Never attack fellow columnist: The case of Prof Kagwanja v Prof Mutua

Professors Peter Kagwanja (left) and Makau Mutua.

Professors Peter Kagwanja (left) and Makau Mutua.

Photo credit: Nation Media Group

Never criticise a fellow columnist. This is an unwritten rule, broken only in exceptional cases. There are good reasons for that. One is that such criticisms tend to degenerate into gladiatorial contests that, apart from their entertainment value, are of little use to readers.

Besides, such criticisms tend to degenerate into criticisms of the person rather than their ideas, comparable to the altercations of yesteryears between—God rest their souls—Prof William Ochieng and Prof Ali Mazrui.

Another reason is that there is an implied social contract for columnists to provide readers with opinions and ideas that inform and challenge their thinking—not polemics and rantings that have little value.

Lastly, the rule is conventional. It’s held as the right thing to do. If a columnist disagrees with the views of a fellow columnist, it might be better to discuss the disagreement one-on-one, say through an exchange of emails.

Peter Kagwanja writes a scholarly and sober column. But in the latest Sunday Nation, he chose to skewer his fellow columnist and public intellectual Makau Mutua because he disagrees with his “Kenya’s fake democracy” series of articles published in the newspaper over the past four weeks.

In his dissenting column, Prof Kagwanja describes the four-part series as “exalted diatribes, invectives, rantings and broadside attacks on holders of key offices of democracy in Kenya” (See “Three cheers for Kenya’s democracy, but beware intellectuals crying wolf”—Sunday Nation, November 20, 2022).

Saying the articles are his “most troubling reading in recent times”, he suggests that education (such as Prof Mutua’s) “has the pernicious potential to turn humans into clever devils” if it is “not imbued with morals and values of truth, honesty and sobriety”. Prof Mutua, he writes, should heed the wise counsel of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras: Strength of mind rests in sobriety; for this keeps your reason unclouded by passion.

“As the spokesperson of the (Azimio la Umoja One Kenya) coalition and intellectual leading light in Raila Odinga’s presidential campaign, Mutua is a true blue dyed-in-the-wool Azimio honcho,” he goes on to say. “Mutua’s tirade against Kenya’s democracy as ‘fake’ is sour grapes after Azimio’s loss... But Mutua should not insult our intelligence. The defeat of Odinga and Azimio in 2022 does not make our democracy and its institutions fake, just like their victory would not have made it genuine.”

Justification

No doubt, Prof Kagwanja feels justified in roasting his fellow columnist. There may even be voters who also feel insulted by Prof Mutua’s claim that Kenya is a fake and cursed democracy. Judges, too, may feel insulted. 

Prof Mutua says Chief Justice Martha Koome, in the case of the Odinga election petition, “read a screed, not a judgment” and “tore off her robes and became a gladiator on the side of Mr [William] Ruto’s Kenya Kwanza” (See “Kenya’s fake democracy Part III”—Sunday Nation, November 13, 2022).

He goes on to suggest that she “angrily foams at the mouth at litigants while reading a ruling” and that she is “a skank, or a judicial john” and her court a “politician’s brothel”. The columnist goes on to suggest that the Supreme Court stinks “like a skunk” and mimics the judges as “mi-lords” and “mi-ladies”.

Using sexually suggestive terms, he mocks then-CJ Willy Mutunga’s judgment of the 2013 presidential election petition, which Mr Odinga lost: “The judgment was historic, but not in the way we usually deploy the term. Like a man who disappoints a woman, CJ Mutunga read a ‘two-minute’ opinion.”

While it’s not clear Prof Kagwanja’s criticism of his fellow columnist is justified as one of those “exceptional cases”, the principle of “Never criticise a fellow columnist” is still valid. Columnists provide opinions. That’s what they are required to do. They can only be criticised if the opinion they offer is not based on factual information, is propaganda, if the columnist has an undeclared conflict of interest or offends the publicly available NMG editorial policy and guidelines. Even then, it’s the duty of the editor, not fellow columnists, to censure such a columnist.

Readers, as consumers, also have a right to censor columnists. And, as the readers’ representative, the Public Editor, too, can, as I’ve done in the past, criticise a columnist, not for their opinions but for violation of editorial policies, journalistic standards and ethics.

The Public Editor is an independent news ombudsman who handles readers’ complaints on editorial matters including accuracy and journalistic standards. Email: [email protected] Call or text 0721989264

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