Demythologizing Jomo Kenyatta's Presidency

With Kenyatta Day approaching (October 20th), I am back to a ritual I have practiced over the last two decades:

Questioning whether the near-deification of Jomo Kenyatta by some Kenyans is warranted; a question driven primarily by the country's paroxysmal evolution and development trajectory -- since independence.

While I started reading up on Kenya's history shortly after I came to the United States in 1981, my interest in Jomo Kenyatta and his presidency took on an urgency after the post-election violence of 2007/8. I also became curious about his role in (formation of the) Pan-African Movement after the passing of Nelson Mandela in 2013 and his son's (Uhuru) tireless efforts to revive Pan-Africanism throughout Africa beginning 2013.

On a side note, there is some interesting symmetry between Jomo Kenyatta's now-demonstrable faux role in Kenya's fight for independence and his son's efforts to revive the movement. I have argued elsewhere that Uhuru's efforts were more for self-preservation (given his-then crimes-against-humanity charges at The Hague) than altruistic pan-Africanism.

The original adopters of Pan-Africanism -- Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Jomo Kenyatta -- each brought unique personal qualities to the movement and as leaders in their respective countries. Accordingly, the movement's raison d'etre as conceived by Henry Sylvester and/or Edward Wilmont Blyden was as follows:

Unity of Africa predicated on economic, social, and political policies that "unify and uplift" all (Africans).

Using the foregoing yardstick, I would argue that Mandela, Nkurumah, and Nyerere did significantly more to unify and uplift their respective people than Jomo given the underlying issues surrounding Kenya's current socio-political and economic woes.

Daniel Branch's piece in the September 5, 2014 issue of the Daily Nation titled "There was nothing professorial but brute force in Daniel arap Moi's wield of power" details the sycophancy surrounding the birthday celebrations of Jomo's successor and I couldn't agree more. The Warwick University Professor of History correctly writes that "(T)o show respect and deference to one's elders is commendable, but the tone of much of the coverage of Moi's birthday has been galling."

On the other hand and paraphrasing from Teju Cole's book "Every day is for the thief", Prof. Branch writes that glorification of the Moi presidency was "sycophantic, inaccurate, uncritical, and desperately outdated, as if each dictator (Moi) was sent a form to fill in with his 'achievements' and...left at that."

Prof. Branch's characterization may as well apply to Jomo Kenyatta especially when juxtaposed against the on-going animus between Kenya's tribes and the endemic corruption and impunity that are as Kenyan as nyama choma, kachumbari and moja baridi. All told, I do not share in the adoration of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta because he set Kenya along its current path of tribal animus, endemic corruption and impunity.

Unlike those who have virtually bestowed sainthood on Jomo Kenyatta, I have not drank the Kool-Aid. Far far from being at the fore-front of the country's fight for independence from the British, Mr. Kenyatta was ensconced in the comfort of the London School of Economics, "living on the generosity of friends..." while pursuing studies in Anthropology that culminated in his quasi-memoir "Facing Mt. Kenya". Interspersed within his studies were trips to Moscow, Denmark, Sweden and Norway to learn about co-operative farming.

Simply put and given the policies and leadership style of his reign, Jomo Kenyatta was indeed "the African leader unto darkness and death" as he was referred to by colonial Governor Patrick Renison. Similarly, David Lamb writes that Kenyatta "had been singled out (by the British) as the Mau Mau leader - a charge he (Jomo) denied...." Jomo Kenyatta nee Kamau wa Ngengi made an 'unfavourable impression' on the missionary network in London; some who were concerned about his 'unwholesome taste for expensive clothes and loose women'.....(He)....may have been his people's spiritual leader, but he was never a guerilla and it is unlikely that he exerted any military pressure over the Mau Mau."

Jomo Kenyatta ruled Kenya very much like the British colonialists ruled Kenya. He also used the position to amass an obscene amount of wealth even as the rest of the country wallowed in abject poverty.

Contrastingly, Nelson Mandela, who was actually born into the Thembu Royal House and raised as a prince, lived a life that was far from princely and definitely not kingly. Even after becoming the first black president of post-Apartheid South Africa, Madiba eschewed the trappings and lavishness of black Africa's wealthiest nation. And rather than use his immense popularity to enrich himself and those around him, Mandela chose to serve his people AND tormentors with grace and magnanimity only speechified by most of the continents leaders, including Jomo Kenyatta.

Likewise, Kenyans know all too well about the philosophy and regime of Julius Nyerere of Tanzania so I will eschew the details.

After independence, the same person who claimed to "have kept under considerable restraint the sense of political grievances which no...African can fail to experience" during colonization unleashed the "restraint" feeling of "grievances" on his opponents, indeed on entire communities in the very divide-and-conquer administrative style of the colonizers he so abhorred. It is a poorly kept secret that Jomo Kenyatta and his kitchen cabinet were implicated in the assassinations of Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, Josiah Mwangi "JM" Kariuki and Argwings Kodhek -- all prominent members of the opposition and/or perceived threats who were tired of the corruption and impunity with which Kenyatta and those around him comported themselves.

In "Facing Mt. Kenya", Mr. Kenyatta presciently opined that "(T)he African is not blind...the educated intellectual minority of Africans, usually dismissed as 'agitators' are rapidly becoming a force.". He then turned around and branded his political rival and nemesis Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as someone who "deliberately (tried) to exploit the colonial hangover for (his) own interest, to serve some external force" effectively branding a former comrade-in-arms during the fight for independence as an "agitator" and neutering his (political) ambition -- by placing him under house arrest.

Jomo Kenyatta also wrote eloquently about the "professional friends of Africa who are prepared to maintain their friendship provided...that the African will continue to play the part of an ignorant savage so that they can monopolize the office of interpreting his thoughts and speaking for him." only to turn around and use the same "professional friends" to subjugate the African (Mau Mau fighters) and monopolize power within an elite from one tribe - Kikuyu - and among his close circle of family and friends from Kiambu.

In the book "The Politics of Betrayal", Joe Khamisi writes how the same Kenyatta who railed against "professional friends" relied on intelligence from British officials who were constantly spying on Odinga and giving him (Kenyatta) "exaggerated information about Odinga's, communist links."

Historians and citizens alike have undeservingly lionized and mythologized Jomo Kenyatta and unlike most American presidents who get blamed and praised in equal parts, for the success or failure of their administration, Jomo Kenyatta has escaped the responsibility he bears for the single-handed creation of the dysfunctional polity that is today's Kenya; a state repeatedly referred to as a "failed state" and was seconds removed from outright civil war in 2007.

It is baffling that the avowed "tribalist" who prioritized "ethnic unity over national unity" and sought to "put (his Kikuyu) house in order before (telling) others to do so..." has escaped cogent and sustained criticism of his time as Kenya's president even though there is ample evidence in the public domain that offer blistering indictments on Kenya's "founding father".

The "Executive Summary" of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) Report is one such document that offers a searing indictment of the autocratic and avaricious first president. I will admit that Kenyatta Pere did oversee Kenya's peaceful transition from a British colony into one of the most promising, vibrant and stable post-independence African countries.

However, as evidenced by the very palpable undercurrent of instability that currently pervades Kenya, I would argue that the long-term ramification of his policies far outweigh the short-term guidance of the country after independence. To wit: Joe Khamisi, citing from a speech given by then-senator Barack Obama at the University of Nairobi on August 28, 2006, writes that "(W)hen Kenyatta died in...1978...(Kenya) a country that had started with the same economic indicators as South Korea, had lagged far behind."

Mr. Khamisi continues to write that while South Korea's economy grew "forty times larger than Kenya's" thus transforming the fourth member of the four Asian Tigers (the other three being Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) into an economic giant within two decades, Kenya's economy floundered; weighed down by land-grabbing, patronizing allocation of resources, incompetent management as civil service jobs were used to reward family and friends, private institutions coerced into hiring relatives and tribalism in the government and parastatals reigned supreme.

The foregoing trend remains true to this day although the ferociousness has abated some thanks to multi-party governance and quasi-independent institutions the country implemented in spite of Jomo Kenyatta. Kenya's outward signs of economic development masked what Mr. Meredith described as "...a wide disparity as the rich got richer and the level of poverty increased". Jomo detained those who dared question his accumulation of personal wealth instead of a balanced and national approach (to wealth and development distribution). Again quoting from Mr. Khamisi's book, Kenyatta "...let his Government move resources from the poor to the rich...(taking) public land, trust land, Government...donor...and parastatal money that were the land and money of the poor.".

Maybe the aggregate benefits of Jomo Kenyatta's legacy are compelling and out-weigh any sustained criticism of his presidency. David Lamb argues that "Kenyatta's excesses were minor by African standards....."

To those who share the fore-going view, I would argue that given the fundamental issues Kenya is currently wrestling with, indeed has been dealing with since independence, I reject the contention that Jomo Kenyatta's positives are compelling enough to excuse and/or absolve him from culpability for the country's erratic and oftentimes murderous trajectory since independence. For a country that was being compared to the 4 Tigers shortly after independence, it is misleading and frankly a pathetic attempt at national mollification and revisionism.

Mr. Kenyatta bequeathed Kenyans a society with neither a stable nor a scalable foundation as evidenced by the post-election violence of 2007/2008. Additionally, Kroll Inc. issued a report on corruption in Kenya with a listing of names that reads like a "Who-is-Who" of Kenya's elite. David Lamb writes that "(I)t is worth noting that....Kenyatta was concerned with the betterment of his tribe, not the broader issue of nationalism. The fore-going is rather ironic for someone who preached that "(W)here there (had) been racial hatred, it must be ended...where there (had) been tribal animosity, it will be finished."

Fast-forward to 2014 and Professor Daniel Branch's conclusion of President Moi's rule could easily be revised to reflect the rule of Kenya's first president. Mr. Branch writes that "Moi's vanity and the brutality of his regime left perfect, permanent artefacts in the form of Nyayo House and the Nyayo Monument (which) remind us of the terrible consequences of colonial and post-colonial rulers, who relied on fear and autocracy to remain in power."

Likewise, the Jomo Kenyatta's presidency failed to build national unity among ALL Kenyans. It left behind the foundation of a balkanized citizenry. The man who exhorted the country to pull together with his signature call "Harambee!" failed in this endeavor because according to David Lamb, ".....he cared more about his clan and tribe than about his nation." Jomo Kenyatta was an authoritarian tribalist who failed "to listen to honest voices of opposition....(and turned a blind eye) as corruption grew to scandalous proportions."