By Prof Anyang’ NyongÃ³
The message we knew. The person we knew. The problem we had lived with: tribalism and the illusion of national cohesion in Kenya. What really happened last Sunday as US President Barack Obama spoke is that, for the first time in the national psyche in this country, people were ready to accept the message because the messenger was believable, acceptable and credible. The question is: What follows after Obama has gone? What do we do in view of the fact that we have finally been enlightened on the road to Damascus?
Let me begin with myself. As a Kenyan and a person who has been deeply involved in the struggle for the Second Liberation, I would like to be given the opportunity to be truly involved in a national discourse over historical injustices in Kenya and how to correct them once and for all so that this country can be safe in future for our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. That kind of discourse would reveal the truth to be used for true national reconciliation.
Let me give you an example. Some time in early 2008, I was working at the Pentagon, then campaign headquarters of ODM, and I saw on television a matatu heading to Naivasha from Nairobi from which passengers were being ejected and slaughtered in broad daylight. One of the passengers trying to run away was chased by the same matatu and crashed to pieces as he groaned and wailed for dear life.
Nearby persons in full military uniform were standing by and watching the scene as if nothing tragic was happening. Later on I learned that more atrocious massacres had been carried out in Naivasha town and in the flower plantations.
A man narrowly escaped death when his family of eleven was burnt to death in a house. That man still lives; his heart full of sorrow; his grief still not addressed. That evening I went to a television studio to address the nation on this madness and the need to bring it to an end. What we needed was a civil process to deal with the election dispute. Having spoken against that very inhuman act I felt much better. Much earlier during that crisis, Madam Ida Odinga and myself had flown to Kisumu to plead with the people not to use the election crisis to commit crime, burn property and kill neighbours.
I remember Madam Ida breaking down and crying bitterly when she saw the wanton destruction and looting which had occurred in various parts of the town.
After our whole day tour of Kisumu calm was restored and no incidences of arson or ethnic conflicts followed thereafter. Kisumu became a town where the real perpetrators of violence were the so-called security forces and not the people. I personally do not feel reconciled to this past unless I can know why that boy in Kondele in Kisumu was shot by a uniformed security man when all he was doing was making fun and mocking that security man who promptly killed him. All this was shown live on TV the day it happened. That boy, by the way, came from my village and he was called Onyango Okoth Soldier.
He was the only bread winner for his extended family. His mother still asks when justice will be done for the wanton murder of her son. A shoddy process was undertaken in court which, as usual, ended nowhere. The woman goes to bed every night and wakes up every morning with a heavy heart, wondering what kind of a country she lives in. There are many women and men across this republic like Mama Onyango. How about those who lost dear ones in the Kiambaa church in North Rift? What about victims of poisoned arrows in the bungled elections we have had in the past?
They live with huge wounds in their hearts from past injustices. When such men and women know the people responsible for their grief are the very ones pontificating about the need for peace and national unity simply because they wield political power, they become extremely cynical and disengaged from the Kenyan national project. I am sure their children, having heard the grief that their parents went through, and seeing how dark the future seems, can easily become bitter radicals ready to die for any mission promising them salvation, either here on earth or in the world to come. That is why the project for national truth and reconciliation is very urgent and desperately compelling. I will tell you a story.
I am sure you all remember Sheikh Abeid Karume, the late President of Zanzibar who emerged as the leader of that island after the 1964 revolution. A story is told that during that revolution there was a comrade of his who was regarded as his close rival to the leadership of the revolution. This comrade was eliminated apparently with full knowledge as the revolution was unfolding. In that act of physical elimination, a little boy of six years, the unlucky manâ€™s son, innocently witnessed the painful process of killing his father.
The pain was driven even deeper when the boyâ€™s mother constantly reminded him to one day ensure that justice is done for the death of his father. Wind the clock forward. The boy grows up and becomes an excellent soldier in the Tanzanian army. He even becomes part of the presidential guard in Zanzibar, very trusted and loyal to Karume. One Sunday evening as Karume was sitting down and enjoying coffee with his age mates in the basement of the presidential palace, this young soldier was the only one on duty, trusted to serve and be sent by the old men.
As he went out to come back with something he had been sent to bring, he calmly announced to Karume: â€œI have indeed brought what you wanted; this is the answer for the unjust killing of my fatherâ€. And with those words he shot the old man point blank, leaving the palace in a hurry only to kill himself not too far from that scene. He had finally come to peace with his fatherâ€™s death by punishing the offender and booking his ticket to heaven. Any pretense that we can achieve national cohesion without truth and reconciliation is a mere pipe dream.
As I have said in these columns before, burying our heads in the sand like the proverbial ostrich, before or after the coming of Obama, will not help us. Only truth and reconciliation will set us free.