Kenya recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of promulgating a new constitution. It is a strange thing to celebrate the one-year anniversary of a “word” or “act” that few of us can pronounce. And an even stranger thing, I thought, to say that what had been achieved was what had been fought for—that the promulgated constitution represented our best interests and thinking. It is, I am constantly told, the “most progressive” constitution in Africa. The readiness with which this mantra is repeated is, I think, a symptom of something else. As though enough repetitions will enact something, as though the constitution is a performative of the “I now pronounce you man and wife” type rather than an ongoing promissory note for a debt that we barely understand.

Over the past few years, I have been collecting documents from Kenya’s left, this inspired, in part, by Andia Kisia’s truly important essay on the Kenyan left in Kwani?. As I read these documents, I think about the distance between what might be called the revolutionary-nationalist imagination they represent and what I have taken to calling the development imaginary. (Rasna Warah’s important anthology maps some features of the development imaginary, as does her recent column. A friend and I are working toward describing this development imaginary—in Kenya, it leads to Vision 2030.)

Take, for instance, these goals from the UKENYA Manifesto (1987) (taken from different sections):

1. The development of a national economy free from foreign domination and which is geared first and foremost to meeting the needs of Kenyan people.

2. The development of a truly national industrial base which will lead to self sufficiency and cater for local needs instead of the present situation where our industries are mere extensions of Western transnationals. We shall struggle for an integrated economy where industry and agriculture will support one another. For instance, food production to meet the needs of all Kenyans must be our priority in land usage and planning.

3. The right of workers to gainful employment and the right of workers to a fair return for their labour. Therefore we support the workers’ struggle for higher wages, decent housing, adequate medical care, education and other basic social necessities. We support the workers in their struggle for the right to strike and picket, and for their right to engage in any forms of political struggle necessary to achieve the above and to liberate their labour from internal and external exploitation.

4. The right of peasants, pastoralists, and fisherpeople to own adequate and productive land and other natural resources and to a fair return for their produce. We therefore reject the present situation whereby the most productive land and other resources are concentrated in the hands of a few big landowners, both Kenyan and foreign.

7. The dismantling of the present military and armed police system used for the maintenance of neo-colonial structures, for the defence of the propertied few, and against the majority of the people. We believe in the creation of a genuine People’s Defence Force.

5. The development of a national democratic culture rooted in our traditions of struggle and resistance to oppression and foreign domination. We support all patriotic movements in the areas of creative and performing arts, for instance in theatre, music, and literature.

1. The immediate removal of all USA military facilities and all other foreign military presence from our soil. We reaffirm the sanctity of Kenya’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

3. The realignment of Kenya’s international links so as to establish and strengthen our support and solidarity with [other] liberation movements.

Of course, in the more than twenty years since this Manifesto was written dreams have changed, but we remain in thrall to many of the forces UKENYA wrote against. And while measures taken since 2003 have addressed some of UKENYA’s concerns—we now have free primary education, for instance, even as the curriculum continues to mute the importance of radical thought and action—we remain far from achieving what the Manifesto envisioned.

The more general point is that all the rhetoric of “mission accomplished” that accompanied the anniversary of the promulgation relied on many erasures of many alternative visions for Kenya. The repeated mantras of “most progressive constitution” name, in some way, these erasures.
Thinking about anniversaries: who was the first person killed during the PEV?

What was this person’s name? Favorite color? Favorite food? Dreams and hopes? What anniversaries might this person have been celebrating this year?

I know that over 1,000 people died and many thousands more remain displaced.

How did the first person die? Was it a panga? Fire? A bullet? An arrow? Stoning? A mob attack?

Even though many official and non-official documents discuss the PEV and even though it has become our 9/11—the threat used to control us, to stifle dissent, to advocate “reform” rather than “revolution”—it has also been one of our most powerful sites of un-remembering. A sustained campaign over the past few years has criminalized internally displaced Kenyans, who are now understood as stains on our democracy, parasites on the Kenyans who actually work and have their shit together. For many of us, the PEV is an occasion to discuss politics as usual—which politicians will run for president, hold office, promote corruption?

Kenya’s new Big Brother Reality TV: Who Will Go Down?

The question of “Who Will Go Down” depends on forgetting the first person who died during the PEV.

Someone already went down. First. And then someone else. And then someone else. And then someone else. And then someone else. And they kept going down. While our official records tell us that “sanity” was restored when a peace accord was signed, Kenya remains uneasy, manic in its intensity, too intent on un-remembering.

Articles are being written on the Hague Spectacle. They talk about “tough judges” and “eloquent lawyers” and “teary defendants” and “countries on trial” and “masterminds” and “collaborators” and “foot soldiers” and “secret meetings.”

I know these things must be said. I know that law courts have rules and procedures. I know that what I perceive to be “urgencies” and “necessities” have no legal standing. I know these things.


I want to know the name of the first person who died in the PEV.

Before we get to competing eloquences, I’d like the names of the named and the unnamed dead to be read, one after the other, slowly. Carefully. I’d like their ghosts to materialize. For us to remember, no matter how briefly, that their lives mattered and that their deaths matter.

3 thoughts on “Anniversaries

  1. I got sick of the word “promulgation” right after the first time I heard it used in relation to the constitution. Now I can’t stomach it.

    Warah’s OP/ED piece is spot on: our state is not contracted to its people. Rather, it is a client for Western interests.

    On a different note, I am surprised that even by 1987 (when I was a toddler) Western military presence in Kenya was so noticeable that the UKENYA manifesto addressed it directly.

    I can’t tell what’s so leftist about the manifesto, though — sad, because I consider myself a leftist. Maybe the manifesto represents a primordial stage of Kenyan leftism…or maybe my brain isn’t working right now. I will go with the latter.

    And now some idiocy: I think South Africa’s constitution might be a little more progressive than ours. (Here comes that up-until-now Western thing of using the status of LGBTQ to measure how progressive a society is). South Africa might have us beaten on LGBTQ issues, constitutionally speaking.

    Back to seriousness: IDPs are a glaring evidence of how our conception of Kenyan (and largely African citizenship) is very neoliberal. Citizenship is not conceived as a contractual relationship to the state in which the individual gives loyalty, revenue and responsibility (for lack of a better word) in return to state provision (smell the socialism) of essential services and infrastructure. Nope. Kenyan citizenship is conceived as individual hard work, initiative and smarts that (almost magically) usher one into the upper echelons of our dynastic society. We don’t really believe we have Rights; we only half believe. Decades of Big Man politics can’t be undone in one Kibaki decade when we’ve been talking about transit flyovers. And Big Man politics left us with the notion that we should be utterly thankful for any trickle down we get from Baba (read: Kanu), because we wananchi were so unworthy of his attention (insert sobs here). Isn’t this the problem with the IDP situation, that we have been pushing that they be resetteled, but not pushing as though we believe it is their right. Only half pushing. Shingo upande. We are all doubting Thomases, no?

    Onto more radical thought: maybe it would be better if the Kenyan proletariat (I know, tired word) was entranced into the belief that the politicians are simply usurpers of power. Pretend emperors walking around with no clothes. It would be better if we all knew that the seat of power is empty. No one besides us can occupy it. It might be time to break the group think and call the emperors out. The question is how? We might just have reached the limits of this liberal democratic framework we’re in, so that’s a conversation for another day.

    Ok, just found your blog saa hii and I think I’m going to love reading here. Ahsante.

  2. I spent many pleasant hours reading your blog. Lovely to see you here.

    The entire manifesto is available through JSTOR–I have left out significant portions. Though, even having read it, it might still not be as “leftist” as one might want. (Despite the ambitions of global marxisms, perhaps more present earlier in the twentieth century, I find myself intrigued by marxist localities–adaptations and innovations to here-and-now situations. But I am no expert on Marxist thought or histories.)

    I try very hard not to talk about South Africa, in part because it’s not really a space I know well. And also because it’s too often taken as a point of departure for talking about Africa, especially in the US, even by academics who should know better. I’ve gotten very tired of talking about, say, Leila Aboulela, only to be asked about South Africa, but never, interestingly enough, Richard Rive. Petty of me, yes. on the LGBTI stuff, I do think SA has more respect for intellectuals, though that also has strange racial politics attached.

    A lot of my thinking about politics in Kenya has been directed toward intimacies and affiliations, not simply “we want our guy in power,” but the various strands of obligations and loyalties that bind ethno-political and regional allegiances, even when they are against the “best interests” of a region. I don’t know that we don’t know the emperor has no clothing–I don’t think Kenyan politicians need to be demystified–there’s no mystique left. The salary increases have seen to that.

    I do think there’s a weariness and wariness about entering into political space and that’s where our current politicians win. The smartest and most ethical people I know will not enter into political space, except as relatively protected consultants. And so the triumph of the Kenyan political class–I am reluctantly compelled to admit it exists–is precisely that it is so incredibly distasteful to those who would do incredible things in it.

    This is, I think, the real legacy of the Kenyatta-Moi-Kibaki years: to make political space and public office “unthinkable” for too many of us. And that, I fear, cannot be fixed very readily, if at all.

    1. You are right: the borders of Africa are usually cropped to fit those of South Africa. Especially here in the United States of the Empty Pose of Power.

      I agree with you about LGBTI issues in SA: there is a way in which the experience of black LGBTI is very different in that country from that of whites. And poor from that of rich.

      To be blatant: the Left has been out of good ideas for a while. Following the collapse of really existing communism, we can’t even come up with a good definition for the new communism. I recently told a friend that the new communism refers to collectives of people who band together to solve failures of the state and inequalities within the market. And my friend nodded even though she is a Rightist. And I almost cried, because the day a Rightist accepts the new communism is the day you know it’s hogwash. No worries, I am in the lab working on it.

      Ok, ok, lemme go rest. I’ll be back here tomorrow a little bit more coherent.

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