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How social media thwarted attempts to re-write history

On Monday, April 16, 2018, Daily Nation carried a front-page tribute to Kenneth Matiba following his death. The headline simply read: “Kenneth Matiba 1932-2018.” The sting was in the blurb:

“Lest we forget: For 26 years he has stood as a towering national symbol of integrity, liberation and defiance of the brutal Kanu dictatorship – the regime which broke his once robust energy and destroyed the vast business empire he built as a young man.”

Here was a national newspaper celebrating integrity, liberation and defiance of dictatorship. Such a paper is not for wrapping meat. It should be compulsory reading for schools throughout the republic.

No one who understands the Kanu government under President Daniel arap Moi can question the Daily Nation’s description of its utter wickedness.

Matiba was not a lone victim of the regime, nor was he its worst. The stories of pitiless suffering the critics of the government were put through are part of the unalterable, open historical record. They are available for everyone to read.

So horrible was the Kanu tyranny that the struggle to bring it down is recorded in the annals of history as Kenya’s Second Liberation. The first was the war of Independence from British colonialism.

Why would people like Matiba fight for liberation from their own government of “peace, love and unity”? A government that gave schoolchildren free milk, supposedly expanded education and healthcare, built roads, uplifted women and worked for peace in the region?

Fast forward to February 2020, two years after the death of Matiba. The man heading the Kanu government for 24 years dies. Everything else stops. The Nation and all mainstream media houses offer saturation coverage to the “statesman”, “icon of peace, love and unity.”

The media takes a central role in a massive attempt to destroy the legacies of Matiba and others and erase the Second Liberation.

But while mainstream media grew hoarse singing Moi’s praises for days on end, social media kept a sustained spotlight on the atrocities of the Moi rule. Two anti-Moi hashtags trended for days: #GoToHellMoi and #RIPMoisVictims.

The best cartoons by Gado, that fearless doyen of free speech, did not appear in the Standard newspaper he works for – the media house belongs to the Moi family. Gado’s finest pieces on the ironies of national mourning for Moi were circulated online.

One unforgettable cartoon depicted Moi’s body lying in state with one hand clutching his rungu and the other stretched out covering Wanjiku’s mouth. She must not speak the truth about his reign of terror.

This rejection of revisionist history about Moi culminated in an “alternative funeral” for the former president held in Nairobi at Power254 by a group of citizens on Wednesday, February 12, the same day Moi was buried at Kabarak.

Of course there was zero coverage of the event in the mainstream media.

There is nothing surprising about the celebration of Moi’s “glorious legacy” in the Kenyan media for nearly two weeks. The media in Kenya has almost always allied itself to the Establishment, owing to business interests and the nature of ownership.

Kenyan media historians are unanimous that the struggle for democracy, particularly during the Second Liberation, was championed mostly by the alternative press and brave individual journalists working in the mainstream media.

The notable alternative press of that era includes Target (with a Kiswahili sister title, Lengo) published by the National Council of Churches of Kenya, Salim Lone’s Viva, the original Nairobi Law Monthly founded by fiery lawyer and political detainee Gitobu Imanyara, Njehu Gatabaki’s Finance and Society, published by Pius Nyamora.

The Catholic Church’s Mwananchi magazine, especially the writings of Fr Ndikaru wa Teresia, kept the Moi government sleepless. Mwangaza Trust’s publication, Nuru, which was published in eight languages, was impounded by police. In 1994, the government banned the critical Gikuyu language magazine Inooro published by Murang’a Catholic Diocese.

Besides these, there were underground publications writing resistance like Pambana and Mpatanishi, which were proscribed by the government for being “seditious”.

Last week in a Facebook post, Nyamora told the story of how he started Society newsmagazine, the first publication in Kenya to publish cartoons of Moi.

Because of his lack of self-confidence, Moi could not stand anything he considered as criticism against his government, the veteran journalist said.

“When he succeeded President Jomo Kenyatta in 1978, I was a senior reporter at a leading news organization in Africa, the Nation Media. During Jomo Kenyatta’s rule, journalists could criticize anything going on in Kenyatta’s government. Moi could not stand any such criticism.

“His main target appeared to be the Nation, which gave Kenyans the forum to enjoy freedom of expression as we knew it at the time. Moi set his secret police on Nation editors and reporters, including me. Eventually the Nation establishment gave in and the editors resorted to self-censorship to avoid trouble.

“In 1988, I resigned from the Nation to establish Society magazine to fill up the gap the fear at the Nation had created. Moi’s oppressive machine turned its focus on Society and other similar media, which challenged his government by allowing Kenyans to express themselves freely on Moi’s oppressive rule.”

The critical tradition of the alternative press continues. Some of the most courageous voices in today’s struggles for democracy are to be found in social media. During the national mourning for Moi, social media was the place to turn to for reflections on his true legacy.

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