These are the times when women and men who love this country must speak about its problems honestly. They are times when there seems to be more firelighters than firefighters amidst us. The tongues of many Kenyan men and women have become sharper and dangerous just because of an electoral contest. They cut deeper than a steak knife, undoing the little ties that have bound Kenyans together for the past five decades and more.
It is difficult to know whether indeed ‘we the people’ can say ‘we are Kenyans’ and mean it. But Reverend Timothy Njoya argues that it is possible to imagine of a Kenya, build it, and share it equitably. Yes, building the nation called Kenya is doable, if we go back to the constitutional proclamation that it is ‘we the people of Kenya’ who are sovereign, and only grant our rulers periodical powers of the state.
Timothy Njoya’s vision of a new Kenya is explained in his memoir, We the People: Thinking Heavenly, Acting Kenyanly (WordAlive Publishers, 2017). This is a book got onto the bookshelves at the most apt time. It should form the basis of discussions about how to remake this country once we are done with the presidential elections and a new government is in place, some time this year. In fact, if we were to follow Njoya’s advice, there probably shouldn’t be an election until the sovereign people of Kenya have a full stake in the process.
In We the People, Njoya argues that today’s Kenya isn’t much different from the colonial state. He theorises that colonial Kenya was established as a market. Africans were mere labourers, producing goods and services for the colonial society, and consumers of what the new capitalistic economy offered. They had no real economic, cultural or political stake in the government and racially segregated society of the time. They were racially profiled below the other races, with African women categorised below men because they were seen as slaves.
Njoya then notes that the transition from colonialism to independence, as facilitated by the Lancaster Constitution, couldn’t have restored the sovereignty of Kenyan Africans. Why? Because that change was only a change of guard — remember the story of ‘flag independence’? It was a mere shift of who supervised the market that was Kenya.
It is on these ideas that Njoya pegs his ‘theory of hope.’ Why the theory of hope? Because, he, notes, “The fact that as people could not be sovereign meant that they could not hold to account the totalitarian behaviour of their government.” Sovereignty is the key with which one unlocks Njoya’s thesis on how to re-member Kenya.
He explains further: “Being sovereign is an ontological essence that people share in common with their God. Sovereignty is the soul of selfhood, the bedrock of nationhood, the essence of self-actualisation, and the source of common dignity and destiny. Nationhood transcends kinship, territory, and time; it is the very heart and spirit of universal consciousness that unites the human race into one body of ‘We the People.’”
Does it sound too theoretical? Or does it sound familiar? Yes, the argument about sovereignty was quite popular among Africans opposed to colonialism. Read Nkrumah, Kenyatta, Nyerere, Obote etc and you will encounter demands for the African to be given back his or her human dignity, which colonialism was supposed to have stolen.
But how did these African leaders emerge to be the spokespersons of their people? Who gave them the mandate to decide on behalf of millions of peasants whose land had been stolen by colonial settlers and lives consigned to cycles of poverty and suffering? Who really elected the Kenyans who participated in the Lancaster House Conference that bequeathed Kenya the independence Constitution, asks Njoya? And what African input did they carry to England to shape the Constitution that they came back home with?
Njoya notes that the education system was one of the instruments that was used by the colonialists and is still being used by today’s ruling class to produce ‘servant leadership’, whose work was (and still is) to oversee the working class. Isn’t this really one of the biggest tragedies of the education system that we inherited from the colonialists — that many Kenyans only go to school because it offers them a chance to get better employment (less manual work), earn more, grow richer and lord it over the rest of the poor, less educated and working class?
As Njoya points out in the quotation above, if all the citizens of a country can attain true sovereignty, then it is possible to think beyond the divisions of tribe, socio-economic class, education, sex, gender, region, religion, race, etc. But to attain this sovereignty, there has to be a genuine debate about how we are currently constituted.
Njoya insists that the different groups (call them parties but most haven’t been) and individuals that sought to replace Kenyatta, Moi or Kibaki in power, weren’t necessarily ready to theorise why they wished to rule Kenyans. Theorising, Njoya submits, would have enabled these individuals to see the structural defects of the market structures that have bound millions of Kenyans into slavery since colonialism. But how could they have attempted to rethink the relationship between the mwananchi and the state when all they sought was to own a part of the shares in the market that is Kenya?
It is difficult to argue with Njoya’s conclusions that as currently constituted, it isn’t possible to have a just, equitable, peaceful and inclusive Kenya because the very foundations of the state, as imagined in the Constitution, haven’t yet granted sovereignty to mwananchi.
For instance, not many politicians are willing to work with and for the people. How many politicians from Nyanza are ready to help the locals earn fair income from the fish that the lake offers? Which politician in Central, Rift Valley and Eastern regions will risk his political career or life to mobilize locals to resist the cartels that have denied them good prices for their coffee and tea produce for decades? That the public wealth that the political elite has looted in the past 50 years is enough to kick start economic development — without donor financial support — in this country isn’t contested, even by the same looters. Who doubts that many public institutions barely survive and where they function, they have been turned into private money-making ventures by the so-called civil/public servants.
If one manages to cut through the many repetitions and what at times appears as unedited self-adulation that strain the narratives of We the People: Thinking Heavenly, Acting Kenyanly, this book throws a good punch at the pretensions that have fooled Kenyans through five decades of independence.
Such pretences manifest themselves in claims such as, “we are more developed than our neighbours; Kenya is a peaceful country; we are the regional economic hub; we have built thousands of kilometres of road; we have a modern railway line etc.” Yet our economy is unable to create jobs for the youth and we can’t feed all Kenyans.
RIGHTS TO PREACH
Rev Njoya has all the rights to preach again to Kenyans. After all, he was born in colonial times, saw the country become ‘independent’ from the mzungu, experienced the joys of early independence years, lived through the tragedy of political repression of the 1970s and 1980s, suffered the political and economic downturn of the 1990s, nearly lost his life for preaching his convictions about re-making Kenya, got defrocked for his sermons and was deserted by friends for challenging the state’s dictatorial tendencies. It is a significant price he has paid for believing in the sovereignty of all Kenyans. His sermon in We the People won’t cost you much but it will be costly for Kenyans to ignore such wisdom.
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]