Mashujaa Day fete an insult to Kenya's forgotten independence heroes

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Macharia Munene is a Historian. 

As Kenyans commemorate 60 years of ‘return to’ independence, questions arise as to how Africans lost their independence.

First, the invading Europeans were well prepared for their imperial mission even as they competed with each other over who would grab which territory. In the meeting in Berlin, Germany, on the partitioning of Africa, they agreed on the rules of grabbing and also to mount effective occupation as a guarantee of ownership.

This way, they transferred ownership, legitimacy, and sovereignty from the Africans to officials in European capitals. Second, Africans, having little idea of what the Europeans were up to initially trusted the strangers only for the strangers to dispossess them. In addition, neighbourly rivalry made some Africans willing tools for imposing the British Empire.

Those who found themselves in a British-created Kenya went through a layered identity transformation. They acquired a new identity of being subjects of Britain which abolished their laws as well as individual and collective values.

As subjects, they were different from other conquered people in other colonial states. As Africans, they were labelled ‘natives’ whose role was to serve settlers and colonial officials. They were regularly reminded that irrespective of the amount of mzungu exposure and education, each was primarily below any mzungu, Indian, or Arab.

Since to be a native was to be exploited officially, some people on the Coast fought to avoid the ‘native’ identity. In addition, there was the identity of ‘tribes’, some of them colonially manufactured. The creation of ‘tribes’ was one strategy of ensuring that oppressed people could not collectively challenge colonial rule.

The anti-colonial struggle that arose operated within the context of the created colonial state in which the ‘native’ and the ‘tribe’ concepts collided, producing heroes and villains. The Mau Mau War, for instance, had the colonial state as the overall villain. Confronting the villain, however, had its internal contradictions due to emerging political influence rivalries, mainly between Tom Mboya and Oginga Odinga.

This rivalry led to the demonstrations on October 20, 1958, the day Governor Evelyn Baring declared a state of emergency and arrested Jomo Kenyatta. While in jail, Kenyatta became the symbol of challenging the colonial villainy and October 20th was baptised Kenyatta Day.

It was normalised at independence. Although Kenyatta was not alone, he became the ‘shujaa’. Subsequently, in post-colonial Kenya, those associated with the presidency became the ‘shujaa’ and the others got lost.

Bureaucratisation made ‘shujaa’ a matter of crony appointment to high office. Those in high offices then concocted national amnesia that made history anathema as they attempted identity reconstruction as a governing strategy. There subsequently was selective prosperity in the midst of intensified squalor.

The shujaa who confronted the colonial villain lost to home guards, thereby making JM Kariuki complain about 10 millionaires in the midst of 10 million beggars. They grumbled about being neglected by those they had trusted as they watched ‘home guards’ enjoy the fruits of independence.

They did not simply watch, they also paid through undelivered services and heavy taxes to cater for the welfare of the ‘home guards’ who became the new shujaa.

The fate of the forgotten shujaa is not unique to Kenya. It falls into a common pattern in which winners rewrite the record to elevate themselves into ‘heroes’ who deserve to turn the country into what Deputy President Rigathi Gachagua insists is a company with known shareholders who must eat first before anyone else. Since the forgotten shujaa have no shares, they simply watch others ‘eat’ and can only plead like Achieng Oneko, "Give us something to eat while we are still alive".

Oneko’s plea fell on deaf ears because those responsible were hoarding and imitating the colonial state in the art of creating poverty. Both colonial and postcolonial states used poverty as a tool of control. In the midst of increasing collective misery, talking of ‘mashujaa’ celebration insults the forgotten shujaa.

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