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On Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o’s Invocation Of Vladimir I. Lenin

On Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o’s Invocation Of Vladimir I. Lenin

In the freak-out following a State House visit by a bunch of ODM MPs the other day, Kisumu County Governor Prof. Peter Anyang Nyong’o implored the ODM leadership on Twitter to remember Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s rule; “In a revolutionary situation: Better fewer but better.” The tweet was picked up by the mainstream press, which got me thinking. I can’t remember Lenin, or any other revolutionary Marxist, being quoted so openly by a Kenyan politician. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find Marxist expression in the mainstream Kenyan press. This has been the case for most of our history. 

Understandably, the British colonial government and the settler-focused media was hostile to such talk, they being in the imperial exploiter position after all.  Yet Independence didn’t change the situation. The colonial administration’s antipathy to left thinking became the Government of Kenya policy, so that by the time I went to university in the late 1980s, there was a marked hostility to all things remotely related to socialism in the circles I ran in.  

It is at university that one usually gets to be taught Marx and Lenin’s works, but both were out of faculty favour in the late 1980’s University of Nairobi whose academic freedom had been systematically violated by the Government. Lecturers had been arrested and jailed on a mass scale since 1981, as policemen masquerading as students entered the lecture halls and even the student’s union. It was a time of conspiracy and paranoia. Ironically, the Moi-era crackdown between 1981 and 1988 popularized the existence of an underground socialist press which all but a small few were afraid to read. Possession of Pambana, the flagship of this “seditious” media, was a seven year jail term at minimum. 

The erasure of overt left thought in Kenya started in the 1960s when Jaramogi Oginga Odinga lost the ideological battle with Jomo Kenyatta within the independence party KANU. Jaramogi and Bildad Kaggia were fraudulently tagged as communist, enough to destroy their political prospects in this society which was fast making private property its new god.  Socialist literature was rigorously censored and anyone in possession of a listed prohibited publication was liable to  three years imprisonment.

Before the Cold War ensued properly, there was a long history of left ideology in Kenyan life.  This has been recently traced by Zarina Patel and Lucien van der Walt in a fascinating Awaaz magazine article. Patel and van der Walt report that the first Kenyan leftists were Indian members of a political party known as the Ghadar, active here even before the Russian revolution. The Ghadar was so organized that it infiltrated the British officialdom during World War I. Patel and van der Walt record the 1916 sedition convictions and death sentence meted on the Mombasa Chief Clerk of the High Court, the Mombasa Resident Magistrate’s Clerk and a Merchant. Others were imprisoned at Fort Jesus, deported, shot and hanged all without trial. 

It is said that the East African Association founded by Harry Thuku in 1920 had on its executive committee an English Marxist, Douglas Rogers. Rogers went on to become the second non-African member of KANU, a co-publisher of a party newspaper with Pio Gama Pinto and a lecturer at the Lumumba Institute. Post the 1952 declaration of emergency by the British, the left imbued the nationalist struggle with some measure of organization and ideological bent, for a while. The Cold War created a schism within the nationalists and the eventual co-optation of institutions such as the trade unions, which have never played to their potential ever since.

Pio Gama Pinto, avowedly socialist and considered a post-independence political martyr, was shot dead in front of his infant daughter 58 years ago on 25 February 1965. He had been preceded a month before by Mau Mau Generals Baimungi, Ruku and Chui who were gunned down by the Kenyan army on 26 January 1965 in the forests around Meru after defying Jomo Kenyatta’s surrender demands. 

Pio Gama Pinto was not the only one contemplating redistribution as the purpose of independence. For example, Daniel Branch cites Mwai Kibaki, a few months after independence as posing the question; ‘‘will the elite which has inherited power from the colonialists use that power to bring about the necessary social and economic changes or will they succumb to the lure of wealth, comfort and status and thereby become part of the Old Establishment?”  But unlike his peers, Pinto was not a mere rhetorician, he was the political mastermind and linchpin of the Kenyan left. His mantra that Uhuru must be uhuru for the masses embarrassed his acquisitive KANU colleagues and scared western interests.  He had to go. His assassination was devastating. After Pinto’is death, no one stepped into his shoes and the political left was scattered, deprived of Pinto’s devotion to duty, organizational capacity and international gravitas.  

The very next year, Jaramogi swiftly succumbed to attack. It now turns out that British cold war propagandists smeared him in the 1960s in “black” propaganda operations run by the Special Editorial Unit, the British Foreign Office’s Information Research Department. Reportedly, the British knew Jaramogi was not a communist but he “posed a direct threat to British interests”.  Jomo Kenyatta and Tom Mboya believed the propaganda and the die was cast against Jaramogi, who resigned from KANU in 1966 and founded a left-leaning political party, the Kenya People’s Union (KPU), which was banned three years later. By the end of 1969, Jaramogi was defeated by Kenyatta’s pro-West faction, and Mboya was dead. Multi-party democracy did not return to Kenya for another 23 years.

The 1970s and the 1980s saw the left survive in academia and the arts, primarily in the guise of theatre such as Ngugi wa Thiongo, Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Mirie’s productions, Maina Kinyatti and the underground Workers’ Party of Kenya, the December Twelve Movement, Mwakenya and later UKenya/Umoja. It mightily supported the push towards the restoration of multi-party politics in 1992 and birthed important political efforts such as the Social Democratic Party {SDP – which morphed into the now fragmented Communist Party of Kenya (CPK)} of the mid to late 1990s. Shiraz Durrani continues to document and publish on this important period of our collective history.

So wither the socialists in Kenya? Since independence, the state has been the dominant economic player, leading some to say our problem has been corrupt leadership and crony capitalism, not capitalism per se. I don’t know yet, but am persuaded by those who conclude that the “socialist program of the state controlling the economy was difficult to justify with the people, who saw in the state the major cause for their impoverishment. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China into a capitalist economic state, Kenyan Marxists were left without any bearings.”  

We definitely don’t have mainstreamed socialist policy, but leftists have occupied high position in Kenya. Since the 2010 Constitution, the DTM has supplied Kenya with a Chief Justice of the Republic. Since 1992, the academic left has given us Members of Parliament,  Senators, Governors and Cabinet Ministers.  Left-leaning politics can be practiced openly, and you can now quote Lenin without raising hackles. A faction of the Communist Party of Kenya can even publicly declare that the class war has begun and that the tipping point was William Ruto’s election. I have my doubts, but it is clear that what is to be done is the burning question of the movement that Prof. Nyong’o was encouraging.

A luta continua.


  • Mwalimu Mati

    Mwalimu Mati is a Kenyan lawyer and governance consultant with over 25 years of work experience in the fields of economic governance, anti-corruption, research, advocacy and publication. Mati was the Chief Executive Officer of Mars Group Kenya, one of Kenya’s leading anti-corruption and fiscal transparency watchdogs, as well as publisher of, in its time Kenya’s largest governance web portal which specialised in anti-corruption and financial analysis. Previously, Mati was Executive Director of Transparency International (2006-2007), before which role he served the same organization as Deputy Executive Director (2002-2006). Mati cut his teeth in the 90s working as Programme Officer at the Public Law Institute, where he worked for close to a decade. Driven by his life-mission which is to empower citizens to demand accountability by sharing knowledge, Mati has been at the forefront in the provision of information resources of all forms and shapes to the public as he seeks to promote transparency in public and corporate sectors. Mati consults for Kenyan and international corporations and development agencies in strategy development, programme review and analysis, due diligence background checks and his specialist field of governance and anti-corruption. Mati is widely published locally and internationally, and has led in the writing and publication of some of Kenya’s most ground breaking governance and anti-corruption reports

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