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Kenya: The Myth of Anti-Corruption

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John Githongo
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Oligarchs, Cartels & Icons

On the morning of the January 15, 2016, hundreds of Al Shabaab militants attacked a Kenya Defence Forces base at El Adde in Somalia. The United Nations later reported that over 150 Kenyan troops, who were members of the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom) were killed. The Kenya government has never confirmed how many of our soldiers were killed, injured or captured. Analysts pointed out it was the worst defeat in the history of the Kenya military. Indeed, globally it was the worst defeat of a peacekeeping force in modern history. A UN report published after the attack was scathing in terms of the general operational performance, coherence, effectiveness and leadership of our troops in the build up to and during the attack.

In 2012, this writer flew into Mogadishu. It was a year after the KDF had invaded Somalia in October 2011. The Somali MPs and Cabinet ministers I interacted with were already describing the KDF as an occupation force and complaining that some of its top brass were facilitating or turning a blind eye to illegal businesses – involving smuggling charcoal and sugar out through the port of Kismayo – thus lending succour and profit to Al Shabaab. They warned that it was highly likely that this situation would eventually lead the terror group to strike dramatically inside Kenya…

The tribe and the bribe are the Siamese twins of our politics

On September 21, 2013, Shabaab terrorists attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in an episode that left 70 dead. However shocking this event was, what was even more quietly disturbing to Kenyans was the behaviour of the KDF soldiers sent in to ‘flush out the terrorists. Videos emerged of wide-scale looting of the mall by our much-vaunted troops. In 2015, the NGO Journalists for Justice released an excoriating report, Black and White – Kenya’s Criminal Racket that detailed the involvement of the KDF in illicit commercial activities that were benefiting Al Shabaab directly.

The Kenya Defence Forces is one of the country’s iconic institutions. The professionalism and integrity of the KDF has been one of those things Kenyans define themselves by. As important as the integrity of our beloved athletics fraternity who are world beaters; Kenya Airways that is ‘The pride of Africa’; Uchumi Supermarkets; the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) that produces the exams that are key to an education system in which Kenyans invest their hopes and aspirations… The sense that corruption, nay, the culture of looting and plunder under the current Jubilee regime has undermined these institutions fundamentally in just the past three years is devastating for many Kenyans. It affects the very way we view ourselves as a people.

For one reason or another, important icons like the Kenya Commercial Bank have somehow managed to escape. But there is a distinct feeling that it is only a matter of time…

The House Has Fallen

The travails of another Kenyan icon, Uchumi Supermarkets, the oldest and largest publicly quoted supermarket chain in the country, have compounded the narrative of a climate engineered to allow not only corruption, but plunder with impunity, in both the public and private sectors. In January, Polycarp Igathe, who chaired the board’s committee, said: “I have never had the opportunity to say this, but today I can confirm that in the past two to three years, you have been receiving fraudulent financial reporting including cash flow, balance sheet and other financial details at our annual general meeting.” Similarly, the fall from grace of Kenya Airways, reducing the ‘Pride of Africa’ to the ‘Plight of Kenya,’ bothered Kenyans in a manner different from the usual shenanigans reported in the mismanagement of other public companies.

Unfortunately, for Jubilee, conflict of interest has been normalised

The sophistication, in particular, of the odious contracts into which Kenya Airways entered with various entities bore the hallmarks of a raid orchestrated by a combination of the most powerful political figures and best legal, banking and accounting minds in the country. While the company is now under the regime of Michael Joseph, formerly of Safaricom, it will be interesting to see what emerges as the clean-up operation gets underway.

For decades, Kenyans have dug deep into their pockets for the funds necessary to educate their children. Over the past decade, over the past five years in particular, the institution at the heart of the national examination system – the Kenya National Examination Council (KNEC) has been embroiled in exam-related scandals and other allegations of corruption that have cause a serious erosion in public trust. It has the turned the Education Cabinet Secretary into the anti-corruption Cabinet Secretary by default as the media reports daily on his efforts to manage the machinations of cartels bent on undermining the integrity of the examination system for a profit. Indeed, the world ‘cartel’ is relatively new to the general corruption lexicon. The term was previously reserved for the illegal narcotics business but today leaders speak of cartels in every sector. Cynics would be forgiven for asking if entire sections of government have become a cartel in and of themselves, with those complaining most loudly about this condition being the godfathers of the malaise and its primary drivers. The plunder has created oligarchs out of a small number of families in Kenya, concentrating wealth in a few hands in what is already one of the most unequal countries on the continent.

The Most Corrupt Regime in Kenya’s History?

A second important development on the corruption front over the past three years has been the drawing to an end of an entire approach to fighting corruption.

One of the defining characteristics of the fight against corruption in Kenya has been an intense level of well-funded activity on the policy reform front – including government, civil society, religious and private sectors – while in the real world corruption has not only deepened but widened in society. After 26 years of ‘anti-corruption’ in Kenya, the phenomenon is worse than ever. The surveys of local and international civil society and research groups bear this out. More importantly, though, there is a widespread perception that graft has worsened dramatically, particularly over the past three years.

The tenderpreneur thrives in the toxic mix of crony capitalism that feeds off the normalisation conflict of interest and impunity

The sheer number and scale of scandals that have accompanied the current regime are equivalent to a Goldenberg scam (that cost $1 billion) every six months. While the scale of the plunder has started to have macroeconomic consequences, the impact impunity is having on public morality has been even more devastating (as I discuss below.)
The orgy of theft is discussed in the media – both traditional and social, on the political stump by the political class and citizens are consumed with (and by) it. In part due to the conspicuous consumption that accompanies it; the brazen self-enrichment of senior public officials since 2013 as demonstrated by the multiple wives, cars, houses etc they have acquired; the reports of the Office of the Auditor General; harambees at which politicians dish out millions of shillings in a determined effort to normalise the idea that citizens should not ask where the money is coming from; the reports of stolen public funds being carried around in sacks and other bizarre symptoms – a paradoxical mixture of suppressed outrage and numbness prevails. Devolution has accelerated and spread the collapse in public morality though initial indications are that direct accountability at the local level may ultimately be more robust.
As a result, we have the most corrupt regime in our history running Kenya, as I observed above. Indeed, we no longer speak of corruption but plunder, looting on an unprecedented scale. The abstract language of ‘corruption’, ‘ufisadi’, ‘rushwa’ has lost its cultural resonance in Kenya. Far better to speak of ‘wizi’ (theft) and ‘uporaji’ (plunder). An assortment of opinion polls (Ipsos Synovate, Afrobarometer, http://afrobarometer.org/sites/default/files/publications/Briefing%20paper/AfrobriefNo152.pdf, Transparency International) have been consistent in naming corruption one of the most pressing issues facing Kenyans.

The impact on public morality has been especially telling among the youth. In a study on youth attitudes carried out over the past few years, the Aga Khan University’s East Africa Institute found that Kenyans are highly tolerant of corruption. Indeed, 50% of youth in Kenya do not care what means they use to make money as long as they do not end up in jail. This was anchored by 30% who subscribed to the belief that corruption is profitable with 35% ready to give or receive a bribe. Only 40% of the polled youth strongly believed that it was important to pay taxes. A similar situation was evident in the political arena where 62% of youth were noted to be vulnerable to electoral bribery with 40% confessing that they would only vote for aspirants who bribe them.

Public Policy Reform Era Hits a Glass Ceiling

What is clear is that in Kenya’s case, the public policy reform/technocratic approach to fighting corruption has become utterly irrelevant in the current political context. The Presidential ‘Summit’ on Governance and Corruption in November 2016 was the final nail in the coffin of the ‘technical fix’ to corruption when President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed his helplessness, ripped into his anti-corruption officials and their approach, and basically reduced the event to a public relations exercise. Fundamentally, what started in the late 1990s with a series of legal and institutional reforms aimed at improving governance and fighting corruption lt, was a phase that ended with that November conference.

As Kenyans we have done all the anti-corruption benchmarking, most recently with a delegation to study China’s anti-corruption efforts; created all the anti-graft institutions, committees, working groups, task forces, units; drafted all the frameworks and policy papers; taken all the advice possible from multilaterals, bilaterals, NGOs, the private sector and others including churches; enacted all the laws and their subsidiaries; held all the conferences, summits, workshops and get-togethers possible. The most ambitious albeit unheralded grand ‘technical fix’ was agreed upon between Presidents Obama of the USA and Kenyatta in July 2015. We’ve even drawn up a multitude of ‘don’t be corrupt’ and ‘this is a corruption-free zone’ slogans, posters and adverts and plastered them over all the most corrupt institutions in the public sector.

Nothing exemplifies this ending of a phase more than President Kenyatta’s speech at the ‘Summit,’ unless perhaps it is the ongoing police vetting process. Despite its having been in train for some years now, this institution has remained almost impervious to change in the current environment. As one policeman told me directly: ‘Why be sacked when I am poor?’ The vetting’s primary impact thus far has been to raise the cost of bribes but not reduce their frequency though my evidence for this is purely anecdotal.

And so corruption has ceased to be a technical problem – it is now ineluctably a political and cultural one.
The tribe and the bribe are the Siamese twins of our politics. We have learnt for example that you cannot digitise integrity from the sorry tale of Kenya’s Integrated Financial Management Information System (IFMIS), which has become notorious as the conduit for the ongoing scandals in the national and county governments. The looting at the Ministry of Health, Devolution Ministry and National Youth Service stands out and many more scandals are on the way. Indeed, bureaucratically, sections of the governments are engineered for theft. Commissions, inter-ministerial committees, multi-stakeholder working groups, a swathe of reform projects and programmes with expensive outside help become in and of themselves methods of extraction. Over the coming months multilateral and bilateral donors will begin to realise the extent to which resources they have pumped into various sectors have been cleverly misappropriated.

Kenya has travelled a long and difficult path. We need a different type of ‘disruption’ regarding corruption as Dr. Kankindi describes it in her analytical feature in this edition of The Elephant. We see the difference between Uganda and Tanzania and Angola too as all these countries deal with the fact that initially democratisation has deepened corruption – a reality emerging in the most developed countries as well. In 2017, Kenyans are having to face the reality that solving our issues means finding the political will to make institutions work, recognising this may mean reimagining our political and economic framework (a subject for a later date) and inspiring the people to believe in the institutions and their leaders.

The Normalisation of Conflict of Interest

The sense of outrage and despondency with regard to the fight against corruption deepened in October 2016 when media reports indicated that members of the president’s family were directors of a company that had been paid significant sums of money out of a scandal-prone project at the Ministry Health. While the head of state’s family are also business people, this latest revelation caused particular opprobrium. It seemed to demonstrate to Kenyans the extent to which public office has indeed become the source of private gain in Kenya – the personalisation of the state. It also put paid to the finely tuned narrative that the real corruption in Kenya is related to the deputy president while the head of state is too rich to need to dip his fingers in the till.

Perceptions are powerful and in anti-corruption they are over 50% of the struggle.

Since Independence, political leaders whose reputations to this day remain relatively untarnished share one quality – they are perceived as personally incorruptible and similarly have not allowed their families to indulge in corruption. Once this perception changes, the political manoeuvring room available to any political leader will become severely limited, forcing them to rely on identity politics (the tribe) and other forms of negative populism to mobilise support. Unfortunately, for Jubilee conflict of interest has been normalised.

The national icon at greatest peril is the Kenyatta family name and national narrative that accompanies it

As a result, a unique national icon placed in unique jeopardy is the Kenyatta family name that carries with it a narrative intertwined with the very construction of the modern Kenyan nation: Jomo Kenyatta was Kenya’s founding father, leader of the struggle for Independence, a wise old man who suffered great hardships that Kenya could become free, who turned it into a prosperous, pro-Western, stable capitalist African nation while neighbours suffered strife. He was a pan-Africanist who was a leader not only in his own country but an inspiration across the continent. That the scion of this legacy, his son Uhuru Kenyatta, is Kenya’s fourth president, has ironically threatened to shred this narrative in a single hubristic electoral term characterised not just by corruption on a massive scale but by wizi (theft), uporaji (plunder), ukabila (tribalism) and matharau (a disdain for ordinary citizens and their experience that harks back to the era before Independence).

And that is how this has come to be perceived as the most corrupt regime in the country’s history. Kenyan public opinion shifts quickly from the president is a good man surrounded by bad men and advisors; to identifying the bad men; to finally concluding the president is himself Thief-in-Chief in person or as a collective or body corporate.

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John Githongo is one of Kenya’s leading anti-graft campaigners and former anti-corruption czar.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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