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‘Nita Ride Boda Boda’: How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya

The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew.

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'Nita Ride Boda Boda': How the Bicycle Shaped Kenya
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“And you, do you go on a bicycle?”

“I do go on a bicycle, yes.”

The question was meant to be an insult but there was no comeback to the answer. Tom Mboya had just interrupted Martin Shikuku’s speech in Parliament to ask him whether he was any different from others who “…change cars everyday…” Shikuku’s answer, even then in 1964, was shocking – and even true to an extent. A few years later, he would be cycling to Parliament in a bid to encourage his colleagues to follow suit and “meet the people”. It clearly never caught on.

Shikuku had reason to be concerned. Everyone in the independence generation had grown up in a time where the bicycle was the most accessible means of transport. In their varied careers in the colony, they had cycled to school, work, social events, and political meetings. As soon as they could upgrade to motor vehicles, they ditched their bicycles and became part of a capitalist class with a penchant for conspicuous consumption. In the years just before and after independence, this newly minted political elite engaged in a race to purchase the best cars they could find. The only rule was to not get cars, or a fleet, better than the president’s.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”.

In 1963, an American businessman gifted Jomo Kenyatta a Lincoln Convertible to add to his fleet, which included a Mercedes 300 SE and a Rolls Royce, setting the bar quite high. By 1966, he had yet another Mercedes, but ordered a Rolls Royce meant for the mayor of Nairobi returned to London. This acquisition spree by men, many of whom had been careless just a few years earlier, was a waste of public funds. It was also a psychological coup, a statement of a new class that did not want to be associated with poverty in any form.

As he unveiled the national flag in September 1963, Tom Mboya set out the rules for flying it. He specifically asked people “not to fly the national flag on bicycles and so forth” and not to make copies of it with “cheap material in River Road”. The flag, he said, “must be treated with respect”. This critical symbol of a new nation was now limited to the select few who could afford, by virtue of their political and economic positions, to drive. To fly it on a bicycle was sacrilege. The bicycle was now what shecyclesNairobi calls “a strong symbol of poor man’s mobility in Nairobi, second to walking.”

In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s short story “Wedding at the Cross”, the (Raleigh) bicycle features prominently as a symbol of poverty that was not acceptable to the “Christian and propertied class”. The protagonist, Wariuki, has to lose his bicycle, and himself, to become what he thinks society needs him to be, and to show his parents-in-law that he is good enough to marry their daughter, Mariamu. By the time he meets them again after independence, he is a rich businessman driving a new Mercedes Benz. In another of Ngugi’s short stories, “A Mercedes Funeral”, a poor man’s funeral planning becomes the epicentre of political competition. One politician offers a Mercedes to transport the corpse, trumping his competitors. The implication in these postcolonial tales is the same: the bicycle had lost its cool.

The earliest bicycles in Kenya were used by the unholy tripartite of colonial conquest: administrators, missionaries, and settlers. Some were given as presents to servants and friends, such as Nabongo Mumia, and before long the domestic market grew. It was still significantly smaller than the Ugandan market, where a cycling craze was well underway by the mid-1920s. Of the 4,852 bicycles that were imported in 1927, for example, only 1,719 of them were meant for the Kenyan market. At the time, overall demand in both countries had been falling steadily from a short-lived peak of nearly 24,000 bicycles two years earlier.

By 1930, demand had dipped to 1,295 bicycles. It recovered, clocking 14,003 units by 1936. Despite these fluctuations, bicycles were still outselling all other forms of mechanised transport. They were an expensive purchase only affordable to a select few who had jobs that paid well enough to save up. This cost element also meant that only men, who had actively been forced into wage labour since the early 1900s, could afford them. In the migrant labour economy, a bicycle was the fastest way for them to get to work, and for some, to get the work done.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school.

Even when more women were employed in formal wage labour, they were mostly limited to resident agriculture and low wage employment. Combined with pre-existing perspectives on gendered roles, cycling emerged as an exclusively male space. It explains why nearly all the major stories involving bikes from this time involve male riders, from Kenyatta’s famous bicycle in the 1920s to the story of Kamawe Musungu, whose murder led to the first (and only) execution of a white man in Kenya. A forgotten detail of the assassination of Chief Waruhiu, which triggered the State of Emergency, is that his bodyguard was not in the car with him because he (Waruhiu) had forced him to cycle back on his friend’s bicycle.

Most of the women who rode bicycles during this time came from families that already owned a bicycle. A good number of stories of the first women to get an education involve a bicycle, often a father carrying his daughter to school. Before long, in the 1940s and 1950s especially, women were riding too, although female riders never became as prevalent as male ones. This was partly because, as bicycle use became an almost exclusively rural form of transport, cultural views on female riders did not change. They extended not just to riding, but also to usage, as a by-law requiring women to sit sideways, introduced in the Kisumu County Assembly in 2013, shows.

The safety bicycle

Bicycles were still a rather recent innovation at the start of the colonial conquest of the African continent. A German man, Baron Karl Von Drais, filed the first patent of the modern bike’s ancestor in 1818. His design was inspired by the “Year without a Summer” (1816), which followed the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. Considered the worst eruption in recent history, it lowered global temperatures and ruined crop harvests for several years. The ensuing famine killed humans, and more importantly for this story, horses. That presented a transport problem for which Drais had an answer.

His invention, the Laufmachine (“running machine”) was a wooden, human-propelled, two-wheeled machine. It had no gears or pedals, which would take another five decades to invent. But it, and later variants, caught on. One of those variants was called The Boneshaker because it had a wooden frame and metal tires, making for an uncomfortable ride. Others had one massive wheel and a much smaller one. Still, they had the same basic problems as Drais’s machine; they were heavy, uncomfortable, and unsafe. Such variants informed the perception that the bicycle was a toy for daring, wealthy young men.

All that changed in 1885, when the “safety bicycle”, as we know it today, with its metal frame and two same-sized wheels, was invented. Two years later, a Scottish veterinarian called John B. Dunlop experimented with pneumatic tyres on his son’s tricycle. He filed and got a patent for the tyres, although he lost it two years later because another Scotsman had filed a similar patent four decades prior. Combined, these inventions triggered a cycling craze in the 1890s that led to more affordable bicycles and eventually, their presence in the colonies. Colonies became even more important markets after bicycle demand stalled in the United States as Americans ditched other forms of transport for Henry Ford’s Model T.

By the 1930s, there were several brands battling for the East African market. Almost all were British, and the most prestigious of them was Raleigh. The introduction to the 1932 Raleigh Sales Catalogue claims that the Baganda were so enthralled with the bicycle that “the name has been adopted as their common definition of quality, and should a necktie, cap, or any other object meet with their enthusiastic approval, immediately it is dubbed ‘Raleigh’.”

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!”

The competition, which had brands such as Humber, Hercules, and BSA, was still formidable. Bicycles, unlike gramophones (the other luxury item of the day), had a primary appeal beyond prestige. They offered mobility in an economy that was increasingly demanding it, with few public options in place.

The bicycle economy

The bicycle that caught on was the single-speed, steel-frame roadster. Like Henry Ford’s Model T, it came in black. It was relatively within reach, economically, and to some extent, durable. It also needed to be registered, and over time, modified to add parts, such as reflectors, as road rules evolved. But bicycles offered an unmatchable utility because they could perform many other roles, including as economic and social tools.

The brands advertised heavily, and many of them were some of the earliest advertisers in local-language newspapers. In a Mambo Leo newspaper advert from June 1930, Raleigh advertised this claim: “It has strength of a lion! The lightness of a feather! It goes faster than the wind!” Raleigh used different variations of this idea in most of its artwork, incorporating a man, a lion, and a bicycle. A BSA bicycle ad from around the same time shows a smartly dressed man cycling, and two ladies in the background checking him out. A slightly more forward-thinking Raleigh billboard depicts a man riding a bicycle in the foreground, and two ladies cycling in the background. Its copy reads “Be Modern Ride a Raleigh.”

This primary market also spawned off another source of employment – bicycle mechanics. Bicycle mechanics were a unique class at the time because they were mostly self-employed, and their primary customers were black. The competition among them drove down repair prices so that if you owned a bicycle by the 1940s, you didn’t need to pay a herd of cattle to get it repaired, as Nabongo Mumia had done in 1910.

Mechanics and bicycle owners got their spares from Asian-owned shops, which thrived as bicycle usage increased. In 1936, for example, bicycle tyre imports were ten times higher than the number of bicycles imported. This trade built a few Indian tycoons, such as Kassam Kanji Rahim Varsi, who got a loan from his father-in-law and opened a bicycle parts shop in Nairobi. By the 1950s, Bata and the Avon Rubber Company made bicycle tyres in Kenya, but other parts still had to be shipped in.

While many of the bicycle’s earliest users used it to commute to and from, and during, work, people found other economic uses as well. The most resilient of these is transport, which grew out of a demand for transport services at the Kenya-Uganda border. The bicycle was also used to transport food, at times animals, tools, and other materials. Others modified their bicycles to create mobile business units, such as mounting a knife-sharpening stone oh the bicycle.

The prestige and utility of cycling also meant bicycles were a frequent target for burglary. Bicycle theft was such a problem in East Africa in the 1950s that Dar es Salaam had a special Bicycle Squad within its police force and Uganda had a Bicycle Thefts Committee around the same time. In Kenya, it was often listed among the most common thefts of property, and magistrates regularly whipped young offenders who were caught with stolen bicycles. Early administrators in Nairobi also employed vagrancy laws to arrest people for a vaguely described offence called “misuse of bicycle”.

The Wabenzi class

In the post-war period of the late 1940s, thousands of demobilised soldiers sought transport licences. Many bought lorries and cars, but the bicycle remained the most frequently used form of transport in the country, especially in rural areas. As more people joined a fledging white collar class in the late 50s and the early 60s, the bicycle remained a symbol of the blue-collar worker and ultimately, poverty. The only black people who had cars before the 1950s were colonial chiefs and a few enterprising businessmen.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space.

Before long this cadre of car owners would include independence politicians, who bought them for campaigns and travels. They quickly ditched the small cars they had acquired in the late 50s and early 60s and switched to fuel guzzlers. What mattered now was what type of car one drove, hence the rise of the “Wabenzi” – a generation that even included at least one high profile theft of a Mercedes Benz from a showroom in Nairobi.

The statement “cannot even afford a bicycle” appears several times in the Hansard in reference to the economic plight of former legislators. By itself, it suggests a lifelong responsibility for the taxpayer to fund the lifestyles of its political class, even after they have left the public space. In a discussion about Daniel Arap Moi’s retirement benefits in 2003, one of the main issues was why his bodyguards and watu wa mikono also needed Mercedes Benzes. The alternative, of course, was not bicycles.

For this class, bicycles were only good as toys for children. This was not a view limited to Kenya or East Africa, as the global bicycle market was struggling as more people opted for cars. Bicycle manufacturers had to find new ways of selling them, which pushed them back to the original sales pitch of the bicycle as a children’s toy and a tool for extreme sports. The single-speed roadster was now a product more popular for its function over form, and its users invisible to the “cultured” classes.

Still, as grown-ups moved to cars, bicycles for their children became a major class distinction. In the 1970s and 1980s, owning a BMX was a middle-class status symbol. Ironically for these classes, the car craze meant that cyclists were forgotten in infrastructure and budget planning. Private cars and motorways took over, and riding a bicycle in an urban centre increasingly became dangerous. This meant that children who grew up in cities and towns were not allowed to ride bicycles on the roads because of the dangers cars represented.

The implication for the majority of bicycle users was far worse, as they were seen as a nuisance on the roads. Bicycle lanes were not a priority, and even essential things like proper bicycle parking were only available in some colonial-era structures. Import duty remained prohibitively high (in some years as high as 90 per cent) until the government started systematically reducing it in the mid-1980s. Even before then, bicycles remained an important economic tool for a silent majority who could not afford private cars or even the expense of public transport.

The end of the bicycle’s run as a symbol of prestige was to be expected, but it did not end its usage among the working class or even the lower cadres of government employees. In 1990, for example, the government imported 525 bicycles to be issued to field agricultural extension staff on loan basis. Bicycles were bought for local government employees, and even health workers working in HIV/AIDS prevention in the early 2000s. They’ve even been used in political campaigns as recently as 2017, before being quickly replaced with fuel-guzzlers that constitute the welcome package for our legislators.

The true threat to the bicycle’s run as the wheels of the people was not the car, but its motorised descendant. There were only 525 registered motorcycles in Kenya in 1963, and only 4,136 in 2004. By the time duty on motorcycles below 250cc was waived in 2007, these numbers had grown to 16,923. Today, there are closer to a million bicycles, serving different functions but primarily as boda bodas (bicycle taxis).

But the single-speed roadster is still remarkably popular, mostly because of the same reason it has always been popular – it doesn’t need fuel, and it is cheap to repair. Plus, it’s good exercise.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

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Africa United: The Cup of Nation Returns and Kenya Made It to the Party

Harambee Stars has not qualified for Africa’s premier footballing competition since 2004, when a Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee coached side was drawn in a tough group with Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso. Now, fifteen years later, what are Kenya’s chances of making the knockout stages of the 2019 African Cup of Nations.

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Africa United: The Cup of Nation Returns and Kenya Made It to the Party
Photo: Flickr/Ben Sutherland
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In January 2008, I was seated in a police station in Kisumu watching a rerun of a Cameroon game at the 2008 African Cup of Nations. Kisumu was engulfed in the flames of the post-election violence, and I was an eleven-year-old sheltered in a police station, but I was not thinking about that. Instead, I was thinking about Cameroon and Ghana, my AFCoN teams. Alex Song was playing in midfield for Cameroon that year, and his talents, together with those of legendary striker Samuel Eto’o, buttressed the Indomitable Lions’ charge to the final of the competition, where they lost to Hosni Abd Rabou’s Egypt.

Before Eto’o was the legendary Cameroonian hitman, Roger Milla. Milla came out of retirement to lead Cameroon into the quarterfinals of the 1990 FIFA World Cup in Italy. Thirty-eight years-old at the time, he netted four goals in the competition. The highlight of his tally was his double against the Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita in the second round. In that game, Milla received the ball from François Omam-Biyik and, in one fluid movement, flicked the ball towards and away from his body, and slalomed through two Colombian defenders with ease. Later in the match, he dispossessed the maverick keeper sometimes known as El Loco, and a madcap race to the goal-line ensued. Four years later, Milla would reappear at the World Cup again, and score a goal against Russia to become the oldest goal scorer in the history of the World Cup. He was forty-two years old.

In the four years between his World Cup heroics, Roger Milla’s football had taken a more salacious turn. In the cellars of Yaounde’s national stadium, Milla had locked over a hundred pygmies who he had originally assembled to be part of charity football tournament to raise money to promote the wellbeing of Cameroonian pygmies. In his book, Football Against the Enemy, Simon Kuper writes that, “Milla had invited pygmies to play a few games, to raise money for their health and education, but he imprisoned them there, issued them with guards and seldom fed them.” The lack of food was fuelled by the belief that “they play better if they don’t eat too much.”

On FIFA’s official website, Roger Milla is described as, “Modest and committed to a fault, this giant of world football devotes whatever spare time he has time to helping others less fortunate than himself.”

Roger Milla. Football legend. FIFA’s symbol of altruism.

Let the games begin

The 2019 African Cup of Nations kicks off on Friday, 21st June in Egypt. The competition is officially known as The Total 2019 African Cup of Nations. The competition was initially supposed to be hosted by Cameroon, but the Confederation of African Football (CAF) stripped them of hosting rights citing, among other things, the Anglophone crisis, delays in the delivery of infrastructure, and the threat of the Boko Haram. This is the second time in recent years that the venue of the competition is being changed at, relatively, the last-minute. In 2015, Equatorial Guinea was awarded the hosting rights after Morocco, which had been slated to host the competition, pulled out, citing the looming threat of Ebola. CAF moved to sanction Morocco, throwing it out of the 2015 AFCoN, banning it from the 2017 and 2019 editions, and ordering it to pay one million dollars in fines to CAF, and eight million dollars as compensation for losses sustained by CAF and stakeholders after the pull-out. The Moroccans argued that Ebola was a risk they could not afford to take, given the swathe of fans expected to attend the tournament, despite the fact that home fans predominantly attend AFCoN competitions. The Ebola strain had at that point only appeared in three countries, none of which were likely to be at the competition, and the curious coincidence that Morocco would play host to the World Club Cup barely a month before AFCoN, a competition that would draw in significantly more spectators from outside the country.

Writing for The Guardian, Sean Jacobs argued that the pullout was a microcosm of North African countries’ difficult relationship with countries South of the Sahara. To make the hosting roulette more interesting, CAF would award Cote d’Ivoire the hosting rights of the 2021 competition, but after stripping Cameroon of 2019 hosting rights, they would renege on Cote d’Ivoire’s 2021 hosting rights and award them to Cameroon. The latest CAF report stated that Cote d’Ivoire had accepted an offer to host the 2023 AFCoN edition in place of the 2021 finals. Five years ago the 2019, 2021 and 2023 editions were awarded to Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea respectively and now Guinea has to wait until 2025.

Morocco is one of the favourites of the The Total 2019 African Cup of Nations, the same competition that they were banned from before the success of their appeal against it. In mercurial Ajax Amsterdam playmaker, Hakim Ziyech, the Moroccans possess one of the flair players of the continent, and are packed with quality across the board: Mehdi Benatia, previously of Juventus, Bayern Munich and AS Roma, patrols the backline, flanked by Achraf Hakimi and Noussair Mazraou, who are the finest fullback pairing at the tournament. Morocco, alongside Egypt and Senegal, start as heavy favourites, Egypt because they are hosts and because Mo’ Salah la la la la la la, and Senegal because jogo oyierore. Growing up in Kisumu, when we played football as kids, we would split into two teams randomly, and when it happened that the random selection had led to the skilled players all being on one team, we would complain that jogo oyierore. They have chosen each other. This is what a friend messages when Senegal announces their final squad for the tournament. They have chosen each other. The Sengalese squad is a ridiculous exercise in name-dropping. Kalibou Koulibaly is one of the three finest central defenders in world football. His centre back partner, Salif Sane, who despite a difficult season with Schalke 04 in Germany’s Bundesliga, shone at last year’s World Cup, as did Moussa Wague at right back. Idrissa Gana Gueye in midfield is the best tackler in the English Premier League. Ismailla Sarr and Keita Balde are threatening to become world class forwards, while Sadio Mane, the figurehead of the attack, is a genuine world class forward, one of the premier players in his position in world football. Jogo oyierore. 

Then there are the other bigwigs, the shadow favourites: Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire, Tunisia, Algeria. Cameroon, by virtue of being defending champions. Kenya has the unfortunate luck of being drawn in the same group with Senegal and Algeria who in Yacine Brahimi, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez have an attack not to be sneered upon. One would expect Senegal to top the group, and Algeria to finish runners-up, but the Kenyans could surprise, having qualified for the group stage on the back of rugged rearguard displays. The Tanzanians complete this group.

Kenya is back after 15 years

Naturally (or as naturally as the politics of geopolitics can be), Kenya interests me. Harambee Stars has not qualified for Africa’s premier footballing competition since 2004, when a Jacob ‘Ghost’ Mulee coached side was drawn in a tough group with Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, where the side lost to both Senegal and Mali, but salvaged some pride when teenage striker Dennis Oliech inspired them to a 3-0 win against Burkina Faso. Now, fifteen years later, Mulee, for one, is optimistic about Kenya’s chances of making the knockout stages of the 2019 African Cup of Nations. Mulee says, “I think we will beat Algeria and draw with Tanzania and qualify for the round of sixteen (as best losers) even before our final match against Senegal.”

Harambee Stars coach Sebastien Migne, however, is keeping himself grounded. Kenya, he argues, has only one player (Victor Wanyama) playing in a top league in the world, and so expectations have to be lowered. He adds, “For this reason, we must be realistic about our expectations and I believe what we achieved was something to be celebrated instead of the negative criticism.”

Migne is right to keep the expectations low. Senegal is the highest ranked team in the continent, after all, while the Algerians have appeared in two World Cups on the trot. Furthermore, questions have been asked about Migne’s own squad selection for the continental showcase. Sports reporter Celestine Olilo writing in The Daily Nation, raises doubts about the depth of the Harambee Stars squad. Masoud Juma, she notes, has spent the last six months without a football club, yet he has been picked as back-up to the main striker Michael Olunga at the expense of Allan Wanga who netted eighteen goals in the just-concluded KPL season. There is also Jesse Were who has scored freely for the last three seasons in the Zambian Super league with Zesco United leaving some to feel that he is being punished for leading the line for struggling Harambee Stars teams in the past. Furthermore, as Olilo notes, the goalkeeper situation is not the best. First-choice keeper Patrick Matasi has made several high-profile blunders while playing for the national team, most recently in the friendly against the Democratic Republic of Congo, while back-up keepers Farouk Shikhalo and John Oyiemba have zero international caps for Kenya.

While Kenya’s defensive displays gained the plaudits during qualification, conceding only one goal, the attack has flattered to deceive. A trio of Michael Olunga, Ayub Timbe and Francis Kahata will be the main men in the final third of the pitch, but beyond them there are concerns about the rest of the attack. Ovella Ochieng who is expected to push Kahata for a place in the team was gravely disappointing in the buildup friendlies in Paris, and should he continue his dour displays at the tournament, then fingers will be wagged at Migne’s decision to leave Cliff Nyakeya out of the squad, despite the Mathare United dynamo having scored thirty-two goals in the last two seasons.

Still, hope never dies. The main men for the team are captain Victor Wanyama, Japan-based centre forward Michael Olunga, and wing wizard Ayub Timbe. The latter two were responsible for Kenya’s goal against the DRC, Olunga curling the ball into the net after a jinxing run from the left wing by Timbe. Timbe, who one hopes will not succumb to the myriad of injuries he tends to pick up when playing for Kenya, is bullish about the team’s chances of progressing in Egypt. He says, “Our team is good when it comes to defending and even attacking. I will try to score as many goals as I can, but the most important thing here is teamwork.”

Then there are the other teams too, the other groups. Egypt are in a tricky looking Group A with the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Devotees of the Kenyan Premier League would be interested in Uganda, not least because of vague regional loyalties, but specifically because Khalid Aucho, who is maybe the best midfielder to play in the KPL in recent years, is in the squad. However, this is not the group of death. For the group of death, we jump to Group D, where Morocco, Cote d’Ivoire and South Africa will eyeball each other, and take turns at eyeballing Namibia.

Dirty Football 

The African Cup of Nations kicks off while African, and world, football is caught in the eye of a storm. On June 6th, Ahmad Ahmad, the Confederation of African football president, was arrested in Paris. Ahmad is accused of corruption and harassment by Amr Fahmy who was fired as CAF general secretary in April. Fahmy accuses Ahmad of, among other things, paying $20,000 in bribes into the accounts of African football association presidents such as those of Tanzania and Cape Verde, and harassing four female CAF employees. The arrest of Ahmad is only part of the chain of arrests of current and former world football leaders for corruption. Issa Hayatou, who Ahmad replaced as president of CAF in 2017, was accused of accepting a $1.5 million bribe from Qatar to secure his support for their bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and in 2018 was fined $27.9 million by the Egyptian Economic Court for flouting the Monopolistic Practices Act when signing a billion-dollar deal between CAF and French company Lagardère in 2015.

However, we think not of these things. Instead, we think about Ghana. Ghana is in Group F, alongside Cameroon, Benin and Guinea-Bissau. The fifteen-year absence of Kenya from continental and world football meant that I supported Ghana resolutely. In the 2006 World Cup, I cheered on Sammy Kuffuor, Richard Kingston, Asamoah Gyan & co. as they reached the second round, while in AFCON 2008, Junior Agogo charmed me with his goals and his celebrations (and the news of his inability to write as a result of his stroke broke my heart). Then in World Cup 2010 in South Africa, Gyan, and that penalty against Uruguay that I will never get over. The Ghanaians have floundered since then, not getting past the group stage of the World Cup four years later (despite John Boye and Jonathan Mensah’s heroic defending) and not qualifying for Russia 2018. Their preparations were mired in drama when Gyan was stripped of the captaincy, subsequently declared his retirement from international football, but twenty-four hours later rescinded his decision to retire following a call from his country’s president, Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. He is now stressing Ghana’s readiness for the tournament despite a goalless draw with South Africa, and a loss to Namibia in the buildup to AFCoN.

What’s In A Name?

Here is an interesting twist to the power of naming in African football. Roger Milla was The Old Man, and he made a mockery of those who had dismissed him because of his age. A joke made is that the national team’s nickname has a direct effect on their ability to win the tournament. Thus, Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions were victorious in 2017. Les Éléphants (Cote d’Ivoire) in 2015. The Super Eagles (Nigeria) won it in 2013. Chris Katongo’s goals fired Zambia’s Chipolopolo (The Copper Bullets) to the title in 2012, while Egypt’s The Pharaohs claimed the throne for three editions straight from 2006-2010. The Atlas Lions (Morocco) should consider themselves de facto contenders, as should The Lions of Teranga (Senegal). Ethiopia (the Walias) won the first edition of the tournament in 1962, but as the Walias ibex has become endangered, so too has the country’s football.

South Africa’s Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys) won it in 1996, but since then lions, elephants, eagles, pharaohs and copper bullets have won it. Watch out for DRC’s The Leopards, Mali’s The Eagles, and Guinea’s National Elephants while The Warriors (Zimbabwe) and The Brave Warriors (Namibia) could just do it. Kenya (Harambee Stars) will gather hope from Ghana’s Black Stars having won in the 80s, but Uganda’s The Cranes, Burundi’s The Swallows, Angola’s Palancas Negras (Giant sable antelopes), Benin’s The Squirrels and Madagascar’s Barea (named after a species of Zebu) should, perhaps, temper their expectations.

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Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda – Review

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

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Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda - Review
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Who is Uganda’s enigmatic leader Yoweri Museveni? Since seizing power 33 years ago, his army has profoundly reshaped the politics of central and eastern Africa, and yet few outside of this region have even heard of him.

To some, Museveni is a visionary strategist who helped topple three brutal dictators, revived Uganda’s economy, fought the AIDS epidemic and played a steady-handed diplomatic role in a volatile region. But for others, Museveni is himself a brutal dictator, who deliberately provokes conflicts within Uganda and in neighboring countries, brutalizes Uganda’s political opposition and feasts on money stolen from Ugandan taxpayers and foreign aid programs, all the while beguiling naïve Western journalists and diplomats with his signature charm.

I’ve been reporting on Uganda for almost 25 years, and I still find Museveni fascinating. As a rebel leader during the early 1980s, his shape-shifting exploits were legendary. Again and again, his small band of rebels would menace and outwit Uganda’s much larger national army and then melt away into the bush. Ugandans joke that Museveni could turn into a cat and walk through roadblocks.

William Pike, who served as editor of Uganda’s government-owned New Vision newspaper from 1986-2006 has almost certainly had more contact with Museveni than any other non-Ugandan writer. Pike’s gripping new book Combatants: A Memoir of the Bush War and the Press in Uganda provides an insider’s view of the Ugandan leader and his movement.

By all accounts, Pike is a highly effective editor and manager. Former employees have described him to me as a gentle boss who ran a productive, disciplined newsroom. He wasn’t afraid to go after cases of corruption involving senior cabinet ministers and even sporadic cases of torture and extra-judicial killings carried out by Museveni’s security forces. Under his leadership, the New Vision soon became Uganda’s most popular publication. I’m personally acquainted with Pike and have always found him kind, intelligent and extremely likeable. His book is also very well-written.

Unfortunately however, Combatants presents an overly flattering image of Museveni’s regime that belies reality, overlooks recent scholarship that challenges Pike’s version of events and sometimes contradicts the findings of Pike’s own New Vision reporters.

***

Pike first met Museveni in 1984, when the young reporter snuck behind enemy lines during the so-called “bush war” against Uganda’s then-president Milton Obote. By then, Museveni’s rebels known as the National Resistance Army, or NRA– controlled a significant part of the Luwero Triangle, an 8000 square mile area northwest of Kampala that had been the site of intense fighting. Until then, the bush war was viewed internationally as a minor skirmish, but Pike’s articles for the UK Observer and Guardian newspapers helped bring Museveni’s struggle to the attention of western policymakers.

The Luwero Triangle is the rural homeland of the Baganda people—Uganda’s largest ethnic group. Soon after launching his rebellion, Museveni, a Munyankole from western Uganda, promised Baganda leaders that if he managed to take power, he’d restore their traditional kingdom, which Obote had violently crushed in 1966. In return, the Baganda allowed Museveni to base his forces in their villages. When Museveni’s men attacked army and police posts, Obote’s undisciplined and brutal soldiers responded with disproportionate force, killing anyone, including innocent villagers whom they suspected of supporting the rebels. During his visit, Pike was shown areas littered with human skulls. Quoting Museveni, he estimated that Obote’s forces had killed some 300,000 people—roughly half the population of the Luwero Triangle at the time.

The UK government, which supported Obote, was claiming that some 12,000 people had been killed on all sides of the fighting. If Pike was correct, Obote was responsible for genocide, and Britain’s support was unconscionable. By then, the Reagan administration was already distancing itself from Obote. While Pike was in Luwero, then Assistant Secretary of State Eliot Abrams told a congressional hearing that Obote’s regime had killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Normally such a huge figure would be referenced by a reputable source, ideally a forensic investigation, but like Pike, Abrams cited no independent source for those figures. When asked by Congressman Don Bonker where his source for the Luwero death toll came from, Abrams equivocated. “You wouldn’t be able to document those numbers,” he said. “There is no way of measuring directly, but there seems to be some kind of consensus that that is the order of magnitude.” Around the same time, the Washington Post also published a brief article on Uganda. Citing unnamed refugee monitoring groups and “official US sources” the author, who had not visited Uganda, also wrote that Obote’s forces had killed 100,000 to 200,000 people.

Since then, a more complex narrative about the Luwero skulls has emerged which Pike does not explore in Combatants. Not only is there no evidence that the death toll was as high as Pike and Reagan Administration officials claimed, Obote’s army, though undisciplined and brutal, may not have been responsible for all the casualties that did occur. Most deaths probably resulted from disease and hunger as a result of mass displacement. In 1983, the government launched a counter offensive against the NRA, and in the process rounded up more than 100,000 villagers into squalid camps without adequate food, water and medicine. The NRA then ordered the evacuation of those who remained in the area. As thousands of peasants trudged north with the NRA, more reportedly died. When the NRA retook those areas, the bones of the casualties of these operations could have been among those shown to Pike.

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters.

The NRA was also probably not blameless. Shortly after Pike’s visit, a journalist for the London Daily Telegraph visited one of the villages where the army was alleged to have massacred hundreds of people a year earlier. He found “nothing to support [these] claims.” The army had withdrawn to allow the Telegraph reporter to freely interview the chief and villagers. “The surprise these people showed when asked about a massacre could not have been an act,” he wrote. However, they did mention that Museveni’s rebels had recently killed three men and four children. Some of the rebels came from the area and locals recognized them, even though they were partially disguised in army uniforms. “They were dressed halfway,” the chief said. “I mean they were in army and civilian clothes, all mixed up.”

Former NRA soldiers have told me personally that they witnessed and even participated in such “false flag” killings, as have former NRA Kadogos—child soldiers–speaking with other reporters. In his 2011 memoir Betrayed By My Leader, former NRA Major John Kazoora describes an NRA massacre of Obote-loyalists belonging to the Alur tribe. “They would dig a shallow grave,” he writes, “tie you [up] and lie you facing the ground and crack your skull using an old hoe called Kafuni.”

In some cases, the NRA may even have killed its own. At first, Museveni mainly recruited from his own Banyankole tribe and Buganda, but after Obote brutally forced Uganda-based Rwandan Tutsi refugees into camps where many starved and died, some of them joined the rebellion as well. They grew close to Museveni, whose Hima people are closely related to the Tutsis, and soon began to dominate the force. Toward the end of the war, Baganda NRA soldiers began dying mysteriously and some suspected foul play. “We were fighting tribalism,” one Muganda NRA veteran told The Monitor newspaper, “but it was growing in the bush.” In 1983, Museveni warned all Westerners, including aid workers and diplomats, to leave Uganda at once. “We don’t possess the power to prevent accidents,” he wrote in a signed letter issued by his representatives in Kenya. Three weeks later, a Canadian engineer was gunned down on his doorstep in Kampala; four other European aid workers were killed a few months later. While the killers were never definitively identified, the NRA had kidnapped and released four other Swiss hostages and a French doctor around the same time.

***

In July 1985, Obote was toppled by his own army. The NRA continued to battle for power as desultory peace talks dragged on in Nairobi. Eventually, the NRA took Kampala from the disorganized, weak Ugandan government forces, and Museveni was sworn in in January 1986.

Back in London, a series of glowing tributes to Museveni appeared in the Observer and Guardian newspapers, many of them written by Pike. “Polite Guerrillas End Fourteen Years of Torture and Killing,” read one headline; “The Pearl of Africa Shines Again,” read another. According to his admirers, Museveni was Robin Hood, Che Guevara, and Field Marshal Montgomery all rolled into one.

As the war was winding down, Pike and Times of London journalist Richard Dowden toured NRA held areas, where villagers unanimously told them that all the atrocities were the fault of Obote’s forces; none were committed by the NRA, they said. However, both journalists were being escorted by NRA officers. Under the circumstances, it’s conceivable that villagers might have been afraid to report NRA atrocities, if they knew of any.

In recent years, opposition politicians including Kizza Besigye who served as Museveni’s doctor during the bush war, have called for a forensic investigation of the Luwero killings. Museveni has refused. Such an investigation would be very difficult in any case, since the NRA ordered locals to rebury the bones or gather them in memorial sites after the war.

Whatever the reality, the Luwero skulls provided Museveni with political capital early on. Shortly after coming to power, he escorted diplomats around the Luwero Triangle, pointing out the scattered remains and mass graves that Pike had seen. This helped bolster international support for Museveni, who came to be seen as Uganda’s best hope for a way out of the quagmire of its bloody history. Billions of foreign aid dollars would soon flow into his treasury.

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns

During the 1996 presidential campaigns, the New Vision reported that Museveni’s main challenger, Paul Ssemogerere was planning to invite Milton Obote back from exile and appoint him to his cabinet. Ssemogerere vigorously denied this, but Pike insisted it was true. The article was published alongside a Museveni campaign ad with images of Luwero skulls heaped up in a pyramid and the following slogan:

“Don’t forget the past. Over one million Ugandans, our brothers, sisters, family and friends, lost their lives. YOUR VOTE COULD BRING IT BACK.”

According to historian Pauline Bernard, Pike claims credit for the article and the ad. But the inspiration for the skull propaganda may actually have come from highly controversial Museveni stalwart Roland Kakooza-Mutale, whose state-backed militia known as the Kalangala Action Plan attacks and terrorizes opposition supporters during political campaigns. After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

More recently, Uganda’s tourism board has proposed creating a museum to commemorate those killed by previous regimes, including the Luwero dead.

***

Combatants also covers the early years of the war in northern Uganda that would give rise to the terrifying warlord Joseph Kony. But here, again, Pike paints an overly rosy picture of the NRA’s role. After Museveni was sworn in, his troops continued to pursue soldiers of the former Ugandan army, most of whom came from northern and eastern Uganda. In March 1986, former government soldiers in Acholiland—comprising the northern districts of Gulu and Kitgum—finally put down their guns. When the NRA arrived in Gulu they were “disciplined, friendly and respectful,” according to New Vision journalist Caroline Lamwaka. They requested the former army soldiers to surrender their weapons and some did so. Then in late April, the NRA began conducting raids on villages where they suspected guns were still being hidden. Property was looted, women were raped and unarmed people were shot and killed. Some Acholi ex-soldiers who surrendered were taken to Western Uganda and never seen again. As political scientist Adam Branch puts it, the NRA appeared to be launching “a counter-insurgency without an insurgency.” In August 1986, a few thousand former members of Obote’s army who had escaped over the border to Sudan invaded and attacked the NRA. In turn, NRA attacks against Acholi civilians escalated, and more rebel groups, including Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army soon emerged. Uganda’s twenty-year northern war was soon underway.

After the fall of Amin in 1979, Kakooza-Mutale ran a pro-Museveni newspaper known as Economy. Shortly before the 1980 election, he published an anti-Obote editorial illustrated with drawings of skulls and the headline, “PEOPLE ADVISED TO VOTE AGAINST DEATH.”

In Combatants, Pike attributes the NRA atrocities to a few bad apples in the ranks or to poorly integrated former rebel groups, including one named FEDEMU, that weren’t mainstream NRA. But the New Vision’s Caroline Lamwaka disputes this. “I do not agree with the common argument advanced by some NRM officials, as well as some Acholi,” she writes in her posthumously published memoir,

“that it was the actions of FEDEMU soldiers that caused the rebellion….the NRA proper is equally to blame for the mess. If it were only FEDEMU, war would not have broken out in Teso and Lango, or in the whole of Acholi. The government’s argument that the war was due to former [government] soldiers fighting to recover “lost glory” or the “soft and easy life” or that they were “criminals” who feared to face the law, also misrepresents and oversimplifies the complex causes of the conflict.”

Throughout Combatants, Pike emphasizes how Museveni’s government respected media freedom, and insists that he was never prevented from printing stories critical of the government. However, he does not mention that many journalists have received bribes and death threats from the regime, and some have been tortured, including his own employee Lamwaka, quoted above. In 1988, she was assaulted by a Ugandan army officer after reporting on cattle thefts by government forces. In her memoir, she writes that what she experienced was so humiliating she could not describe it in print.

Pike also downplays NRA abuses in eastern Uganda, where another rebel group emerged after the NRA, which was at first welcomed by locals, committed atrocities similar to those in Acholiland. He downplays Museveni’s involvement in arming the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which invaded Rwanda from Uganda in 1990, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis. Pike also downplays Museveni’s responsibility for the Congo war which claimed over five million lives. According to Pike, Museveni ordered his troops not to engage in business on Congolese soil. He nevertheless fails to explain how Museveni’s own brother and son came to be linked to a company that traded in smuggled Congolese diamonds during this time.

***

During the 1990s, Pike and other western journalists helped create a new narrative about central Africa. By then, many of Africa’s independence movements were a mess–in part because of western Cold War meddling, but also because of the limited capabilities of some African leaders. But Museveni, along with Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, would be celebrated in the Western media as Africa’s great new hope. All had come to power by the gun and distained democracy, but made well-spoken promises to keep their countries in order and concentrate on development.

Western leaders from Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the President of the World Bank quickly bought into the idea that Africa needed “strong leadership” –a wiggle phrase which could mean anything from a firm stance on corruption to outright tyranny. Foreign aid and military hardware flowed into the coffers of the “new leaders”. But even as the chorus of praise was rising around them, they were using Western largesse to escalate wars with their neighbors, giving rise to an orgy of violence that would claim millions of lives from Eritrea to Uganda to Congo and southern Sudan.

***

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents….”

Pike never questions whether Museveni’s harsh repression, not democracy, might have been the source of these problems; nor does he ask himself whether this repression might help explain why Uganda was so riddled with rebel groups in the first place. There is something tragic about Pike’s Combatants, which could have been a much more powerful book. Where it falls short is in the matter of empathy, like the half-hearted white religious leaders who supported civil rights in the southern United States in principle, but chastised Martin Luther King for what they considered his “unwise and untimely” civil rights activism.

In the end, Pike blames democracy for Uganda’s problems. After Uganda’s first presidential election in 1996, he writes, “The politicians triumphed over the technocrats,”; “loyalty had become more important than principle”; “incompetent or corrupt ministers were retained in office to cater to their constituents.

“The Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner,” wrote King in frustration,“but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice…who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom….Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”

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The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man

Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that the offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

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The Politics of Ill Health and the Immortality of the African Big Man
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Ken Odhiambo Okoth, Member of Parliament (MP) for Kibra Constituency in Nairobi, has been in the news a lot over the last few years, mainly because of his stellar performance in his role. From late last year, however, he was ‘trending’ in the mainstream and social media not because of building a Girls’ High school at a cost that fellow MPs claim to use to put up pit latrines in their constituencies, but because he came out and disclosed that he was battling cancer. Granted, Ken is not the first Kenyan politician to disclose affliction by cancer. A few years back, Senator, Beth Mugo boldly disclosed that she had breast cancer and spoke encouragingly of her treatment journey and ‘victory’. Kisumu Governor Professor Anyang’ Nyongó, has also been public about his prostate cancer illness and treatment. Recently while breaking ground of a Cancer Diagnostic and treatment centre in Kisumu, he self-referenced as among the ‘growing cancer statistics’. Yet what makes Ken Okoth’s disclosure more significant is its gravity.

Ken Okoth, at forty-one, is among the younger crop of legislators in Kenya. He is not your typical cancer patient since many people still associate cancer with old age. When one is diagnosed with cancer at such a ‘young’ age, this apparent anomaly becomes the starting point of the conversation. Ken Okoth publicly disclosed that his colorectal cancer had progressed to stage four; meaning that he had no chance of a reversal, or treatment, only clinical management. Okoth was basically announcing that his disease was terminal and that his demise from this disease is imminent. This announcement is unprecedented in two ways: Okoth is a Kenyan politician and admitting mortality and terminality is a complete no-no among Kenya’s and indeed Africa’s political class. Secondly, as an African, dalliance with death is totally anathema. Denial of the eventuality of death, is deeply wired in our African DNA and psyche, more so in the mental constitution of the African political class.

The ‘Houdini’ Syndrome

Non-disclosure and denial of ill-health status reaches comic proportions in Africa. In the last thirty years, out of the twenty-one heads of state who have died of illness, eleven died in hospitals abroad. Usually in Europe. One assumes that an individual seeking medical care when and where they can find it is normal. However, the lengths that state machinery goes into denying, lying or explaining the ‘disappearance’ of politicians when unwell, seeking treatment, or at times has even passed away is simply bizarre.

There was the case of Togolese president, Gnassingbe Eyadama whose office strenuously denied he was ailing until he died in an airplane overflying Tunisian airspace while being rushed abroad for treatment.  Then there was Chadian leader, Pascal Yoadimnadji who died of diabetes related illnesses in Paris as his office was reassuring the public that he was improving and would soon return home.  Ghanaian head of state, John Atta Mills’ ill-heath was a loudly murmured topic. He was ‘rumoured’ to be suffering from throat cancer.  When he died in 2012, he had previously had to deny rumours of his death twice!  Even after he died, there were conflicting reports on the cause of his death. Gabonese President, Omar Bongo was reportedly in Barcelona, Spain for a whole month supposedly resting after the “intense emotional shock” of losing his wife.  Despite stories circulating that he was at an advanced stage of cancer, his office denied and underplayed his illness.  Eventually, pressure mounted because the host country media did not play along.  His office admitted he was seeking ‘routine’ medical tests.  After two days of denials of leaked information that the leader had died, his office announced his ‘sudden death’.  Then there was the president of Nigeria, Umar Musa Yar’Adua, who was reportedly unwell and sought treatment in Saudi Arabia.  He disappeared from the public for four months before ‘sneaking’ back into the nation’s capital under cover of darkness, retreated from public eyes until his death three months later.  His illness and cause of death remains a topic for conjecture to date.

In Guinea, President, Lanasana Conte had been ailing and going in and out of the country for medical treatment.  At one point the editor of a paper printed an unflattering picture of him looking frail.  He was promptly arrested and forced to publish an earlier picture showing the leader looking better.  Eventually, when he died of ‘long illness’, it was announced that he had ‘hid his physical suffering’ from the nation for years because of his dedication to duty’.  There was the case of the Ethiopian leader, Meles Zanawi who was supposedly in a health facility in Belgium for two months during which time rumours of the seriousness of his health, and even death, were stringently denied. When eventually his demise was announced, it was said that he had suddenly contracted an infection.  Among the most morbidly hilarious case was of Bingu Wa Mutharika who suffered a massive heart attack at home.  The rumour mills were busy churning out stories that he had died, but even as this was happening, he was flown off to a hospital in South Africa where after a few days his death (second death) was announced.  Zambian head of state, Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was hospitalised in Paris.  His office denied for almost two months that his condition was grave.  Unconfirmed rumours of his death led to the South African parliament observing a minute of silence that was later retracted after much embarrassment.  Back at home, there were demands that the state of the leader’s health and fitness to continue holding the office be confirmed by independent clinicians.  After much prevarication his demise was announced.  Ironically, Micheal Sata one among those who had demanded the leader’s health be confirmed, would a few years later be in the same predicament and he himself passed away in a London hospital after the standard denials of ill-health.  There is a pathological obsession with secrecy and an official playing of smoke and mirrors game with health of African political leaders as a strategy to subvert democracy by undermining accountability and staving off opposition

God Syndrome: Mortality Versus Immortality

Opacity, in matters health among politicians, even when there are tell-tale signs of frailty is intriguing. The kind of photographs Ken Okoth recently released, shows the image of an individual ravaged by chemotherapy. This reveal, by a Kenyan politician and a sitting MP, viewed together with the self-disclosure of his diagnosis brings onto the public space the issue of mortality and immortality of an African politician. In that respect Ken Okoth’s gesture is a first.

Physical infirmity, illness, and death are ultimate equalizers of all mankind. Illness shears away all the pomp and grandeur. Gone are the wailing sirens of chase cars, the coterie of hangers-on and saluting body-guards bullying all and sundry. Illness takes away the guard of honour, the decorated podium and customised lectern. Illness brings a different type of media attention. That which was craved for and adored is avoided and shunned. Politicians instead plead that their privacy be respected. Only sneaked pictures will be seen and not the ‘selfies’ Ken Okoth provided. The image of an ailing African politician underscores his or her humanity. While this should be obvious, the African politician strives to maintain a demi-god status. Note the names that they have given themselves: Osagyefo, Ngwazi, Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga, ‘Mtukufu’; the glorious,adored and venerated ones.

This self-deification is by design and a carefully choreographed strategy. Approximation to immortality suggests infallibility, indispensability, omnipotence and omniscience.  There is political capital and entitlement in omnipotence because it scares away any opposition or contestation. During the late 1970s, President Kenyatta, old and ailing, began to appear less and less in public. Some politicians around him, began to plot his succession, or rather manipulate his succession to deny his Vice President a direct line to the coveted seat. The Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, who had his own ideas of how the succession should play out, declared that it was treasonous to imagine, think, encompass or utter thoughts surrounding the death of the President. Njonjo, cobbled up some constitutional interpretation that made imagination treasonous and by so doing rendered the ailing Kenyatta immortal. It was not only that one could not voice thoughts about his demise, it was treachery to even think he could die!

A few years before this, the renowned South African cardiologist, Dr. Christian Barnard had visited the country and though the state sought to treat his visit as some innocuous touristic event with no significance, rumours went around that he was in Kenya to examine Mzee’s heart. At no point was the public briefed on the prognosis of their president’s health. The culture of mystique and secrecy surrounding the life and health of the leader was carefully orchestrated to stave off any opposition. If a leader is deemed to be mortal, then it is fair game to challenge them. Njonjo was able to use this interpretation of the constitution to effectively scuttle Moi’s opponents and when Mzee died in 1978 he comfortably rose to presidency.

It is no wonder that during Moi’s twenty-four-year tenure he never ‘fell ill’. The health of the president never came into the public domain. As Moi’s reign rolled out, and multi-party politics was re-introduced, he faced more challenges than his predecessor, but his health remained a well-managed secret. The deification continued with ‘praise songs’ such as ‘Tawala Kenya Tawala’ and ‘Fimbo ya Nyayo’ composed and sung to serenade him. Today, retired President Moi is nearing a century, he is not in the best of health. Retired President Kibaki is 87 years old, and after his well-documented accident, his health status is left to speculation and rumours. Once in a while there will be unconfirmed reports of sightings of these elder statesmen at hospitals, but no official mention. Even in retirement, the myth of immortality prevails.

In America and UK in contrast the nation is kept very informed about the health of former leaders. When Ronald Reagan was stricken by Alzheimer’s disease the public were duly informed, the media gave regular updates on his progress right to the point they broke the news of his demise. George W. Bush battled Parkinson’s disease while former President Jimmy Carter managed brain cancer under full public glare. In the UK, Margaret Thatcher’s health was widely reported as she battled dementia.

The Passing Cloud Syndrome: Indispensability Versus Ephemerality

Illness is nature’s way of reminding us of the transitory, ephemeral nature of life, and with it, the reality that none of us is indispensable. When a bout of illness takes one away from the regular cycle of things, it creates a vacuum, albeit temporary, that must get filled. It matters not how long one is indisposed, but ‘life goes on’ and the gap is filled. The constant turning of the wheels of life is a lesson that African politicians loath. The desire to shroud instances when one is indisposed yet systems continue to run stems from the desire to maintain control. The fear of ‘looming shadows’ is among the African politician’s biggest fear. This is why it is common to hear politicians complaining about ‘political tourists’, a euphemism for potential opponents.

During a presidential campaign speech, President Moi corrupted the Kiswahili proverb, stating that “Paka akiondoka…atarudi tena”. Convoluting it to suggest that, when the cats away …it will surely return. In his utterance he was negating the wisdom that when gaps are created, others fill them up and even thrive. Moi was referring to a period he had travelled out of the country, at a time he had refused to appoint a substantive deputy. There had been questions posed on who was in charge in his absence. Moi, effectively rubbished the idea that anyone was good enough to deputize or replace him.

The notion of indispensability and irreplaceability stems from the merging of an individual’s ego and the office they occupy; they conflate themselves and the office and develop a sense of entitlement to it. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his most illuminating primer on leadership, gives tips that African leaders should take to heart. He poignantly says, ‘Never let your ego get so close to your position that when your position goes, your ego goes with it”. Equating oneself to an office is the height of megalomania a problem that has afflicted African politics for ages. Individuals feel entitled to hold offices and take any form of contest personally and not as expression of democratic processes. In Africa, challenging an incumbent is treated as a personal affront not only by the individual but also by the people and the system. The way that opposition politicians are persecuted in almost every corner of Africa is indicative of this. The feeling of personal ownership of political office, is among the biggest challenge to the entrenchment of democracy in Africa.   Acknowledgement of mortality as Ken Okoth has done would separate the individual from an office. Only when politicians, eschew personality cults, and accept that offices they occupy are not personal fiefdoms, will they allow the evolution and strengthening of democratic systems and institutions.

Mystique Versus Ordinary: The Lwanda Magere Complex

There is a well-known legend of Lwanda Magere, the mythical Luo warrior. The story goes that the indomitable warrior’s body was stone-solid, and during battle enemy spears would simply glance off him. His invincibility in mystical power rendered his body as hard as a rock.   The secret of his super-human exploit was a closely guarded secret, but once it was revealed to his enemies by a bride he married from the rival tribe, he was soon vanquished. African politicians have delusions of invincibility upon attainment of the status of ‘mheshimiwa’. In this delusion of super-human status and invincibility falling ill, admitting to being ill and being in need of medical attention would be akin to conceding that they are indeed human and can be vanquished.

Maintaining this image of invincibility is a strategy to stave off any opposition to their elective positions. To maintain this image, any sign of illness is managed confidentially and an alternative narrative is woven to explain any physical changes or absence. Ken Okoth has provided a very different narrative. He has shown a human side of a politician and everyone is now lining up to secure a selfie with him. In the recent past, there is a tragi-comic case where an ailing politician in London was visited by his family who went on to report that they had even eaten a meal of ‘ugali’ with the patient only for the man to die even before the ink had dried on their statement. There was a Governor who was terminally ill and would ‘disappear’ from his County for extended periods, yet his office would issue official denials that he was ill until he unfortunately passed away.

African politicians understand the art and benefit of mystique well. The African politician does not do ordinary; all efforts are made to demonstrate that they are extra ordinary. Alternatively, America’s first black President Obama was the high-priest of ordinary with several every day Joe instances of going about life. African politicians once elected into office, lose even the capability to carry their own cell-phone. They lose the motor-skill ability of opening car-doors or even pulling a seat for themselves. Nothing demonstrates African leader’s sense of the mystique than their motorcades. The sheer power-show, in face of the poor citizenry, is supposed to demonstrate the leader’s power and invincibility. Ironically, the more the display of power, the more it demonstrates fear and vulnerability. In some countries, the leader’s motorcade includes a phalanx of horses and armoured vehicles. The large motor-cades and the heavily armed coterie of bodyguards are a modern day version of the fetishes worn by a ‘mganga’ – witch-doctor. The mganga wore a human skull, bird feathers, talons and beaks, snake skins and genitalia of reptiles. The African leader uses the same shock-and-awe tactics.

Now picture this politician, once surrounded by all these talismans and paraphernalia of power getting a bout of diarrhoea, syphilis, cholera, shingles, dementia or even diseases more ‘prestigious’ as Parkinson’s, Diabetes or Hypertension. The body ends up racked by aches, coughs and blisters and the management of health results in an emaciated image of their former selves. The myth would be shattered forever; he would be Lwanda Magere whose secret is out and the enemy soldiers would be creeping to spear his shadow. Kenyan politicians are now trooping to be seen paying homage to Ken Okoth whose ordinariness and non-mystique humanity has resonated so powerfully with the public. The writing is out there on the wall for them to read as found in the Book of Daniel: mene, mene, tekel, Upharsin. Ken Okoth’s celebrity status and popularity is not derived from flaunting of power, portrayed invincibility and omniscience, but from his exemplary service, accountability and honesty.

Omniscience Versus Vulnerability

At that point when illness strips the politician of all semblance of power, their biggest fear comes to the fore; that of placing themselves in the hands of others, admitting that there are others more capable than themselves.

There is nothing as humbling as being asked to strip and step behind an examination curtain, lie down and be subjected to examination. This feeling of vulnerability and helplessness is probably what leads many African political leaders to seek medical treatment abroad – where they are unrecognisable, basically nobody. The thought of being reduced to a normal human being with ailments is probably too much to bear. Some politicians might believe they are not safe being in such a vulnerable condition in a place where they have done so much harm.

There is also the fear that the doctor examining them might be one whose upward mobility has been affected by the poor policies they have passed or failed to pass. It could be a clinician whose working conditions have been compromised by the pilferage of the health budget. The facility could be one whose equipment are sub-standard and supplied with fake drugs because of the corrupt deal they cut during procurement.

This alone justifies running away to seek treatment elsewhere. During his presidency, the deposed Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, would reportedly seek medical treatment in Singapore. He would travel to the South Asian nation to go under the radar for weeks before returning home. In Nigeria, President Muhammadu Buhari has spent long periods in Europe seeking medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Every time he does so, the trips are shrouded in secrecy even as they are funded by the Nigerian taxpayer.

Frail health or illness is not the kind of thing that one would wish another, but there is no other experience that underscores equality, humanity, vulnerability and ephemerality. The problems of democracy in Africa stem from a failure to recognise these basic principles of good governance. An appreciation of equality and fraternity of all humanity would ensure equal treatment. Recognition of the non-permanence of life or situations would ensure the development of systems and institutions and not personality cults and encourage transitional politics.

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