What does it take to be a reformist?

By Jerry Okungu
Nairobi, Kenya
June 7, 2012

The other day I found myself in an interesting debate about who is a reformist and who is not. This debate was triggered by a statement made earlier in the week by Prime Minister Raila Odinga to the effect that the next elections will be between reformists and non reformists.

Let me start this debate with the definition of a reformist if such a word exists.
A reformist is that individual that at one point in his life gets dissatisfied with a status quo and embarks on the difficult road of changing it. In so doing, the individual may face hardships, torture, persecution and even death from the regime he has set out to confront.

At the beginning of the Arab Spring revolutions, a young Tunisian man committed suicide on account of life made unbearable for his kind. He set himself ablaze and died a martyr. Following that sacrifice, ordinary Tunisians took to the streets and brought their regime down.

A similar uprising brought down oppressive regimes in neighboring Egypt and Libya. In both cases, several people sacrificed their lives or were maimed for life. In the case of Egypt, at least 830 gallant Egyptians perished at the hands of Mubarak’s brutal soldiers for which he has now been jailed for life.

In Libya, Muamar Gaddafi called his opponents rats and swore to teach the rats a lesson. Today, Gaddafi is history to his Libyan rats.

The three examples above illustrate one thing. Change only becomes necessary when leaders get detached from their own people. It is the reason the French had their now famous revolution. When the population cannot take it anymore, a few daring individuals take the risk even on pain of death to get rid of a bad regime.

Next door in the early 1980s, Ugandans took arms to get rid of destructive regimes. They had had Obote and Amin then Obote again in a span of 20 years without knowing peace.
In the Kenyan situation, if Raila Odinga puts a reformist’s badge on his chest, he must be having a convincing reason why he thinks he is a reformist. What others of a different opinion need to tell Kenyans are two simple things: They should prove that Raila Odinga has no record of reforms. Alternatively, if they want to share with him in that glory, then let them tell Kenyans why they think they too deserve the honour.

It is true the Uhuru heroes of the past were also reformists. Kikuyus like Dedan Kimathi were sick and tired of the oppressive colonial regime. They took up arms and fought and died for change.

The second lot that included Jaramogi, Gichuru, Mboya, Kodhek, Shikuku, Muliro, Ngala and Moi were also reformists. They kept the fire burning as Ngei, Kenyatta, Karumba, Oneko, Kubai and Kaggia were in jail. It was their persistent political campaigns that finally got the Kapenguria Six out of prison and eventual independence in 1963.

However, soon after independence, something went drastically wrong with our reform. The new regime retreated into the colonial bad habits and started oppressing its people. Land alienation went unabated. Tribalism replaced racism. Intentional deprivation of the people replaced forced labour. Suddenly Kenyans could talk of a land of ten millionaires against ten million beggars. This happened in a span of less than a decade.

If Raila Odinga spent the better part of his youth in detention camps under Moi, it was because he was one Kenyan who chose to put his life on the line for a better Kenya. If Marie Seroney and Martin Shikuku could defy the status quo and tell Kenyatta that KANU was dead, they had seen that the regime had veered from the path that Kenyans had died for.

If Achieng’ Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga could walk out of government so soon after independence; something was definitely not right with our young state. For Oneko, he had to be back in detention, this time on orders of his bosom Kapenguria cell mate.

If Raila talks about reformists, he cannot by any means talk about Raila Amolo Odinga alone. The plural there tells it all.
He must have in mind the bearded sisters of the 1980s in parliament, Koigi Wamwere, Charles Rubia, Kenneth Matiba, JM Kariuki before them, Wanyiri Kihoro, Otieno Mak’Onyango, Agina and many more that one can care to remember.

The Second Liberation is real. Ten years after the Nyayo era cannot make us belittle the sacrifices of yesterday. We cannot be that forgetful that soon. If you doubt me, ask Gitobu Imanyara, Kamau Kuria, the late Mangari Mathai, Richard Leakey and many other Kenyans who tasted the brutality of the Nyayo era.

If Raila wants to use his reformist credentials for his campaigns, he surely deserves to lay claim to that title. Others are free to think of some credentials that apply to them.

Nine years in detention in one’s life is no child’s play. Being arrested for organizing a coup in Kenya in 1982 and charged with high treason does not come cheaply. It is a life threatening situation.

Whether he planned the coup or not is no longer an issue today. Whoever planned it with him were fighting against the regime that was torturing, jailing and murdering its citizens at will. They were fighting a regime that had chosen to impoverish its citizens and curtail their freedoms.

What matters today is that what all these gallant Kenyans including Raila Odinga sacrificed for has given us a better Kenya. At a personal level, it has given my freedom to write this article without fear from any source.


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