothers and fathers who thought they were ushering in a new progressive era in contemporary Africa.

Here in Kenya,

Pio gama Pinto
was assassinated;

Bildad Kaggia
marginalized and

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga
hounded from the vice presidency as a new African comprador bourgeois elite went on a looting and grabbing spree even as millions wallowed in poverty, prompting the late patriotic politician

JM Kariuki
to quip:

We do not want a Kenya of ten million beggars and ten millionaires”.

Our generation lived through the dark years of one party rule and many of us endured imprisonment, torture, police harassment, joblessness, exile and worse.

We were there in the 1980s and 1990s when structural adjustment programs and other IMF inspired austerity measures took away the free medical and health services we had taken for granted in the dispensaries and public health facilities; when privatization and downsizing saw many civil servants and public sector employees lose their jobs, when they were still in their prime; when the cost of living escalated beyond the means of many; when former social housing estates like Makongeni and Madaraka became the magnet for unscrupulous developers; when school play grounds and public toilets were grabbed by well-connected tycoons; when many young women were forced into commercial sex work just to make sure they put food on the table; when a lot of young men graduated from borstal institutions into full fledged maximum security prisons as petty crime became their only desperate option.

But our generation was also at the forefront of the massive broad movement to restore multi-party democracy in Kenya. Some of us participated in socialist oriented anti-imperialist clandestine groups like the December Twelve Movement, Mwakenya, Ukenya, Umoja, Harakati ya Kupambania Demokrasia Kenya, Me Katilili Revolutionary Movement, Kenya Anti-Imperialist Front and later on helped to form the bedrock of support of parties like FORD, Ford-Kenya, Ford-Asili, DP, Safina, NDP and others who challenged the hegemony of KANU.

2002 NARC victory was our victory too.

On a sad note, our generation contributed a big chunk of the Kenyans who lost the battle to HIV/AIDS, a pandemic which robbed this country of some of its most brilliant sons and daughters.

There was time in the 1990s- when I was still exiled in Canada-when I was even afraid of calling home and inquiring about the health of family members, friends, former schoolmates and neighbours. This was when the stigma against the dreaded scourge was so pervasive that obituaries and funeral announcements in the newspapers used the euphemism “ died after a long illness” instead of naming complications due to HIV/AIDS as the cause of death.

Our generation has also survived because of the credo of the late South African poet

Dennis Brutus
who urged us all to live with “Stubborn Hope”- a stubborn hope for better days ahead; a stubborn hope which eschewed cynicism as a luxury we could ill afford.

That is why I celebrated my fiftieth birthday the other day- because it was by no means obvious that I could survive to be a half century old. I could have died in prison in my early twenties; succumbed to HIV in my mid thirties like my youngest brother and several cousins) or been a victim of post election violence in my late forties.

Somehow I survived, just like my generation.

One of the greatest reasons to celebrate my fiftieth anniversary of residence on this planet had to do with the passage of the new constitution following the August 4th Referendum. The YES victory was a message of hope, reassurance and reaffirmation to all Kenyans, but especially my generation who had grown up under the old draconian constitution which had buttressed dictatorship and corruption.

Many members of my generation are now fathers and mothers- some even grand parents- so when we talk of a constitution that will protect our children and grandchildren, we are not engaging in hyperbole and metaphorical euphoria. We are being literal.

I believe my fiftieth birthday also came a few days after the Second Republic of Kenya was born.

A lutta continua as we used to say and still say.

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

No More Referenda on the Referendum!

A digital essay by Onyango Oloo

It is amazing isn’t it?

Hours after more than six million Kenyans had overwhelmingly endorsed the new constitution; the NO throwbacks that vehemently fought tooth and nail to block a major milestone of democratic progress in this country were already baying for claw backs.

Part of their fight back is disguised in an insidious idea disguised in a deceptively “innocent” phrase:

“We all won. There were no losers.”

With all due respect, I say, NO!, that is NOT true.

There was a clear choice in front of the electorate on August 4, 2010:

Either support the proposed constitution or reject it.

At least 67% of the voters opted to make the proposed document the supreme law of the land.

By that token alone, the YES side won the referendum.

Which simply means that the NO side LOST.

All their pre-referendum lies, innuendoes, emotional blackmail and fear mongering were decisively repudiated by millions of politically aware, disciplined democratic minded Kenyan patriots peacefully expressing their power and determination for a new constitution at the ballot box.

Not even having the decency to wipe the egg off their faces and apologize to Kenyans for their vile, divisive and bigoted propaganda, the ideologues and spinmeisters of the NO camp are now INSISTING that the “contentious clauses” must be “immediately amended”.

And to think that these cantankerous sore losers include top grey haired clergymen who should right now be at the forefront of lowering the political temperatures and encouraging Kenyans to move on with the business of implementing the new constitution!

I can and will compare the pouting puerile attitude of these eversaying No naysers who claim that “two million Kenyans cannot be ignored” to a surreal scenario where the 2010 Netherlands runners up soccer team would demand to keep the World Cup for at least six months in Holland based on the fact that since they made it to the final game in South Africa, they “cannot be ignored”.

Sorry Ruto, Moi, Njue, Kiema, Koigi, Shabaan and Kathangu Co. Ltd:

Referenda do not allow a sharing of the spoils.

To the victor goes the spoils.

If your side had won, my Dear Opponents of the New Constitution, you would have taken it all. And we know you would have been crowing yourselves hoarse like the KANU cockerel of yore with unbridled triumphalism. You probably would have DEMANDED the immediate resignation of the Grand Coalition Government led by the two principals as having lost their moral mandate to rule Kenya.

So please take a chill pill and chillax.

Besides, as my good friend Miguna Miguna has persuasively argued elsewhere , even if you wanted to, there is no way you can amend the new constitution until after the 2012 elections.

Turning to my friends, colleagues, comrades and fellow voters in the YES camp, I say:


It would be a big mistake if we allowed ourselves to be deluded that August 4th was it, in terms of getting a new constitution.

Experience has shown that the ancien regime and other reactionary bulwarks against progressive change are most virulent, precisely AFTER a DECISIVE BREAKTHROUGH.

Let me illustrate with a few historical examples.

Starting with Kenya itself:

What was the first act that Jomo Kenyatta did upon becoming Prime Minister in December 1963?

Forgive the colonial land grabbers and forget the imperialist atrocities meted out against the Mau Mau freedom fighters and other patriotic forces. By 1965, the newly formed Kenya Air Force, manned by former colonial pilots was hunting down the remnants of the Mau Mau like General Bamuingi who refused to come out of the forests because they felt that Mzee's government had betrayed their freedom and justice ideals. The heady pledges of the first Uhuru government in Kenya degenerated into empty promises as former home guards and colonial collaborators took the reins of power even as the freedom fighters and their families were ignored and nationalists like Pio da Gama Pinto assassinated.

Next is South Africa post the April 27, 1994 landslide victory for Nelson Mandela and the ANC.

One of the most progressive planks in the post apartheid regime’s agenda was the RDP- the Reconstruction and Development Programme- a very ambitious attempt to redress historical injustices, regional inequalities, poverty, gender discrimination and class oppression.

Because of the tenacious opposition of the apartheid former ruling class and their moneyed supporters, the new government which was majority Black led ended up buttressing apartheid in a new form- a socio-economic apartheid in place of the more overtly obnoxious racialized discrimination.

By 1996 veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle within the ANC, SACP, COSATU and other sections of the South African liberation struggle were already referring to the “1996 Class Project” denoting a unity of the parvenu rulers (with Black skins) from within the liberation forces who had forged a pact with their class siblings from the white dominated era of “separate development” to put South Africa on a somewhat neo-colonial trajectory similar to what political prophets like Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Abdulrahman Mohamed Babu and Amilcar Cabral had warned about on the eve of the Decade of African Independence (1960-1970).

We can draw three lessons from the United States:

The abolition of slavery in the 1860s; the breakthroughs on reproductive health rights in the 1970s and the election of Barack Obama in 2008.

The so called “emancipation” of African-American slaves was followed by the introduction of the notoriously racist Jim Crow laws which were a precursor to the “Colour Bar” laws in Kenya and apartheid in South Africa.

The US Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade in 1973 gave birth to the contemporary US anti-abortion movement infested as it is with the most rabid Christian fundamentalist bigots who are today exporting their backward parochial vile propaganda to places as far flung as Kenya.

Following the tumultuous victory of Barack Hussein Obama in 2008, there was a right wing backlash which forced the 44th President of the United States to back down on his pledge to close down the notorious Guantanamo Prison- he had to wait for almost a year before he could order it shut- and soft peddle on his election promise to fast track the return of US troops from theatres of slaughter like Iraq and Afghanistan.

What can we glean from the above historical lessons from Kenya, South Africa and the United States?

Two words:

Permanent Vigilance.

Among social change theorists, there are those who think that a revolution is COMPLETED once certain groups of people/social forces/political movements ascend to state power.

Then they are those who are convinced that the capture of state power IS ONLY THE BEGINNING OF THE REVOLUTIONARY PROCESS because it is then that you start constructing or reconstructing a new society while you are still in the womb of the old order.

I was long ago persuaded by the arguments of the second school of thought.

If we are to recycle and paraphrase the slogans of the 2007 election campaign:

Kazi ya kutekeleza Katiba Mpya Ianze Sasa!

What we did on August 4th was to begin the process of domesticating a new constitution- a very arduous task indeed.

Let us remember that comparatively, when it comes to democratic development, Kenya is still at its formative infant stages in relation to South Africa and the United States.

By the time the ANC came to power in April 1994, the liberation movement had been on the frontlines of the struggle for almost seven decades.

The United States of America became independent in 1776.

There are those who date the contemporary democracy movement in Kenya to the early 1990s. Even those of us who have a longer historical lens can only go back to the mid 1960s when both the ANC and PAC had launched their guerrilla skirmishes against Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha and De Klerk.

In the week after winning the August 4th Referendum we here in Kenya are led, not by a progressive, leave alone revolutionary party in power, but rather by a fractious consortium of feuding factions of parties with amorphous ideologies which have never transcended liberal democracy, leave alone social democracy or, for the radicals among us socialism and anti-imperialism.

Let us all remember that even within the YES camp there are some people for whom August 4 was a ceiling while for some of us it was a floor.

What do I mean?

For the majority of the people whose politics do not venture past the confines and safety of liberal democracy, they achieved the maximum they wanted with newly adopted constitution hence the reference to the "ceiling".

For some of us to whom August 4th was a small window prised ajar, it was just the beginning, hence the "floor".

That implies that in the coming months and years, there may be internal jostling as we struggle with each other to deepen the process of national democratic renewal.

Our main tasks as Kenyan progressives at this historical juncture include the following:

(1) Consolidate the broad unity displayed at the August 4th Referendum- a loose front that unites left wing nationalists at one end of the ideological spectrum and conservative businesspeople and religious people at the other end;

(2)Use the old dictum: “Unite the Many to Divide the Few”; In the contemporary Kenyan context it means completely isolating the hard core elements of the NO crusaders while reaching out to their social base who happen to be honest, well-meaning Kenyans who were led astray through lies and fear mongering;

(3) Ensure that we influence, infiltrate and CONTROL the implementing mechanisms of the new constitution;

(4) Start LIVING the spirit of the new constitution to do like civil society and human rights voices like Muthoni Wanyeki, Ndungu Wainaina and Hassan Omar have suggested in recent days- through vetting, lustration, litigation, whistle blowing, exposure and so on;

(5) Mobilize the workers, youth, women, faith groups, pastoralists, people with disabilities and other interest groups into what I want to call New Katiba Clubs to carry out advocacy, civic education and mobilization around the salient aspects of the new constitution;

(6) Prepare a battery of competent lawyers (people like Paul Muite, Harun Ndubi, Njoki Ndungu, Atiende Omollo rush to mind) to counteract the slew of legal challenges that are about to be unleashed by the NO holdouts;

(7) Consolidate the regional, continental and international goodwill by organizing delegations to places like South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, the United States, Canada and the European Union to seek resources to deepen the constitutional review process as part of the wider Agenda Four reform trajectory;

(8) Build what I have been pleading for over the last seven years or so:

A progressive national democratic movement with a social justice agenda that will ensure that come 2012 we have in place a patriotic team of ideologically clear candidates-from President to MPs, Senators, County Governors and County Assembly Members.

I could say more, but let me pause here.

Onyango Oloo
Nairobi, Kenya
Monday, august 10, 2010
6:10 pm

PS: If you think Kenyans have had "too many" referenda, please compare our situation with that of the Irish below: