It took me about a month (you know, on account of having a life) to finish reading the 614 page Peeling Back The Mask authored by Raila Odinga’s erstwhile confidante and friend, Miguna Miguna. I found it to be a rather nice read, well written and revealing about some important events that took place in our country. We, the general public, have always been enamoured of people that lead public lives. This is probably because we know so little about them, and therefore there are all sorts of opportunities for us to misunderstand them and the decisions they make.
I think it is important for those in public service, like politicians and senior state employees, to put pen to paper (ok, they can use a computer too) and write their memoirs. This allows us a glimpse, not only of their time in office, but also of their personal lives and their true personalities. Then we might begin to understand who they are, and what informed the decisions they took. And the events they influenced. That is why I welcomed Miguna’s book; though I must admit I was a little sceptical at first (after all, this is Miguna we are talking about), and I thought his objectivity might be coloured by his feelings towards Raila Odinga.
The book starts out almost as an autobiography of Miguna. He takes us to the beginning of his life in the small village of Magina, on the shores of River Nyando in what used to be Nyanza Province. His father died before he (Miguna) was born and he was brought up in poverty by his now single mother and for a time by a paternal uncle. Miguna has been able to capture so vividly the early years of his childhood, his schooling from primary level through the University of Nairobi (where his education was cut short, forcing him to flee into exile) that for a while you forget the main purpose of this book: peeling back the mask off Raila’s face.
I wish he had written two books: an autobiography and an expose. I would have bought and read his autobiography anyway because he tells his life in such an interesting manner. But I guess telling his story up to the present without including his time with Raila would have been to sell himself short. Miguna (if the book was not ghost written) clearly knows how to tell a story, and he tells it so compellingly. He talks about his student activism days and how he spent time at the torture chambers of Nyayo House. His journey into exile to Canada through Tanzania and Swaziland reads like a thriller and one cannot help but commiserate with him. We share in his triumph when he finally settles down in Canada after a brief struggle to find his footing.
His story is similar to those of many of his compatriots who were forced to flee the country in the late eighties. This was in the wake of the heavy crackdown on dissidents by the regime of President Moi. Younger people may not quite understand how dark those days were, but folks who were born earlier, probably up to the mid seventies, were aware of what was going on. Miguna takes us back to that time, and I think it serves as a reminder of how a country, if not checked by a working constitution and other checks and balances, can easily slide into an abyss. Can you imagine in this day and age, not being able to go to school or get a job, and being afraid for your life just because you happen not to agree with the president?
Miguna’s life in Canada is told in an honest, down to earth narrative, and it gives the impression of a regular guy to whom life has given lemons, but is determined to make lemonade. It is not easy for him to get into college and work at the same time, but this is Miguna we are talking about. The man has such dogged determination about what he wants, and he will not stop until he gets it. And he goes on to set up his own private law practice after university, and basically establishes a life for himself. He also talks about his loves and relationships, their failures and successes, which I found to be rather touching. We have this picture of him as a very hard man who brooks no nonsense, but the book reveals a softer side to him.
I have read Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father, and there is a similarity in the easy way and language employed by Miguna when he talks to the reader about his life that enables us to connect with him in an intimate way.
And here, the story takes a decidedly less than friendly tone.
Miguna narrates how he first came into contact with Raila and other opposition leaders in Canada. In his own colourful way, he lets us know that even back then, he did not really think very highly of him. That Raila would doze off in meetings and not have anything substantial to contribute when he was awake. Miguna says that he would incur certain expenses whenever he would organize Raila’s visits to Canada, and also when at Raila’s requests he would join him in the United States. He would never get reimbursed for his troubles. He paints the picture of Raila as a rather mean fellow with his money right through the book from here until their last meeting at the Serena Hotel together with Patrick Quarcoo of Radio Africa. This meeting had been called by Raila to discuss Miguna’s reinstatement during which they agreed on certain terms, but which Raila apparently reneged on soon after. He also stuck them with a bill of 11,000/=.
Miguna Miguna writes about the events leading to and after the 2007 general elections, including how Raila rigged the ODM primaries to emerge victorious. He narrates how the National Accord was negotiated (he was not on the Serena team, but he was advising the ODM side) and how the grand coalition government came to be. Miguna has very strong views that ODM was short changed by the PNU side in those negotiations. He opines that Raila should not have agreed to take anything less than an executive premiership, though in my opinion, Raila did not have a choice. Miguna does not seem to appreciate the political conundrum that Raila found himself in. The country was burning, and President Kibaki was not going to negotiate away his powers, let alone the presidency, to someone he believed to have beaten in the presidential election. He had to make serious concessions, and for that, I do not think the country sees him as a coward. He simply did what needed doing at that time.
However, I do agree with Miguna that after the accord was signed, Raila should have been a little less accommodating with Kibaki when they were negotiating government positions. That is how ODM ended up with “nusu mkate” powers and positions, and that has been the butt of many a joke in the country since. Raila is portrayed as a lousy negotiator who would go into a meeting with the President holding a firm position, and allow himself to be bulldozed out of it. It is hilarious how Miguna describes Raila as being in awe of, or even afraid of Kibaki. That he would be tongue tied in the President’s presence and he would start sweating. We are more or less inclined to believe Miguna because Raila would praise Kibaki in public, even when the president and his men would not bother to hide the fact that they thought of him more as an irritant than an equal.
Miguna speaks about corruption in the Office of The Prime Minister and mentions two people, Caroli Omondi, Raila’s private secretary and the permanent secretary Mohamed Isahakia in connection to this. It is obvious that there is no love lost between Miguna and the duo. He alleges that the Prime Minister condones this practice, or is himself an active participant. Miguna speaks of Raila as an extremely disorganized character and an erstwhile champion of reforms who had now gone to bed with the status quo and enriched himself in the process. He casts doubt on Raila’s suitability for office of the president. There is the temptation to dismiss these allegations as sour grapes from a man who fell out with his boss, and is now exacting revenge. However, the lingering question remains this: what if he is telling the truth? Should we not, in some way, interrogate these claims? That is up to the Kenyan people.
There are some factual errors in this book. I was unable to capture them in this commentary, but one that stands out is when Miguna tells of his conversation with a woman from his village of Magina. This is just after Raila becomes Prime Minister, and she is complaining that since “we” voted for Raila for President, and not Prime Minister, “... we can’t accept this prime minister thing...”, that Kibaki “lost” the election and should therefore leave the presidency for Raila and become Prime Minister himself. Miguna goes on to say that the woman was “... expressing a popular view among the vast majority of Kenyans... who had voted for Raila...” The inference that "the vast majority of Kenyans" had voted for Raila as President is factually incorrect. If memory serves me right, the presidential votes were split evenly between Kibaki and Raila, without counting those of the other presidential candidates.
Miguna Miguna started by telling us about himself, so that we might understand where he was coming from when he “pulled back the mask” from Raila. And he succeeds in this respect. He comes across as a person who has fought for justice and reforms all his life. He has fought against impunity, and if we believe him that is what he continues to do with this book. Love him or hate him, Miguna can tell a story.