NAIROBI, Kenya – Chaacha Mwita waits for his phone to ring, takes down his customer's order, then furtively delivers his product that no stores in Kenya's capital dare carry.
Mwita is an author. His product is a book that contains material that is so politically sensitive that bookshops refuse to have it on their shelves. Another book by a British journalist has also met the same fate.
The government has not banned Mwita's "Citizen Power: A Different Kind of Politics, A Different Kind of Journalism" or journalist Michela Wrong's "It's Our Turn to Eat," which reports on the biggest corruption scandal facing President Mwai Kibaki. But because they contain politically sensitive material that could lead to libel lawsuits against the book sellers, shops don't carry the works.
Philo Ikonya, president of the Kenya Center of International PEN, a global group that defends writers and freedom of expression, said Kenya doesn't truly have open political space if booksellers fear selling a politically sensitive book. Two Kenyan booksellers and the country's booksellers association declined to comment or did not return phone calls from The Associated Press.
In his self-published book, Mwita reports that Kenya's top bureaucrat informed media executives that President Kibaki had won Kenya's 2007 elections — even before the Electoral Commission had resolved vote disputes. The bureaucrat told media outlets to prepare the country for Kibaki's re-election victory. A government spokesman called the account portrayed in Mwita's book "fiction."
Hours after that Dec. 30, 2007, meeting, the Electoral Commission declared Kibaki the winner. As the sun set on a controversy-ridden day, Kibaki was sworn in for a second term on the lawn of his official residence. Only hurriedly invited civil servants, politicians and diplomats were present — a sharp contrast to Kibaki's first inauguration in 2002 during a festive midday ceremony.
More than 1,000 people were killed and 600,000 fled their homes in the postelection violence. A power sharing deal between Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga — then leader of the opposition — ended the weeks of bloodletting. The International Criminal Court is now investigating the violence with the aim of charging those who were allegedly behind it with crimes against humanity.
Mwita — a former group managing editor of Kenya's oldest newspaper, The Standard — pitched his book to three bookshops in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. He says all three refused to stock it.
"The main reason for their refusal are the heavy fines courts have awarded to litigants in libel cases. The bookshops themselves are incompetent to determine what is libel and what is not libel, but they do not want to take a chance," Mwita said.
The U.S. government's aid arm — USAID — gave five grants through its Office of Transition Initiatives to get "It's Our Turn to Eat" to the Kenyan public. The agency paid for 5,100 copies of the book that were given away or sold at a subsidized price.
USAID got involved to break the booksellers "self-imposed" embargo because the government spokesman, Alfred Mutua, had said repeatedly that there was no ban on the book, said the Office of Transition Initiatives representative for Kenya, John Langlois. He hopes booksellers will now see there is no risk in selling the book.
"It is not clear that (perception) is happening, but at least other ways of getting out the book have opened," Langlois said.
Booksellers are skittish because they have been targeted before.
• In 2000, a Kenyan court fined three major bookshops a total of $380,000 for selling a book published in Britain and written by a British pathologist with serious allegations against a former powerful Cabinet minister in connection with the murder of former Kenyan Foreign Minister Robert Ouko.
• In 2001 former President Daniel arap Moi and a former Cabinet minister filed suit against former U.S. Ambassador Smith Hempstone for libel because a chapter in Hempstone's 1997 memoir, "The Rogue Ambassador," attempted to reconstruct the murder of Ouko. The former top Kenyan officials said the reconstruction portrayed them as murderers. Because of the suit, booksellers pulled the book from shelves.