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TANZANIA: Corruption, Democracy And The Strange Case Of John Pombe Magufuli



President Maghufuli

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania – THE STRATEGY: CHANGING HEADS

JPM’s key policy concerns are tackling official waste and corruption, enhancing tax compliance, and creating large numbers of jobs through industrialisation. In the past 12 months, he has dismissed numerous senior officials in central and local government and state corporations for suspected corruption or poor performance, removed thousands of ghost workers from the government payroll, slashed unnecessary spending on out-of-office meetings, foreign travel, and official functions, increased tax compliance, and declared war on corruption and waste in the ruling party and, for good measure, the East African Community!

JPM’s strategy sees corruption as a matter of personal shortcomings rather than a systemic institutional problem. The solution is replacing corrupt with honest officials. As opposition legislator Zitto Kabwe puts it: ‘Changing heads alone means that the president is more interested in perfecting the existing system than overhauling it.’[1]

In our view, continuity rather than change characterises the engagement of the new government with rent-seeking behaviour of all kinds. The current government has moved to reduce the space for party political debate and action, passed legislation on access to information, cybercrime, and, most recently, the media, which may be enforced to limit access to information, and private freedoms.[2] Bloggers and Facebook users have been arrested for expressing ‘treasonable’ views or insulting the president. Here it is argued that moves to limit transparency and accountability predate the arrival of JPM.


Opposition parties describe JPM’s governance style as ‘authoritarian.’ Impatient with due process, the president and Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa have issued countless decrees, not all of which are congruent with official policy, spending priorities, or due process. Though suspicious of the integrity of the courts, JPM still relies on the Prevention and Combating of Corruption Bureau (PCCB) to investigate and prosecute grand corruption cases. In January, JPM dismissed Dr Edward Hosea, the Director General of the Bureau, ostensibly for ignoring major corruption in the port and the Tanzania Revenue Authority. His removal was supposed to clear the way for PCCB to bring some major corruption cases to court.[3] PCCB’s problem is that political pressures prevent certain cases from being investigated or prosecuted, and the most corrupt politicians and businessmen are simply untouchable. The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) routinely returns files to PCCB citing ‘inadequate evidence’ to bring a case to court.

Tanzania’s longest-lasting and most ruinous corruption case, the infamous Independent Power Tanzania Ltd (IPTL) power plant and the plunder of the Tegeta Escrow Account in the Bank of Tanzania in 2013, was thoroughly investigated by PCCB but no charges were ever brought. President Magufuli has complained bitterly about the cost of procuring power from private producers such as IPTL, vowing to put an end to corrupt public-private partnerships (PPP).[4] When asked why the IPTL case was not being prosecuted, Hosea’s replacement, Valentino Mlowola, said the case was ‘still active.’

If Magufuli wanted to make an example of IPTL he would simply order Mlowola to bring charges immediately. But against whom? The Kikwete government was heavily implicated in the escrow scam, as were other ‘untouchables’ including Andrew Chenge, one of IPTL’s key supporters for two decades, and James Rugemalira, who owned the minority 30 per cent of the power plant.[5]

One of the heads that rolled as a result of the investigation of IPTL/Escrow by the Public Accounts Committee in 2014 was that of Prof Sospeter Muhongo, Kikwete’s minister of energy and minerals. Magufuli’s reappointment of Muhongo to the same ministry in December sent out the message that is was business as usual in the power sector, and IPTL, under its new owner Harbinder Singh Sethi, continues to supply overpriced electricity to power utility Tanesco, despite Magufuli’s strictures on the subject. Other examples could be cited that suggest a selective approach to corruption control.

On becoming Tanzania’s fifth post-Independence president just over a year ago, John Pombe Magufuli (JPM, aka ‘The Bulldozer’) wasted no time in attacking tax-evasion by big business and waste, corruption and laxity in government, earning him plaudits both at home and abroad. Given the entrenched cronyism in business-government relations and pervasive rent-seeking within the state apparatus, can he succeed where so many African leaders before him have failed? To succeed, Magufuli needs a clear strategy, the capacity to deliver, and sustained support from both inside and outside parliament. All are problematic

To deal with the rapidly growing number of corruption cases, the government has set up the Economic, Corruption and Organised Crime Court, which has just begun operations. Time will tell whether the ECOCC has more teeth than Tanzania’s existing courts, which are routinely manipulated by the wealthy and the corrupt to make sure that justice is rarely if ever done in prosecuting major scams such as IPTL/Escrow.


One of JPM’s self-declared strengths is that he is not beholden to any network (mtandao) of wealthy businessmen and political brokers within the current ruling elite. This is at once a strength and a weakness. It is reasonable to suspect that the majority of Tanzanian politicians are uneasy with the Magufuli strategy as it threatens their own rent-seeking activities. This is also the case for many lower level central and local government officials for whom ‘rent-scraping’ assures a significant proportion of their livelihoods. JPM has also declared his intention to clean up CCM.[6] Anecdotal evidence suggests that the wheels of the bureaucracy are turning even slower than usual as senior officials try to remain under the State House radar.

JPM aspires to marginalise opposition parties and to eliminate party politics in local government. There are stories of virtual ‘direct rule’ by Regional and District Commissioners in opposition-run councils. Many new District Development Directors are said to have been recruited from among CCM cadres and ‘operatives.’ Both CCM and opposition MPs have complained about their ‘incompetence’ and the powers usurped by the new DCs and RCs, many of whom are retired army officers.[7]

Magufuli has confounded those critics who expected a much messier transition from Phase 4 to Phase 5. Still, it remains unclear how he can maintain his anti-corruption momentum in the absence of a solid base of support both inside and outside parliament and the ruling party.


JPM has expressed his dislike of companies that practise state capture and tax evasion. One of his first moves was to trace more than 300 containers to inland depots that had been cleared at Dar es Salaam port without paying duty. One of the depots and some of the containers belonged to Said Bakhresa, founder of the Azam group of companies, who also had a consignment of sugar impounded.

For year, sugar imports have been a contentious issue. The local sugar industry was almost bankrupted by massive sugar imports and smuggling during 2012-13. In February this year, the government announced the suspension of sugar imports so that local producers could market unsold stocks. It was announced that further import licences would only be granted by State House. Sugar prices shot up to over Tsh2,000 (about one US dollar) a kilo, compared with the government’s ‘indicative price’ of Tsh1,800. Local importers were blamed for creating artificial shortages to sabotage the president’s initiative. The stand-off lasted until May.

JPM’s stand-off with segments of the Asian and Arab business community over smuggling and tax evasion was resolved in October, when he opened a fruit canning factory near

Dares Salaam built by Azam’s Bakhresa. His consignment of sugar was also released from the port, and JPM promised to allot him land to set up a large sugar estate.[8] Asian and Arab conglomerates are key players in Tanzania’s ambitious industrialisation plans, an issue requiring separate coverage.


The Tanzanian voter is generally characterised as a potential ally in the fight against corruption. Certainly, polls suggest that JPM’s anti-waste and graft project has really impressed many people, after years of poor governance. But we should be wary of assuming too much. There is a widespread popular view that a politician or official who fails to ‘eat’ when the opportunity arises (or is created) is a fool who will die poor after retirement for failing to abuse his or her public office.’[9] In a 2014 Afrobarometer survey, respondents were asked: ‘In your opinion, what are the most important problems facing this country that the government should address?’ The main problem areas mentioned were health, education, agriculture, water, infrastructure/roads. Corruption ranked 7th, equal with fighting poverty.[10] In a more recent survey, Tanzanians aged 18-35 were asked whether they would be prepared to give or take a bribe: Some 44% said they would; 58% agreed that ‘It doesn’t matter how you make money as long as you don’t end up in jail’; and 39% said they would only vote for a candidate who bribed them. Finally, three-quarters said that they were ‘afraid to stand up for what is right for fear of retribution.’[11]

Though numerous NGOs have a mandate to promote transparent and accountable government, Tanzanian civil society has generally not (with a few notable exceptions) played a major role in fighting corruption, even though many ‘governance’-oriented organisations exist. The Legal and Human Rights Centre has consistently challenged JPM’s governance practices, but there has not been a popular mobilisation of support for his anti-corruption policies or against his human-rights record.

It is quite unclear how Tanzanian voters assess corruption in politics. Systemic rent-seeking in the CCM government was the main opposition political platform prior to the 2015 elections. One prime target was Monduli MP Edward Lowassa, who was forced to resign as prime minister over the Richmond power scandal during Kikwete’s first term. Nevertheless, Lowassa was by far the most popular candidate vying for the CCM nomination, perceived as a man of the people who was generous in rewarding his supporters out of his considerable fortune, however acquired. After being rejected by CCM’s Ethics Committee during the vetting process for the CCM candidature, Lowassa defected to Chadema and promptly became the opposition alliance’s[12] joint candidate for the presidency! This suggests that Lowassa’s image as a man of the people carried more weight than his reputation for corruption. He took his wealth and popularity to the opposition camp, and the opposition quickly forgot about his corruption.[13]

While polls suggest that Tanzanians are highly supportive of Magufuli’s policies to date, it is unlikely that the war on corruption will assure continued mass popular support in the absence of more material benefits to ordinary people.[14]


The traditional multilateral and bilateral donors are hamstrung when it comes to engaging with what they see as the authoritarian JPM approach to fighting corruption and waste. Still heavily influenced by the proposition that democracy=development, many ‘development partners’[15] continue to finance programmes and projects designed to enhance transparent and accountable government. There is a strong case to be made that donor-inspired economic and political liberalisation since the mid-1980s have contributed to the competitive money politics that characterises the current political settlement. Arguably, JPM is right to discredit oppositionist politics: Prom a developmental point of view, party politics is a costly and often frivolous distraction of no obvious public utility. Whether it is JPM’s right to decide on the issue is another matter altogether.[16]

While the influence of established donors on policy has declined significantly since the beginning of this century, the influence of China as a major trade and ‘development partner’ has increased. Unlike OECD donors, the Chinese government deals exclusively with the central government and its agencies, and does not tie aid to concerns with human rights or ‘good governance,’ JPM recently signed off on a $7.6 billion soft loan to build a new standard gauge railway (SGR) to replace the existing Central Line. This and other projects bypass public procurement laws and regulations and parliamentary perusal. Projects such as the SGR have been criticised for their cost and their economic rationale. Magufuli’s infrastructural ambitions are again a subject for another day.

Many aid agencies continue to employ a normative approach to corruption. The notion that corruption is the result of personal ethical shortcomings is implicit in the widely used definition of corruption as the abuse of official position for personal gain.[17] Defining petty corruption in terms of ‘need’ and grand corruption in terms of ‘greed’ is equally normative and judgmental. Arguably, ‘corruption’ of all kinds is largely the consequence of competitive clientelism, or patronage, where inter-personal trust is lacking and formal institutions are weak. The widespread failure of traditional ‘supply-side’ approaches to corruption control through institution and capacity building, and on the ‘demand-side’ through ‘empowering’ citizens, civil society and the media is testimony to how difficult donors find it to go beyond the ‘good governance’ paradigm.

Unfortunately, JPM’s equally normative approach to governance is unlikely to work unless it can change the underlying incentive structure governing intra-state and state-business relations. Without massive popular support and a change in the way politics is done (the ‘political settlement’), the Magufuli approach to fighting corruption is likely to disappoint its supporters. As President Obama put it: ‘Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.’[18]


Space prevents a full treatment of this dimension of ‘Magufulism,’ but East African regional relations have been changing rapidly since JPM came to power. In particular, JPM has built bridges with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, whose relationship with the previous Tanzanian regime was particularly testy. Observers note the parallels between Kagame’s and Magufuli’s undemocratic governance styles. Those who see human rights as the basis for sound development strategies cannot accept that Kagame and Magufuli are potentially more ‘developmental’ than their fellow presidents in the region. The intricacies of inter-EAC relations are a subject for future reflection.


What some see as an apparent resort to authoritarianism continues a recent trend to unwind governance gains achieved during the Kikwete administration that had allowed parliament inter alia to address the Escrow scandal and for the Constitutional Reform Commission to produce a new draft constitution with stronger controls on executive power.[19]After the Escrow debacle in 2014, conservative elements within CCM decided that the open government business had gone far enough, and took steps to reinforce executive power at the expense of parliament. In this respect, Magufuli can be seen as part of an underlying trend to shore up the ruling elite against its opponents, including the political opposition, and the traditional and social media. The 2016-17 budget saw a 50 per cent cut in the budget of the Controller and Auditor General (CAG), whose reports were frequently used by parliamentary committees to make life uncomfortable for certain senior officials.[20]

President Magufuli bears comparison with Tanzania’s first president of the competitive era, Benjamin Mkapa (1995-2005). Like Mkapa, Magufuli was a compromise candidate, not the frontrunner. Both he and Mkapa were ‘selected’ by the incumbent president to prevent other contenders from acceding to the presidency.[21] Though both were seasoned politicians, neither was particularly well-known by the public or highly networked within the ruling party. Mkapa was under pressure to clean up the mess left by his predecessor Ali Hassan Mwinyi’s casual approach to governance, just as JPM is doing in relation to Kikwete.

But there the comparison ends. Mkapa’s anti-corruption policies were strongly influenced by donors, and the path-breaking Warioba Report (1996) on the state of corruption in the country was never implemented with any conviction. By contrast, JPM hit the ground running, and has kept running, with homegrown rather than donor-driven momentum. Many of his ‘governance’ initiatives are clear indictments of his predecessor’s performance, yet there is no evidence of serious friction between the two.[22] JPM’s selective approach to anti-corruption may help explain why.

[1]Zitto Kabwe 2016. ‘Will the real opposition emerge under Magufuli’s presidency?’ Citizen on Sunday, August 7.

[2] Stakeholders are urging the president not to sign the Media Bill.

[3]PCCB prosecutes very few large corruption cases and loses most of the cases it initiates, including the small ones, which are the majority. See for details.

[4] PPP has also been dubbed ‘Personal and Political Preferences’. The PPP model is uncritically embraced by most policymakers. IPTL was one of Tanzania’s first PPPs.

[5]In late 2014, Mr Rugemalira received $70m (in local currency) for his company’s 30 per cent share in IPTL. See: details.

[6]Polycarp Machira 2016. ‘JPM now to cleanse CCM’, Guardian on Sunday, Dar es Salaam, 24 July.

[7]Athuman Mtulya 2016. ‘Lawmakers criticise ’incompetent’ DEDs’, Citizen, Dar es Salaam, 11 November.

[8]Mohamed Enterprises, another Asian conglomerate, has also announced plans to open a large sugar estate.

[9]Mwassa Jingi 2016. ‘Setting leadership integrity pace’, Citizen, 24 January.

[10]REPOA interviewed a nationally representative, random, stratified probability sample of 2,386 respondents. The question cited was open-ended. Respondents were asked to list three problem areas. All three responses were weighted equally in calculating the ranking. See:…/tan_r6_sor_en.pdf.

[11]Aga Khan University 2016.‘The Tanzania Youth Survey Report’ October. Only a third of 18-35 year olds (34%) thought it was important to pay taxes.

[12] The UKAWA/Umoja alliance was made up of four opposition parties, the most important being Chadema and CUF.

[13] Rumours that Lowassa bought the opposition candidature are circumstantial, though figures for who got how much are bandied about in social media. Only two senior opposition leaders resigned on principle upon Lowassa’s move to the opposition, Chadema’s Dr Wilbrod Slaa and CUF’s Prof Ibrahim Lipumba, both former presidential candidates.

[14]A recent Twaweza poll revealed that 58% of respondents did not consider Magufuli a dictator, while 60% supported the ban on political rallies. See:

[15] Including UN agencies, the IFIs, the EU, other multilateral and bilateral donors, international NGOs, presidential/state initiatives (Feed the Future, PEPFAR, Power Africa), private foundations (Gates, Soros, Aga Khan), and others.

[16]Many criticised the termination of full-time coverage of parliamentary sessions as undemocratic.

[17]This definition has been used by Transparency International, the World Bank, and many other international development agencies for the past two decades.


[19]See Policy Forum 2016. ‘Tanzania Governance Review 2014: the Year of Escrow’, July, Chapter 1.

[20] Some committee members abused their oversight role and accepted or demanded bribes. Rosina John 2016. ‘3 MPs arraigned over Tsh30m bribe request’, Citizen, Dar es Salaam, 1 April.

[21]Nyerere thought Mkapa was the least bad of a rather mediocre group of candidates. Kikwete was bent on preventing his former prime minister from replacing him, preferring his minister of foreign affairs, Bernard Membe, for the job. Kikwete had to sacrifice Membe in order to block Lowassa.

[22]JPM’s accession to the CCM Chairmanship in July took place without incident.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.


THE BATTLE FOR KENYA’S SOUL: Will history absolve them?




THE BATTLE FOR KENYA’S SOUL: Will history absolve them?

Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or just right. Soon after the Miguna Miguna arrest-and-deportation circus began, I opened an autobiography I had just been gifted. The book, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, by Duncan Ndegwa, came highly recommended. Little did I know what I was in for.

Duncan Ndegwa was Kenya’s first Head of Civil Service and its second Central Bank Governor. He was in the sanctum sanctorum in those early years. His story promised to be insightful, if not tantalising, revealing the many struggles Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, faced. But it made me angry.

I wasn’t sure why I got angrier and angrier after I got past the diversionary chapters on culture. But I did. Eventually, I scanned through my notes and scribbled them in pencil on one of the blank pages at the back of the book. Then it all made sense. I was reading the past while it was happening in my present. If the past was ever a prologue, Kenya in 2018 is it. We are stuck in a destructive cycle.

Quick, try placing these two statements in the last five decades of Kenya’s history:

  1. He openly warned the media against misusing press freedom to “misinform the public”.
  2. He was charged with treason, which was later changed to the lesser crime of incitement.

The first entry is from a speech by Tom Mboya in 1962, but those words have been used many times since. They could as well have been said by Argwings Kodhek, or his boss Jomo. Or in 1979, when newspapers were ordered not to publish an opinion poll. Or by Kalonzo Musyoka in 1990, when he filed a motion to ban a newspaper from covering Parliament proceedings. They could even be taken from John Michuki’s infamous “if you rattle a snake” retort.

The second statement refers to the short-lived treason charge against Maina Kamanda in 2001. He had said that President Daniel arap Moi should be shot in bed if he tried to extend his term. The charge of treason, the crime of betraying one’s country, has been a constant threat against outspoken opposition MPs since independence. Whether applied in 1971 or in 2018, this weighty threat is still firmly in place.

The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.

You’ve heard both phrases lately, and you will hear them again. These are what the academic Joyce Nyairo calls “the grammar of the state”. The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.

Tyranny of the accursed

In many ways, the last decade has felt like a marathon through the first 30 years after independence. The son wants to eradicate the same things that his father promised to focus on 55 years ago. Detention without trial is back. We have launched wars on human rights, a new constitution, devolution, and Somalia. The concerted effort to reset to the KANU code is in full gear. We are back to essentially a one-party state with a growing greed and hold on all arms of government. We have the makings of a Sun King who can do no wrong, and in whose wisdom and undying love for our wellbeing we must trust.

There’s a tough-talking Interior Cabinet Minister with a disdain for the law and basic decency. Our maize scandals are now an annual thing and pilfering from the state is now a legitimate way to join the upper ranks of society. A fake political rivalry continues to eclipse real social and economic issues. Politics has become entertainment in all but name, an expensive escape from realities. We are now numb to theft of land, taxes, and even borrowed money, in this dark comedy.

This reality is not accidental; it was the entire purpose of the creation of the Kenyan state. In his treatise on this, Darius Okolla says that this founding ethos of the colony never went away. In fact, in the last sixty years and four presidents later, it is even more entrenched. Now as then, the needs of a few appear as the needs of the many, as do their problems. “Personal problems” are not the same as the “you” in “security starts with you”.

Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it. The problem is their myopic view of what the Kenyan state could be, as becomes clear in Ndegwa’s memoirs. The men around Jomo deified him, and even when he was senile and dying, shielded him like one would a monarch. It wasn’t Jomo the man, or the icon, that they worshipped, but the head of this zombie elite. He wasn’t just actively refusing to build a formidable Kenyan state; he was leading the way in destroying it.

A constant argument I’ve heard is that it was important for Jomo and Moi to rule as they did because they had inherited a traumatised society. The argument is that such a society is fragile and needs a firm hand to guide it through the healing process. It is the dangerous justification for “benevolent dictatorship”. That firmer hand promised repeatedly by Jubilee mandarins before and after the last election is a slippery slope. It is the same one with which the opposition handles its internal elections. This argument is back in our news diet, based on the same laws and ideals. What’s missing from it is that this “firmer hand” traumatised society in more ways than the colonial unit had, more so because the black aristocracy had no direction or plan beyond acquisition.

Publicly, and in such personal records as memoirs, this elite class continuously pretends it worked for the good of the country. But it turns out that our definition of country differs. For them it was a running plantation that requires little or no input, where a slave working class is either a vote, a weapon, a taxpayer, or all three. To keep this intact, the greatest inheritance Uhuru’s fathers left him was an assortment of oppressive colonial laws. They retained that same colonial attitude to dissent, peasant revolutions, and oaths. Laws on treason, sedition and secession remained untouched. Some were even shored up and legitimised as necessary, such as the Emergency laws.

Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it.

Inherited from a monarchy, these laws were designed to protect and deify the throne. They protected their perceived God-given right to rule, and fenced off the rituals, like oathing, that even attempted to challenge this. For example, the law used to arrest Miguna Miguna was passed in 1955 to fight the peasant irredentism that was the Mau Mau. Another interesting fight in the last five years was whether governors could fly official flags on their cars. In a pseudo-monarchy, the symbols of power, such as flags and oaths, must be protected to legitimise the power of the few, even among themselves. Yet that legitimacy remains shaky at best.

The identity problem

Two significant events will take place between now and 2020. The first is a census, in 2019, that will no doubt be assessed more for its political meaning than its socio-economic importance. We will be on the upper layers of 51 million people by the end of this year, with a net gain of one person every 25 seconds. Most of this population is under 25, and with a life expectancy of 62 years, is not even halfway through its lifespan.

Yet, given our deliberate and structured apathy to the destructive parts of our history, it will not be a surprise if the same conversations are still around in 40 years. Then, on June 11, 2020, most of mainland Kenya will mark a century since it was carved out as a colony. The 12-mile coastal strip will follow two months later, and the north five years after that. With that, the entire patchwork that is the Kenyan state will be a century-old. But the Kenyans within this boardroom experiment will still be struggling with what exactly it means to be Kenyan. Kenyanness is still a weapon, as shown by the cases of Ernsteine Kiano, Sheikh Khalid Balala, Miguna Miguna and Mohammed Sirat. All four found themselves “unKenyaned” for their personal and political stands, as if being born in a particular place (or married in, in the case of Ernsteine) should not be the foundation of all rights and inheritances.

Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things. It is a blood relative who, after years of self-imposed exile, returns to the family fold when he’s diagnosed with a terminal disease. His reason? Because he needs his people to bury him.

In Ndegwa’s book, there’s a way he talks about the Shifta War that is both condescending and revealing. First, the state of emergency that allowed Jomo and Moi to rule the North-East by decree was illegal. Ndegwa says as much, but cheekily defends it as a necessary breach of the law. Second, there is an appalling distance in the way he talks about an attempt to deport all Somalis from Eastleigh, and his failure to follow an order from his boss in a related event. The worst thing about this “othering” is that it is not unique to him or to the Jomo administration; it is a tool used by politicians even today.

The future of the Kenyan experiment

There is no Kenyan identity to reclaim. It has never existed, and there’s a possibility it might never exist. There are layers, yes, between officialdom and what we actually are and want to be.

I encountered this properly when I wrote “Nicholas Biwott was Not a Good Man” in response to the flurry of hagiographies that followed his death. The things in that obituary were common knowledge, but they were missing from the most read obituaries. My article was followed by statements like “Africans don’t speak ill of the dead”, which is a lie. My subject had himself been obsessed with his legacy, probably being the first among Kenya’s elite who paid to have the Internet scrub off any bad stories about him. If anything, Biwott epitomised the murk of the zombie elite. For him, the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t contrite about the lives he had ruined in his quest for wealth and power, but how history remembered him. He escalated (and demanded) the official silence we somehow now believe was a precolonial thing. We collectively censor “bad” stories about public figures, in much the same way that sexual predators roamed Hollywood for decades, unpunished.

Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things.

But the problem is that when official histories are written, people like him will get away with their contribution to the stagnation of the Kenyan state. Their concerted efforts to keep our identity in stasis, by both feeding off the land and actively trying to shape how such stories survive, will be lost in the threads of history. The elite of the day will actually promote this, not because of any other reason but a desire to sustain this destructive form of memory. It will still permeate through our social networks as if death, by itself the only certainty, somehow cleanses one of all the evil one has done.

In The Burden of History, American historian Hayden V. White wrote that “…we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.” There’s nothing like an objective history, White argued, because while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. And societies are built on stories. If you control a society’s stories, whether through censorship, tyranny, litigation or official narratives, you control its future.

Here, the resurgence of the KANU state is not as scary as it should be because we are eternal optimists. Because in the way stories are distilled, present-day problems are new and the solutions for them haven’t been tried before. Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation. We have learnt to accept the dichotomy between what makes it to official history, which includes media and eulogies, and what we discuss outside of it. This allows us to live double lives, and to drive our society further up the pedestal from which it will eventually collapse.

Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation.

In a discussion I had about Ndegwa’s memoirs, an acquaintance told me I was being harsh on the old man. I offered that the purpose of memoirs is not just to tell one’s story for one’s legacy, but to fit it in a slot in the sands of time. Its purpose is to invite us into a journey that is not our own, to see and experience a different life. It is not just that we might learn something about the author, but that we might also learn something about ourselves. What I learnt about us from that book is that we are stuck in a cycle that can’t be sustained.

That was primarily why Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles pissed me off so much. In Ndegwa’s boastful stories about how he and others deliberately undermined devolution, subverted the constitution and ostracised entire regions, I saw the men and women around Uhuru Kenyatta today. When they are aging and obsessed about their legacy, they will try to justify turning Kenya into the tyranny it is swiftly becoming. Memoirs will speak of the common good that is national security, and why ignoring court orders was the only choice. They will celebrate the handshakes and the failed projects. People who are actively destroying this society today will become “statesmen” and “stateswomen”.

And the taxpayers in this jua kali nation will let this be. In the coming years, they might even replace them in the list of great nation builders.

But will history absolve them?

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HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?



HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?

In January 2018, at the annual Makerere University Tumusiime-Mutebile Centre of Excellence (TMCE) Business Dialogue, the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda, stated that Uganda was now in a position to finance 70% of its budget. However, despite the rosy declaration by the National Resistance Movement stalwart, all indications point to an economy in free fall and one not poised to make major economic breakthroughs.

Basic healthcare remains a serious challenge: despite a commitment made with several other African countries to allocating 15% of their budgets to the health sector, Uganda allocates less than 10% (just over 6% this year) of its budget to health. A cholera outbreak in western Uganda in late 2017 signaled yet another drug stock-out. There were reports from the central region of a lack of drugs to treat hepatitis-B. A major drug and consumables (e.g. gloves) shortage was also reported in Mbale in eastern Uganda in January 2018. The Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a catchment area of four million people, had received no drug consignments for two months.

Then in February this year, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee announced that a loan taken in 2016, in part to pay for drugs bought by the National Medical Stores, was not in fact passed on to the organisations for which it was borrowed. The Speaker of Parliament ordered a special audit to establish the use of the money.

At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.

The Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, has so far explained that the funds were used for general budget support required in the last fiscal year: to plug a UGX 288 billion revenue shortfall, supplementary expenditure of UGX156 billion, and to substitute more expensive domestic borrowing amounting to 280 billion Uganda shillings.

Parliament is up in arms because when approval for the loan for budget support was first sought, it was rejected. Following a revised request emphasising the need for essential drugs, the request was approved. However, Parliament says it was duped as the beneficiaries were never advised about the arrival of the funds.

Muhakanizi is adamant that the money was banked in the government’s consolidated fund, along with all other sources of funds, and disbursed in the usual manner. One source says it is clear from the loan documents that it was never tied to the purchase of drugs. Furthermore, it appears that Parliament approved the loan on verbal presentations as to its usage, not on the loan documents. If this is so (the Auditor General is still investigating), then Parliament has revealed itself to be negligent in scrutinising and approving loans.

The underlying problem appears to be that, even with the PTA loan, there were simply insufficient funds for government business and the Treasury was unable to disburse all the money required by all sectors, even for essential expenditure like drugs. (Non-essential expenditure seems easier. It will be remembered that in 2016 a gratuity of UGX6.2 billion was paid by the President to 42 celebrity public servants as a reward for carrying out their ordinary duties. The Secretary to the Treasury was part of this privileged group.)

Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans.

The cash crisis persisted in 2018. At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.

This is not surprising as there has been a shortfall in expected revenues of UGX300 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija. The shortfall is expected to double by the end of the year. By way of explanation, Kasaija claims that the budget estimates for 2017/1018 were wrong in some cases and there have been unexpected expenditures in others. The upshot, says Kasaija, is that ministries, departments and agencies have put in requests for an extra UGX2.3 trillion. This is needed for salaries, pensions, security and social assistance grants to low-income households, energy, as well as for the development budget. So far, only 38% (870 billion) of the excess expenditure has been approved in supplementary budgets.

Speaking of energy, Uganda is also experiencing a shortage of petrol. As with all fuel shortages, explanations include the refurbishment of infrastructure for the storage and transport of fuel, limited international supplies, delays in the construction of a pipeline from Kenya to Uganda, Kenyans, and myriad other excuses. What is not clear is why Uganda’s statutory fuel reserves are not replenished and in fact reserved for such emergencies. Why are the fuel reserves sold on the open market?

At the time of writing, news of the Uganda Police’s budget woes broke. The latest quarterly treasury release of UGX137 billion is sufficient only to fund operations at the Inspector General of Police’s headquarters and in three administrative regions, namely, Kampala Metropolitan, East Kyoga, Sipi and East Rwenzori. This means other operations, including criminal investigations and intelligence in Northern, Central and much of Western Uganda, are not funded. The Inspector General of Police has explained that operations will be rotated i.e. the next release will be used on operations in the areas that lost out this time.

Even though food is provided for, the association of police suppliers has suspended supplies while it demands payment of UGX 33 billion in arrears. This figure almost exactly matches the amount the police expects to spend on tear gas alone in a year. Total police arrears amount to UGX125 billion or a quarter of the annual budget. Suppliers have claimed that they are often threatened when pushing for payment.

The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”

Primary health, education and transport – all designated as priority areas for development – are affected by what can only be the slow-motion collapse of the Ugandan economy. Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans. Foreign exchange fluctuations and further falls in commodity prices could make the situation worse.

Konkola, Hambantota and other stories

The trouble with loans to administratively weak countries and to full-on captured states is that they are irresponsibly used and are unsustainable. It is also public knowledge that significant portions of public funds, which would include loans and grants made to the government of Uganda, if not squandered are stolen outright.

Unsustainable debt will eventually lead to a loss of Uganda’s ability to even generate income. Prime examples of this dynamic would be the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia, Hambantota Harbour in Sri Lanka and Mozambique’s liquid natural gas deposits.

In 2014, under pressure from the World Bank to repay its debt, the Government of Zambia sought to sell Konkola, Zambia’s largest copper mines. The price was set at US$400 million, presumably after professional evaluation of Konkola’s potential revenues. The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”

He then found himself in the presence of President Mwanawasa and later the Zambian Parliament, being hailed as a great man. Addressing an investment conference in Bangalore in 2014, Agarwal boasted that Konkola had earned his company, Vedanta, between US$500 million and US$1 billion annually since he bought it – more than even its original sale price.

Another example is from Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which derives from an ancient civilization noted for its irrigation and prosperous salt production industry. The harbour is the site of a port built in 2010 with a loan from China. A feasibility study for international ship-building, repair and freight services looked good on paper. However, like Uganda’s budgets, the feasibility study did not pan out and Sri Lanka defaulted on the loan repayments. Under the terms of the agreement, the harbour became the property of China for the next 99 years. There was an outcry, of course. Issues such as the initial viability of the loan were raised. Readjustments followed and now the harbour is a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka. Joint ventures managed by economic predators are no more profitable than unsustainable loans.

The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour.

More recently, in 2017, Mozambique lost future revenue from newly discovered natural gas deposits when the government defaulted on secret loans of US$2 billion. There too, a dodgy feasibility study showed that the loan was sustainable but it turns out it will take Mozambique ten years and most of the gas income to cover the loan and penalties for defaulting. The military and fishing equipment that it was ostensibly used for was being searched for by an international audit firm. The fishing fleet bought with some of the funds was rusting in dock as the business proved to be a loss-maker from the start. The government admitted that the fishing project was, in fact, a front for military acquisitions.

Of the many accounts of the Mozambican debt crisis, Ugandans and citizens of other developing countries should at least read the one by Bodo Ellmers of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, if only to form an idea of how our own oil discoveries could be squandered even before commercial production begins.

Naturally, after following developments in Zambia, Sri Lanka and Mozambique, one becomes nervous about Uganda’s situation. The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour. Chinese extractors are already mining the Lweera Wetland for sand at an industrial rate. The question is, could this official departure from national environmental policy be part of a secret concession sold to the Chinese by the usual suspects?

Is there a danger that title to or rights in other state assets will be or have been transferred to someone like Anil Agarwal or the Guptas, now that the latter have been flushed out of South Africa? It is a reasonable question, patriotic even, given that Uganda is a veteran of cartoonish business deals.

Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated.

A recent Department of Justice statement revealed the modus operandi for looting state assets employed by predator “investors” and their local agents when it charged one Patrick Ho with bribing the Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, in return for assorted business favours for a Chinese state entity. These costly concessions included, but were not limited to, direct access to the President (resulting in) extended tax holidays, free land by the square kilometer, forests, transfers of public machinery and plants on promises of future payments after they become profitable, and so on. It is in the public interest that Parliament investigates the sustainability of Uganda’s entire debt burden and what the country stands to lose in the event of a default.

Restitution of control

The process of recovery from this parlous state will not be easy. Taking South Africa as an example, a state under the control of regime stalwarts and foreign divestors – the Gupta brothers – it took the constant coordinated efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters to oust ex-President Jacob Zuma by: a) keeping the public informed about the inner workings of the regime; and b) naming the perpetrators. Working within the law, the EFF rejected attempts to normalise state capture by repeatedly bringing government business in Parliament to a halt. The resulting international spotlight on South Africa made Zuma’s position untenable. He resigned days after he was unable to make a last State of the Nation address.

Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated. Increasingly elaborate state functions, like the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation address and Independence and Heroes day celebrations belie the desperate realities.

Meanwhile, envoys from complicit countries continue to make high-profile visits to Ugandan government officials, even those implicated in financial scandals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund churn out evaluation reports deliberately fabricating achievements and downplaying the impact of failures in administrative and economic reforms. Concrete examples can be found in the evaluation of the Economic and Financial Management Programme, the Public Service Performance Enhancement Programme and the Education Sector Adjustment Credit. [1]

Until the Ugandan Parliament recognises the capture of the state for what it is, and by whom, and becomes serious about scrutinising public debt, Uganda is going nowhere.

[1] For records of misleading World Bank reports on Ugandan projects, see Mary Serumaga, The case for repudiation of Uganda’s public debt, 8 December 2017 by Mary Serumaga published by the Committee for Repudiation of Illegitimate Debt.

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WADING INTO TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth



WADE IN TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth

*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.

An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.

The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.

Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.

In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy.  If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!

The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.

How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!

This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.

Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.

Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.

There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”

A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.

Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.

Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.

In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.

But can we rely on the youth to deliver?

Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:

The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.

Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing.  He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.

We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”

According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute,  Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi.  Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.

It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.

The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.

In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu.  But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.

Where Are Those Songs?  Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:

Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […]  Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.

Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?

And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:

Chilled body but not my soul… 

We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.

I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.

Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.

Let us demand the dreams of our children.


Cited works:

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.

Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA

Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.

Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337

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