By Wandia Njoya
In 2009, Dan Ojwang of the University of Wits, wrote what is, so far for me, the best answer to that troubling question:
Why were intellectuals silent when Kenya burned in 2007-8?
His main argument is that Kenya has a short public memory. The Kenyan political class has kept a tight lid on imagination and thinking in Kenya, through government commissions, tight control of education and especially of the teaching of history, the war against the humanities and the media, lack of information from government about its projects. As such, politics in Kenya is ruled by spectacle, rumors, amnesia and disregard of public institutions, rather than guided by robust public debate, respect of the law and care for the public good.
Kenyan intellectuals (and here I’m not talking about academics alone) were therefore too weak and too shy to insist on sober public discussions that are not swayed by hype from the media, politicians and the public. Intellectuals were silent long before PEV when they could have talked.
So I’m not going to make that mistake again.
I’m saying that BBI is a mistake because it was negotiated on the basis of a fraudulent election, and outside the public sphere for all of us to participate in it. In 2018, just after the handshake, I said in an interview with Yvonne Okwara that we need issues debated in public, in the houses of parliament and country halls which we spent so much adrenaline and several lives to vote for people to enter. BBI has made a mockery of the constitution which we all agreed in 2010 would be the document we would use for governance.
And it so happens that it is released at a time when government is broke, sinking in debt, pinching coins everywhere, and clamping down on education so that we don’t ask questions. We just got a dumbing down new education system which is keeping parents and teachers occupied just trying to figure it out. In two days, Magoha launches reforms to Kenyan higher education that will basically turn lecturers into more of parrots than we already are. We have to seek permission for every single thing we teach in class, and anybody we even smell a collaboration with. The constricted cultural and intellectual space that Ojwang wrote about in 2009 has become even narrower. In addition to our unresolved trauma, this limited thinking space is why many of us are mesmerized by the BBI spectacle.
The BBI may have mentioned the social issues Kenyans have wanted addressed, but through stealing the legitimacy of the people and reverting it to the politicians. These issues were supposed to be addressed by elected leaders on the platforms we gave them. But now they’ve negotiated in secret and submitted to State House. To Muigai himself.
We teachers see this theft of legitimacy in education every day, and I talk about it in my article which I hope will be accepted for publication. The major strategy of power in this age is to deny people agency. Power ignores the things the people demand, and just when we are about to fight for them, it returns to say that it is giving us those things out of benevolence, things it won’t acknowledge that we had asked for, and in a watered down version without any credit to us as the source. So you get a watered down version of what you demanded, but worse, it’s given to you as a gift for which you’re expected to be grateful. This is done to us teachers all the time. Maybe we’ve taught Kenyans to tolerate this abuse.
And mark my words. In 2022, if politics don’t go the way the current starry-eyed politicians hope it will (and I suspect it wont), the melt-down will happen so fast and so hard, because we didn’t use the tools we had all agreed on in 2010. God forbid that that will happen, but at that time, there will be no question about why the sober Kenyan voices why silent.
Because we are there. The media may drown us out, BBI supporters may insult us, but we are there. History will absolve us.