Inside the Presidency: Trials and Tribulations of a Zambian Spin Doctor Review by Reginald Ntomba
By Reginald Ntomba
There are few Zambians who have written about their experiences of working with Presidents, among them Vernon Mwaanga, Valentine Musakanya and Martin Kalungu Banda. Their books, though, covered other subjects. So Jere’s book stands out for being solely dedicated to the Presidency. He deserves praise for sharing his side of the story and we can only hope there will be more by others in such similar positions.
The book is primarily about the author’s experiences in the Presidency. It affords the reader an opportunity to know what it means working in that institution, the challenges and privileges, the backstabbing, the intrigues and power play that go with it. It’s a remarkable effort in opening up and demystifying the Presidency.
Inevitably, something about President Rupiah Banda comes out and the reader gets to know what type of leader he was, at least from the author’s perspective. A compassionate father figure concerned with people’s welfare, a man who loved outdoor life, eating from restaurants and visiting friends and refusing the tight security around him to be a barrier to mingling with the commoner.
President Banda, we are told, had something disarming about him, frequently cracking jokes that created a relaxed working atmosphere.
The author presents himself as a reformist and does well to highlight some of his achievements. But he also soon realised that “the system” was too entrenched to give him free passage in his reform agenda, with officials repeatedly insisting that things had always been done in a certain way. It’s a typical example of how institutions refuse to evolve by sticking to the old order.
Much as this book is about personal experiences which you cannot argue about, it cannot entirely escape questioning.
When I read of “trials and tribulations”, I was curious. But I found out this was an overstatement. The so-called “trials and tribulations” were simply occupational hazards that came with the job. The Presidency is a subject of many competing forces – internal and external – and grabbing the President’s attention will always be a contested affair. So, for instance, the author’s fight with party officials over the President’s diary can hardly qualify as a tribulation. It was just institutional politics.
Largely missing from the book is the writer’s opinion. He is rather evasive, preferring to quote critics, the President, party officials and others, while his own position on a number of issues remains unprofessed. Why?
On Chiluba’s judgment day, the President detailed Jere and his other State House colleague to keep track of it and alert him. Jere relayed the news as soon as it broke. The President diverted from his speech in Kabwe to announce Chiluba’s acquittal and congratulated him. It’s interesting that Jere discusses the firefighting that followed but does not see himself as having facilitated a PR disaster which he should in fact have forestalled.
Jere’s sweeping claim that corruption under the Banda Administration was a perception created by the private media is not only misleading but also alarming and contradictory, not least because he has dedicated an entire chapter in the book to “Dealing with Scandals”.
In politics, perception is reality. The President’s demand for “evidence” before he could act on corruption suspects in his government was equally misplaced. The President was not (and is not) a court to demand evidence. He didn’t need evidence to relieve his officials to enable them clear their names and, more importantly, protect his own image.
Remember, too, that in his days President Chiluba similarly demanded evidence when it was public knowledge that corruption and theft in his government were rife. It’s clear that President Banda and his circle didn’t heed the past.
Jere’s reflections on what could have gone wrong make interesting reading. But it is only fair to say when you are part of the system, you do not see things the way you would in retrospect. In any case, even if you do, chances of your voice being heard among many others are slim.
Its shortcomings notwithstanding, the book is an important addition to the memory of the country’s politics.
The Sacred River - Book Review
Review by Jim Asudi, September 2014
This is a pro-revolution piece of writing that proposes an approach to tackling politically created societal problems. Slow economic growth, tyranny, poor infrastructural plans and strained relations with the international community are some of the challenges that the state of Donyokeri grapples with. The truth is that these are some of the contemporary problems Kenya and other African countries are struggling with. Donyokeri could be easily be any of the African countries, including Kenya.
The writer chose his characters and setting carefully. While it is clear that he was analyzing Kenyan politics – the shattered dreams and dashed hopes – the choice of a fictitious Donyokeri is perhaps intended to avoid potential friction with those who wield power. The author confronts current issues of governance and at the same time stays aloof from trouble of being labeled an ‘enemy of the state’.
This book presents a vital life lesson. It is that despite the challenges faced, trauma experienced, suffering inflicted, familial fallouts lived, community backlash met and other hosts of trials encountered revolutionaries must always remain unshaken and their vision should be too long to be cut short by ‘eye-folding’. Waciuri and Mohamed, the main characters in the book stay faithful to their dreams of eventual triumph. They persevere torture, death threats and criticism from people whom they sought to liberate. They emerge eventual victors in the end.
Of great importance is the fact that most African states appear to be colonized by their own people. Tyranny has been advanced and governance redefined in such a manner that heads of state prolong their stay in office beyond constitutionally set limits. It is sad that these things are done by the same people who fought against colonization by the Europeans and other foreign powers, as if subjugation by fellow Africans is any less painful than that by foreigners! In Sacred River Sonkoh, the president of Donyoker perfects the art. After taking over from departing white colonialists he sets out to rule with an iron fist.
For those who follow Kenyan politics, the situation is well captured in a statement by nominated Senator Elizabeth Ongoro that “It is now clear that yesterday’s liberators have turned to today’s dictators”. This is after she felt she was being unfairly and illegally short-changed by bigwigs in the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party, a party seen to be at the progressive end of Kenyan politics!
Gitura postulates a well-known, if less practiced truth, that ‘changing the forest and not the monkeys in there would solve nothing at all’. Kenya, for example, changed to a new dispensation recently but as things stand there is not much to smile about. His solution: a total overhaul. There is need to get a ‘sacred river” like residents of Donyokeri did.
Skeptics would, however, point at ‘living testimonies’ of Egypt and Tunisia, or lessons from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. The two states successfully overthrew totalitarian rulers through popular uprising termed the ‘Arab Spring’ in their respective nations. A while later, it emerges that the newly installed people’s presidents were not any different. Human nature? One is tempted to ask.
There are also lessons from the story of French Revolution. After eliminating dynasty and autocracy the French nation found itself in the hands of yet another powerful ‘power grabber’ in the name of Napoleon Bonarparte. It may well be that revolution is not the ultimate answer but one of the possible answers.
Jim Asudi is studying law at the University of Nairobi and hails from Kisumu County. He went to Rangwe Junior Academy prior to proceeding to Kanga High School. Jim has a great passion for literature and an irresistible drive to change the society through writing. He has several pieces he would like published, including a play and a collection of short stories.
Letter to the Prime Minister - Book Review
Review by Jim Asudi
I must say Justus Siage, in this book presents creativity at its best. Writing in form of a book in form of letter is a rare approach in this part of the world. The form of the book is attractive and the substance is captivating.
Most of the issues raised are real, tangible and can be related to, not only by Kenyan readers but as well a large segment of Africans across the continent. While most concerned citizens choose to raise the same via newspaper articles that are read and later use to wrap meat, the author opted for a more permanent form: a book.
A plus for the author is the choice of recipient of the letter. He knew well enough that the Prime Minister would still be in politics even after the expiry of the term of the Coalition Government with President Mwai Kibaki. The matters raised in the Letter to the Prime Minister remain as relevant today as they were in the days of the Coalition of Government. Moreover, the public, whose grievances are the subject of the book, have not been kept in the dark. The book is available to everyone. This, I must say, is a special (and perhaps the best) private (open) letter. The cover photo is marvelous.
Justus Siage does not talk about what he heard from a political analyst nor does he present information gotten from secondary sources. He writes about things he, like many a Kenyan citizen, personally experiences. That alone not only renders his work legitimate but also takes care of the weight to associated concerns. A good example he gives that of Kisumu City which experiences persistent water shortages despite sitting next to the largest fresh water on the African continent!
One philosophical lesson he fronts and on which I will research further is the view that “Kenya’s problems are not legal but ethical”. Laws have been amended, repealed and perpetually overhauled, but that has not solved a thing. Corruption remains intact (and even becoming more entrenched) and the environment is degrading as usual. I am inclined to believe that lack of ethics is at the core of this.
The author is also alive to the fact that he is addressing a distinguished public figure, at the centre of power and one in a position to make use of that power to bring change. Besides careful choice of words, Mr. Siage broadens his distresses as to cater for everyone in the society. From politics to traffic, education to electricity, water to roads and all, the author must be having a big heart for all.
The only undoing of the book, which is a small issue, is the introduction part. Most readers judge a book by the first page and it is my opinion that he ought to have done away with it. He should have gone straight to the latter. That aside, I look forward to his next release.
Jim Asudi is currently studying law at the University of Nairobi. He hails from Kisumu County, and went to Rangwe Junior Academy prior to proceeding to Kanga High School. Jim has a great passion for literature and an irresistible drive to change the society through writing. He has several pieces he would like published, including a play and a collection of short stories.
Khainga O'Okwemba captures the many contradictions of life in his latest anthology
The gentle and romantic poet in the Africa of the Second Liberation refuses to be prescriptive and instead chooses a style that is quiet and lacking in the hysteria that we see in the poetry of songsters who based their rhythms on the beats of traditional African poetry.
What we, instead, see in Khainga O’Okwemba’s surrealist poems is a narrative in which the poet lives in the unconscious, moving his poetic searchlight to Africa’s modern life, showing us what it is like to be a poet.
Typical of his romantic and sophisticated style is the poem from which he derives the title of his volume of poetry, Smiles in Pathos and Other Poems.
The book’s title is based on epiphanies that strike the poet as he walks down the dark lanes inhabited by modern humankind; it shows the interplay of vivid colours rendered in an economical use of words:
We were on a romantic picnic,
Dressed to charm another – red
For the lady, and – pink
For the man; he a playful lad
And she an outgoing lass
Smiles in Pathos
The title of this poem — and subsequently the title of the whole book — refuses to confine itself to a specific matter and instead explores the human pathos, as if to say that in life, joy and sorrow, death and life, night and dawn, live side by side in a paradoxical relationship.
The presence of joy, which shows in the lad who is in love with a lass, is soon overtaken by deceitfulness:
Our friend smiled in perfidy
Taking hold of the woman’s hand
And smiled again in perfidy
There is repetitive use of words in Khainga’s poems, which create the desired effect by the poet. When unrelated ideas and objects are brought side by side, they create a great impact on the reader. Khainga’s poem reminds us of the poem, "Sick Rose" by William Blake:
O Rose, thou art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found on thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy?
A rose of not by any name a rose in this poem. It is sick, affected by extraneous forces, symbolised by “the invisible worm.” In Khainga’s poem, the “worm” is visible. He is “Our friend.”
The arrangement of poems in this volume reminds us of a sequence called Residencia in Pablo Neruda’s versification with each Residencia poems, carrying different ideas.
Khainga’s first sequence is entitled "Poems of Homage," followed by "Poems of Known Tradition," "But Poetry Existed in Society," "Let me Be," "When with Charcoal we Painted the Wall," and ending with, "Song of Tomorrow."
It is interesting, but the "Ballads of K-street," read in a more gentle tone than what East Africans read about the goings-on on Nairobi’s Koinange Street, which was infamously referred to in the K-Street, are quite telling.
Journalists from popular media houses captured MPs and Cabinet ministers in compromising situations with sex workers. Khainga’s narrative songs do not come to us in a condemnatory voice. They are rendered in quiet satire, most of the time pleasing to the ear. Notice the irony in the Fourth Ballad:
Protected in lewd
She sauntered into the room
At the appointed time
It was at the city hotel
For a jig, whereupon
The music was played
And it penetrated the walls
From the arena of the live band
This guy in sporting outfit,
Had left his government job
Early enough for the tangle
Late on, he would submit
To the traditional sublime
of his wife
The slow revelation of the fact that the protagonist who plays hide and seek with women in the street ends up in a marital bed later rings with a subdued moral tag. But such is the drama that characterises Khainga’s ballads.
The poet is a journalist and is always armed with his camera staggering under the weight of his laptop as he goes about his work as the president of PEN Kenya Centre.
He holds together an association, which brings together writers who would be referred to as “the old that cannot grow new teeth” and the writers that express Africa’s “new narrative.” He constantly redefines his role as a poet, recording as he does the slices of life and expressing life’s message in the ever-renewing medium.
Khainga is the embodiment of the new subtle optimism, which the African requires to face the new forces in his own ironical words.
With a deadly assegai
We proclaim victory
But decry the trophy
Let the wounded die
The anthology is published by Nsemia Inc Corporation (Canada). It is available at the University of Nairobi bookshop and other bookstores at Sh600.
Khainga pens the weekly column "Literary Postcard" in the Star and hosts the premiere literature programme "The Books Café" on KBC English Service radio.
Chris L Wanjala, PhD, EBS, is a Professor of Literature, University of Nairobi
Inside the Presidency: The Trials and Tribulations of a Zambian Spin Doctor by Prof. Mwizenge S. Tembo
Dickson Jere, Inside the Presidency: Trials and Tribulations of a Zambian Spin-Doctor, Nsemia Inc. Publishers (www.nsemia.com) 2014, pp. 250, $30.00. K185.00, Paperback.
“I was browsing for Zambian news on the Internet when I came across a horrendous story. Some reporter had taken very graphic images of a woman giving birth in the middle of the street in Lusaka. The graphic photos were apparently being circulated on the internet and the local papers to show how incompetent President Rupiah Banda was in handling the nation-wide strike by medical doctors. I was very furious asking myself: ‘how would any Zambian or let alone a reporter think such a graphic photo that grossly crossed basic lines of ethics and decency was the best way to show that a political leader was incompetent?’
“A reporter for the Daily Post newspaper obtained harrowing images of a woman giving birth without medical assistance. Those pictures were circulated. Somehow the images found themselves on my desk and that of the President. One of his private secretaries must have put the envelope containing the photos in the president’s office without alerting him of the contents. He was extremely angry when he saw them. “This is very unethical and unAfrican,” he said as he threw the pictures away.” (Jere, 2014: p. 63)
This is among the many inside stories of the challenges and triumphs that former President Rupiah Banda faced during his presidency from 2008 after the death of President Levy Mwanawasa to 2011 when President Banda lost in a general election to President Michael Sata.
There are many Zambians since 1964 who have worked very closely with former Presidents Kenneth Kaunda Frederick Chiluba, Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda. Although some of the people may have written some articles, given some interviews and perhaps a book, none have written an inside story. They have not answered the biggest question that most of us Zambians may be curious and ask: “How does it feel like to be the closest person to the President?”
Inside the Presidency: Trials and tribulations of a Zambian Spin-Doctor by Dickson Jere breaks new ground as he is the first Zambian (and perhaps African) in contemporary times to describe his experiences as a president’s closest aide, confidant, advisor, and spokesman.
I found the 23 chapters in the book to be a fast-paced quick read. I read it over two evenings after dinner in between my heavy teaching work schedule. If you are among the 13 million Zambians who are in the country and especially if you are in the Diaspora, this is the book to read to understand one of our former Presidents.
Many readers will come to their own conclusions once they also read the book.
I learnt three main things about my country from reading Dickson Jere’s story.
First it seems any member of the press can print or publish any serious allegations of corruption or scandals about a sitting president with no judicial, criminal, or court consequences even when the story later proves to have no credible proof. It seems there is little press accountability for reporting possible falsehoods. Meanwhile, the president’s (or any political leader’s) reputation would have been destroyed with virtually no recourse.
Second, just as I have always thought, being a president is the toughest job in any country including Zambia. Dickson Jere was very lucky to go on this very thrilling ride to do something that served the public interest of Zambia as a nation.
Third, I was very proud of and became teary-eyed about my country of Zambia when President Rupiah Banda peacefully conceded defeat after the elections and handed over power to the new President elect-Michael Sata. President Kenneth Kaunda had done the same thing in 1991 after UNIP had lost elections to MMD by a land slide. However, I was very scared when there was political revenge violence soon after the elections. I was tense when Dickson Jere’s house and family were threatened by mobs of youths banging at his gate at 4 am in the morning as they perceived him as the enemy.
“But the systematic attacks on MMD supporters increased. They were beaten and their homes looted that whole week following the conclusion of elections”. (Jere, 2014, p. 211)
Although the violence could have been worse, violence is something that all Zambians, political leaders and parties should discourage before and after elections.
Fourth, what appears to be unjustified harassment or tormenting of former Presidents by the new government that has just been voted into power has to stop.
“The new government carried out sustained negative campaign against the former president since he left office. He was depicted as corrupt man who was involved in several questionable deals with members of his family. The government also threatened to withhold his benefits unless he quit his position as MMD president because the law prohibited former presidents from engaging in active politics.” (Jere, 2013: p.224)
Former Presidents ought to retire from politics to travel and conduct national and international diplomacy and peace building.
Callused Hands waterloo for greedy politician
Stanley Gazemba does not need any introduction. Born to a school teacher in Vihiga, Western Kenya, Gazemba was introduced to books in his formative years. His was a rollicking boyhood of a privileged village boy, a lifestyle peculiar in those days to families of civil servants exiled in the countryside, but who nonetheless shouldered one of the key pillars of nation building — education, or was it ridding the country of illiteracy! Gazemba won the Jomo Kenya Prize for Literature in 2003, with his debut novel The Stone Hills of Maragoli when he was just 29.
When did he write this novel?
Discovered by one of Kenya’s pioneering and finest publishing editors, Jimmy Makotsi — like Jonathan Kariara before him — Gazemba is one of the most solid and formidable novelists Kenya has produced. But Gazemba has had it rough with publishers. Primarily, there are two levels of publishing; first, when a publisher receives a manuscript, he reads it to find out if the story is sound and well told.
As he does so, he takes note of grammatical, typing, or any other technical error or mistakes. His verdict is informed, not on the technicalities, but on the soundness of the story. Secondly, if he approves the manuscript for publishing into book, he assigns an editor or editors, instructively, with a fine tooth-comb, to work with the author to weed out errors, in what legendary publisher Dr Henry Chakava calls “minimal intervention.”
This does not mean rewriting the story or changing the author’s diction. Our publishers have gone to sleep. The industry is populated by greedy businesspeople given to conniving to loot money earmarked for education through the textbook boon. If the Ministry of Education releases a new curriculum today these publishers will fall into each other in a rush to cobble together textbook-oriented writers to produce school books. A writer of fiction does not set out to impress the Ministry of Education. His only drive is the story that comes to him which he must tell well. If the story is adopted for school, it is for these reasons.
Gazemba’s new novel Callused Hands has attracted more critical attention because the author is no doubt one of contemporary Kenya’s most prolific, accomplished, and sophisticated prose stylists. Those who set out to read the novel already prejudiced with real or not technicality like the English editor at an old publishing house who saw my copy of the novel and picked on the word “callused,” which she mistook for a misspelling of “calloused”, may just miss this beautiful, but heartrending story of the peasantry whose callused hands are caused by the greed of a callous politician.
Gazemba walks with the reader, letting them to venture into his characters’ lives as he exposes social evils. The setting of the novel in a coffee farm is striking. The characters are compelling. Gazemba’s powerful description which he achieves with ease, embellished in a rich vocabulary, imagery, dramatic irony, and dark humour sets him apart as a great writer. The tragic story of Yakobo’s family and the slave driver, JP King’ong’o, mirrors the systemic impoverishment of a people such as the one perpetrated by France on Haitians. The conflict in Callused Hands is between a mean, exploitative, brutish, and greedy politician and a resilient people. The resolution is as striking and believable.
Gazemba shows his imaginative genius by letting the story to unfold. The peasants are mistreated, abused, and suffer long enough. When they cannot take it anymore, they revolt. Gazemba steers clear of stereotyping or glorifying tribes, which even an able writer like Yvonne Adhiambo in Dust is unable to wrestle to the ground. Gazemba’s vision is a seismic social transformation that is possible when a people muster will, determination, and bravery to engineer mass protest: “What followed was rather spontaneous, sudden and unexplained. Like a single insect bite that suddenly whips up a stampede in a calm herd. All of a sudden the once peaceful gathering stirred, the grimy farmhands rising. The women, like a pack of agitated hounds on a spoor, scrambled for their sacks and hurried towards the gate…” of emancipation.
 This review appeared in the Star, a Nairobi newspaper.