KANU was not the problem that caused Kenya’s past

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BY NGUNJIRI WAMBUGU

Last week I promised to write more on why KANU is the party to watch in Kenya, moving forward. I will start by debunking a common myth; that KANU equals Kenya’s bad past, which seems to be the response I get whenever I bring up a conversation about the party.

It is a fact that under KANU Kenyans suffered the equivalent of a police state, detention without trial and social injustices. There were also no institutions independent of the Executive and power was centralized to one man; the President. Power corrupted, absolutely. This can never be argued and the suffering it brought will always be part of Kenya’s history.

However events must always be viewed in the right perspective. Kenya’s bad past did not happen because of the party KANU, but because Kenya was operating in a political environment that supported those extremes; one where powerful individuals took over the essence of the state. Jomo Kenyatta started us out on this route, and Moi followed in his footsteps. In a one-party state, and under the old constitution, I doubt Jaramogi Odinga, Tom Mboya or Charles Njonjo would done any different, if they had been the ones in-charge.

We also must accept that many years after Kenya had gone beyond the negatives above; and despite the existence of other parties, leaders like Raila Odinga (who had suffered the excesses of this past we talk about), as well as Kalonzo Musyoka and Uhuru Kenyatta, were fighting to take over KANU after Moi, despite this history. In fact, several of these leaders left KANU in a huff in 2002 not because the party was bad; but because they failed in their attempts to take over the party’s leadership. This proves, like nothing else can, that KANU as a party cannot have been the problem that caused Kenya’s past.

The other issues I hear a lot when KANU comes up is the association between the party, and the former President Daniel Moi, over his 24-year presidency. Attempts have been made to connect him as an individual, and his imperfections as a man, with the party; without even bringing in the fact that he was in charge of a nation in formation. But we forget that before him there was Jomo Kenyatta, Jaramogi Odinga and Tom Mboya; and after him we have seen Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, William Ruto and Uhuru Kenyatta. These gentlemen have not only taken over senior leadership positions in KANU, but also in government, and we have seen how they have ruled.

As we consider what these leaders have done with power, let us try and imagine what KANU and Kenya would have looked like had they been the ones leading the party and Kenya, in the circumstances that Daniel Moi operated in. How do we compare how they run their parties, with how Moi ran KANU? How would they have run the government, under financial sanctions from the international community? I hold no brief for the Former President, but I would request we put his reign over party and state in context.

There is also KANU’s complicated past. How does one explain the fact that Kenyans threw it out of power in 2002, but 10 years later voted in the party’s then Chairman and Secretary General into the Presidency, after they moved parties; the chairman less than nine months to the elections?. There must be a lesson here for the party and its messaging.

Speaking of lessons KANU has many that it can leverage as it plans its future. For example, KANU is the only party in Kenya that has gone past internal party wrangles, suffered the fall-out that happens thereafter, and survived. What we saw happen to ODM a few weeks ago happened in KANU several years ago; and will happen in every other major party in Kenya today, soon. KANU is ahead of the learning curve on this and must use its experience to chart the way forward, including positioning itself to take full advantage of the guaranteed fallouts in the other parties that will happen.

Finally, KANU is (belatedly) undergoing the generational change that benefitted its rivals in the last two general elections, and hurt it. Young people tend to emotionalize party membership and politics, and KANU can speak of how it is the only party whose 50-year history shows (young) people getting into the party as ‘political nobodies’ and leaving years later, as ‘political celebrities’ able to rally support around their own (usually) new parties. KANU is why the leaders mentioned above exist; as well as people like Cyrus Jirongo, Nicholas Biwott, Mwai Kibaki, etc. KANU found them, trained them, and then they went forth on their own, to lead their own political parties. This is a trump card KANU can use to fill its ranks with young people.

KANU is inarguably part of Kenya’s past, but it could also be Kenya’s future. This is why ‘mimi ni member’.

(Wambugu is the executive director of Change Associates Trust)

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