By: Seth Odongo
I wished I would not get back to this topical issue; somehow, I just could not. For us who spend long hours reminiscing over the transient occurrence that is life under the sun, I find the manner of passing away of Christopher Owiro a never ending intrapersonal elegy.
Recently in Kenya, the discussion about the place of individual rights as natural rights-the rights of man by virtue of being human being- on one hand and the public interest on the other has gained tremendous attention in mainstream discussions, especially in political circles. It is a discussion that to me is long overdue, but which is fast becoming a common feature among a segment of the citizenry with just a few years worked in the job market.
Let me get to specifics on this issue. I wish to use two common analogues.
In 1992, David Sadera Munyakei, newly employed as a clerk in the central Bank of Kenya, noticed irregularities in certain claims of export compensation he was processing. To date, he holds the all time record as the Kenyaâ€™s â€˜biggest whistleblowerâ€™.
To deconstruct the complexity of his life, of course after his final demise on 31st July 2006, Dr. Tom Odhiambo, a literature lecturer at the University of Nairobi penned a lifestyle feature in the Daily Nation in which he asserts:
â€œIt seems that the tragedy that Munyakeiâ€™s life became suggests that at best an individualâ€™s sacrifice is only in the interest of that individual; for the society can be unforgiving for breaking with the norm.â€
In conclusion, he says;
Betrayal, both by the individual and the society, is what Munyakei lived through to his deathbed. His friends abandoned him, the government branded him a criminal so as to intimidate him, those whose cause he helped, such as the anti-corruption non-governmental organisations, dropped him when his value receded and, by the time he died in his hospital bed in Narok, it was a lonely, personal departure from this world.
Munyakeiâ€™s tragedy, of a junior civil servant who spoke against theft of public funds in their billions; but who died of lack of proper medication of treatable pneumonia, is a captivating read in Billy Kahoyaâ€™s book The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistleblower.
Two more recent but related stories suffice in this discussion. John Githongo and Miguna Miguna. Both were senior political appointees of the first government of Kibaki and the Grand Coalition Government respectively. Both left government due to what they termed as abuse of public office malpractices by senior government employees. Both wrote books; which were serialized and highly sensationalized by the media. Today, both are obscure individuals who may never get meaningful employment either in the governments that will be or the private sector.
You see, in all these cases, individual rights were sacrificed for public good; or â€˜general interestâ€™. Here were successful people; very dedicated in their duties, but who left acrimoniously to fight for causes larger than them; and took on monopolies and cartels more powerful, vengeful and uncompromising. In the end, they lost both their material endowments and, in the court of public opinion; the moral high grounds.
As a student leader, I have had an inimitable opportunity to interact with people who have been in the countryâ€™s higher education circles for far too long. One such person has been my college dean of students. I did ask him, actually after informing him about the death of Karl Marx, whether it would have been possible to achieve a less painful end to Marx life. Here was his reply.
â€œYes, but the decision is wholly the student leaderâ€™s to make. We can only guide him/her in making itâ€. He said.
In the history of fighting for reforms in Kenya, the ends seem so familiar. The vicious cycle of neglect and despondency on the part of the fighter alongside the upward social mobility of the conformistâ€™ all makes part of the socio-political contradictory of Kenya as a progressive and liberal democracy.
Among students; those who have been suspended or expelled; only to come and graduate later with adolescents who were still choosing correct answers denoted by letters A-to-D back in primary school; or high school teenagers, find it difficult to justify why they are still in college. Often, the attitude passed to newer students, especially on orientation days, is that you did this and that and so you should never be emulated. Students, many from poor backgrounds where the whole community had toilet go a chicken here, a goat there and much more; sees you as an anathema.
While I may not say â€˜fightingâ€™ systems as individuals is ethically right or wrong, I am yet to understand the exact point when individual interests ought to prevail upon public rights.
As Kingwa Kamencu, a fringe presidential aspirant and Marx contemporary in the university did express her last respects to Marx:
â€œ. . . I am not in this life to be anyone’s martyr. We all style up and pull our weight together as a country, or we perish. It’s not one person that’s going to change things.â€
Itâ€™s not one person thatâ€™s going to change things, well, it has never happened; and I am not sure whether it will ever happen.
Â Seth Odongo is a student leader, writer and blogger.