NGUGI: Today’s leaders are selfish; we cheer them but forget heroes who fought for democracy

Thursday January 9 2020

Charles Rubia during the interview in his office in Industrial area on December 10, 2012.

Charles Rubia during the interview in his office in Industrial area on December 10, 2012. He was a hero of the second liberation, challenging the government when doing so meant prison or death. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Charles Rubia, a hero of the second liberation, has passed on. At his funeral in Murang’a County, Kenya, many people spoke of his extraordinary legacy. President Uhuru Kenyatta said that if Kenyans could emulate Rubia just a little bit, Kenya would be a totally different place. 

Rubia challenged the government when doing so meant prison or death. He suffered the former and escaped the latter by God’s grace. He was patriotic, seeing beyond the myopia of tribal lenses. In one of his last interviews, he revealed that he had tried to persuade Kenneth Matiba, another hero of the second liberation, to back long-time human rights and democracy crusader Jaramogi Oginga Odinga to no avail. Rubia, despite his considerable wealth and accomplishments, was humble and approachable, a far cry from the hubris and ostentatious displays of today’s politicians.

When the proper history of Kenya is written, the struggle for the second liberation will form one of the most momentous chapters, certainly the most important in the post-independence period. No doubt, the struggle for liberation from British colonialism is an important and proud moment. It too called for great sacrifices. Then, too, leaders risked everything, including their lives. The struggle brought out the best in us. We looked beyond tribe and money in order to focus on the important vision of bringing about a new dawn of freedom and prosperity. All were ready to sacrifice personal comfort so that we could build a new society based on equity and justice.

However, what followed was a heart-wrenching and tragic betrayal. Slowly, the leaders who took power began to abandon the nationalist vision of equity and justice. Accumulation of personal wealth was elevated to a virtue. Oginga Odinga and others like Bildad Kaggia, who had remained true to the nationalist vision, questioned this mad rush to accumulate wealth.

At a public rally, Jomo Kenyatta berated Kaggia and, by extension, those like him still holding on to the nationalist dream. Kenyatta, after giving examples of former nationalist leaders who had accumulated great wealth, chided Kaggia who was in attendance: “Mr Kaggia, what have you done for yourself?” Worse was to come. Tens of political nonconformists were detained without trial. Others fell to the assassin’s bullet. A secret division of the police force was created, which soon became feared for its Stalinist methods of extracting “confessions”. Years later, under Daniel Arap Moi, specially-built torture chambers would be constructed at Nyayo House. 

The judiciary gradually became an extension of the executive. Kangaroo courts sat at night to try those suspected of harbouring independent thought. Then the secret ballot was abolished. By the late 1980s, Kenya, just like under colonial rule, had become a huge prison. Thousands fled into exile. Those who remained were reduced to cheer leaders, mindlessly singing praises to a regime that was daily impoverishing and emasculating them.


It was in this Stalinist context that people like Rubia rose to demand a return to democracy. He was imprisoned in the death camps that were Kenya’s prisons. Prison memoirs of former political prisoners tell how illness was used by the regime as an additional tool of torture. Prison authorities would delay taking ailing prisoners to hospital and, when they did, treatment would be casual and negligent.

Dr Dan Gikonyo, Matiba’s doctor, disclosed in a TV interview that when Matiba, who was imprisoned with Rubia, was brought to hospital after falling seriously ill in jail, the doctors who examined him recommended that he be sent back to jail even though they knew that he had suffered a stroke!

When Matiba was finally released to seek treatment abroad, irreparable damage, as happens with stroke patients who do not get immediate and proper medical care, was done.

Rubia, Matiba or Odinga could have chosen to remain silent. They were wealthy businessmen. They could have chosen to cheer on the regime in exchange for powerful positions and even more wealth. But they chose the path of jail and possible death.

How many of today’s leaders would be ready to sacrifice everything to achieve a public good? How many of us common people would be willing to cease cheering buffoonery and tribal demagoguery and demand that politicians be of the highest personal integrity?

Today, we enjoy the freedom because of the sacrifices of people like Rubia, yet we cheer politicians urging us to forget history and instead focus on their ambitions. It is unlikely we can emulate Charles Rubia.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator.