Written by Kenne Mwikya
A few minutes to 3 PM, the Louis Leakey Auditorium starts filling up. Outside, people are shuffling hurriedly to pick up the last seats but on coming inside find that there are still many seats to be filled. Security is tighter than usual, with the ubiquitous hand-held scanner going over clothes and bags. Police officers, a weary duo, sit idly watching all this unfold. Miguna Miguna is already inside, having arrived punctually a few minutes before. At the stage, with journalist Tom Maliti, they wait for the crowd, speaking in hushed tones, to quiet down.
Miguna Miguna has become a controversial public figure over the last year or so. He was suspended by the Prime Minister’s office as an adviser, rescinded a “reappointment” to his old job and went on to write a political memoir on his life which scathingly attacked the Prime Minister and the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) of corruption, patronage and betrayal of social democratic principles. The book, Peeling Back the Mask, has received mixed reactions from the Kenyan public most of it subjective. In a way, we were there to test whether the book could be objectively appropriated and what its contribution in thinking within the Kenyan polity was.
The first question Tom Maliti poses to him was what it took to write the memoir. Mr. Miguna, it turns out, had made the decision to write the book six months into his job at the Prime Minister’s office, talking to colleagues about confronting Raila Odinga about his “failures and betrayal” as he put it and major issues of tribalism and corruption among ODM elites and functionaries in the Prime Minister’s office itself. His colleagues didn’t want to pursue the matter: Raila was the best chance Kenya had at having a progressive or a member of the Luo ethnic community for that matter at the helm of Kenya’s leadership. Though recognising the Prime Minister’s flaws, the colleagues Mr. Miguna talked to did not want to be seen as progenitors of dissent within ODM, they risked a backlash and would rather have had Raila Odinga unravel his true self to the public.
About the book, he described it as a political memoir covering significant events of his life and was not reducible to criticism of Raila Odinga and the ODM. Interestingly, he wrote his book as a form of therapy, confronting the naïveté that led him to work for an office and a party that collided with his convictions on social change. He also wished to share his story and inspire confidence that a well executed struggle can be successful in what it aims to achieve. He described how several publishers had insisted on a “safe” book that was bland and text-book like with uninsightful reportage, as he put it. He also told of how, having received two letters of commitment that they would publish his book, the East African Educational Publishers insisted at the last minute that the book had to be printed after the March 2013 general elections.
Questions from the audience were bound to be animated. Most dealt with inconsistency in his actions regarding his interactions with the media – he ran a column at The Star newspaper and his book was serialised at the Daily Nation newspaper add to that numerous appearances on talk shows. A columnist and journalist described Mr. Miguna as being “all over Raila’s rear end” and “sycophantic”. A member of the audience, drawing similarities about Mr. Miguna and corruption whistleblower John Githongo, wanted to know whether his naïveté was feigned in as far as his knowledge of how the Prime Minister’s office ran was concerned. Someone at the front rows wanted to know whether there was something about Kenyans’ social upbringing that deeply repudiated dissension against corrupt elites and bad governance.
As one given to the last word, Mr. Miguna found it easy to dismiss criticism by sticking to the logical inconsistency or disregard of fact in questions put to him. He however went on to reply that he indeed knew about corruption among political elites but didn’t think it went all the way up to the Prime Minister himself and he also believed that Raila Odinga was a progressive former dissident. He had been out of the country for a long period and didn’t have his ear on the ground about corruption in government offices. On the question of the link between social upbringing and repudiation of dissent, Mr. Miguna blamed it on the 24 years of Moi’s totalitarian regime aspects of which he insisted formed part of ODM mentality today. Describing his experiences in book tours around the country where hooligans waited to the last minute to disrupt people from buying his book, he pointed how the public, repudiating dissent, deferred to political leaders (he mentioned Raila Odinga) for interpretation. This, he said, was the root of a self-perpetuating dictatorship.
The second round of questions, what were the reactions from the Diaspora and where could people abroad buy the book? Had he considered working with like minded people instead of writing a book? A member of the audience, none too pleased at Mr. Miguna’s breezing over the questions testing the evidentiary integrity of his book, brought the issue again. On top of that, Miguna had called a political adversary a “dog” and questioned the similarities between him and Mr. Githongo whom, in the asker’s mind, was a genuine whistleblower. Mr. Miguna defended himself saying that it was Raila Odinga who had called the political adversary a dog. Mr Miguna had merely said that he wouldn’t allow himself to be called a dog like the person had. Other than that, viva voce evidence at court is most important and it is in this light that we must read the claims of his book. Even John Githongo wrote his book after leaving the Office of the President. He contrasted Kenya’s reception of his work with that of Britain’s reaction to Alastair Campbell’s Diaries series which he described as being “all the rave” in the UK.
With that, Tom Maliti brought the event to a close, disappointing members of the audience like myself who had pressing questions about, say, his thoughts on the online distribution of his book or the possibility of a progressive left leaning government taking power in the future.
If asked, I’d place Miguna Miguna’s book Peeling Back the Mask in a long line of dissenting and progressive works question the legitimacy of a government that is rife with corruption and that engenders ethnocentrism among its people, two of the biggest issues facing Kenyan society today. Mr. Miguna’s book would therefore be mentioned in a long list of works by Mau Mau thinkers during the struggle for independence, trade unionist literature from around the same time and a bit after, Mwakenya’s political writings among others. Miguna is himself a victim of the brutal Moi regime that forced him to exile after torture and detention for being an outspoken student leader. A Pan-Africanist and Marxist economist, he is a rare gem in Kenya’s intellectual class, a thinker and activist that we need, especially in light of his illuminations on the machinations of one half of the coalition government. I would not be quick to dismiss the effect of Peeling Back the Mask in shaping progressive and even reformist currents in the shape up to next year’s general elections.