, NAIROBI, Kenya – Kenya is a country of runners. Even in the darkest times of our history, our light has shone bright on the tracks of the world as our boys and girls raise high the proud banner of Kenya in various stadia around the globe.
Kenya’s true ambassadors have not been the dull men in gray suits presiding over the bureaucracies of our missions abroad, but countrymen such as Kip Keino, Paul Tergat, Samuel Wanjiru, and Martin Lel, and women like Pamela Jelimo, Catherine Ndereba, Elizabeth Onyambu and Justina Chepchirchir.
They represent us more than our appointed career diplomats especially because, like us, they are ordinary people – soldiers and policemen, prison warders and workers, teachers and students – many of whom rose from poverty to conquer the world, most lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps. They epitomize all our hopes and dreams.
But Kenya knows more about middle-distance, cross-country and marathon running than sprinting; and not just on the track. For we as a nation have been running another race, which we don’t seem quite to have mastered yet despite our prowess elsewhere. It is significant that Kenya has rarely won a medal in the relays. Equally disappointing has been our lackluster performance in the relay race to building true nationhood.
Our race began with the advent of colonial rule with such luminaries as Me-Katilili wa Menza and Koitalel arap Samoei. Waiyaki wa Hinga was also among those courageous daughters and sons who grabbed the baton and led a generation of Africans in refusing to be deluded by the novelty of the white-skinned strangers who spoke in guttural noises and they started to construct the iron snake that had been prophesied about by the seer, Mugo wa Kibiru; these early runners were unimpressed by the fancy material that covered the strangers’ pale bodies which claimed superiority over the warm and simple animal skins that had covered our nakedness since time immemorial.
They were non-committal about the new religion that was part of this strange package from a land they had never heard of; and as they began our race to nationhood, they were unwilling to accommodate the strangers except on equal terms.
But Waiyaki did not run very far. The baton was cruelly snatched from him and he was eliminated from the race for daring to oppose the strange new order that was quickly entrenching itself in the name of Queen and Mother England.
But it was not long before the yearning for liberty manifested itself in the heart of another young man. Harry Thuku quickly grabbed the baton and ran elegantly if impatiently. He engaged the colonial oppressor with the suave sophistication of African pride. In 1922 he marshaled the nascent forces of freedom into a procession in Nairobi.
But those who thought that they could stop the train of freedom did their worst, opening fire on unarmed demonstrators and shedding innocent African blood. Many who ran with Thuku fell that day while Thuku himself was banned from the race and incarcerated in a far-away detention camp. The baton fell and for a while, we wondered whether, with all the foreign forces marshaled against us, we would ever complete this race.
But a young metre reader with the Nairobi Municipal Council got off his bicycle and quickly picked up the baton. And a great crowd of witnesses cheered Johnston Kamau Ngengi, running under the Nom de Guerre of Jomo Kenyatta, as he ran his leg with rare determination. Years of exile in the very country whose rulers he was opposing at home did not deter him. He took the baton to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park and cut a lonely figure in the wintry chill as he made an impassioned plea for the freedom of the black race.
In between the laps, he wrote about how African peoples had organized their races before the disruption of those who thought it was their God-given right to show other peoples a more civilized way of running.
After enduring several winters and a world war, he returned home with pomp and ceremony to continue running his leg and he was enthusiastically joined by other daughters and sons of the soil.
By this time, the field was becoming a bit crowded. The colonial master tried to ignore the fact that our race to nationhood was on, but the sheer din from the crowd could not easily be brushed aside. On October 20th 1952, our first team of top runners were rounded up and along with Kenyatta, Kung’u Karumba, Alfred Kubai, Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Paul Ngei were sent to prison.
For a while, the baton lay still at Gatundu where it had been abandoned in the silence of midnight.
But the momentum towards Uhuru was unstoppable. Oginga Odinga refused to pick up the baton, insisting that the star athlete would have to come out of prison and complete his leg before Jaramogi could contemplate running his own.
The crowd of witnesses defiantly continued to occupy the stands and agitate for their runners to be set free. They formed KANU but refused to be drawn into negotiations on alternative ways of completing their race until their team was made complete by the release of their jailed runners.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, another part of the race continued to gain momentum, but this one was not so neatly structured. Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi and General Mathenge led other sons of the soil in Mount Kenya and Aberdare forests, showing the colonial master what the alternative to letting Africans complete their race would be.
The MauMau were not running their race with batons, but with home-made guns, their makeshift stadiums drenched in blood. They were answering fire with fire and, though they knew they were no match for the might of the British army, they were equally aware that their own race would suffice to make the enemy know that she could not possibly hope to govern an ungovernable people.
The message struck home and, at the dawn of a new hopeful decade, Kenyatta and other detainees were finally freed. James Gichuru gladly handed the baton he had held in safe custody back to the star athlete and our race was on again.
Our grand medal ceremony was held at Uhuru Gardens in the midnight hour of 12th December 1963. The people deliriously cheered in unison as the Union Jack was lowered for the last time, and the black, red, green and white banner of a new proud nation danced contentedly in the crisp new air of freedom keeping careful watch over a newly freed people against the triumphant sounds of the new national anthem which invited the God of all creation to bless this our land and nation. This magical night marked the triumphant completion of the first leg of our race.
Thereafter, for a few years, our race progressed remarkably well. The team grew with the spirit of the young nation. Nor was it mandatory to merely cheer Kenyatta on as he ran his leg. For others came in to play their part; Jaramogi stepped in as Kenyatta’s able deputy while Tom Mboya organized the famous airlifts to America to help prepare a new generation of runners to continue running the race once the current one was ready to pass on the baton.
In due course, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, who was not entirely happy with how the star runner was running this race, decided to switch and contribute from the other side of the track; Bildad Kaggia, too, fell out with his erstwhile compatriot-in-arms and eventually retired to a quiet life in the countryside. So did a disillusioned Joseph Murumbi who did not let the trappings of power as Kenyatta’s new Number 2 blind him to the fact that things were not going according to the original plan. In time, Daniel Moi was anointed to sprint alongside Jomo and prepare to take the baton once the latter called it a day.
But there were signs that the race was not going well at all. Pio Gama Pinto and Tomas Joseph Mboya were gunned down in Nairobi for daring to get too close to the baton.
Ronald Ngala too died under mysterious circumstances for looking like he was planning to run a leg. Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Jean-Marie Seroney, Martin Joseph Shikuku were all hauled into detention for having the temerity to suggest that this race could be run differently. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, too, was locked up when he suggested that the crowd of witnesses should actually have a say in the way that the race was being run and should be allowed to cheer in their own mother tongues.
James Orengo, George Anyona, Chalagat Mutai, Chibule wa Tsuma, Koigi wa Wamwere, Abuya Abuya and Mashengu wa Mwachofi, were contemptuously dismissed and labeled as the seven bearded sisters for their spirited attempts to call the runners to run in the direction the people who chose them had collectively agreed.
The nation began to wonder, wasn’t this precious baton the property of the people? Did not many give their lives to get it where it was? Did the people not have a say as to whom their relay team should be? Why then were Kenyatta and company behaving as if they, and only they, knew how best to run this race?
Josiah Mwangi Kariuki asked these questions a bit too loudly and too often. He was found dead and mutilated beyond recognition in a lonely forest in the outskirts of Nairobi. The people, looking through teary eyes, started to lose interest in a race they no longer felt a part of. Still, Jomo and a cabal of political mafia continued to run and to cheer themselves on.
Our Star Runner refused to hand over the baton even when he should have finished running his leg, preferring instead to bump off all the able runners we had lined up to take over from him. He kept running the race in our name even when we had walked out of the stadium in disillusionment and disgust and found something else to do to occupy our time.
On August 22nd 1978, exhausted and old, our erstwhile Star Athlete dropped dead, and the baton lay lifeless in the resort town of Mombasa. There was temptation from among the ranks of the favoured bystanders to pick it up and run for themselves. But one Charles Mugane Njonjo pushed his chosen successor forward to pick up the baton and run a leg. .
The people, thinking that they had taken back their race, stormed into the stadium and enthusiastically picked up cheering where they had left off. But the few who understood this game saw the signs of trouble, as one Sharrif Nassir declared on our behalf that we had already chosen our next Star Runner without so much as giving us a chance to have our say.
It was not long before the nation realized that this race had developed a life all of its own and no longer depended on the people for legitimacy. Moi started off well, releasing political detainees “that their children might not suffer.” But he completely went astray after five years. In his efforts to get away from Njonjo, who was now chasing him and demanding to run a leg himself, Moi ran right out of the stadium and mapped his own route, following his footsteps to nowhere far from the madding crowd.
The people, left staring at an empty track, were rather bemused when they were assured by VOK (later KBC) radio and TV that the race was indeed going quite well. Yet they could not see their runners for they had bolted right out of sight and were making their own rules as they went along – no opposition parties; introduce Section 2A; disband the entire air force; shut down universities at will; jail and torture dissidents at whim; introduce 8-4-4 by force; vote by queuing. “It’s our turn to eat, wapende wasipende; put up or shut up!”
And yet the so-called people’s representatives continued to go in and out of the people’s august House, studiously ignoring the immortal words etched at its entrance. These words sought, in a still silent voice, to remind them that the only reason they were sent there by the people was to find strategies on how our race to nationhood might be ran ‘FOR THE WELFARE OF SOCIETY AND THE JUST GOVERNMENT OF MEN.’
Meanwhile, after successfully evading Njonjo’s challenge, the runners re-entered the stadium as if to complete a marathon, and alas, the whole nation was surprised to realize that it was Biwott, and not Moi, who was holding the baton, though the latter continued to wield his ivory scepter and to faithfully mouth the words he was fed by his Total Advisor.
At the end of the 1980s the nation was again rising and asking for their baton back that they may continue running their race to nationhood. But the new boys on the track would hear none of it. They invented all manner of ‘enemies’ as a pretext to banish and jail, torture and kill, all who looked like they might want to run a leg.
Robert Ouko’s only crime was being too eloquent in defending the very runners who were later to brutally murder him. He was found dead and burned beyond recognition on a lonely hill near his rural home. The runners told us that he had committed suicide by burning himself alive and then shooting himself dead.
Alexander Kipsang’ Muge dared to be too vocal in suggesting that there were other sons and daughters of Kenya who might like to run a leg. But he at least had the benefit of being forewarned in public by one of the runners that if he visited Busia that day he would “see fire and will not leave alive,” words that sadly proved all too prophetic for the young Anglican prelate. He was abruptly cut off in his prime by an on-coming truck.
But fortunately, not all voices of reason met the same sad fate. At the dawn of the 1990s, Henry Okullu dared to call for an end to the one team monopoly in the running of this race. He was joined by another courageous prelate, Timothy Njoya. Oginga Odinga’s voice had never really been silenced. Others came to join the chorus of disapproval at the way this race was being run.
1990 proved to be a watershed for our race. Two gentlemen who had shown their prowess in the world of business and politics, Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba and Charles Wanyoike Rubia, threw down the gauntlet and dared Moi to declare who this baton and this race really belonged to. The chorus had reached a crescendo as the nation defiantly organized trial runs at Kamukunji and elsewhere in the country in what has been immortalized as Sabasaba Day.
But those who had hijacked the baton were not about to give up so easily. They brought the full might of the State into the makeshift stadium and stopped the people’s race in its tracks. Many innocent people fell that day. Harry Thuku must have winced in his grave, distraught at the sight of a black government shedding innocent African blood in scenes reminiscent of what his adversaries had done to his team in 1922.
A year later, special running advisers by the name of the Paris Club pointed out the absurdity of running a race without opponents. The runners, posing for breath at the Kasarani Gymnasium, decided to introduce a form of competition by repealing section 2A of the running rules. But they then set about erecting all kinds of obstacles on the lanes they would assign to their opponents. Not only did they control all the resources of the State, they also insisted that even to go for trial runs around the country, the opposing teams had to apply for permission from the very people they were seeking to take the baton from.
The much expected 1992 tournament proved to be a sham. The divided Johny-come-latelys clearly stood no chance against the self proclaimed professor-of-politics with all the might of the State behind him. The racetrack had been designed in such a way that only one team could win.
Alas, we had entered a treacherous leg of this race. We would be forced to cheer the illusion of a competition; coerced to participate in a race in which we really had no part. Over the next fiver years, the monies we had painstakingly saved in our shared chest for the welfare of society and the just government of men and women was squandered on buying runners from the opposing teams and organizing wasteful mini-races to fill the places they left vacant in a wasteful power game.
Nor was the crowd of witnesses guiltless of wrongdoing. With their leaders fighting and haggling over who would wield the baton, the people became like sheep without a shepherd. Poor and confused, they turned to looting their own land at every chance they could get. Others were used by the wealthy runners who turned brother against brother in a desperate attempt to stop the baton from passing on to a new generation.
This race had began with a bang; would it end with a whimper?
As 1997 approached, some thought salvation might be found in Kitui Central. “Run, Charity, run!” they cheered the charismatic daughter of the land who had taken the country by storm. But the field was once again too crowded and the various chants drowned each other out in a cacophony of confusion allowing the star runner to romp home yet again. That round left the whole nation exhausted and wondering whether running this race was worth all this trouble.
In 2002, our reserve runners seem to have finally caught up with the spectators who had all along been urging them to unite to snatch the baton from the old runners and their neophyte protégé, infamously dubbed ‘Project Uhuru’. They came together in a strategy that seemed to offer a glimmer of hope and the stadium erupted with the thunderous sounds of “Yote yawezekana bila Moi!”
This time, cheered on by the crowd of witnesses led by Jaramogi’s son who declared with finality, Kibaki Tosha!, Mwai Kibaki snatched the baton from those who had killed and maimed to keep it in certain hands and, for a while, we thought that our race to nationhood was back on track. We ran with new confidence believing that indeed, after the 24 year reign, we could finally behold the rainbow.
But our celebration was short-lived. For soon we started hearing murmurs from some of our new dream team about a dishonoured MOU. Before we could understand how the new runners planned to run their leg, there was a great falling out from the ranks of our chosen team and they were running helter skelter in different directions.
A discussion on the new Rule Book in 2005 was turned into a battle of the titans with some runners urging us to approve it and others to reject it without really explaining why. The orange team won on the field but were rewarded by being expelled from the track altogether.
As the country approached the 2007 stretch, the race had turned ugly with the runners using unorthodox means to retain or get the baton by all means necessary. One side told us that their opponents were thieves and had stolen enough, while the other side tried to convince us that the state of a particular part of a runner’s anatomy was an important determinant for choosing the next team captain. The stage had been set for the spectators to turn on each other at the slightest provocation.
That provocation came from the team of referees who could not say with certainty which team had won the right to lead the race for the next five years but did not hesitate in announcing that Kibaki would continue to wield the baton. Chaos broke out all over the land as angry and disappointed citizens turned on each other in the battle for supremacy and the words Post-Election Violence, IDPs, Power Sharing and Grand Coalition Government were added to our political lexicon.
God Himself had to mercifully intervene by sending us an Eminent African by the name of Kofi Annan to calm our extremely frayed nerves and save us from ourselves. Now we have entered confusing times of our race to nationhood with the baton being wielded by two runners at the same time even though an eminent South African judge told us that neither could with certainty be shown to have won the right to lead this latest round.
But even as we try and extricate ourselves from this latest hole that we have dug ourselves into, another truth has begun to strike on the edges of our consciousness. Could it be that while we slept, the baton – the REAL baton that was passed on from Me-Katilili and Waiyaki to Thuku, kept in safe custody by Gichuru, touched by Jaramogi, eyed by Mboya, glimpsed by Kariuki, wielded by Moi, defended by Ouko and shared by Kibaki and Raila – could it be that that baton may have been dropped somewhere along the way and surreptitiously substituted with a fake one?
Might we have been cheering the wrong team all along and fighting for the wrong prize? For the goal initially was to run our race with distinction, each runner gracefully passing on the baton at the end of his or her leg, until we finally reached the finishing line of true nationhood. But anyone with eyes can see that our stadium has long since been turned into a battlefield of gladiators where there are no rules and where our national motto has become not just survival of the fittest, but of the most greedy and corrupt.
Where will our salvation come from? Will it be in the re-writing of our constitution? Will it be in organizing a whole new race? Will it be in continuing to kill, steal and destroy and just declaring that the last man left standing is the winner?
Or will it be in stopping this mad race to nowhere and acknowledging that we have been chasing the wrong baton; in painstakingly walking together back to the place where not one person really knows, but to the place where nonetheless our collective future lies; to the place where the true baton has been left abandoned.
We may not easily agree where that place is, or who really dropped the baton, or even whom to hand it over to once we find it to lead in running the next leg. But these are challenges that we can face together.
The choice for Kenya at this hour is clear: we can either run together as brothers and sisters, or continue running along the destructive path we have taken, and perish apart as fools.
Amkeni Ndugu Zetu…
(Njonjo Mue is the Head of Advocacy at the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights)