The George Padmore Institute is an unlikely setting for one of Kenya’s most important historical archives.
Located in an unremarkable neighbourhood in north London, the small institute takes up no more than a few rooms of the upper floors above a Pan-Africanist bookshop.
The records of the Committee for the Release of Political Prisoners in Kenya held there are hardly voluminous. The organisation, founded in 1982 by Kenyan exiles in London, left little trace of its existence. A few boxes of newsletters, posters for fundraising events, statements and manifestos produced by Mwakenya and other such paraphernalia are all that remain of an otherwise important group in Kenya’s recent history.
Despite the inauspicious surroundings far removed from Kenya itself and the relative sparseness of the collection, the papers of the CRPPK provide enough snippets to enable any informed reader to reconstruct the repression of the Nyayo era.
So much seems familiar about the Kenya these records describe; the dislocation of northern parts of the country, the accusations of foreign subversion made against hidden enemies, and the casual way in which reasonable criticisms of government were misrepresented by the State as the work of political agitators.
But much more is alien. Above all else, the sense of the suffocation of public debate, at least until the early 1990s, emerges clearly from the CRPPK’s records. The reports of atrocities, arrests and other human rights violations of the 1980s are fragmentary; details are sparse and reported weeks or months after an event has occurred. The CRPPK’s correspondents smuggled their accounts out of the country and only a handful of the organisation’s own publications ever made it back to Kenya.
This sense of the silencing of public debate in Kenya is not something I have experienced much in the 18 years that I have been travelling to, reading about and working on the country.
In that period, Kenyan public life has been defined by debate. Indeed, in the absence of any coherent national identity perhaps the very thing that holds the country together is the fact that everything has seemed contestable; arguing is a national pastime.
Since the late 1990s, Kenyans have enjoyed and made the most of hard-won freedoms. The freedom of speech blossomed into a remarkable creative space, in which ideas about every aspect of life, from literature to the economy, have flourished. As a result Kenya is an inestimably better place in which to live now than it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Given how much has improved as a result of the increased freedoms enjoyed since the 1990s, it is unsurprising that the provisions of the Security Act and the tenor of debate around it have provoked so much criticism.
Some of the concerns will likely not be realised. As the President noted in his rebuke to American criticism, the Kenyan Government is hardly the first to hastily introduce vaguely worded, draconian legislation in response to a heightened terror threat. One can only assume that, as elsewhere, the Constitution will be used to fill in the gaps left by the various clauses of the Security Act and applied where the new legislation seems to contravene basic freedoms.
Moreover, as other commentators have noted, the government does not currently have the security apparatus or the capacity to enforce the restrictions on the freedom of speech promised in the Security Bill. Prosecutions for contraventions of restrictions on the reporting of anti-terrorism measures and terrorist acts will likely be sporadic.
This is not, however, a cause for relief. If the Security Bill leads to any restrictions on the ability of citizens to discuss and shape their own society then it will have only one certain result: the flight of the most creative, innovative and original thinkers.
NOT JUST A MONUMENT
The CRPPK archive in London is not just a monument to the repression of the Moi government but also to the loss of some of the brightest Kenyans of their generation.
Many of the best academics, writers and political activists fled to the UK, US and Scandinavia. Over the past 20 years, such individuals have had a reason to stay. We have all benefited from their ingenuity and entrepreneurship.
There is much more at stake in any discussion of freedom of speech than immediate security or political concerns. Kenyans struggled for decades to escape the tyranny of an over-powerful executive. If the edifice of the imperial presidency is reconstructed in order to fight Al-Shabaab, then the terrorists will have won.
Prof Branch teaches history and politics at the University of Warwick