What you need to know:
- Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya would, for the first time, have a presidential library, museum and exhibition centre.
- The library will develop storylines and themes for both permanent and temporary exhibitions from the families of Presidents Jomo Kenyatta, Moi and Kibaki.
The Kibaki, Kenyatta and Moi families can do the country a greater service if they allow more public scrutiny of the trio by handing over as many papers as possible to the public.
Some four years ago, a debate emerged in the US about how to portray President Richard Nixon, some 40 years after he had left the White House in disgrace.
The debate was sparked after the director of Nixon Presidential Library in California, Timothy Naftali, unveiled a not-so-flattering exhibition on Watergate scandal which detailed Nixon’s role in trying to cover up his involvement.
The Nixonites – those see-no-evil-hear-no-evil supporters – objected to the opening of the exhibition arguing that the presidential library should not be used to expose Nixon’s role in the burglary of Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex in Washington.
The supporters not only forced Timothy Naftali to resign, but also made sure that the National Archives did not appoint a replacement. They got support from the Nixon Foundation which is an assembly of moneyed loyalists who only want a president cast in positive light.
Last month, President Uhuru Kenyatta announced that Kenya would, for the first time, have a presidential library, museum and exhibition centre and appointed Ms Munira Mohammed its head. Congratulations.
How it will look like and what it will hold is not clear. What we know from the initial statement is that it will develop storylines and themes for both permanent and temporary exhibitions and will collect totems and mementoes from the families of President Jomo Kenyatta, Daniel arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki.
It will also exhibit books, papers, speeches and artworks for exhibition.
The history of a nation is partly the story of its leadership and — unless it is watered down — a presidential library will be the best way to study the contribution, the success and failures, and the dreams of the former presidents.
The death of President Jomo Kenyatta in August 1978 would have opened the doors to the setting up of such a library but it now seems that there was no political will to open up the founding father’s presidency for any public scrutiny. Even his grave at Parliament grounds is still not open to the public — some 40 years later. The four eternal flames that once burnt at the mausoleum were later extinguished — but the security was never relaxed.
Perhaps there is a reason for that — if we look at what once happened to John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington Cemetery now a popular tourist site.
In 1997, some vandals tried to remove the granite paving stones from the gravesite in what is regarded the most visited site in the 612-acre military cemetery in Washington.
Initially, there were suggestions that Jomo Kenyatta should be buried in a glass sarcophagus inside a mausoleum — where people would pay homage to him as the founder of the nation. While this idea has received coverage in Western media, it was never discussed locally.
Those for the idea — which was, however, shot down at the family level — would have wanted to mimic the Soviet Union which has kept its first Communist leader Vladimir Lenin on display near the Red Square in Moscow since his death in 1924.
While there have been calls to bury Lenin, President Vladmir Putin recently rejected the idea arguing that it would “divide” the nation.
"The way I see it, this issue should be approached with utmost care so as to avoid taking any steps that might split society. On the contrary, society is to be consolidated," Putin was quoted by Tass news agency.
Worldwide, former presidents have remained important symbols and object of passionate debate and their place in history often astounds scholars and general populace. That is why figures such as Lenin still draw thousands of tourists every year who queue to see his cadaver which costs Sh26 million every year to preserve under the aegis of Lenin Lab which employs tens of scientists tasked with maintaining the body.
For us, making the Jomo Kenyatta mausoleum out of bounds sends the wrong image from a historical perspective. If the Presidential Library gets mandate to oversee the opening of the mausoleum to the public, it should think about how to turn Jomo grave into a pan-African tourist attraction.
In Butiama, Tanzania, the mausoleum of Julius Nyerere, who was Kenyatta’s contemporary, is today a tourist attraction manned by the late president’s son Madaraka Nyerere. It is also listed as a national monument and there is a museum which exhibits Nyerere’s ordinary possessions such as his clothing, garden tools and walking sticks.
But that has not stopped Tanzania from discussing the high-handedness of Nyerere. After all, great men often make great mistakes.
Tanzanians are miles ahead of us in terms of presidential archives, what with the Nyerere papers and books held by the Mwalimu Nyerere Foundation which organises seminars and workshops on African unity and peace. But still, the idea of having a moving and permanent exhibition is still not in place.
Perhaps the biggest failure was from our universities which should be the hosts of such presidential libraries. In South Africa, the University of South Africa (UNISA) has been collaborating with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation to create a presidential library.
Dr Maureen Tong, the library project manager, says the library will display three eras of Mbeki’s life: Pre-presidency, presidency and post-presidency.
Our archives on the three Kenyan presidents are simply scattered and no effort has been made over the years to put them together.
Some years ago, when Lee Njiru, who was President Moi’s Press Secretary, made some unsavoury remarks on how Kenyatta was neglected, I went to see Dr Njoroge Mungai at his farm in Kikuyu. To my surprise, Dr Mungai had some files on Jomo Kenyatta which should have been at the National Archives. I still do not know what became of these files and what they contained but he said he had Kenyatta’s records in his house.
Such loss of archive, for lack of a central place, is not only a blow to national memory but it also denies generations to come a chance to scrutinise and critique the formation of their nation state.
Recently, a reader sent to me some Kikuyu Central Association (KCA) document from his grandfather’s archives. Dated 1929, this was a copy of a document sent to Colonial Office in London by Jomo (then Johnstone) Kenyatta and could be one of the few original copies in Kenya.
Still, the family of Mukiri Githendu, who accompanied Jomo to London, still has the passport they used and I believe that such documents should be collected for posterity.
Besides, Kenya needs a public presidential museum where we can have a look at the past. For instance, where is the vehicle that was donated to Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 and which he rode during the Uhuru celebrations? Where are the flywhisks that he used over the years? His open shoes? Certificates, and gifts from other presidents for over 15 years.
Moi ruled this country for 24 years and I have come across archival papers — hundreds of them — on his times as a cabinet minister and as president. But they are strewn in myriads of files and across different thematic areas.
Moi as minister for Home Affairs was very powerful and was the master of Cold War politics — but where are these papers? Some of them have emerged at the Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford presidential libraries but if you ask at our National Archives, chances are that they cannot easily locate them in a single folder.
Only a presidential library, well equipped with documents – collected with the sincere aim of having a genuine historical record — can help researchers in future tell the story of their country.
Had the ancient scrolls never been preserved, it would have been hard for Christians to have the modern day Old Testament which was preserved in these scrolls except the book of Esther and Nehemiah.
Again, had the medieval Timbuktu manuscripts which date from 13th to early 20th centuries not been preserved, we could not have known anything about the early Mali empire and the rise of civilisation in that part of the world.
Presidential libraries are going to offer this country a unique chance for scholars to look at the past. It will also be useful for tourism. More than anything — and it has happened elsewhere — they will certainly become centres of unbridled hero-worship.
Not only that, they should be regarded as both policy centres and archives — and as spaces where political and cultural discourse ought to take place with no inhibition.
For starters — I would like to see in public all those limousines hidden in the State House garage in Nairobi and which have been used over the years since Jomo.
But having said that, the Kibaki, Kenyatta and Moi families can do the country a greater service if they allow more public scrutiny of the trio by handing over as many papers as possible to the public.
In a word, they should not behave like the Nixonites. Secondly, presidential libraries should not be pyramids of hero-worship but should be used to help demystify the presidency.
But do we have the courage and how much do we want to remember?