Since independence, Kenya has been in four phases of transition, namely, laying the foundation, standing up to the status quo, retracing our steps, and now a nation in a conversation with itself. In each of the stages, young men and women have emerged to spearhead change from the front. But as this writer reckons, in the ongoing transition Young Turks have elected to mount from the opposite side.
A remarkable thing at the time Kenya attained independence is the country oozed with youth and innovation. Though the man at the helm, Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, was at advanced age of 74, he surrounded himself with young talent that bubbled with energy.
With exception of two who were in their 50s, the rest of members of Kenya’s first cabinet were in their 30s and 40s. So were the assistant ministers. The permanent secretaries were all below 40.
The country was spoilt for youthful talent. For lack of space, we single out three of the Young Turks at independence — Tom Mboya, Mwai Kibaki, and Pio Gama Pinto.
Historian David Goldsworthy has described Mboya as architect of the Kenya political and economic infrastructure at independence, “who effortlessly succeeded in whatever he touched, and could be relied upon for any task.”
At 31, Mboya was founder secretary general of the party that led Kenya to independence, Kanu. Without training in law, he was appointed minister for Constitutional Affairs, then minister for Economic Planning yet he’d never sat in an economics class.
He was a born genius who could hold unto his own with best brains locally and abroad, though his formal education had terminated at junior high school. Later when he was admitted at Ruskin College, Oxford, as mature student, his lecturers didn’t know what to do with him.
The college principal would write about this unusual student from Kenya: “He is in such different position from the average Ruskin student. He would probably have to be run on a very loose rein.” Not knowing what diploma or degree Mboya should study for, they allowed him roam from class to class picking whatever caught his interest.
Pio Gama Pinto, a Kenyan of Indian extraction, was the Mboya equivalent on the opposite side. Like the later, he began in trade union politics when in his 20s, then moved on to be main brain and architect of radical politics in Kenya, and whose patron saint was first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.
Then US ambassador to Kenya, William Attwood — obvious with benefit of CIA secret file on Pinto — would write of him: “Pinto was Odinga chief brain-trust. On his assassination, Odinga solely missed his guidance and counsel as demonstrated in his committing blunder after blunder in the months that followed Pinto’s death.”
Though bitter rivals when they lived, Mboya and Pinto, ironically, had a common fate in death through an assassin’s bullet.
Unlike Mboya and Pinto who were cut from political cloth, Mwai Kibaki was baked in the kitchen of economics but strayed into politics. In later life, literature maestro Prof Ngugi wa Thiong'o would reckon how he fled the economics class at Makerere College after a youthful lecturer called Mwai Kibaki “scrolled a complicated mathematics formula on the blackboard” and made him feel he was better off studying words not numbers.
On joining politics as Kanu executive officer, the youthful Kibaki single-handedly wrote the manifesto and economic blueprint for the independence party.
In later years as minister for Finance and Economic Planning, delegates from Africa and other developing countries would unanimously pick him to speak on their behalf at international forums.
With Kenya’s foundation laid in the 1960s and political competition from the radical wing extinguished, Kenya entered a complacent period in mid 1970s and the ruling class began to misbehave. There was need for a new dispensation to tame the executive. The third parliament elected in 1974 rose to the occasion.
The war cry was sounded right on day one when backbenchers, majority who were Young Turks in their 20s and 30s, stood up to intimidation by the state agencies and elected a radical among them, Jean Marie Seroney, to be deputy speaker. Years later, then Clerk to the National Assembly Leonard Ngugi would relate to me how he’d go into hiding immediately he declared Seroney the duly elected deputy speaker despite warning by Attorney General Charles Njonjo that a cell had been set aside at Kamiti Prison for him should he declare Seroney winner.
The battle lines were drawn. Only two months into the life of the third parliament, firebrand MP JM Kariuki was assassinated. Parliament went in flames as one MP shouted “ours is a government of murderers!”, and another screamed that “the hyenas in power and money have eaten one of their own!”
Sensing the youthful backbenchers may incite the crowds outside to lynch them, members of the cabinet led by Vice President Daniel arap Moi removed flags from their vehicles and fled parliament and the city centre to the safety of their homes.
President Jomo Kenyatta warned the government and the ruling party Kanu would take firm action on the misguided “hotheads” in parliament. “Nita wasiaga kama unga! (I’ll pound them like maize to flour)” he warned.
But nothing doing, the Young Turks refused to be intimidated. One afternoon, the member for Butere, Martin Shikuku, said from the floor of the house that some people were trying “to kill parliament the way they’d killed Kanu” but warned backbenchers wouldn’t allow it to happen.
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Vice President Moi demanded Shikuku substantiate or withdraw the remark. But deputy speaker Seroney replied to the VP that Shikuku “didn’t need substantiate the obvious!” The VP led a walkout from the chamber by the front bench. The following day, policemen stormed parliament against the rules and arrested Seroney and Shikuku who were placed in detention without trial. But the defiance by the Young Turks continued.
The member for Kitutu West, George Anyona, stumbled on confidential papers proving massive corruption in the government and tabled them in parliament against warning from AG Njonjo not to dare do so. He too, was carted away from parliament and placed in detention.
President Kenyatta died and a new parliament was elected in 1979, and one full of Young Turks, ready to lock horns with the executive at the drop of the pen.
Several times, the new president, Moi, summoned the parliamentarians and warned he expected them “to sing after him like parrots”. Silently they laughed at him and continued to be defiant. AG Njonjo found a name for the seven of the MPs who were the most vocal. He baptised them “the seven bearded sisters”.
Then the whip cracked. Two of the troublesome MPs, James Orengo and Chelagat Mutai, were forced to go into self-exile, while Koigi Wamwere was placed in detention.
Meanwhile, Jaramogi Odinga emerged from the woods, and together with George Anyona announced they intended to register a political party to take on Kanu. Parliament was intimidated to hurriedly pass law declaring Kenya a one-party state. Anyona was detained for the second time. But the struggle continued.
As Berlin Wall went down to signal end of the Cold War, a new group of Young Turks surfaced in Kenya. Teaming up with a group of elderly politicians who had enough of one-party dictatorship, they demanded a return to multiparty system.
Suddenly James Orengo resurfaced as did Raila Odinga whose voice Kenyans had never heard but only had image of him in handcuffs returning or coming out of the place that had become his second home — Kamiti Prison. News names also came up. We first heard of Paul Muite, Anyang’ Nyong’o, Mukhisa Kituyi, Martha Karua (then called Martha Njoka), Gitobu Imanyara — well I wish my editor could spare me space to mention the many other gallant Young Turks of the time.
At the end, the Kanu government did give in and allowed return to a multiparty system, but not without a fight that left casualties in form of deaths, injuries, imprisonment and loss of property.
But no sooner had multiparty come than Kenyans discovered much more was required. Political parties without new rules of engagement were bound to misbehave just like Kanu had. There was need for a new constitution. Another hard tackle ensued to last 18 years before a new Constitution was unveiled in 2010.
But nine years with the new Constitution in place, Kenyans are now in conversation with themselves. Why is it that the nation gets divided down the middle every election cycle? Why is our politics still ethnic not policy based? Why cut-throat competition for raw power whose by-product is massive corruption?
But as the nation gets into a conversation with itself to find a lasting cure, the jury is out on whether the present generation of Young Turks is missing in action.
Recently some old wag who asked me not to mention his name told me majority young politicians we have today are engaged in what he called 3Bs — bad manners of storming church services, building a personality cult around 2022 politics, and breaking the law. The old man concluded by comparing today Young Turks with an inexperienced young bull that mounts from the front.