What presidential candidates can learn from Miguna Miguna’s book on financing elections

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The cover of Miguna Miguna’s book Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya

What presidential candidates can learn from Miguna Miguna’s book on financing elections

In this third and final series on Miguna Miguna’s book Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya, we focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the text, as well as lessons on how not to finance presidential campaigns

Key Highlights

  • Mr Miguna has a persuasive style and a clever way with words. This draws you into his story and compels you to keep reading.
  • Miguna’s dexterity with the English language aside, his book becomes a cumbersome read especially when he adopts a self-righteous tone where he overly heaps praises on himself
  • Had he sought the services of a ruthless editor he would have overcome the ease with which he uses unsavoury words to address the people he writes about
  • His book is a detailed account of the happenings in the corridors of power that will enrich posterity   

BY ABDULKARIM SHERMAN

newsdesk@reporter.co.ke

The slant in the chronology of post-election violence and Miguna’s guarded reference to Raila refusing to join his troops at the frontline of the battle, and of the then Prime Minister carelessly holding numerous uncensored conversations on his cellphone at the height of the conflict, suggests that the combative author knows a whole lot more about the violence of 2007-08 than he is willing to say.

He stated as much at the book launch in Nairobi in 2012 and subsequently in serial television interviews but he is nowhere more convincing about this hidden information than in the ellipsis, erasure and blurred chronology that colour his account of those “No Raila, No Peace” week in 2008.

Miguna’s account of his exile years in Toronto speaks of a man with focus and fortitude. He could so easily have chosen the path of defeat or indolence and become a permanent dependent of the Canadian state. By his account, he left fellow exiled Kenyans in the safe houses provided by the Canadian government and ventured out, defying migration protocols to get himself a job and a first class education.

We have rarely heard the story of the life that Kenya’s exiles lead abroad and of the vagaries of diaspora existence, so Miguna’s account, while scant, is a welcome addition to that chapter of postcolonial Kenya.

Equally valuable is his story of a deprived childhood in rural Nyanza, which adds to our stock of knowledge about the failures of a centralised government to provide uniform opportunities for citizens across the length and breadth of the country.

Miguna has a persuasive style and a clever way with words. It draws you into his story and compels you to keep reading. This gift of the gab and witty turn of phrase is characterised by a penchant for overkill, as if he has to cook everything twice! His description of the reckless way in which, in the run-up to the 2007 general election, catering at ODM headquarters was left to chance —unsupervised by any party official and dependent on the generosity of businessmen struggling to ingratiate themselves with the party’s leadership — is simply hilarious.

Miguna dramatically sums up the risks of this loose arrangement by flamboyantly stating, “Everyone in ODM, including the most senior leaders could have been poisoned and wiped out within minutes!” Later,Miguna summarises the revolving loops of bureaucracy that retired Justice Ben Luta had been sent through at the PM’s office by remarking, rather gratuitously but with a good dose of black humour, “As you are reading this, Justice Luta is still walking the pavements between the Treasury and BP House.”

Miguna’s dexterity with the English language aside, his book is nonetheless cumbersome for several reasons. First, there is the tedious preponderance of a self-righteous tone. To get past the nausea ofMiguna’s claims to alarming genius and total success in 98.75 per cent of all the things he has undertaken in this life, the reader must continually remind her/himself that the purpose of all memoirs is to justify one’s existence. To find suitable reasons for actions in the past, to lend clarity and focus to one’s vision, a purpose to one’s struggles and to establish an ideological basis for one’s choices, is the rationale of memoir writing.

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Miguna Miguna is shielded by his supporters after his the ceremony to launch his book Peeling Back the Mask: A Quest for Justice in Kenya  was disrupted by goons in Mombasa. Pix By ABDULHAIM SHERMAN

 

Seen in this way, one grows to expect Miguna to heap accolades on himself at every turn. Had he written this book with the help of a ghost writer or a ruthless editor he would have overcome this penchant for excessive self-praise and the vulgar ease with which he repeatedly calls others “idiots,” “buffoons,” “goons,” “clueless,” “sycophants” and “over-paid comedians”.

Ghostwriters, interviewers and dispassionate editors play a key role in the writing of autobiographies. They temper the narrative, they balance the unduly harsh or unreasonably besotted take on oneself, and they modulate the tone to one of whimsical or studied reflection rather than prolonged high voltage anger.

For instance, it is the measured, nostalgic and temperate tone of the immensely successful Harry Belafonte, tireless civil rights activist, popular musician and UNICEF ambassador that makes his 2011 memoir My Song, written with Michael Shnayerson, such an inspiring read.

In the final chapter of Peeling Back the Mask, Miguna tries to overcome the weakness of lacking an interlocutor to prompt his autobiography by including, over seven pages, the details of a January 2012 telephone conversation between himself and his octogenarian friend, Dick Abuor Okumu. Unfortunately, Miguna seems to have hogged all the airtime during that call so we learn very little from Dick about Miguna’s predicament. Instead, we are treated to Miguna’s rehashing of anger, his unwavering stand on justice, individual rights, the Raila succession in Luo Nyanza and his sworn refusal to work with Raila ever again.

I desist from expressing any incredulity at the long and meek silence with which Dick listens to Miguna’s lecture and yields to Miguna’s perspective since I do not know their relationship or dynamics of cross-generational relations in the Luo culture.

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An angry mob bays for Miguna’s blood outside a Mombasa hotel during the launch of his book. Pix By ABDULHAIM SHERMAN

Miguna’s literary style is thoroughly bogged down by inter-minable repetition, and yet, what we normally expect from memoirs is a sequence of events—though they need not be arranged in chronological order. Now and then, there is literary purpose in repetition. Repetition highlights key themes, recurring concerns and dramatises critical ideas. It is also a way of validating one’s narrative—if you say something often enough, it rings with truth and becomes embedded in the reader’s memory as such.

But Miguna’s repetition is somewhat undisciplined. He is unrelenting in running back and forth across the chapters, quoting long sections from various correspondences, some of which is ultimately attached in the book’s Appendix. The book could have done with more rigorous editing.

One might be forgiven for arguing that the last two chapters of Peeling Back the Mask are unnecessary. They introduce no new information, rewinding and replaying instead what we have already heard ad nauseam. But perhaps they serve some other purpose. First, they give Miguna room to dwell on the political significance of one of the facilitators of this book. Secondly, they magnify the extent of the pain and out-rageMiguna felt upon his utterly unprofessional dismissal from the PM’s office. They allow him to vent and to find catharsis over a tumultuous and agonising period in his life.

These chapters project his fears after the botched attempt to reinstate him and create a justification for this “whistle blowing” book. Linked to his earlier account of election campaign financing, Miguna’s fears over his life gain import. Indeed, Peeling Back the Mask should force us to ask urgent questions about how presidential candidates raise the money for their campaigns. If it resembles anything near the doll deal-making, dodgy MoUs and shadowy foreign volunteer that Miguna has described, then left unchecked, this cloak and dagger campaign system will never, ever give Kenya an independent or impartial president.

In the final analysis, we must salute Miguna. Though there are moments in Peeling Back the Mask when it is not clear whether he is writing a political biography or penning a treatise on the geopolitics of international judicial systems (for example, his discussion of the ICC in chapter fifteen), Miguna has nonetheless shamed those whose experiences in public life should have been made available to the public but who were, or are, either too lazy, too cagey, too mean-spirited, too distracted or too overwhelmed by the vagaries of life in retirement to sit down and write their story.

How many times have we wished that the late director of Special Branch, James Kanyotu, had written his autobiography and resolved once and for all the mystery of the real killers of Pinto, Mboya, JM, Kungu Karumba and Robert Ouko?

Without a doubt, 2012 was the year in which Miguna won the un-awarded prize for book of the year. Not since Ngugi’s Petals of Blood in 1977 never before has a book so much generated public attention in Kenya. Many of the exchanges were base and unworthy but, at the end the day, they were triggered by a book. And that rarely ever happens in Kenya!Miguna took us beyond our preferred culture of orality and empty archives—bereft of a record of the artifacts we invented, the ideas we debated, the value that we added, the opportunities we lost and those that we squandered.

This story is mainly based on excerpts from Dr Joyce Nyairo’s book, Kenya @50 Trends, Identities and Politics of Belonging. You can get a copy in local book stores.

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