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By honouring our heroes, we deepen our democracy

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“A nation that does not honour its heroes is not worth dying for.” This adage highlights the inextricable link between honouring heroes and democracy deepening, especially in emerging democracies.

On August 10, 2018, Murang’a University of Technology awarded an honorary degree, its first ever, to Charles Wanyoike Rubia (95), one of the most influential makers of modern Kenya, for his contribution towards the growth of the institution and in recognition of his push for multi-party democracy.

“It is during the hard times when the ‘hero’ within us is revealed”, goes the cliché. This is true of Charles Rubia’s career as the first black mayor of Nairobi (1962-67); a member of parliament (1967-1978); cabinet minister (1978-1988); a multi-party crusader, and a peace maker.


Debate on the icons of democracy in Africa like Rubia reflects the continent’s struggle against repression at three phases.

The first phase is Africa’s struggle against colonial and racist regimes that produced the first generation of heroes—and villains.

Colonialism created its own ‘imperial heroes’ — both natives and foreigners —credited with military conquest and subjugation of Africa. Anti-colonial resisters were condemned as terrorists, and jailed or hanged.

But colonialism crumbled. Rubia and others presided over the dismantling of colonialism’s racist legacy. As Nairobi’s first black mayor, Rubia helped create Nairobi as a modern City with integrated settlements for all races and the “Africanisation” of the inherited civil bureaucracy.


However, Rubia and his generation also created new institutions. In the 1970s, Rubia was part of a team of Murang’a elite in Nairobi, who conceived the idea of a Murang’a College of Technology.

The second phase is the post-colonial era. A salient feature of one-party regimes was a pervasive “personality cults”, which suppressed genuine heroes and champions of anti-colonial struggles.

The one-party regimes either sidelined or viewed leaders of Nationalist movements such as the Mau Mau with disdain.

It took Nelson Mandela, an anti-apartheid hero who had been in jail for 27 years, to remind the Kenyan political class to honour its nationalist heroes.


On July 11, 1990, speaking to Kenyans at the Moi International Centre Kasarani, Mandela proclaimed his utmost respect for freedom fighters Dedan Kimathi, General China (also known as Waruhiu Itote) and others who had paid with their lives for Kenya’s freedom.

Kimathi was “a man who led the armed struggle against the British very excellently and for which he paid with his own life.

Kimathi died but the spirit of the liberation remained alive and that is why the people of Kenya are free today”, Mandela said.

Even as Mandela was making a case for the recognition of the heroes of the “first liberation”, the KANU regime wielded a heavy stick against the heroes of the “second Liberation”.

In 1990, Rubia joined hands with Kenneth Matiba to call for multi-party democracy. Moi’s government came down hard on the two among other multiparty crusaders.

On July 4, 1990, Rubia was arrested and detained together with Kenneth Matiba, Raila Odinga, John Khaminwa and Gitobu Imanyara. Indeed, on the day Mandela arrived, the government formally announced the detention of Nairobi lawyer Mohamed Ibrahim. One-party regimes created new pro-democracy heroes, among them Rubia.

The third phase coincides with the “Third Wave” of democratisation that, in the African context, followed the end of the Cold War after 1989.

The expansion of democracy in recent decades has seen a trend towards celebration of heroes.

Things changed after the 2002, when the opposition swept to power. The Mwai Kibaki administration officially recognised Kimathi and his fellow Mau Mau rebels as heroes in the struggle for Kenyan independence.

The administration officially registered the Mau Mau Movement on November 11, 2003, unveiling of a Kimathi statue in 2007 along Kimathi Street in Nairobi CBD, build a house for his family 2009, and the Kimathi University of Technology was named in his honour.


Voting for a new constitution on August 4, 2010 referendum was widely seen as the way of rewarding the fallen heroes of Kenya’s second liberation. The New Constitution in 2010 expressly provides for recognition of national heroes, creating the Masujaa (Heroes) Day.

During Masujaa Day on October 20, 2016, President Uhuru Kenyatta honoured Rubia among other heroes of the first and second Liberations. In October 2016, the Nairobi County Government named the Cross Road from Nairobi Central to Kamukuji after Rubia.

Despite this, in societies sharply divided along ethnic, religious, social, political and class fault lines, identifying and honouring public heroes (or heroines) is a tall order.

The handshake on March 9 has made it possible for all sides in the political divide to celebrate heroes such as the late Matiba and Rubia.


NASA Leader Raila Odinga attended Murang’a University 2nd Graduation Ceremony, where Rubia was honored with honorary doctorate. Mr. Odinga reiterated call for Murang’a University of Technology to be renamed Kenneth Matiba University of Technology.

This set the stage for the next generation of heroes as those will cleanse our nascent democracy of corruption and evils.

The on-going war on corruption risks being dismissed as vindictive if it is not linked to a morally higher ideal. That nobler ideal is the deepening of our democratic culture.

Prof Kagwanja is a former Government Advisor and Chief Executive of Africa Policy Institute.