Kenya General Elections 
Monday, December 30, 2002 


It's Goodbye to Personality Cults and Songs of Praise

Sycophancy being an integral part of any personality cult, the Nyayo era was, at times, a theatre of the absurd



AFRICAN REGIMES come complete with personality cults and the attendant sycophancy.

In Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah was the osagyefo (messiah). In Malawi, Ngwazi (lion) Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was deified to the extent that one tasted maize not blessed by the "lion" at his own peril. 

And Kenya's outgoing president is no exception. A distinct feature of the Moi regime was the emergence of a personality cult where the principal rite was demonstration of loyalty to the president, a philosopher-king who has allegedly authored several books and bequeathed the nation a philosophy of love, peace and unity.

Today, a University of Nairobi don is saddled with a manuscript for a book on Africa's relations with the rest of the world whose byline would have been the president's.

No longer in a position to secure State House appointments, he is stuck with the hefty treatise, not knowing what became of the fees that were meant for the publisher.

But why would a professor bend so low as to write a book or compose a song in praise of the president? During the Nyayo era, there lived a vehicle inspector called Kuria Kanyingi who, when not handing over buses to Limuru women's groups, was presenting tens of kilos of bank notes to them. 

That was almost a weekly ritual borne out of vast resources arising from the simple act of fixing a stalled presidential limousine, catapulting him into dizzying economic heights.

So, was it surprising when a group of clever but loyal professors came up with the Nyayo car project? The project was meant to launch Kenya to the industrial class of vehicle manufacturing, leave alone assemblage.

What happened to close to a billion shillings allocated to it is well documented in the annual Auditor and Controller General's queries on government spending. Association with the big man was an ingenuous way of raising "investment" capital.

Didn't Prof Philip Mbithi's's problems with the Agricultural Finance Corporation evaporate with a breakfast meeting with the president, making him the proud owner of one of the largest ranches in country? Unfortunately, the politics of sycophancy had their downturn as they strictly obeyed the laws of physics, meaning that the higher you rose, the harder you fell.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Charles Njonjo as the Attorney General and G.G. Kariuki as a minister in the Office of the President became objects of envy to many a politician by dint of their closeness to the president. What with the duo being frequent passengers in the presidential limousine?

Weren't they privy to all state secrets and didn't the numerous presidential edicts actually not reflect their wishes? The political body language was crystal clear to all. These were the real powers behind the throne. You knew better than not to associate or be associated with them, however remotedly. Were they not more important than the then Vice President, Mwai Kibaki, who was never accorded the dizzying privilege of riding in the same car with the president?

Incidentally, in those days being branded a Kibaki man was worse than facing cooked-up sedition charges. The vice president had refused to join the cult and was said to be a free thinker not averse to enjoying a beer or two after a round of golf. 

Nyayo men did not touch the stuff. They were actually God-fearing church goers! Failing to attend a grandfather's burial was no big deal to them as long as the KBC news bulletins would have the magic lines "among those who attended the service were..." `

Unfortunately, you acquired clout through sycophancy and lost it in the same manner. This is what happened when Charles Njonjo – not a sycophant himself– fell from grace to grass. That was after, in 1984, a commission of inquiry found him guilty of being disloyal to the president, a treasonable offence for which the president later pardoned him.

Thereafter, politicians who months ago would pay homage to Njonjo – quite a haughty personality who could order prisoners released from his sitting room – avoided him like the plague.

And, because members of the cult were men of straw, they fell with their maker. Jackson Kalweo, Joseph Kamotho, Said Hemed, Clement Lubembe and "GG" suddenly became ordinary mortals. The Inquisition-like Kanu disciplinary committee found all of them guilty of disloyalty and banished them to political Siberia. The kingmakers of yore could not venture anywhere near the palace walls.

Having been in the cold, to borrow President Moi's oft-used phrase, the rehabilitated cult members would become more loyal to the president than he possibly was to himself. GG and Kamotho took to addressing him as Baba while Kalweo, like many recycled members of the personality cult, became a voting machine in parliament, always rubber-stamping any executive whim. Obviously, this served the president well, especially their indefinite elasticity.

 Even the humbling force that is death was helpless against the dictates of the Nyayo cult. When Stanley Oloitiptip, a former Nyayo man who had found himself entangled in the Njonjo traitor affair died, his friends cancelled plans to attend his burial after learning that the president had no plans of travelling to Olngulului.

Oloitiptip had, prior to his death, suffered the ignominy of being locked up at the Athi River GK Prison. The offence? He was running a meat and chapati eating house in Loitokitok without a trading licence.

The stretch at Athi River GK Prison worsened his hypertension and peptic ulcer problem that finally killed him in the hands of a traditional medicineman in the dusty trading post of Rombo in Kajiado District.

In the early 1990s in Kajiado, I witnessed a spectacle when a former vice president's motorcade made a U-turn after learning that one Kenneth Matiba was present during the burial of one of Kenya's first doctors.

Matiba was by then a leading light in the crusade for multipartyism, a dangerous man as the system labelled him. Indeed, Kanu delegates did not believe their ears when, in 1991, the president announced that Kenya would go multiparty.

Sycophancy had demanded that you develop the president's tastes lest you contradict him. On that fateful day at Kasarani, they had been ready to recommend Moi as a president-for-life. Sycophancy being an integral part of any personality cult, the Nyayo era was, at times, an open-air theatre of sorts; nay, theatre of the absurd. 

During a graduation ceremony at the University of Nairobi, one Castro Peter Oloo Aringo described the president as a "prince of peace." Later, he paid dearly for that when he rubbed the late Bishop Henry Okullu the wrong way. "Court poet and a master of platitudes," was the counterblast from the man of cloth.

 Aringo was not alone. NARC luminary Dr Noah Wekesa almost outdid them all when he declared that he was not in the habit of washing his hands after shaking the hand of the president. As for Mulu Mutisya, the president was Kenya's real father. "As long as he emerges from your mother's hut, he will remain your father," he told Ukambani University of Nairobi students in 1987. 

The occasion was a pre-State House-visit briefing of the students. The cult was no respecter of erudite pretensions. The real wisdom was dispensed from the big house by the big man. Such was the era Kenyans are saying goodbye to. 

By way of mischievous nostalgia, we are likely to long for those days when Kamwithi Munyi, wearing two wristwatches lest he missed a presidential function, nodded at every word the president uttered as he judiciously took notes. 

But weep not, dear Kenyan. The Nyayo monument at Uhuru Park will, barring some revolutionary mischief, forever immortalise the Nyayo era. So will the uncountable Nyayo this or Moi that.

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 “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of bad people but also for the appalling silence of good people". M.L.King

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