We’re being punished for sinning against our best writers; fare thee well, Micere

Saturday July 15 2023

Photo illustration. PHOTO | NMG

By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Influential Kenyan playwright, author, activist, and poet Micere Githae Mugo died in the United States on June 30, 2023. She was 81.

Micere was a lecturer at the University of Nairobi until 1982, when she was forced into exile by the not-so-gentle regime of Daniel arap Moi for her activism and moved to teach in Zimbabwe, and then the US.

Micere was stripped of her Kenyan citizenship but granted Zimbabwean citizenship. Her full Kenyan citizenship rights were only restored after the end of the Moi rule in December 2002, during the presidency of Mwai Kibaki.

She was one of many Kenyan writers or storytellers who lost her citizenship. There were a couple, including Salim Lone, journalist and later editor of Africa Emergency Report in New York. Deleting citizenship was a popular tool, especially against intellectuals, journalists and writers in East Africa and Africa.

In 1985, leading Ugandan and African political science scholar and author Prof Mahmood Mamdani was stripped of his since-restored citizenship by the Milton Obote government. It was a strange case.

Read: African writers celebrate and call for diversity


Speaking — of all places — at a Red Cross conference, Mamdani said natural disasters were social crises resulting from human action and state policies (echoing Indian economist and philosopher Amartya Kumar Sen's argument that famines do not occur in democracies).

At that time, the northeast Uganda region of Karamoja, and parts of the West Nile, were suffering starvation, and the Obote government didn't take it well. By the way, Karamoja still endures equal proportions of famines, 38 years later.

In East Africa, the removal of citizenship or withdrawal of passports is falling out of favour, except in Tanzania, which keeps falling off the wagon. Among the more high-profiles cases, not too long ago, the Tanzania government stripped Ali Mohammed Nabwa, who was managing editor of the Zanzibar weekly newspaper, Dira, of his citizenship.

It also remains a cynical tool against political rivals in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2018, with elections approaching, the Joseph Kabila government declared that charismatic politician and businessman Moise Katumbi was not considered a citizen.

He was blocked from returning to contest the polls. With another election approaching later this year, the decibels about Katumbi not being a citizen are up again.

However, most African writers, intellectuals and journalists didn't leave their countries because they were stripped of citizenship. They escaped persecution and death.

On May 21, a very close friend of Micere, Ghanaian author, playwright and poet Ama Ata Aidoo died. Like Micere, she, too, was 81. Like Micere, she lived outside Ghana, but in self-imposed exile, and produced some of her best work there.

One of Africa's most prominent authors, Kenya's Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, was imprisoned and exiled by the Moi government. The legendary Nigerian author Chinua Achebe lived in the US for several years.

Read: Deconstructing the Ngugi wa Thiong'o mind

The South African apartheid regime exiled a generation of writers — black, coloured, and white — from Lewis Nkosi, Mbulelo Mzamane, and Alex La Guma to Dennis Brutus and Breyten Breytenbach.

The rule of Field Marshal Idi Amin in Uganda saw nearly all its writers flee, with some of the best of them – Okot p'Bitek, Robert Serumaga, John Ruganda and Austin Bukenya – riding it out in Kenya.

Their flight continues, including more recently Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, he of the Greedy Barbarian fame, and poet, scholar and feminist activist Stella Nyanzi, who wrote the unsurpassably saucy No Roses from My Mouth: Poems from Prison, in 2019 and 2020 from Luzira Women's Prison in Kampala.

The 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature winner Abdulrazak Gurnah left Zanzibar in 1968.

Some writers who left home in the 1970s, like Somali author Nuruddin Farah, undoubtedly Africa's most prolific novelist, are still wandering. He says he is an international nomad and has lived in many African and Western nations.

Micere’s passing should tell us three things. First, we are witnessing the last of that wonderful first and second generation of pioneering African writers. Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, Nuruddin Farah and Ngũgĩ are the handful who are still with us. We should cherish them.

Second, you have to give it to African strongmen. The two things even the illiterate among them understood were the power of ideas and the force of stories and narratives. And so, they took the hammer to intellectuals and writers and ran them out of town. Or simply jailed and murdered them.

Read: OBBO: It's East Africa's turn for Nobel Prize

But the most enduring has been how their persecution and exile tilted the production of African ideas. The best writing and publishing of African writers was based outside the continent. Many of them could only ply their trade at African Literature and Studies departments in universities in Europe and North America.

In turn, these universities became the leading products of modern African knowledge, and everyone in the world, including African governments, turned to them as oracles on the continent. For the past twenty years, many have screamed themselves hoarse about the "biased Western/White gaze" on Africa.

The distortions of the "African story" and history by jaundiced outsiders. The paternalism of Western knowledge institutions. The modern roots of all that lie in the 1960s to 1980s mass purge of African intellectuals from the continent. The longer, deeper roots lie in colonialism.

Western universities' dominance of African scholarship probably has another 25 years to run. We dug half of our intellectual graves.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the "Wall of Great Africans". Twitter@cobbo3