Constitutionalism versus revolution: which frame of reference for the progressive artist?

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Katiba yetu, wakenya, wakenya, Katibu ye-tu wakenya tuitekeleze

A line off a rendition of Wimbo wa mapambano that is usually sung by “political” artists and organisers at myriad events organised by formal and or informal civil society in Kenya. The line not only affirms the existence of a new constitution, a new social contract, between the citizens and the government of Kenya but also calls on Kenyans to implement this contract. The original song, used by Kenya’s reform movement of the nineties and early 2000s, did not have this line. Written at the time when a section of Kenyans clamoured for constitutional reforms, the composition of the song was a team effort by the members of the Release Political Prisoners (RPP) Pressure Group though led by artist Kang’ara wa Njambi. The song deftly connected Kenya’s and Africa’s history of dispossession and the violence of African states in the 1990s at a time when sections of the population of these states were demanding for constitutional reforms. The song’s revolutionary message – calling upon Kenyans to repossess their land, reclaim their culture and liberate their education systems – went above and beyond the demands of some of the participants in the reform movement which at some point comprised opposition politicians whose support for the movement was arguably opportunistic. It is said that the song was once sang during the nineties at Ufungamano House in the presence of the then propertied, opposition politician John Michuki – formerly a homeguard during the colonial days who later became a Cabinet Minister in Mwai Kibaki’s government. Rattled by the song’s message, he appealed to those singing the song to change the line “Tutanyakua mashamba yetu” (we will repossess our land) to “tutalinda mashamba yetu (we will guard our land).”

Kenya’s path of Constitutional Reform and its unaddressed political problems

The inauguration of the Kenya constitution in 2010 led to calls for its implementation in Wimbo wa Mapambano’s refrain and ushered a new era of protest music in Kenya through which constitutionalism, the rule of law, accountability, inclusivity and other tenets of liberal democracy were the main lenses that artists used to envision political change. But do these frames of reference offer promise for fundamental changes in Kenya’s sociopolitical fabric? Will those pathways that many of the artists have advocated for transmogrify our body politic? What should artists, particularly those of a progressive political bent, sing about in the age of a new constitutional dispensation?

Kenya’s “second liberation” – the repeal of section 2(a) – was no small feat. Lives were lost, families destroyed and people maimed in pursuit of an amendment that would allow for more diversity in political expression. It was thought by most of the luminaries of the movement behind this cause that the amendment would be a springboard for more radical changes. One of the leading lights of this movement – Charles Rubia – would recall:

Let me stress that during the struggle nobody had any illusion that the restoration of basic freedoms by itself would solve the country’s basic problems. The problems now being named as constituting a crisis were all there in varying degrees – insecurity, rising cost of living, corruption, electoral organisation etc etc. Nobody deceived himself that the attainment of multiparty system should be the cure-all, rather it would create the opportunity and fortune for discussing them and seeking solutions.

But did the “restoration of basic freedoms” solve “the country’s basic problems?” They certainly did not. Insecurity, rising cost of living, corruption and electoral organisation – the challenges mentioned by Rubia – still remained after the repeal of section 2(a) in 1991. More significantly, a system which enabled individuals like Rubia to acquire wealth and power while millions of Kenyans languished in poverty continued to run like clockwork. Just like its colonial precursor, the Kenyan state remained an instrument to protect the acquisitive interests of the ruling class and foreign capital from the masses it impoverished. Apart from the few concessions made by the KANU regime on freedoms of expression and association, Kenya’s political and economic architecture, which favoured the political elite, largely remained intact after the repeal of section 2(a). Historian Bethwell Ogot captured this succinctly by baptizing it “democracy for the elite, by the elite and for the elite.”

Nevertheless, the capitulation by the KANU regime created an enabling environment for other demands. Various formal civil society movements such as the National Convention Executive Council (NCEC) and Muungano wa Mageuzi would clamour for an overhaul of the existing laws, at one point settling for minimum constitutional reforms while at some point demanding for a complete constitutional overhaul. Again the tenor of their message advocated for a reformist approach which focused less on the colonial and postcolonial inequalities and iniquities and more on the demands of a new social contract between citizen and government which would emphasize adherence to rule of law, accountability and good governance. In the end, their vision would be actualized after Kenya, under pressure from the west as a result of the tumultuous 2007 elections, embarked on a constitutional reform process which led to a new demand from sections of civil society – implementation of the constitution.

Interrogating the path of Constitutionalism

So where does this liberal era find us as artists? As stated earlier, since the promulgation of the new constitution, many artists have created compositions that speak to constitutionalism and the rule of law. Sheria by Sarabi and Katiba by Sauti Sol and Suzanna Owiyo are some of the songs that come to mind. But are these the songs that would inspire a fundamental and radical transformation of Kenya’s social, political and economic architecture? Should we as artists use our skills to amplify this message of constitutionalism as an end in itself which would imply that the problem of Kenya is one of lawlessness? What of the colonial practices such as dispossessions that were once legal and their perpetuation by successive regimes? How did they contribute to legacies of inequality and violence? Article 40 of the Kenya constitution speaks of the right to private property; to what extent does it reinforce this legacy? What of the bureaucracy encountered by those who are committed to securing their rights through constitutional means – court cases, “independent” commissions and offices. For those artists who know about such inconvenient truths would it sit well with our consciences to create artworks that foreground the rule of law as our society’s lodestar?

Artist, the Ruler

The late Okot P’Bitek in his essay Artist, the Ruler described artists as the creators of the “consciousness of our time.” Ideally, artists should set the agenda for the societies they come from. In our case it behooves us to connect the past to the present – to highlight the root cause of the suffering of our people and how it continues to manifest itself. The imposition of a colonial state and its evil twin, colonial capitalism, was what set the tone for past regimes to build upon bringing us to the present. Songs like Angalia Saa by Ukoo Fulani Mau Mau alluded to this. The illumination of this and what to do about it through artworks would inform artists’ approach to constitutionalism – using it as a platform to demand for more social services for the masses while paying attention to the past iniquities that inform the present. Perhaps setting this as an agenda – the same way that Kenya’s reform movement set the agenda in the nineties – would preempt the ruling elite from dictating what national conversations we would have. As it stands, the Building Bridges initiative(BBI), a self-serving arrangement driven by the political elite, has already taken root and has shifted our attention from the hardship faced by scores of Kenyans which itself has also been used opportunistically by a section of that elite who have demonstrated their tepid opposition to the initiative.

Admittedly, the artist may have to navigate difficult terrain while pursuing this course of action. Mainstream media is unlikely to embrace the content the artist creates given the fact that it is owned by the same political networks which the artist would be challenging. The implications of this is that such artists might miss out on much needed opportunities to get by – exposure which would give them visibility and get them shows which they would subsist on. Opportunities may exist for such artists in formal civil society organizations – registered Non-governmental organisations. However, the agenda of such organizations is donor-driven and speaks to the very liberal democratic ideals which the artists should be careful not to frame as ends in themselves. This would demand some level of tact from the artist as well as initiative. Perhaps the most sustainable option for the artist is to should root themselves in social movements that attempt to propagate and actualize the radical messages that the artist strives to communicate in their work. The relationship between the two would be a symbiotic one. Whereas the artist would share the ideals of the social movement with the masses, the social movement would build an alternative platform for the artist who otherwise would have been shunned by media outlets. The networks and alternative economy of the social movement would address the artist’s subsistence. In addition, the internally generated agenda of the social movement would furnish the artist with organic experiences and information. This collaboration, as observed earlier with Kang’ara wa Njambi and the RPP, is likely to produce timeless art that goes beyond the reformist demands of one’s time.

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