Kenya, in colonial and postcolonial times, served as a global weather vane on freedom and independence. Colonial Kenya was a contradiction of two images involving freedom and slavery. The first image was that of “White man’s country”. They deprived Africans, called “natives”, of freedom and sovereignty and created poverty as a governing mechanism.
The second global image is that of “natives” rejecting and violently challenging the belief that Kenya was “white man’s country”. It happened particularly through the Mau Mau War for which Jomo Kenyatta was sent to jail. The two images were dominant in 1963 as Kenya attained independence with Kenyatta as the head.
Subsequently, postcolonial Kenya rulers struggled with the challenge of maintaining freedom in an independent country struggling to find its niche in the Cold War community of nations. Kenyatta’s team struggled to balance two expectations, international and domestic, which were at times in conflict.
It sought to assure the West that independent Kenya would not be ruled by thugs, which meant suppressing the Mau Mau legacy. It also had to contend with the expectations of many “natives”, who were transformed into “Kenyans” and expected increased freedom to do what they wanted. Kenyatta’s team implied that freedom meant an end to poverty, disease, and ignorance.
There was lack of clarity as to what “freedom” in independent Kenya meant, partly because Kenyatta’s team was divided as to which path to follow in ending poverty, diseases and ignorance. This became a constant source of internal friction.
Four distinct times mark significant postcolonial Kenya periods. First was the establishment of the postcolonial state, the 1960s and 1970s. Second was Moi’s 24-year “reign” that seemed to curtail lots of freedom. Third was reclamation of freedom to restore multi-partyism, and fourth were the crises of the post-Moi period associated with Mwai Kibaki, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta.
Lack of clarity manifested itself in the ideological feud between Vice-President Oginga Odinga on one side and Planning Minister Tom Mboya on the other, which hinged on the politics of Kenyatta’s death.
The need to define what Kenya supposedly stood for in an ideologically divided world led to the 1965 Sessional Paper Number 10 on African Socialism and Its Application to Planning in Kenya that put Kenya squarely in the Western capitalist camp.
Mboya won the contest, Odinga went into political exile, and freedom of political association appeared to diminish.
The 1968 constitutional amendments, though seemingly aimed at limiting Mboya’s political agility, had the effect of curtailing individual freedoms.
The public received Moi well, with a lot of initial goodwill, and then doubts about his commitment to the rule of law surfaced. Moi in September 1978 declared that all Kenyans were answerable to him and that he was answerable only to God.
He imposed the one-party state, Kanu being that party, in June 1982, Section 2A, to stop Oginga Odinga from forming another party.
There followed the attempted coup in August, which provided opportunity for purging “former friends” and for establishing unquestionable rule.
Because Moi could not win against his own 1992 two-term limit imposition, there was a feeling of new freedom in December 2002 when Mwai Kibaki became the third president under the NARC umbrella.
Under the umbrella were the Raila-led “disgruntled” elements of former Kanu strong politicians who were united in their anger at Moi for endorsing Uhuru Kenyatta as the next president, and little else. They distrusted each other, engaged in constant bickering over jobs, undermined collective and individual freedoms, and enabled external interests to dictate to Kenyans.
The bickering led to manufactured chaos, the ICC fiasco, and loss of individual and collective freedoms. In the 2005 Banana and Orange referendum, entities called “donors” and “development partners” poured money to the “Orange” camp seemingly in an effort to engineer “regime change” and oust Kibaki partly because he had chosen to act independent of the master states.
They had insisted that Kibaki leave office if the Orange team won, but he did not. This laid the ground for the 2007 violence that resulted in the ICC political indictments that were meant to eliminate targeted candidates.
As the country celebrates another Jamhuri Day, there is continuing struggle over what freedom is. There is, however, a silver lining in the BBI report that avoided extremism. It might restore sense of freedom to Kenyans who feel they are losing it.
Macharia is a professor of History and International Relations, United States International University.