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SOUTH AFRICA: Nkandla –The House That Jacob Built

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Jacob Zuma
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Capetown, South Africa – Of all the controversies swirling round the figure of President Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma aka Msholozi – his clan praise name – probably the best known and most discussed around South Africa is the issue of his super controversial Nkandla homestead.

More than the 783 corruption charges reinstated in April this year after the High Court in Pretoria found that the decision to drop the corruption charges back in 2009 was “irrational” and that they were as serious as the allegations of “state capture”–  which is a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage – the issue of Nkandla is the one that has contributed the most to what one media  commentator referred to as President Zuma’sannishorribilis.

If you have only just returned from deep space, or have never heard of South Africa, Nkandla is the president’s private home in KwaZulu-Natal Province. It is controversial because public funds to the tune of over R246 million (about $17 million) were used to give the homestead an alleged security upgrade.

Among the “improvements” made to the South African president’s private home using taxpayer’s money were a helipad, underground bunkers, a chicken run and a swimming pool actually described as a ‘firepool’ – since, it was claimed, the pool was built as a source of water for firefighting

Among the “improvements” made to the home by the Ministry of Public Works using taxpayer’s money were: Security fencing around the whole compound, accommodation for the president’s security, a helipad, underground bunkers, a chicken run and most questionable of all, a swimming pool actually described as a ‘firepool’– since, it was claimed, the pool was built as a source of water for firefighting.

Meanwhile, according to South Africa’s Sunday Times newspaper, a dossier compiled by a former Public Works Department deputy director general (equivalent of an undersecretary), contained invoices showing that state money had been used to pay for things such as thatching, meranti (a rare wood) and aluminium doors and window frames, tiles, paint, plastering, air-conditioning and other unexplained extras.

South African law provides for a Ministerial Handbook that incorporates the Executive Code of Ethics and regulates probity in public life. According to this set of rules, the Public Works Ministry can spend up to R100,000 (about $7,000) on security upgrades to the private homes of state officials and anything more than that should come out of the official’s pocket.

A March 2014 report issued by South Africa’s immediate former public protector (ombudsman) Thuli Madonsela, whose term ended in September this year, found that the president had benefited unduly from these home improvements and on March 31, 2016, the Constitutional Court delivered a unanimous ruling stating that the president and the ANC-dominated parliament had failed to uphold the country’s Constitution by failing to comply with Madonsela’s report on the matter.

Facing calls to resign from prominent public figures and veteran ANC activists from Mandela’s Robben Island days, such as Ahmed Kathrada, Zuma appeared on national TV on April 1, 2016 and made an apology for using public money to fund his private residence.

APOLOGY FAILS TO MAKE THE STORY GO AWAY

But the story of Nkandla, now described by one commentator as ‘a monument to corruption,’ began in 2009 when a newly elected President Zuma, who has been reported to have been fairly impecunious at the time, decided to build a permanent rural home for his family. However it would take years for the scandal to mature fully.

Previously, in December 1997, during the African National Congress’s national conference held at Mafikeng, Zuma had been elected as the ANC’s deputy president.  In 1999, he was appointed the deputy president of South Africa, a position he held until he was relieved of his duties by state president Thabo Mbeki in June 2005 pending his rape trial and allegations of racketeering and corruption.

The Madonsela report showed that the R246 million was eight times the money spent securing two private homes for South Africa’s first democratic president Nelson Mandela, and more than 1,000 times that spent on the home of FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president

At this point –in the run-up to the 2009 election –observers had written off Zuma’s political career. Meanwhile Zuma’s supporters claimed their man’s legal problems were the result of political meddling by his rivals including president Mbeki. Proving he still had grassroots support, Zuma managed to garner enough votes in the ANC to propel him to be elected the party’s president in December 2007 at the national conference in Polokwane, Limpopo, polling 2,329 votes against Mbeki’s 1,505. Zuma’s supporters saw his charismatic popular touch as a refreshing contrast to Thabo Mbeki, who was seen as a rather aloof president.

He was acquitted of rape, butdespite the fact that he had always denied charges of money-laundering and racketeering, stemming from a controversial $5billion arms deal signed in 1999, the corruption cases against him proved harder to slip out of.

Meanwhile, Mbeki continued to serve as the country’s president, but in September 2008, in the same month that the ANC NEC resolved to recall Thabo Mbeki as head of state, the graft cases against Zuma were controversially dropped by the National Prosecuting Authority just weeks before the elections that saw him become president. In the interim, Kgalema Mothlante, later Zuma’s deputy for one term, served as the third president of the Republic of South Africa.

A month after Zuma ascended to the presidency of the country – reports by investigative journalists Mandy Rossouw and Chris Roper in the Mail & Guardian newspaper pinpoint the date to between May 18 and 29 –  a security assessment was carried out at Nkandla and by the end of August 2009, construction had begun.

The story of how Rossouw (who died in 2013) and Roper (who went on to become editor of the M&G) accidentally stumbled on the Nkandla story is now the stuff of legend among South African journalists.

Rossouw was out interviewing residents of the town of Nkandla about what it was like to have the president as a neighbour. With Roper she drove in November 2009 to the president’s residence to take some photos to illustrate the story and it was then that they noticed some construction and heavy earth-moving machinery. According to Roper in a piece he wrote after Rossouw’s death, ‘Mandy’s interest was piqued, and she inveigled our way into the site office, a small, meltingly hot prefab building with three car wrecks abandoned outside. There was our first evidence of the extent of what Nkandla was destined to become, both as a large complex and as a massive story: Architectural drawings taped to a wall, showing extensive development plans.’

Rossouw’s story reported that the expansion to the existing compound would cost the taxpayer R65 million (about $4.5 million). At the time, upgrades to the compound included a private military hospital and parking lot, a visitors centre, the helipad installation and, according to the M&G’s investigative report, a two-storey house and guest house.

Before they published the story, the journalists contacted the government for comment and the first reaction was evasiveness. Writes Roper: ‘Our conversation with them reads like a dress rehearsal for the following four years of obfuscation and spin.

Initially, the government said that it had no record of such a development and no hand in any of Zuma’s personal property endeavours. However, in a statement released just before the story was published, they changed their tune slightly, saying: ‘The Zuma family planned before the elections to extend the Nkandla residence, and this is being done at own cost. No government funding will be utilised for the construction work.’

History and the Public Protector’s investigation –which began after a series of complaints from the public and opposition parties about the misuse of state funds on the project were lodged with Madonsela’s office between December 2011 and December 2012 – have shown the government’s statements to have been economical with the truth.

In a more than 400-page report on Nkandla titled ‘Secure in Comfort.’ the Public Protector found the cost of the Nkandla upgrades were now estimated at R246 million (about $23 million) but that the original estimate for the work in 2009 had been about R27 million.

While there was never any proof that the president had made any decisions about spending himself, it would appear that those who were making the decisions were acting under the impression that they were doing his bidding.

Madonsela’s  report said that while it could be ‘legitimately construed’ that President Zuma had misled parliament over the renovations and that this was a ‘bona fide mistake,’ on the whole the project was unlawful and constituted improper conduct and maladministration.

DE KLERK, THE MODEST PRESIDENT?

The report showed that the R246 million was eight times the money spent securing two private homes for South Africa’s first democratic president Nelson Mandela, and more than 1,000 times that spent on the home of FW de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid-era president.

In the report’s executive summary, Madonsela wrote: “The president tacitly accepted the implementation of all measures at his residence and has unduly benefited from the enormous capital investment in the non-security installations at his private residence.”

Madonsela thus found that the president had acted in violation of the Ministerial Handbook, which would only have granted him R100,000 worth of security upgrades, and ordered the president to reimburse part of the expense

Before the report made its way into the public domain, the issue of Nkandla was probed, investigated and questioned in Parliament even to the point of an attempt to launch a vote of no-confidence against the president.

All the while, President Zuma and his supporters, who had decided to fight the report, repeatedly told parliament he used his own family funds to build his homestead. The public was told that the president had not ordered the improvements, had not been involved in the details, and had not unduly benefited from the work.

In the meantime, the Police Minister came out with his own report into what the press was now referring to as “Nkandlagate,” exonerating the president and seeming to absolve him of any liability – even setting aside Madonsela’s suggestion to pay back the money.

The president, his lawyers and the security cluster in the Cabinet, which is comprised of the Minister of Police, the Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, the Minister of Justice and Correctional Services, the Minister of Home Affairs and the Minister of State Security, raised questions about the Public Protector’s conclusions and eventually took her to court in 2013 for not giving them enough time to study the report before it was released to the public.

For a while, it looked as though the Constitutional Court, where the matter eventually ended up, would rule in favour of the president. This view was driven by some observers who feared that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng– who was appointed by the president in 2011 and initially thought to be close to him – would rule in his favour. However, any doubts were removed when the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that the president’s failure to repay the money violated the Constitution.

In his ruling, the Chief Justice described the Public Protector as the biblical David who had gone against the mighty Goliath and emerged victorious.

The powerful Gupta family – an Indian-South African business family whose most notable members are the brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta as well as Atul Gupta’s nephew Varun Gupta –have become notorious for their allegedly close relationship with the president

Mogoeng said the Public Protector’s report and remedial actions had only been directed at Zuma and he had been expected to address the issues without any interference by the ANC-dominated National Assembly. He found that the president and the National Assembly had violated the Constitution by setting aside the Public Protector’s suggestions for remedial action. The judgment said that the president would have to personally pay the amount determined by the National Treasury.

After the Constitutional Court judgment, President Zuma went on national television and apologised to South Africans in an effort to draw a line under the long-running scandal. He said he would abide by a court ruling that he must repay government money spent on upgrading his rural home.

In June, the Treasury determined that the president should pay R7.8 million (about $550,000) for the non-security upgrades, after the Constitutional Court in March ordered Zuma to pay back some of the R248 million of state money spent upgrading his private home.

In September, in line with the court order issued in March, the president took a loan from a bank and paid off the R7.8 million for the non-security upgrades to his private Nkandla home. The amount he paid was calculated in line with 2009 prices, which is when the project started.

THEN ALONG CAME AJAY, ATUL, RAJ AND THE BOYS

If the president thought that the Nkandla matter would end and he would get some respite now that he had paid back the money, he was mistaken.

Controversies continue to dog his presidency from all sides; Thursday November 10, 2016, he survived yet another opposition-sponsored vote of no-confidence in Parliament.

Meanwhile, the news cycle is currently based on Thuli Madonsela’s final report as the Public Protector dealt with the burning issue of “state capture” – a type of systemic political corruption in which private interests significantly influence a state’s decision-making processes to their own advantage through unobvious channels, that may not be illegal.

In her sights with this report were the powerful Gupta family – an Indian-South African business family whose most notable members are the brothers Ajay, Atul and Rajesh “Tony” Gupta as well as Atul Gupta’s nephew Varun Gupta – who have become notorious for their allegedly close relationship with the president.

While every attack on the president is viewed by some as another nail in his coffin, his detractors would do well to remember that the president’s Zulu name is Gedleyihlekisa, which has been translated as ‘The one who smiles while grinding his enemies.’ President Zuma is not down and seems far from out.

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Mr Githahu has worked across the media in Kenya since 1989 with stints at almost all the major media houses and is now a freelance writer/editor based in Cape Town.

Politics

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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Politics

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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Politics

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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