MUTEMI WA KIAMA is a prominent activist who uses social media and his foundation to advocate for the rights of those who are barely seen or heard in Kenya. His tweets have often landed him in trouble with the authorities but he continues with his relentless fight for human rights and social justice. He has led campaigns against IMF loans to Kenya and is currently championing a petition against the controversial Finance Bill that, if passed, will see Kenyans pay a lot more in taxes. RASNA WARAH spoke to Mutemi about why he does what he does even in an environment that appears to be becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting voices. 

Q.In 2021 you were arrested and charged for cybercrimes after you posted a tweet criticising President Uhuru Kenyatta. You were at that time part of a campaign to stop the International Monetary Fund from giving a loan to Kenya. Explain the reasons why you were so opposed to that loan.

Historically, the West uses the IMF and the World Bank to recolonise the developing world. The {Mwai] Kibaki regime had largely weaned Kenya off the IMF. The Uhuru government took us back to their neocolonialism. As it’s becoming clear today we’re now fully captive. Contextually, the World Bank has been giving loans to the Kenyan health sector, the cash cow for corrupt regimes. These loans are stolen and the World Bank doesn’t raise any alarm but continues giving more loans. Once Kenya enters debt distress, the sister organisation, the IMF, comes along to “rescue” Kenya. To me this is bullshit.

Q.As you and others predicted, IMF loans are hurting Kenyans. We are seeing rising taxes and removal of subsidies that are making life for ordinary Kenyans unbearable. Yet, given the debt crisis we are in, Kenya has no choice but to turn to the IMF for help. If not the IMF, what are the alternatives?

I do not agree that we have no alternative. The alternative is to live within our means. The majority of government functions have been devolved. Counties receive less than Sh.400 billion, one-tenth of the annual Sh.3 trillion budget. What does the national government do with the other nine-tenth of the budget? Looting. Let us cut unnecessary spending and invest in production rather than importation of everything. According to the government itself, we lose Sh.700 billion a year to corruption. Make that about Sh.1.5 trillion since the government always lies. This is criminal and enough to clear our current debt in a few years.

Q.I first came across you when you were going by the moniker Wanjiku Revolution on Twitter. I was impressed by your fearlessness in calling a spade a spade and in defending ordinary Kenyans when it seemed dangerous to do so. What motivates you to do what you do?

I was born and raised in central Kenya, which is alleged to have been selectively developed by the first president, Jomo Kenyatta, to the detriment of the rest of Kenya. The reality though is that just a handful of families directly benefited from Kenyatta’s largesse. These were mostly the families of colonial collaborators. They were all over Kenya, not just among the Kikuyu. I did not learn this in the history taught in school. I learned this in my mid-thirties when I started engaging with civic actors in civil society spaces. I was shocked considering I had gone to a relatively good high school and later to the University of Nairobi, yet, this was totally new to me. As I became more aware of how the truth had been kept from citizens, I developed a deep need for us to change that. Revolutions begin and happen in the mind. Wanjiku Revolution calls on all of us to look in the mirror and make the necessary changes. I change, you change, and together we change Kenya and Africa. Change only happens when a majority of citizens take responsibility for their welfare. The quest for that change is what motivates me every day.


Q.Many people who have been fighting for a larger and more inclusive democratic space in Kenya for the last three decades or more say they are exhausted, that in many ways, we have regressed rather than advanced as a nation, especially when it comes to civic space. Do you feel Kenya is sliding into authoritarianism or are the gains we have made so far, including devolution under a new constitution, bearing fruit, albeit slowly?

Many are tired because the work they have done is a lot and thankless. Most of them sacrificed their lives, health, careers and family life to fight for the space we enjoy today. We must always be thankful to them and celebrate them. We have come a long way, but I feel like we dropped the ball after the promulgation of the 2010 constitution. There are concerted attempts to take Kenya back to authoritarianism. Devolution has been under attack since 2010. Uhuru tried and failed. [President William] Ruto is trying even harder to recentralise. He will fail too. That horse bolted a long time ago. Kenyans value their freedom. Just check TikTok and witness the resistance from ordinary citizens, including, surprisingly, from Ruto’s own backyard. I have a feeling Ruto will be the end of the KANU hegemony. Through his pathological and undignified lies, especially to his erstwhile staunch support base, he is catalysing the long overdue revolution.

Q.You speak a lot about patriotism. Your organisation, Mzalendo Halisi, aims to promote patriotism among Kenyans. How do you define patriotism? 

Traditionally in Africa, a child belonged to the village. We took care of each other. We cared for each other. That is my definition of patriotism. Our connectedness under our humanness. Ubuntu. Utu. I am because we are. I am thus patriotic to my family, and my various communities – friends, neighbours, colleagues, comrades, fellow citizens and Africans. One day, when Kenya finally becomes a nation, I hope I will get a chance to be patriotic to Kenya too if I’ll be around to see it. Mzalendo Halisi Foundation is working to help realise the Kenyan nationhood dream.

Q.A lot of Kenyans, including myself, have tuned out of politics. We don’t read newspapers or watch the news anymore because we have become apathetic or cynical about the state of the nation. There doesn’t seem to be much good news these days, and the politics is rotten and corrupted. How can Kenyans become more involved in what is happening in this country? And why should we care? 

I believe there has been a deliberate effort to desensitise citizens, not just in Kenya, but around the world, through the massive cases of corruption so as to give neoliberal politicians free rein as they loot their economies. Unfortunately, in the current state governance system and capitalist economies, extractivist politics are the order of the day. The more disengaged we are, the worse the situation becomes. I think we are at a tipping point. One of these days citizens will say – ENOUGH! We must keep organising to find alternative governance systems and alternative leaders with engaged citizens who will help change this paradigm. Why should we care? Because whether we engage or we don’t, we suffer the same from clueless and incompetent politicians leading our governments. Globally. If we disengage and stop organising, the revolution will be so chaotic it will consume most of us.

Author

  • Rasna Warah

    Rasna Warah is a Kenyan writer and journalist with over two decades of experience as an editor, writer and communications specialist. She wrote a weekly op-ed column for the Daily Nation, Kenya’s leading newspaper, for many years, and has contributed to various regional and international publications, including, the UK’s Guardian, Africa is a Country, The East African, The Mail and Guardian, The Elephant, and Kwani? She has worked as an editor and writer at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) and has published two books on Somalia: Mogadishu Then and Now (2012) and War Crimes (2016). Her first book, Triple Heritage (1998), explored the history of South Asians in East Africa. Her latest book, Lords of Impunity (2022), examines the failures and internal contradictions of the United Nations and what can be done to transform this global body. She holds a Master’s degree in Communication for Development from Malmö University in Sweden and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology and Women’s Studies from Suffolk University in Boston, USA. She is based in Nairobi, Kenya.