From the outside looking in – An unconventional review for an eccentric book


Miguna succeeds in peeling back the mask of his former boss Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga and several other high-ranking actors in the national political drama. But Miguna also hides his own failings behind the mask of many words.

‘Peeling Back the Mask’, written by Miguna Miguna, a former adviser to Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Amolo Odinga, is an explosive book that contains, depending on one’s political sympathies, either revelations, allegations or both, in equal measure on the goings-on in contemporary politics of the East African nation. From the time it was conceived, that is, after the widely public personal and political fallout between the two, after barely four years of working together, and since being launched, this book has become the subject of serious political controversy in Kenya, especially ahead of the elections looming in the horizon that will decide who becomes the country’s fourth president.

The book has whipped up political passions in both print and electronic media, the blogosphere and alternative media. Indeed, shortly after the book was launched on 14 July, the writer’s effigy was burnt and a mock coffin made for him in Nyando constituency in the heart of Luo Nyanza where both Odinga and Miguna hail from. Miguna left the country ostensibly to promote his book in North America. Since his return from Canada, his adopted country of exile for twenty years, on the 16 August, Miguna has embarked on a countrywide tour to sell the book in major towns. In one such event, in the second biggest city of Mombasa, the hotel hosting it was stormed by rowdy youth who roughed-up the author leading to the termination of that particular regional launch.

This controversial and unconventional book defies categorization: it cannot exactly be said to be an academic analysis of contemporary Kenyan politics, nor does it fit within the memoir genre although it reads like a well-crafted political diary that recounts an insider’s view of the intrigues, secrets and inner-workings of the corridors of power in Kenya since the disputed and divisive presidential elections in December 2007, which led to the formation of the grand coalition government. Although the writer styles himself as a whistle-blower spilling the beans of the unseen world of the inner working of this uneasy coalition, ‘Peeling Back the Mask’ doesn’t fit within this form of delivery. It does, however, approximate this genre as well as the memoir, but, at best, it is a personal and political book that raises serious issues and others less so. Indeed, it has created an interesting debate that is going to last a while.

The book’s launch and events surrounding it, for one, have raised the question of how far one can take freedom of expression and thought under Kenya’s new constitutional dispensation that was inaugurated in August 2010. This unusually long book review is a contribution to the rousing debate that Kenyans are having amongst themselves: it seeks to be objective and views both the book and the consequent debate as necessitating individual and collective introspection even as the country inches closer to the first elections after the promulgation of Kenya’s new constitution.

I am curious about how other readers acquired their copy of this book. Hopefully, they are not reading the widely circulated free PDF version that is still available on the internet. That’s obviously cheating the author out of his hard-earned royalty. With that said, the circumstances around which I got mine are interesting to relate. I got it after arriving at a bookshop in Nairobi where all the 800 copies it had received from the distributor, a day after the book was launched, had been sold in minutes. So, I waited for the next tranche for two hours. Upon my return to the bookshop, I walked up to the cashier who had earlier assured me of a reserved copy. To pick up my promised copy, he surreptitiously advised me to walk to the back of the shop where there was an attendant who was quietly but quickly handing out copies to buyers once payment was made strictly in cash. As I approached the back room of the bookshop, I heard the bookshop attendant tell a customer who’d just bought the book, ‘…Oh, man…this is Kenya.’ I guess the question to which he must have been responding must have been, ‘Why are you not putting up the book on the shelves as you do normally with all other publications?’ Anyway, that’s how I got my copy: quietly under the counter and proceeded to devour it all in a matter of forty-eight painful but eager hours. The experience was okay because the book reads easily, lyrically in some parts. The anecdote, however, speaks volumes about the state of the exercise of personal freedoms as enshrined in the law of the land.

What do I think about the book and the author? I have read many books and articles and written many book reviews but I could never write a conventional review of ‘Peeling Back the Mask’ even if I tried. For that, I would have to perhaps read it again and think more deeply about some of the things Miguna Miguna says in it. So this review ought to be read as an unconventional review of an equally eccentric book that defies classification. I decided to attempt a book review after reading many half-baked commentaries and ‘reviews’ and watching many television interviews of people who acknowledged not having skimmed but a few pages of the book, in both the print and electronic media. It was clear, in light of the rising public debate, that there was need for an objective review written only after one read the book not just from cover to cover but also between the lines.

‘Peeling Back the Mask’ is an avowedly personal and political book that Miguna promised from the moment he was fired by the prime minister. Following the deluge of criticism it drew only days after the launch, I felt that the author was getting a lot of unwarranted flak as bitter as he might have been while he was pouring out words onto the page. Indeed, anticipating such accusations of having conceived the book under other-than-ideal circumstances that he hadn’t chosen, hence the bitterness and settling of scores theme that runs through his book, Miguna admits (502) that he is human. That he was angry and bitter: “I am human and have a right to feel angry and bitter,” he writes.

However, there are parts of the book that are redeeming in a way, if they’re not calculated to earn him public sympathy. A good instance of this is when he writes (327) that most of the time he defended and stood up for Odinga not because he loved him but because he cared for the country. But then, in the same vein, he adds a short line, which is important as it speaks volumes about his wavering temperament and mood as he wrote the book: “Without a doubt I did…love him….” This is something only but a few men, especially African men, dare to say especially in the recorded word. Indeed, the book is not all-daggers-drawn and spears thrown at Raila Odinga. There are quite a few times the reader will find Odinga being, inadvertently, painted as the good guy while Miguna seems like he was the arch agitator-antagonist especially in the heady days following the much-disputed presidential elections of 2007 of which he was part. In the first few chapters in which he recounts the times when he was Odinga’s leading general, Miguna says that, at times, he felt that he had to run to the rescue of his boss who would at times break down and literally cry (241).

The incident related here occurred after the National Accord deal of February 2008 was sealed. Things got sour and, according to the author, Odinga was allegedly emotionally spent and Miguna had to rise to his defense. By this intimation of his running negotiations on behalf of Odinga behind the scenes, Miguna, by his own admission, emerges as the King of “Antagonia” who thrived in an environment of national and parties’ discord while peddling mistrust in the name of managing the coalition and constitutional affairs for ODM. On the singular basis of what I have read in the book, I can scarcely blame Caroli Omondi, Odinga’s private secretary, for going, as Miguna states, “on national television to cast aspersions against” him. According to the author, Omondi claimed that Miguna was “responsible for the conflict within the coalition government” (308). For whatever reason, Miguna manages to depict himself in the book as the stamina behind Odinga during this time and he is not at all modest about his combative nature especially where he perceived issues of social justice were at stake. As such, the author succeeds in revealing the truth about his shark-like confrontational character in the fight for justice throughout his life, the zenith being at the presidential votes tallying centre at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre in 2007.

After all, Raila Odinga, as presented to the reader, was a flip-flop and a coward who trembled and crumbled in the presence of President Mwai Kibaki. Miguna writes that Kibaki, times out of count, short-changed him and edged Odinga out of the power-sharing deal that was reached with the help of former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan on 28 February 2008. This gullibility did not please ODM’s First General, Miguna (298) who was Odinga’s ‘strongest …defender, thinker, writer and fire-fighter.’ He wanted ‘more real power’ for Odinga and the ODM party. But Miguna’s boss ‘seemed to have accepted his small role in government and to resent’ the author’s suggestion ‘that he use sharp elbows to better his position’ (279). In a way, Odinga failed to live up to Miguna’s egoistic but mostly protective expectations. Reading the middle chapters of the book one is bound to be dumbfounded at the pettiness that Miguna shamelessly sank into in the name of what he calls “more real power” (279) and “real power sharing” (278) over and beyond what his erstwhile boss and ODM had been able to secure under the National Accord.

This rather simplistic and warped perception of power curiously entailed how the principals’ seats were to be arranged around the table; who sat where at “the very first meeting of the Permanent Committee on the Management of the Grand Coalition Affairs” at the end of March 2009 (272); and who was supposed to have which rooms at Kilaguni in April 2009. The writer shares this in his book ever so candidly because, as he says, he is well-acquainted with symbols of power and the almost imperceptible dynamics therein. But, probably seeing the folly of it all, especially the power dynamics of who occupied what room at Kilanguni, Miguna qualifies his intimation by adding that although some of these things ‘might look small or petty for those unfamiliar with how power is played, especially in coalition arrangements,’ they really were not (282).

What! Pardon me Mr. Miguna Miguna, do you suppose that Kenyans, all the nine million of them, voted for public officials so that they would expend most of their time babysitting the negotiated coalition arrangement?

This is a question a perceptive reader is bound to ask: after all, Miguna confesses that ‘since the formation of the coalition government,’ such ‘protocol issues’ such as speaking behind curtains (283), determining where around the table the principals were to sit and who got what room in a holiday resort, ‘occupied a lot of our time’ (279). This was at the expense of running the country Miguna! Or is it an inadvertent admission of how Kenya’s political class ‘serves’ the country? This is downright petty. Readers will find many other instances of petty stuff that the author recounts. For me, there’s absolutely no correlation between “the brouhaha over ‘the pecking order in government’” (326) and the active, efficient and productive running and management of public affairs for the benefit of the ordinary Kenyan mwananchi/citizen.

From this reading, it would seem that political leaders in Kenya are more preoccupied with the perks, trappings and symbols of power like the presidential lectern ‘…bearing the national emblem;’ being in the presidential programme; mobile toilets; state entrances to parliament; the ceremonial Sika ‘dwa, the Golden Stool otherwise referred to as ‘state ceremonial chairs;’ ‘a large national flag, presidential flags …and a neatly dressed brass band….’ (250-251). While it all makes for a gripping and never-ending political soap opera that is pounced upon by various political satirists in Kenyan media such as the XYZ Show and Bull’s Eye, it is not a very entertaining episode in the larger picture of the country’s political development.

For this reason, while reading the book, I was constantly reminded of the Swahili saying: Nyani haoni kundule huliona la mwenziwe/ the ape does not see his own backside, he sees his companion’s. Certainly, Miguna takes a holier-than-thou attitude. Someone in Kenyan media circles once said that Miguna Miguna cuts a larger-than-life public figure and to match it, he had to have a double name. But reading this book made me think that in addition to his imposing physique and matching persona, he has an equally big ego that deserves having the same name twice!

As such, Miguna’s pervasive sense of self-importance and exalted self-righteousness that’s written all over the book merits attention. Before I even reached page 471 where Miguna quotes what the law Professor Makau Mutua, who is a professional and intellectual rival, thought of him –viz. that Miguna seems to have ‘confused himself with Mr. Odinga,’ – I found myself thinking the same on reaching pages 328-329! Yet, before getting the book, I had never heard of Miguna until one of the national newspapers serialized excerpts of the book a few weeks before its launch. I arrived at the same observation as Prof. Mutua on the strength of what I read in Miguna’s book. Odinga, Miguna intimates in these two pages, liked Miguna’s work a lot: ‘…he not only loved my style; he also agreed wholeheartedly with virtually all my thoughts and opinions. …He assigned me the role of responding to media questions and written interviews for him and would authorize me to forward the same for publication without correcting my answers.’ I have to say that penciled in the margins of my copy against this text is this question I pose to the author, ‘So you (Miguna) thought you had become the Prime Minister?’

After reading the book in its entirety, I am convinced that this is more than likely to have happened to the writer, at least subconsciously. That is, Miguna in his own mind had become Odinga, and therefore, the prime minister. So much so that he might have even thought himself better than his boss, hence Miguna’s fear that some ‘…might have believed’ that he was ‘too close to the succession equation within Luo Nyanza’ (338). Is that the miscellaneous reason, besides settling personal and political scores, for writing the book: to launch a national political image to play an important role in the future?

After reading the book in its entirety, I am convinced that this is more than likely to have happened to the writer, at least subconsciously. That is, Miguna in his own mind had become Odinga, and therefore, the prime minister. So much so that he might have even thought himself better than his boss, hence Miguna’s fear that some ‘…might have believed’ that he was ‘too close to the succession equation within Luo Nyanza’ (338). Is that the miscellaneous reason, besides settling personal and political scores, for writing the book: to launch a national political image to play an important role in the future?

However, personal scores aside, Miguna embarks upon the job he sets out to accomplish with relish and considerable effect. That is, that of peeling back Odinga’s mask, which he does quite successfully. For one, he removes the whole mystery around his former boss that stuck especially after the publication of the biography by Nigerian political scientist Dr. Babafemi A. Badejo, ‘Raila Odinga: An Enigma in Kenyan Politics’ (2006). Miguna convincingly, on the strength of adduced evidence and closeness to the prime minister, and there is the possibility, as admitted, that he withheld even more damning proof, proves that his former boss is pro-status quo. He thus effectively demolishes Odinga as the paragon of change and reform in Kenya’s politics. In his estimation, ‘Raila is evil –pure, undiluted evil’ (544) and a flip-flop who doesn’t even deserve the title ‘leader.’ According to Miguna, Odinga ‘couldn’t manage even a group of squirrels’ (407). Of course, as earlier noted, Miguna is less than honest because as he unmasks Odinga hitherto, perhaps, Kenya’s most ‘enigmatic’ leader of the second liberation, he hides his own face and role and, therefore, culpability, behind the ‘mask’ of his many words. This book is humongous and the task of reading it arduous, and could be tiring were it not so well and interestingly crafted by a master story teller.

Granted, Miguna ably carries his argument that his erstwhile boss may not be the face of change in Kenya on strong facts. He manages, to some extent, to build an incontrovertible case that is crystal clear and upheld by copious evidence, no doubt, that ‘Raila has demonstrated, time and again, that he is an ardent defender of the status quo’ (322, also 338, 349 and 353). Miguna does this splendidly discounting the said bitterness or in spite of it, for once, allowing his critical and brilliant legal mind to shine-through some of the more analytical parts of the book. These, for all the petty stuff referred to, are copious and quite revealing.

Moreover, Miguna fully applies his ‘God-given gift’ of writing to peel back many masks of Kenya’s political actors and inner working of government. He succeeds to ‘use words carefully’ citing others who have done the same in history and with equal lethal effect. These are an amalgam of thinkers and politicians like Vladimir Lenin, Karl Marx and South Africa’s anti-apartheid slain hero, Steve Biko. It will be quite clear to the reader that Miguna has taken Czech writer-activist and political leader Vaclav Havel’s lesson to heart. It is to Havel that he attributes the quote, ‘…words are a mysterious, ambiguous, ambivalent and perfidious phenomenon. They can be rays of light in a realm of darkness …They can equally be lethal arrows,’ (338). This is a principle that Miguna strives hard to live up to with mixed success. Somewhat, either intentionally or inadvertently, Miguna uses too many words that tend to mask his complicity in the muck of Kenya’s second experiment with coalition government and politics, and therein lies his duplicity.

While he readily acknowledges his frail humanity that entitles him to bitterness and anger, Miguna doesn’t extend the same to Odinga who, according to Miguna, has the worldly streak of the for money, power (349) and attendant pleasures. A good example of this is when Miguna tries to exculpate himself for not blowing the whistle after the alleged rigging of ODM national elections . He writes, ‘I apologise profusely to ODM members, specifically, and to Kenyans in general. I’m a human being with human frailties like any other person. I mistakenly believed that Raila acquiring power so that he could transform Kenya was more important than the electoral infractions he had committed to get the ODM nominations.’ This is a double-faced admission of guilt that demonstrates that the author is not honest to himself. It would really have served him, and the book, well to simply state that despite all his shortcomings, Odinga, like the rest of us humans, is not (a political) ‘superman.’

But when all is said and done, Miguna’s words are, indeed, rays of light in the realm of darkness that the Kenyan political system can be and has been in the course of its post-independence history. Indeed, Miguna makes an invaluable contribution to the ever approaching dawn in Kenyan politics that cannot be taken lightly or be dismissed out of hand. This review doesn’t discuss the many examples he gives of the rapacious greed in government that is second only to that of the army worms of Lambwe Valley that he mentions on page 5. Miguna will be happy to note, that in my view, the insatiable army worms of Lambwe Valley are probably nothing when compared to the eating with impunity as if there is no tomorrow out of public coffers that he describes as taking place in the corridors of power. These examples of corruption and moral decadence of Kenya’s political elite, I will leave for you, my fellow readers, to discover for yourselves. For now, let it suffice to say that the one thing that Miguna does indefatigably well and with remarkable passion and well-targeted righteous rage, is to unmask Kenya’s political system, how it has functioned over the years and its status when he served in public office.

Put differently, when he is not casting Odinga in bad light, besmirching and blistering his public image as part of his revenge mission for his rather indecent dismissal, Miguna aptly captures (and this in so many instances) what Kenya has become and where it is headed as a nation. If his Kenyan readers allow themselves to be open-minded, their dulled collective conscience can be stirred to see that, indeed, they as a people have fallen short of their ideals, aspirations and core values that they have always cherished. Indeed, as a Kenyan, reading this welcome and refreshing book, I found myself thinking that if a critical number of people come to this realization, we can then rise from the ashes of our sordid past together. Refreshing? You ask: yes, Miguna’s book is refreshing at several levels. I agree with Miguna’s observation that Kenya cannot have enough of such personal, firsthand accounts of public servants relating their experiences of the intricacies and the inner workings of the Leviathan, which is the behemoth and juggernaut of Government of Kenya.

I have never been in anybody’s government and I may never be, especially and as long as the more ‘change’ occurs in Kenya, the more things tend to remain the same as Miguna ably demonstrates. Like the Michela Wrong book, ‘Its Our Turn to Eat’ (2009) based on the experiences of Kenya’s number one whistle-blower, John Githongo, who briefly served the National Rainbow Coalition government as its anti-corruption czar, Peeling Back the Mask is a most welcome breathe of fresh air, I dare say. It is an act of truth-telling, as relative as that may be in this case, or at least, an estimation of truth that will water the struggling little bud of democracy in Kenya. Speaking as an outsider (one who has never served in government and who lives outside the country), I gleaned numerous little nuggets of information about what happened where, who did what and when that I didn’t previously know: so, the book is refreshing, but not in a particularly empowering way. Indeed, pondering upon these refreshingly new pieces of facts, I was mostly outraged and disgusted.

The margins of my copy of Peeling Back the Mask are replete with check marks that attest the brilliance of the legal mind behind it: the manner in which Miguna dissects the issue of placing judges under ‘performance contracts’ (320-321); former President Moi’s controversial Kiptagich farm and the issue of the Mau Forest Complex (319-331); the fact Odinga isn’t always told the truth by those close to him (499); the need for Kenyan politics to break away with the past characterized by sycophancy, lies, bribes and falsity at the expense of ‘honest and unadulterated views from…below’ and openness, ‘a kind of politics without rancor, hate and negative propaganda…a politics solely based on issues’ (454-455); that Kenyans will soon break out of the politicized ethnic cocoons and ‘begin focusing more on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues and less on ethnicity’ (487 & 415); his extensive thoughts on the International Criminal Court with regard to the post-election violence in Kenya (between 2007 and 2008) in pages 381 to 407); the fact that, in Kenya, ‘the process of wealth accumulation and retention is shrouded in muck’ (350); and various references to major corruption scandals in recent years among many other pertinent issues raised in the book, the veracity and importance of which I will leave for individual readers to judge for themselves on a case to case basis.

Lastly, and unfortunately, I must add that this book says nothing that is really new especially to Kenyan readers. The public characters and times, as well as locales of rapacity may be different but the reeking grand corruption is the same. ‘Peeling Back the Mask’ is thus a book about Kenya’s past and present: the country’s beautiful mess. Its fine and lovely, little mess. There really are no new truths in it per se. I dare say that it is not truth that Kenya lacks, comrade Miguna. It is not liberation-courage, the courage to liberate ourselves as Kenyans, either. What Kenyans lack is the courage to harness the power of the truth/s about them as a people to transform themselves and their lives and that of future generations and chart their great destiny as a nation. What Kenyans lack is the humility to recognize themselves when they take an honest look at the image in the Githongo and Miguna mirror, and from thereon actively and collectively start to extricate themselves out of their miry mess, guided by the spirit of forgiveness and mutual understanding and re/conciliation. This book, in as much as it may be about personal pay back, and as much as it details very personal squabbles, as opposed to people-focused and issue-based analysis of Kenyan politics, should serve to remind the country that its problems are not “personal” or because of certain people but, are, rather, largely institutional, systemic and, therefore, societal. Now that Kenya has one of the best constitutions in the world, and is being guided by the National Vision 2030, anything is possible, and it is possible to start afresh and mend its rend body politic.

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Nicholas Githuku

Assistant Professor, African History at York College, CUNY
Nicholas Githuku is a Ph.D. holder in African Studies. His research interests include: War & Peace Studies in general; Conflict and Security and mediation in general and trends in the Great Lakes the Horn Regions of Africa; Memorialization of War; Development studies (Sub-Saharan Africa): Postcolonial/Contemporary Kenyan Politics; European History (1648 to 1900); First and Second World Wars; and Post-1989 Eastern Europe (Balkans) History.