Democracy Lessons from Nairobi

It is a few minutes to 8 am and we are still stuck in this monstrous jam on Uhuru highway, a few kilometers before we enter the Nairobi central business district. I have been in this Rongai matatu since about 6:35 am. Traffic jams can get really messy in this Nairobi, am told. Forget Kampala where, truth be told, most of the jam is either because our roads are too narrow or potholed; the ones here (at least most them) are well paved and wide enough. So the problem is not potholes or narrow roads, Kenyans are buying cars faster than the government can build roads to accommodate them…or so it seems.

So it is in this jam that I chance on one of the several morning breakfast shows on Nairobi radio. The host of this particular show, Maina Kageni, in a mixture of Swahili and English (sheng, I later get to know), remarks to his listeners that he is surprised how it skipped his mind that yesterday (2nd September) was former president Arap Moi’s 91st birthday. So many Kenyans seem to have missed the day too.

How soon people forget!

In satirical style, Maina asks listeners to phone in and tell him what they remember most about the Baba Moi era in Kenya. There are many things: the milk for all schools policy, his speeches on (the very many indeed) public holidays. There was even a Moi day (10th October) marked every year until 2002. On this day the self-acclaimed “professor of politics” would enter Nyayo stadium, amidst pomp and fanfare, to a heroic welcome, inspect a guard of honour mounted by members of the armed forces and proceed to make one of his characteristic speeches laced with one-liners and off-the-cuff remarks in Swahili that pressmen enjoyed quoting. One of the callers also remembers his area DC who would be tasked with reading out Baba wa taifa’s speech to citizens who hadn’t made it to Nyayo stadium. All this crowned off with a series of songs by praise singers thanking Moi for bringing maendeleo – development, and chastising his opponents as adui wa maendeleo (enemies of development) and wachochezi (rubble rousers).

As a Ugandan I could not help but draw eerie comparisons between the Nyayo era in Kenya (1978-2002) and NRM’s last 29 years. We might not have hit such levels of raw sycophancy but there are signs–indeed there are people who’ll tell you–we are not very far.

Amazing however is how now, 13 years later, the old man whose mere mention of name was enough to elicit fear in most Kenyans not so long ago, presided over celebrations of his 91st birthday in front of a small crowd in Nakuru. The event, apart from two minute news coverage by K24 TV and KTN, was largely ignored by the Kenyan social media community.

Perhaps the same will happen with Museveni when, one day, he decides to quit the presidency. And life will continue with people carrying on with their businesses. For most Kenyans the end of KANU’s grip on power marked a new dawn which has seen the country stagger slowly towards democracy and new investments in infrastructure; highways, ports and the internet. Turns out the so called “enemies of development” that Moi’s court jesters sang about were anything but anti-development. They transformed the economy. And lyrics like hakuna kiongozi mwengine kama Baba (There’s no other leader like Baba) would make a good stand-up comedy script today.

It will be interesting to see a post-Museveni Uganda indeed. And no one else would love to be alive at such a time than Museveni himself. He could use a few lessons from the Moi experience. Two decades from now, stories that a youthful Ugandan minister approached the president, kneeling so he can stand again, will be the stuff that bestsellers are made of.

It is a conversation I had with friends am currently staying with as we fixed ourselves supper and reflected on life back home, whilst comparing the two countries–Uganda and Kenya. We all seemed to share this optimism that some day in the not-so-distant future we will have something else to counter Kenyan friends who ask how a country like ours can only produce one visionary leader–to which our reply, now hackneyed, has always been “but you tolerated Moi for 24 solid years!”. Maybe on a throwback Thursday like this one, years from now, we shall sit down over several tribes of drinks and reminisce about the good old days under the NRM.

And, as if to throw a jab at Ugandans, Maina would later remark that if Kenyans wanted to know how it feels living life under a benevolent leader like Moi these days, they should ask Ugandans, Zimbabweans or Rwandans as they would be better placed to explain.

My matatu had reached the station so I couldn’t pick up the rest of the conversation. I would have loved to hear the rest of it.

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