Silencing critics, Kenyan-govt-style | This is Africa

Politics and Society

Silencing critics, Kenyan-govt-style

In an attempt to silence journalists, activists, NGOs and other critics, the Kenyan government is denouncing them as agent provocateurs and accusing them of being funded by America. We’ve been here before, but this time the public is taking the bait.



When faced with political activists out of the immediate reach of his security agents, Dictator Moi would decry them as agent provocateurs under the pay of foreign masters.  In Kenya today we are seeing the variations of the same terms being deployed against political activists and journalists who are doing their rightful job of holding the Uhuru-Ruto government to the barrel of the pen.  What is different and more alarming to me is that when Moi called his opponents agent provocateurs, very few really believed him.  Today this tool of silencing by turning activist citizens into traitors is being met with an acquiescing silence if not outright approval.

It was is in this climate of a retrogressive nationalism that the chairman of the Kenya National Security Advisory Committee (NSAC) Francis Kimemia declared early this year that his organisation was “in possession of credible intelligent (sic) documents and information detailing how the US donor agency has consistently funded the demonstrations by activists funded and led by two identified initially as Boniface M and John G on February 13, 2014.”

Nairobi, Kenya. Photojournalist Boniface Mwangi being arrested during the 13th February demo. Protesters and civil rights activists were protesting the government’s failure to tackle corruption, insecurity, unemployment, poverty and poor leadership among other things. (Photo credit: EPA)

Direct threat
All Kenyans know that Boniface M refers to Boniface Mwangi, the photojournalist who bravely documented the 2007 post electoral violence and who has since gone on to become a fierce opponent of governmental excess.  And John G can only recall the John Githongo appointed by the Kibaki government to stem corruption only to prove too adept at his job and was eventually forced into exile.

In other words, Boniface M and John G are not an anonymous John or Jane Doe, thus calling them out so recognisably is a direct threat.  A threat perhaps not prosecutable under law, but that makes it all the more insidious and dangerous.  The message was not lost on Boniface who shortly afterwards announced he was giving up direct action activism saying, “I was once willing to die for this country, but I realised that it is too ‘selfish’ a country to die for, I would rather be a father to my children and raise my family.”

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The image game
No one took seriously Moi’s claims that political activists killed in mysterious circumstances like Karimi Nduthu or those railroaded into prison like Oloo Onyango and Maina Wa Kinyatti were under the pay of western powers.  And back then there were clearly drawn lines between the bad guys and the good guys.  The Moi sympathisers were on the wrong side of history, and the progressive people power activists on its good side.

Today’s Kenya is more complex and there are no clearly drawn lines between the good guys and the bad guys.  Instead of a one-man dictatorship, we have a by most accounts democratically elected president whose authoritarian father set the system that would see Moi in power in place.  I do not believe we inherit the sins of our parents.  But when we inherit their ill-acquired wealth, it does mean that to protect it one has to shield it from the law.  And therefore one has to perpetuate the system that made that illegal acquisition possible in the first place.

But unlike Moi who protected the corrupt elite system outside the law, Uhuru has to work within the Kenyan constitution.  He has to project an image of a 21st century, Facebook/Twitter-using, people-friendly president while manipulating the constitution to consolidate his power and protect his wealth and that of his political allies.  Adding the oil of nationalism to the fire of ethnicity will allow the Uhuru-Ruto government to get away with constitutional changes that will in the long run serve their interests over those of the country.

Tranforming Kenya, but how?

Western money
Take the Kenya media bill that creates a government-controlled Communications and Multimedia Appeals Tribunal.  As the Nation reports, the tribunal will have “the power to impose fines on media houses and journalists, recommend deregistration of a journalist and make any order on freedom of expression.”  Such a law can easily be applied selectively to punish journalists and media outlets for criticising the government or publishing whistle blower revelations and investigative pieces.

And just last year the government attempted but failed to pass The Public Benefit Organisations Act that ostensibly “seeks to advance a new legal, regulatory and institutional framework for Public Benefit Organisations (PBOs) in Kenya.” The Bill included “an amendment … that sought to cap the amount of foreign funding NGOs can receive at 15% of their budget.”  This sounds reasonable except when you consider that this is coming from a government that is fighting phantom agent provocateurs.

A man tapes his mouth shut while taking part in a march called by Kenyan journalists on December 3, 2013 in Nairobi, to protest the media bill. (Simon Maina (AFP)/Getty Images)

How will this law not be used to selectively punish anti-government activist organizations and reward others? The yet to be talked about irony here is that just like the Moi government, the Uhuru-Ruto government takes money from those same western powers it decries.

Ultimately, what retrogressive nationalism allows is for the government to threaten and censor political activists and journalists with the blessing of the people.  Without the Kenyan people providing the final check and balance against governmental excesses, the Uhuru-Ruto government will have a blank political check to do with as it pleases – for better or worse.


Kenyan people need to wake up and safeguard their hard-won democracy before it becomes another Moi nightmare.

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