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Forgiveness must be part of national talks

Friday February 14 2020

Nyayo House torture

Former student leader Wafula Buke recounts his dark ordeal at the Nyayo House torture chambers during Daniel Moi's regime. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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As Kenya remembers former President Daniel arap Moi, one major discussion theme has been forgiveness. There is a video clip circulating of Moi asking for forgiveness. Raila Odinga, a man Moi tortured and detained, has said he sees Moi as a freedom fighter. Clearly for Raila, the past is the past and he has forgiven — and forgotten. For others such as activist Koigi wa Wamwere, forgiveness isn't forthcoming, much to the chagrin of some Kenyans.

Few people can discuss this subject as intimately as Tirop Kitur, one of the survivors of Moi’s Nyayo House torture chambers who served 10 years as a political detainee. Speaking at a forum for survivors of the dark side of Moi’s regime this past week, he asked: “Who do you forgive?” There was a system that facilitated the horrors of Moi’s era: Thousands of security officers were often used for the massacres and tortures at Nyayo House. However, Kenya has never had a national conversation about the Kenyans who meted out violence on their fellow Kenyans.

After the genocide in Rwanda, the government instituted village gacaca courts where victims and perpetrators would meet to discuss what led to neighbours turning on each other. These forums put faces and motives to the killers and taught Rwandans how to avoid similar catastrophes in future. In Kenya’s case, most of the people working for Moi simply went on to work in the next government. No one was held accountable for their crimes.

The next question was what do they forgive? Holocaust survivors knew they were forgiving Germans for exterminating their relatives. The Mau Mau knew they were forgiving the Britons for stealing their land. The Tutsi knew they were forgiving the Hutu for wanting to exterminate them. But in Kenya, what do we forgive? Moi’s history has been so sanitised one would think he was a saint. You can’t forgive abstract mistakes; what exactly are we forgiving Moi for if he didn’t commit any crimes? This speaks to the “accept and move on” culture of Kenya. We ask displaced Kenyans to forget post-election violence without solving the land injustices that escalated the violence in the first place. We call “pwani si Kenya” a terrorist movement without solving the unique problems the coastal people have suffered.

The last question Tirop asks is: “Why are we being forced to forgive Moi now?” Vocal supporters want whoever he wronged to forgive him in the same week he died. Why?

Because not forgiving Moi means asking the questions that Moi was stifling via arbitrary arrests and detentions without trial. Questions about land, corruption and Kenyans participating in shaping the Kenya they want. Questions that remain unanswered to date. If anything, the current politicians are beneficiaries of those unanswered questions.


Tirop concluded that the people whom we owe forgiveness are ordinary folks in the village whose best years were spent in detention; the law students at the University of Nairobi who were expelled for asking questions; the man on the street who lives in poverty because he spoke out too loudly; the woman who disappeared after being found in a group of more than three without a government permit. It is futile to ask a billionaire who has had a successful political career despite his suffering at the hands of Moi. He’s probably forgiven and forgotten, to the extent that he refers to his oppressor as a freedom fighter.

The writer is a social activist. Email: [email protected]