Have you heard how rumours thrive in totalitarian environments

National Super Alliance coalition leader Raila Odinga gestures before swearing himself in as the ‘people’s president’ on January 30, 2018 in Nairobi.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • It was believed that Wanjigi had lavished first Nasa and now the resistance with his fabled billions, complicating the government’s work of bringing both to heel.
  • Once upon a time, it goes, UhuRuto needed money to keep a broke government afloat in the early days of the administration.

In August 2017, Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner of the presidential election, and that was the end of that matter. Only it was not.

Raila Odinga protested that his victory had been stolen and marched to the Supreme Court with a petition. After a hearing abounding with drama – which featured everything from how the law can be very clear on one matter in so many different ways, to Latin maxims, to linear regression functions; and servers in strange locations, from the cloud to rural France – the Supreme Court by a majority nullified the election and ordered a fresh election to be held within 90 days.

Odinga announced that he would not take part in the repeat election slated for October 26. Instead, his outfit, Nasa, launched a campaign of resistance and civil disobedience, culminating with the launching on October 25 of a national resistance movement.

This shook things up and inflicted quite a bit of pain. Everyone called on the government to restore normalcy. The resitance’s most visible luminaries, David Ndii and Miguna Miguna, were treated to the more sinister and resolutely vicious aspect of government authority.

 In the shadows of the ideological brain trust was a much less visible individual whose presence was nonetheless powerfully asserted. This was Jimi Wanjigi, a man whose mystique had exaggerated his reach and power, projecting him to the domain of state-capturing oligarchs.

 It was believed that Wanjigi had lavished first NAasa and now the resistance with his fabled billions, complicating the government’s work of bringing both to heel.

Multi-agency operation

In a few months, Wanjigi became the baddest bad guy in a land teeming with the genre. It was reported that a dedicated multi-agency operation was after him.

His lawyers churned out court orders to protect his constitutional rights as rapidly as policemen spewed forth warrants of search and arrest.

His houses were searched by contingents of SWAT-type paramilitary personnel. Caches of assault weapons were attributed to him. His redoubtable fortress in Muthaiga was invaded and he was dramatically held up in traffic by a dozen armed policemen. He was charged in a Nyeri court with 11 counts, including firearm-related offences.

At some point, his outrageously premature obituary appeared in the media, placed by a goon who remains faceless. In March, 2018, the Handshake landed in town.

The resistance was abandoned. Erstwhile rancour and animosity was supplanted with sweetness and light, as former foes broke bread at the table of brotherhood.

The lingering question relates to the extravagantly dramatic viciousness with which Miguna, Ndii and Wanjigi were molested by the state; was it necessary? Why? Some citizens in Kakamega produced an explanatory narrative, which I must share. Once upon a time, it goes, UhuRuto needed money to keep a broke government afloat in the early days of the administration.

 The duo therefore approached an old friend, Jimi Wanjigi, for a few billions, to be repaid once things got going.

Wanjigi was happy to oblige, if the leaders pledged something sufficiently valuable to secure the debt. It was ultimately agreed that the Commander-in-Chief’s ceremonial sword would be handed over to Wanjigi, who would return it upon full payment.

After a while, Wanjigi drifted Nasa-wards, causing much consternation. When he became involved in Nasa strategic and policy work, this concern became discomfort. The birth of the resistance and impending swearing in of Odinga instigated total panic.

 It was believed that if Wanjigi produced the sword at the ceremony and Miguna handed it to Odinga, state power would effectively transmit to him. Most urgent, therefore, were stopping the swearing-in and, equally critically, repatriating the sword, which had not been found at chez Miguna, Ndii or Wanjigi, despite the application of utmost endeavour.

Solemn military event

This legend amply depicts how conspiracy theories explain perplexing events. I hope it is clear, and it bears stating for the avoidance of misunderstanding, that the entire ceremonial sword saga is a conspiracy theory. Nevertheless, its postscript was quite jolting.

 Nine months after the Handshake, President Uhuru Kenyatta graced the Jamhuri Day celebrations handsomely decked out in ceremonial military kit. In a solemn military event, the Chief of Defence Forces presented the ceremonial sword to a beaming Commander-in-Chief.

The credibility of government actions depends on trust, which in turn is a function of how well people think they know it and its intentions.

 Wags confidently asserted to me that the BBI was over the moment the sword ‘returned’ to the President. The challenge for government information and communication is this: how to retire a myth that is so outlandish, yet explains so much.

A commitment to free and open public engagement does a lot for the credibility of public institutions. Information wants to be free. Without trust and credibility, all actions, including innumerable perfectly legitimate ones, are viewed exclusively through a lens of intense suspicion. This is how the BBI became the drama of government needing to see a man about a sword.