Book Review: Runaway Republic: Tyranny Exposed & Call for a Truce by David Ochwangi

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By Washington Osiro,

David Ochwangi describes Runaway Republic: Tyranny Exposed & Call for a Truce, his 2013 memorialization of the post-election violence of 2007/2008, as “a tribute to the victims of Kenya’s Post Election Violence in 2007/2008 and those who champion their cause to ensure that their memory lives on.” (Back of Book)

FULL DISCLOSURE: I know David Ochwangi and though we oftentimes end up on opposite ends of the day’s issues, I have immense respect and admiration for his passion and sense of justice – the latter based on human and democratic rights. To this end, I am not surprised that Runaway Republic fingers Negative Ethnicity as one of the banes of Kenya’s troubled history. Ochwangi pointed this out almost one decade BEFORE inception of the much-ballyhooed Building Bridges Initiatives (BBI) now being touted as a panacea for all that ails the country – ironically, by one of the book’s protagonists (Raila Odinga) and his partner, a former crimes-against-humanity suspect (Uhuru Kenyatta).

If Boniface Mwangi’s UNBOUNDED is a photographic Cliff Notes that catalogs Kenya’s Period of Infamy, then David Ochwangi’s Runaway Republic is a collection of first-person accounts of the event; one that adds depth and color to “Softie’s” work behind the camera lenses. Included in Ochwangi’s book are write-ups of the actual criminal charges against the country’s current president Uhuru Kenyatta (Pgs. 154-180), his deputy William Ruto (Pgs.133-154), and other lesser profiled persons including Joshua Sang, Francis Muthaura, Mohammed Hussein, etc.

The book’s eleven chapters are divided into three sections.

Section One is titled Kenya at the Precipice. The section’s six chapters catalog Kenya’s inevitable march towards the events at the center of the book. Chapter 3, Post-Election Violence and Victims’ Accounts reads like an early draft of a low-budget snuff movie – replete with images of severed limbs (Pg.106) and of bodies of dead Kenyans! (Pgs. 89-90, 100-101)

Section Two, Spheres of Influence, continues with what the author started in Chapter 2. In a sub-section titled Implicated Characters, Ochwangi attempts to aggregate the personalities whose conduct (or misconduct), ethics, and ethos (or lack of either) remain central to the violence that erupted during the last days of 2007 and early days of 2008. The chapter titled The Obama Effect touches on a Barack Obama who first burst into America’s political scene after a rousing and well-received keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, Massachusetts. The chapter ends with an extensive and passionate letter (Pgs.221-229) from the author to the then-President of the United States. If there is a seminal moment in Section Two, it is this letter AND Mr. Obama’s response (Pgs.230-231).

To say that David Ochwangi is an activist-cum-patriot who also has a keen understanding of the various centers of power in Kenya would be an understatement. The Keroka-born CPA demonstrates a deep understanding of Kenya’s socio-political culture that adds credence to his palpable frustrations with the two-steps-forward-five-steps-back that has been Kenya’s developmental trajectory – especially over the last decade beginning with the events he writes about in Runaway Republic.

Likewise, to say that Obama, a man I respect and admire immensely, is a politician and an American leader at that, would be to state the obvious. It would also be a pointed reminder to Kenyans and Africans alike that they need to solve their own problems. His letter, effectively a form letter, does not respond directly to Ochwangi’s pleas nor does it mention Kenya by name. However, it reiterates America’s position, policies, and principles such as human rights, freedom of speech, equality, etc. The Obama White House does not respond to Ochwangi’s mention of the International Criminal Court (ICC) cases that followed the PEV. It stays clear of the claim or perception that America’s 44thPOTUS has “personal and political ties to Prime Minister Raila Amolo Odinga.” (Pg.225). The Obama WH ends the letter by directing the author to two websites – HumanRights.gov or WhiteHouse.gov/CPo – to “learn more about the Administration’s human rights’ agenda.” To paraphrase a colleague that reviewed this piece, Obama’s response is detached, rote, and ultimately, useless.

In Chapter 9 (Pgs. 247-336), a ninety-paged chapter appropriately titled Raila Odinga: Demystifying The EnigmaRunaway Republic sets out to deconstruct Raila Odinga, someone the author “first met in 2006 in Atlanta, GA during his (RAO’s) Diaspora campaign tour.” (Pg.371) Viewed alongside the man’s on-going rapprochement with UMK, someone who was charged with complicity in Kenya’s Period of Infamy, David Ochwangi is not far off-target with his assertion that the former PM is “the quintessential illusionist.” (Pg.247). This analysis is given additional authority when one considers the tactics RAO and UMK continue to deploy against the other principal who went before The Hague to answer charges for Kenya’s PEV the author has written about – William Ruto. The rest of the chapter, to borrow the title of a virulently anti-Raila book, peels back the mask to expose the disconnect between Raila’s rhetoric and the reality of his conduct. In short, and whether the criticism is deserved or not, the book presents the former prime minister in a less-than-flattering light. I would add that events of the last two years have only added to the book’s characterization of Raila Odinga – as an “illusionist.”

Contrastingly, Runaway Republic treats Mwai Kibaki, a man the author “first met in person in September of 2010 in New York City” (Pg. 233) with velvet-lined kid gloves. Kibaki, a man whose surreptitious dusk-time swearing-in as the winner of the disputed election on December 30, 2007, ignited the violence that engulfed Kenya in 2007/2008 scores all of twelve pages (Pgs.233-245) in the book. This brevity of coverage IS a major disappointment and calls into question the author’s impartiality in reviewing this most seminal event in Kenya’s history and apportioning blame. As the country’s sitting president with access to the most accurate and current intelligence reports regarding the country’s mood, Kibaki proved woefully inept in gauging how Kenyans would react to his blatant power-grab “less than an hour after the results were announced.” The man failed to redeem himself thereafter. He either missed or disregarded intelligence of the (impending) violence that was to consume the country – under his watch. Runaway Republic describes Kibaki as a “transformative president.” (Pg.245) This laudatory characterization is because of his handling of the country’s economy. However, I find this portrayal conveniently narrow and exculpatory. It is narrow because it focuses on a sliver of the man’s achievements, i.e., a growing national economy while giving his role in Kenya’s Period of Infamy short shrift – if any mention at all. Put another way, buildings and roads can be rebuilt. Lives and limbs, once lost, cannot be replaced.

The violence at the heart of the book – that permanently shattered the narrative of Kenya as an “oasis of peace and stability in a region wracked with violence and lawlessness” occurred while Emilio Mwai Kibaki was the President of Kenya and the Commander-in-Chief of her armed forces. The post-election violence of 2007/2008 that saw the gruesome murder of thousands of his subjects and billions in damages also occurred under Kibaki’s watch. Given the preceding, I would argue that these ARE the events that forever transformed Kenya and reconfigured not only how its citizens saw themselves and related to one another, but how the rest of the world saw the country, its leaders, and her body politics.

Further calling into question the book’s objectivity is Chapter 10 – The rest of the Pack. The chapter is a grab-bag of politicians, each supposedly with their “sphere of influence” and a role in the post-election violence at the center of the book. Former ICC suspect and current Deputy President William Ruto is described as “an untrustworthy, vindictive, arrogant, derisive…..run-of-the-mill politician whose naked ambitions and delusions of personal grandeur precede him.” (Pg.341) Similarly, James Orengo (Pg.348) and Otieno Kajwang (Pg.351) are mentioned in the chapter. However, curiously missing from Runaway Republic: Tyranny Exposed & Call For A Truce is DP Ruto’s co-accused and current boss, President Uhuru Kenyatta. It defies logic why one of the very few sitting African presidents to stand before the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of crimes-against-humanity is barely covered, extensively, by a book that set out to “expose, by name and deed those behind the atrocities, the dark side of politics….,” i.e., the Post-Election Violence of 2007/2008 (Back of Book)

Finally, Section Three – Comparative Review and Conclusion– is an interesting mix of topics including Kenya’s history, comparisons (between her socio-political culture and that of its colonial master Gt. Britain, and of America), and Leadership 101.

The section also gives the author another opportunity to criticize Raila Odinga – “if charm were the only measure of a man’s suitability for higher office, Odinga wins every time…..his personal fortunes have meteorically risen…” – the latter charge being a nexus between Raila’s time in office and his wealth. Conversely, Mwai Kibaki, the man at the helm when Kenya exploded in 2007 is “the quintessential epitome of ‘stable’…..cool as a cucumber…..steady hand….” (Pgs.374-5). This is a characterization that is as rich in its irony as it is emblematic of the parallel universe Kenyans oftentimes find themselves inhabiting. The supposedly “stable” leader sat atop a powder keg of ethnic violence wrought on by his unbridled thirst for power. Kibaki was leading a less-than-steady polity during a time whose signature moment was a supposed-to-be safe zone, a place of worship, set ablaze – with parishioners locked inside!

All told, David Ochwangi’s Runaway Republic, for all its many shortcomings, including those cataloged in this review, provides yet another take on a period that forever changed Kenya. The book could have benefited from an intense round of proofing and editing to address the low-hanging typos, running sentences, errant/missing punctuations, and simple grammatical mistakes. These shortcomings aside, the book’s salient message of a Kenyan society repeatedly failed by its selfish, inept, and ethnic-leaning leadership is unmistakable and THIS alone makes Runaway Republic worth reading.

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