Unity of the Left in Kenya: Dreams or Reality?

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Langston Hughes, the African – American poet, novelist and social activist wrote an engrossing poem during the Harlem Renaissance.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

This poem encapsulates the dreams versus realities of the left in Kenya.

Dreams and realities from past struggles

Kenya’s independence in 1963 was betrayed as it was attained. Markan Singh, a Kenyan militant from the trade union movement, without equivocation, declared himself a communist in the 1950s. He was detained for 11 years in various isolated locations in Kenya – Lokitaung, Maralal and Doldol, much more than those of the famous Kapenguria six, including Jomo Kenyatta. Pio Gama Pinto, a socialist politician in Kenya’s first Parliament was assassinated on 24th February 1964. Betrayal of the dreams of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as Mau Mau, were in full swing by the regime of Jomo Kenyatta right after the country’s independence from British colonialism. The masses got no land. Freedom was a mirage. Independence was a sham.

Jomo Kenyatta writes in his book, Facing Mount Kenya, that when the missionaries arrived, the Africans had the land and the missionaries had the Bible. “They taught us to pray with our eyes closed. When we opened our eyes, they had the land and we had the Bible,” Africans land and freedom were gone. Kenyatta and the clique around him, known variously as Kenya’s mafia, did the same to dreams of independence and a better country for everyone. They amassed lands and wealth while the masses were left hallucinating in dreams of freedom and independence. Boniface Mwangi puts this well: “Other countries have mafia. In Kenya the mafia have a country.”

***

Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Kenya’s first Vice – President breaks away from the KANU cabal and forms Kenya People’s Union (KPU). Among many others, he is joined by Bildad Kaggia, his comrade at arms, who had left the government earlier. They are harassed in all manner of ways by Kenyatta’s regime: Insults, detention, house arrests, economic sabotage, name it, all manner of frustrations and subjugation. The regime camouflages in what was known as Sessional Paper Number 10 of 1965, African Socialism and its Application to Planning in Kenya. The paper is a blueprint for primitive capitalism. The country is officially shared like a birthday cake amongst the ruling elite and mortgaged to imperialism.

The trade union movement is neutered by a dictatorial executive. Left organizing locates itself largely in the ranks of radical academia and university students. Workers and peasants are the soldiers of the revolution. Ngugi’s people’s theatre at Kamirithu in 1977 was itself a site of struggle for organic and public intellectuals associated with December Twelve Movement (DTM). DTM was a front for the underground Workers’ Party of Kenya. Talk of a child being more famous than the parent. Pambana emerges as a radical mass publication and Mpatanishi as the internal publication of the movement. Mpatanishi, a Kiswahili word – Linker, linking, uniting. This is what this reflection is all about. What unity of the left, or rather, what’s left of the left?

Underground resistance

Mwakenya is widely known. December Twelve Movement (DTM ) is said to have morphed into Mwakenya. Currently, there is Mwakenya-DTM, even strong on twitter, Mwakenya–DTM @mkdt. The politics and workings of DTM and Mwakenya are well detailed in a book by Maina wa Kinyatti: Mwakenya: The Unfinished Revolution. Also in the very first issue of Itikadi, Voice of the Kenyan Communists, No. 1, First Quarter 1995, a publication of the original Kenyan Communist Party, Chama Cha Kikomunisti Cha Kenya (CCKK). Itikadi is now being re-issued by the current Communist Party of Kenya (CPK).

The initial Itikadi has an article titled, Mwakenya: Four Steps Backward (1985-1987). It turns out that Onyango Oloo was the writer of this article and editor of the publication. Oloo in this article refers to Mwakenya, Ukenya, Umoja, Kenya Anti Imperialist Front (KAIF), Mekatilili Revolutionary Movement (MEKAREMO), Kenya Patriotic Front (KPF), UWAKE, among others as the “alphabet of anti–dictatorship and imperialist resistance by the Kenyan Left between 1987 and 1990.” However, Oloo observes, leftist unity and socialist organizing in the underground resistance was fragmented and shrouded in infightings. Conversely, there hasn’t been a united front of the left in multi-party elections in the country since 1992 to date. The left are still thinly spread in various political parties, progressive organizations and movements. Energies spent; minds scattered; voices lost in the noise and din of liberal thinking and schemes. Individuals finding accommodation in liberal set-ups is unlike a united front within a national democratic revolution. Individuals do not have a fallback position. A united Left has options. It can walk in or out from coalitions with radical alternatives.

Sites of struggles

Issa Shivji presented a paper titled, How to do Left Politics? at the ROAPE Connections Workshop in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on 16 – 17 April, 2018. This presentation is published in the Review of African Political Economy journal, No. 158, 2018. Shivji writes in a section of the paper:

“We more or less knew “what is to be done’ – transform our societies and liberate them from the clutches of imperialism and capitalism – but what are we supposed to do to advance the agenda of ‘what is to be done? We discussed theory. Unexpectedly there were uneven contributions. We discussed experiences of struggles, resistances, failures and small successes, rekindling hope. We could not totally answer ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’. We ended with the cliché: let’s continue conversing!..”

This dilemma conjures some conceptions of revolution in various prisms: State-centred, economic and cultural. State-centred approaches concern themselves with “seizing” or “smashing” state power. This approach argues that revolution is ultimately resolved at the political level, not at economic or cultural fronts. However, the cultural approaches on revolution argue that only when objective reality is framed as unjust and alterable by means of cultural systems and discourses would the revolution be considered as urgent and possible. It follows then that revolutions need to consider cultural repertoires for them to process the radical transformation of society in different and distinct ways.

Cultural approaches to revolution are brought closer home by Micere Githae Mugo, the Kenyan writer, poet and scholar activist. Micere was Mwalimu Nyerere Distinguished Lecturer on the occasion of Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival in 2012 at University Of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. In the lecture titled, Art, Artists and the Flowering of Pan – Africana Liberated Zones, Micere argued for sites of struggle as liberated zones. This argument also draws from Antonio Gramsci ideas on power as the construction of hegemony and Michel Foucault conceptions of sites of power as ‘being everywhere’. The argument is that struggling for the revolution through the liberation of sites of struggles emboldens social movement activists from the gains achieved. Revolution in this argument is not necessarily viewed as the attainment of major struggles but the liberation of sites of struggles through small steps and gains.

In Kenya, sites of struggles are playing out in various fronts: In communities, human rights and social justice organisations, academia, culture, art and literary spaces, media, political parties and in many other fronts. Some view these struggles as means and ends in themselves, others as means to the end, others as wasteful in what is referred as “marketization of struggles.” The tragedy is that many of these struggles have been NGO-ised and created as survival projects without any link to the bigger picture, the bigger struggle. Likewise, concentration on the bigger picture, the structural struggles loses sight of the basic struggles for ugali and sukuma wiki.

In the latter struggles, we are cautioned by Amilcar Cabral, the Guinean revolutionary, in the book, Tell no lies, Claim no easy victories,

“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.”

Nevertheless, these small struggles can isolate themselves or be isolated from the bigger struggles. This is where the social transformation approach gains ground. Personal, collective and structural transformation; all in the same breadth. No aspect of transformation is lesser or superior to the other.

The various sites of struggle need to keep on connecting against this system that is united in imperialism and domination. No people’s struggle is either too small or big enough. Any blow against forces of oppression is a blow all the same, not matter how feeble the blow might be. United struggles occasion solid and devastating blows to bad governance and injustices of this system. People’s struggles need to continue rallying together against this unjust system.

Left unity

Some conversations on left unity in Kenya are underway on the Kenya Left Forum. The forum has set its mission as being “to reinvigorate socialist thought, experiences and practices towards total liberation.” Two strands have emerged in these conversations on the unity of the left, One) Unity of the left leaning political parties and progressive organizations; and Two) Unity of all self-declared socialists in Kenya who are anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism, for socialism and Pan Africanism.

This is borne from the reality that those of us on the left are engaging in the struggle in various sites, namely, in progressive political parties, organisations, social movements, academia, CBOs, and many other sites. Some of us are suspicious of others, believing our sites of struggle to be the most genuine, or legitimate, or committed, or even the most ideological or that their unity with others could be injurious to their struggles. On the other side, the captains of this system are united, and organized. The left needs to be united as well, and organized. This system is so lethal, and entrenched to be fought by isolated struggles.

Left unity does not have to come all at once. It begins with baby steps. The coming together of all – the self-declared socialists would be a good start. To reflect on our struggles, broad areas of synergies, set out the agenda for the left, among other stances. Even if only a few are committed to this unity, no worry, it’s still a start, a spark, “cheche”. Left unity needs to start from somewhere.

The unity of the Left needs to start by bringing together all those believing in the leftist agenda; no matter how basic or rudimentary they may be as individuals, organized groups, parties, etcetera. We shall grow from here. The left will remain divided if we continue sieving and second-guessing ourselves. It’s been the tragedy of the left globally.

The relevance and possibilities of united front of the left at the present times need to be focused on key issues on which attempts and unity in action must be concentrated.

What about the left positioning for bourgeoisie elections? No straight answer. There is an urge to escape into Time will Tell dilemma.

But Issa Shivji hazards an opinion on this in the aforementioned presentation at the ROAPE Connections Workshop. Some excerpts from his presentation:

“….the Left ought not to see the parliamentary path as exclusive…its best leaders and cadres ought not to be sent to parliament and the corridors of power to become prisoners of the bourgeois apparatus. Rather, they should stay back with the masses, where the real politics are.”

“How can the Left combine parliamentary with mass politics which on the surface are contradictory? Can the Bolshevik experience of storming the constituent assembly from the streets be repeated? No generalized answer is possible and we have none. Concrete situations throw up concrete opportunities. The least that can be said is that the Left should be adept at taking advantage of the opportunities offered by history but that comes only through protracted preparation of the leaders and the masses.

“..Ideology hegemony has to be won at the level of civil society before winning and sustaining power at the level of the state….How to win the battle of ideas, the battle for hegemony, at the level of civil society? In other words, how to do politics where the masses are and not simply where (state) power resides…”

Conversations on the unity of the left in Kenya are still evolving. There are picking up. Frequent meetings of the left will add value towards this unity. So will active engagements of the left in progressive people’s struggles. So is the fronting and canvassing for radical and revolutionary positions on critical issues bedeviling the country. Dreams or Reality? Time will judge us.

Ends/ 5/1/2021

By Njuki Githethwa

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