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Mashujaa Day: Nyamora, unsung Second Liberation hero who first cartooned Moi

Pius Nyamora and his wife Loyce would spare nothing to spoil their granddaughter, Nevaeh, aged 14. “We pick her up from high school most days and take her for real football training four days a week,” Nyamora tells the Observer from his home in Florida, US.

It’s a world away – in time and space – from the couple’s eventful, younger days in Nairobi as enemies of the state, hounded by the autocratic regime of President Daniel arap Moi. Once in a while Nyamora and Loyce reminisce about that dark era that still sends a shiver through their bones. They’re lucky they survived Moi’s scorched earth policy on dissent.

“We don’t intend to come back. We want younger people to get their chance to sustain or improve what we helped to achieve”, Nyamora says.

In September 1988 (that’s 33 years ago), he resigned as a political reporter for the Daily Nation after11 years and took the bold step to found Society monthly magazine. Nyamora was walking in the footsteps of the intrepid founders of Kenya’s indigenous press: Eliud Mathu (Tangazo and Sauti ya Mwafrika), Jomo Kenyatta (Muigwithania), Henry Mworia and wife Ruth (Mumenyereri), Paul Ngei (Uhuru wa Mwafrika), Oginga Odinga (Nyanza Times), Achieng’ Oneko (Ramogi), among many others.

The year Society was born is significant in Kenya’s political history. Moi celebrated a decade in power and Kanu was at the zenith of single-party dictatorship. You couldn’t board a matatu or sell in the market without a party membership card. Chiefs chased terrified villagers up the hills and across flooded rivers to forcibly register them in Kanu.

To demonstrate his total evisceration of democracy, Moi flashed the middle finger at Kenyans and the world – L’état, c’est moi” (I’m the state) – by staging the farcical Mlolongo elections. He dispensed with the secret ballot and instead voters lined up behind their preferred candidate in an open field. To no one’s surprise, Moi’s bootlickers with the shortest mlolongos behind them were declared winners in many places.

Despite the wanton state terror and mass poverty under Moi, Nyamora’s political magazine picked up quickly. In the third year, Society became a weekly, with a circulation of 30,000.

Despite mounting local and international pressure over his atrocious human rights record featuring assassinations, enforced disappearances, detention without trial, police raids and beatings, torture and forced exile, Moi doubled down on media repression.

Nyamora says this was mostly because his Society, lawyer-cum-journalist Gitobu Imanyara’s Nairobi Law Monthly and Njehu Gatabaki’s Finance were the only publications that openly defied Moi to report the activities of the nascent opposition led by Oginga Odinga.

While the dictatorship browbeat top newspapers to give the unregistered opposition a blackout, “The three publishers helped the opposition to mobilise Kenyans to move the country from single-party authoritarianism to a multiparty within two years,” Nyamora writes in his MA thesis at the University of South Florida.

And they paid a painful price for it. “The government charged my wife, four senior Society journalists and me with 11 sedition charges, which were withdrawn after about 13 months of our wasting an average of two days a week to attend to the court”.

Society was hit with 50 libel suits filed by Kanu/government operatives. Police raids and threats were common. A petrol bomb was hurled into the magazine’s offices by Moi’s Gestapo. Nyamora writes:

“Perhaps another reason Society suffered more than the other two publications was because of its venturing into political cartooning. In his PhD dissertation about cartooning in Kenya, Owino (2005) credits Society and its cartoonist, Paul Kelemba [Maddo], for introducing political cartooning in Kenya, and thus breaking the culture of fear among journalists”.

Nyamora was fearless. Following the assassination of Foreign Affairs minister Robert Ouko in 1990, Moi appointed a commission of inquiry primarily to exonerate his government. In January 1992, the President suddenly disbanded the commission. Society splashed a cover story titled, “Moi knows Ouko killers”.

That was extremely bold, even by today’s standards of Kenyan journalism. As the printer prepared to deliver the magazines to Society offices on January 5, 1992, a contingent of 50 armed policemen stormed Kenya Litho Printing Press and confiscated all the copies.

On April 16, 1992, police arrested Nyamora, Loyce, assistant managing editor Mwenda Njoka, senior writers Mukalo wa Kwayera and Laban Gitau and locked them up in secret cells in Nairobi for five days before taking them to court for sedition. Where? Mombasa.

On June 15, 1992, while the sedition case was still in court, police impounded another issue of Society. These relentless attacks eventually crippled the publication.

“I think my role is well appreciated by people who were well-informed at the time,” Nyamora says when the Observer asks whether he feels his struggles for the Second Liberation are properly acknowledged. “But the younger people who did not know what we did may not appreciate it”.

“But what hurts a little bit is that the politicians with whom we walked to free the country don’t seem to appreciate what we did. But I’m proud we were able to free the Kenyan mainstream media a little bit”.

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