In May 2017, delegations from a wide and diverse array of international stakeholders with interests in Somalia gathered in London to attend a high-level multilateral conference, the third major conference to be held on Somalia since 2012. Hosted by the British Government in conjunction with the United Nations Secretary-General, more than forty organisations and nations ultimately met to outline the relationship between the international community and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) over the next four years.
To this end, the conference participants unveiled a New Partnership for Somalia (NPS) and a Security Pact (SP) whose objectives -the continuing pursuit of a stable and secure Somalia- did not really differ from the outcomes of the two previous high-level conferences. Indeed, they were very much in accordance with all such gatherings held since the overthrow of Siad Barre in 1991. From the points of view of the conference organisers, international and local media and the newly elected FGS President Mohamed Abdullahi “Farmajo” Mohamed, the conference was deemed a success, attracting as it did pledges of additional financial assistance, training and material support, as well as deadlines for achieving the full realisation of national security architecture within a federalised governance structure.
For Kenyans, however, news coming out of the actual conference, as well as in the days preceding and after the event, was much less positive and considerably more ominous. The Head of State, President Uhuru Kenyatta, facing a tough campaign for re-election in August 2017, seemed to commit the Kenya Defence Force (KDF) to remaining in Somalia until the objectives of Operation Linda Nchi, the invasion of Somalia launched in October 2011, and which had since been folded into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), had been achieved. Mr. Kenyatta was quoted as saying that “Our ultimate objective is to ensure the country’s (i.e. Somalia’s?) security is guaranteed. We cannot exit without accomplishing our goal of bringing stability and have a secure nation.” President Kenyatta was reported as asking the international community to significantly enhance its support to AMISOM; alternatively it was suggested that the UN take on much more of the funding responsibility for AMISOM. It was unclear whether KDF assigned to AMISOM would be withdrawn along with other troop- contributing nations’ military and police units as of 2020, as previously announced by the African Union; President Kenyatta was reported as stating that greater UN support would accelerate the planned draw down of AMISOM soldiers.
Back home neither the Kenyan media nor any of the opposition leaders took much notice of the president’s declarations that the KDF would stay in Somalia to pacify and stabilise Somalia; editors were happy to express patriotic sentiments supporting continued KDF presence because, as the Sunday Standard stated, “Al Shabaab strikes when we relax and retreats when we advance, the idea being to wear down the KDF to desperation and withdrawal. This is why President Uhuru Kenyatta has made it clear that the army is in Somalia for the long haul. Withdrawal would mean loss of national face and a propaganda coup for the Al Shabaab.” And that was that as everyone turned all their attention to politics and the price of ugali.
Operation Linda Nchi
On Sunday, 16 October 2011, a column of approximately 1,800 Kenya Army troops crossed into Somalia from their bases in Mandera, Wajir and Garissa. Although supported – when weather permitted – by helicopter gunships and Kenya Air Force F-5s, this was essentially a conventional motorised assault against Al Shabaab terrorists. During the five weeks prior to the cross-border assault, suspected Al Shabaab militants had allegedly attacked Western tourists in Lamu and had also abducted two Spanish Médecins Sans Frontières volunteers from the vicinity of the Dadaab refugee camps. Throughout 2011, there had also been an upsurge in-fighting inside Somalia between AMISOM, Somali government forces and the Al Qaeda affiliated Al Shabaab militia. The latter had been pushed out of the Somali capital, Mogadishu, and was relinquishing control over towns in central Somalia where much of the population was experiencing serious famine. Further south, Al Shabaab had retained control of Kismayu with its strategic functioning port facilities and, in the areas adjacent to the Kenya border, held increasing sway over the population.
Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.
This cross-border incursion had limited objectives and the columns’ various combat elements – armoured fighting vehicles, towed artillery, troop transports, donated American Humvees, lorries, British supplied tanks, Land Rovers – were not accompanied by ambulances, fuel trucks, combat support engineers, water bowsers, mobile kitchens, specialised command-and-control armour-proofed vehicles or heavier artillery pieces. The numbers of troops initially committed and the configuration of the attack column gave no indication that the KDF had planned a campaign to last beyond Christmas 2011.
The very limited objectives of Operation Linda Nchi included recovery of those kidnapped ostensibly by Al Shabaab terrorists, pushing the group’s units away from the international border and retaliating for previous terrorist attacks against targets within Kenya, however infrequent and sporadic they may have been; in fact Kenya had largely escaped the sort of Al Shabaab terrorism unleashed against civilians in Uganda in 2010, which had troops actively engaged in combat with Al Shabaab on behalf of the Mogadishu authorities.
Within two weeks of the Kenyan troops crossing into Somalia, Al Shabaab launched a still ongoing, albeit intermittent, campaign of terrorist attacks on mainly civilian targets in and around Nairobi and Mombasa, as well as throughout the counties of the former North Eastern, Eastern and Coast Provinces. Al Shabaab also increased recruitment within Kenya and a local branch developed, seemingly focused on exploiting domestic alienation and historical anti-government grievances among Muslim communities who viewed themselves as being largely marginalised and discriminated against by successive post-independence governments. Attacks against soft targets inside Kenya have waxed and waned. Though Nairobi has been spared similar attacks to that on the Westgate Mall in 2013, which killed at least 68 people, Al Shabaab has since 2012 massacred students, civil servants and workers across Mandera, Wajir, Garissa and Lamu counties. Continuing assassinations of chiefs and subchiefs, as well as occasional successful attacks on isolated police posts and ambushes within Kenya of KDF convoys and police patrols, are clear evidence that Al Shabaab’s somewhat minimal presence in 2010 inside the four counties bordering Somalia has developed into a self-sustaining domestic insurgency.
The situation in Mombasa has also become increasingly confused since 2011, mainly because of heavy-handed government repression and extrajudicial executions targeting radical Imams and alleged Jihadist recruits, apparently with the tacit support of foreign intelligence agencies.
Operation Linda Nchi – A Confluence of Interests?
During the thirty-six years since I first arrived in Kenya, the security relationship between Washington and Nairobi has undergone substantial changes in scope, in activities undertaken and in financial support given, as well as in the expectations and motivations of all participants and stakeholders. Between independence in 1963 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kenya had been a reliable, albeit not terribly strategically important, ally of the West against the spread of communism, whether in East Africa or throughout the Greater Horn of Africa region. All Kenya had the port of Mombasa and its relatively stable and peaceful political environment in which a host of service industries (i.e. finances, logistics, education, communications, light manufacturing built on import substitution, and export-oriented agricultural enterprises) seemed to operate reliably and efficiently, especially when compared to the rest of the region. Kenya had also attracted the only UN Headquarters located in Africa, numerous foreign correspondents and both major and minor international media institutions. During the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, international NGOs and development agencies established regional offices and substantially increased the inflow of donor dollars, whether for project support or simply to conduct daily operations. The country also experienced a genuine tourism boom which benefited from – by African standards – her superior infrastructure (i.e. all-weather roads, international and domestic air connections, seaport, etc.) and a well-developed hospitality industry. Despite her one-party government, price and exchange controls, and a growing movement advocating greater democracy, increased economic opportunities and an end to rising levels of government corruption, Kenya was a haven of stability and pragmatic African nationalism.
None of the foregoing should be dismissed as a somewhat irrelevant backstory. The same factors that made Kenya a moderately useful ally during the Cold War can still be found today. Kenya remains an essential hub for major humanitarian and relief operations in the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)and Burundi, and is a vital component in international antipiracy operations. She has become increasingly important to the conduct of US counterterrorism operations focusing on the Al Qaeda leadership co-located with Al Shabaab elements within Somalia and elsewhere in the region.
Although I initially viewed Operation Linda Nchi as a legally permissible punitive strike against Al Shabaab’s cross-border incursions, the longevity and development of the operation, as well as evidence that Al Shabaab terrorists were not involved in attacks on tourists in Lamu or in the kidnapping of the two Spanish MSF employees in Dadaab, caused my views to shift to more prosaic and indefensible reasons.
The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments.
Just as Operation Linda Nchi effectively constituted a “declaration of war” on Al Shabaab and other radical Islamic terrorists – and changed Kenya forever – the successful Al Qaeda attacks in September, 2001, on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon transformed how the US government perceived global threats to homeland security; much of the language used to describe the global danger to America of radical Islamic Jihadist terrorism is eerily reminiscent of the views of threats posed by international communism in the aftermath of the Second World War. The “enemy” then was exemplified by the Soviet Union and mainland China, as well as such bit players as Cuba, Vietnam (North until 1975) and North Korea. Because all of these enemies were essentially state actors, American responses could be characterised as merely adaptations of traditional statecraft (e.g. diplomatic, political, military, economic, etc) somewhat modified to fit post-war United Nations conventions.
Since 9/11 traditional statecraft, whether modified or adapted, has been pretty much thrown out the window, the “enemy” in our Global War on Terror seems mainly comprised of non-state actors fighting to impose their ideology of radical Islam wherever an opportunity arises. Although violent Jihadists may be sponsored or supported by established nations and may even seek to overthrow existing governments (e.g. Mali, Somalia, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, Afghanistan), the received wisdom and emerging doctrine within ascendant Western security establishments views the current conflict as being both global and forever. This has led to new ways of assessing “victories” and conducting operations whose effect on US-Kenya bilateral relations may not be obvious but is nonetheless pervasive and with consequences that are unintended and little commented on.
Despite occasional statements paying lip service to promoting good governance, countering insurgency (i.e. hearts and minds activities, developing partners’ security capacities, etc.) and promoting a human rights agenda, short-term success is measured by the elimination of “wanted” Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab terrorists with little or no loss of American lives; financial considerations are secondary. In addition, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003 “nation building”, as a modern term for either small wars or counter insurgency campaigning, has fallen completely off the charts used by American and nearly all Western leaders. For example, in Somalia the US is following a policy of stabilisation which is inherently short term in nature and which has no overall strategic objectives.
In this scenario, Kenya, as a stable geographical entity with a friendly government, has assumed much greater importance than at any time in its nearly 40 years of military cooperation with Washington. In fact the nature of America’s “Forever War” since 9/11 gives the Kenyan government much greater influence in its relationship with Washington than was ever the case even at the height of the Cold War when American efforts in Africa concentrated on suppressing threats posed by the Soviet Union, Cuba or East Germany and such proxies as Libya and Ethiopia.
Another thing that is seldom appreciated is how many “survivors of terrorism” are driving America’s post 9/11 security agenda. For example, the present US Ambassador to Kenya, Robert Godec, survived the Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi on 7 August 1998 and his career assignments since then have involved various aspects of the US government’s Global War on Terrorism. His immediate predecessor, Scott Gration, was on duty at the Pentagon on 9/11 when hijacked aircraft slammed into the building; he was also a senior officer who witnessed the terror bombing in the early 1990s of the Khobar Barracks used by US Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia.
Further, I believe an appreciation of the connections and links between the individuals running the US security agenda in the Horn are critical to any assessment of the US government’s assistance to Kenyan security agencies. When Operation Linda Nchi was launched, Ambassador Scott Gration, a retired Major General in the US Air Force, was the US Ambassador to Kenya; he had previously served as the Obama administration’s representative in Juba, South Sudan. Ambassador Gration had grown up in Kenya and, as a US Air Force Major, had from 1983 to 1984, worked closely with Julius Karangi, then a Kenya Air Force Major, when the US government supplied Kenya with F-5 jets and instructors. Major Karangi, who was then in charge of US-Kenya military assistance programs, had risen to the Chief of Defence Forces when Operation Linda Nchi was launched.
US training and logistics assistance to Kenya increased substantially during 2012, although Gration resigned on 21 June 2012. Gration remains active in business and missionary circles in Kenya. General Karangi retired from KDF in 2015 but remains highly influential inside the government and its security architecture, as well as in business circles.
The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.
Although Scott Gration served as Senator Obama’s military aide during the latter’s visit to Nairobi in 2006 and was one of the first generals to support Obama for president in 2008, he has close ties to Dr. Jendayi Frazer, a former Republican Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs serving through January 2009; Dr. Frazer has been associated since 1990 with the Kenyatta family and does business in East Africa – especially in Rwanda – and is a strong proponent of fighting Islamic Jihadist terrorism, especially in East Africa. During her tenure as Assistant Secretary of State, the Kenyan government allowed the recruitment of ethnic Somali Kenya citizens and Somali refugees from Dadaab who were trained in Manyani by retired US personnel and serving Kenya Army officers and then sent in Somalia National Army uniforms to fight Al Shabaab; this project was eventually abandoned and by August 2011 some wounded survivors made their way to Mandera. This entire operation remains shrouded in secrecy but seems to have fallen apart when funds for salaries and logistics were stolen, with the fighters in Somalia being literally abandoned and left to their own devices; an unknown number of these trained soldiers were alleged to have defected to Al Shabaab. The financing of these sorts of shadowy military operations, which date back in concept to the late 1940s, has always been “off the books” and not subject to normal financial and performance audits.
While researching KDF “Order of Battle” reports compiled by various professional risk analysts, I noticed that there are 100-110 T-72 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs) still listed in Kenya Army inventories; the KDF has never purchased or deployed the Soviet era tanks although the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) Juba government took possession of such equipment when Scott Gration was the US government representative. Somali pirates had inadvertently captured a vessel carrying 33 T-72s, which was rapidly freed and made its way to Kenya where its cargo was offloaded in Mombasa from where the tanks, ammunition, spare parts and accessories were transported by rail and road to South Sudan; the Kenyan military would have been the only Kenyan government agency with the necessary means and capabilities to ensure safety and security of this and previous transfers of heavy war materials and weapons to the SPLA in Juba even before South Sudan formally achieved independence. (Whether the Auditor General has ever queried how over a hundred MBTs were added to the KDF assets register and whether this procurement, including payment to the supplier, was properly documented remains unknown.)
The launch of Operation Linda Nchi substantially altered the relationship between the Kenyan and US governments. Washington had not been formally advised about the incursion and the seemingly open-ended nature of this punitive expedition -which had failed by Jamhuri Day, 2011, to accomplish any of its limited objectives- presented the Obama administration with an unforeseen dilemma as it opened up another front in the US Global War on Terrorism. Kenya increased its forces inside Somalia to 4, 660 and announced that the main objective of the campaign was to seize the port of Kismayu after clearing Al Shabaab forces from an expansive zone –Gedo/Juba – adjacent to the international border. In addition, the government negotiated the permanent inclusion of some 3,600 KDF troops into AMISOM; this “rehatting” was essential if Kenya were not to be bankrupted by its invasion of Somalia.
An additional consequence of Operation Linda Nchi was a nearly immediate upsurge in Al Shabaab terrorism, not only in the four frontline counties along the Somali border but increasingly directed against civilian targets in and around Nairobi as well as in Mombasa. the Kenyan security forces’ weaknesses and vulnerabilities became obvious, which prompted more financial assistance from the United States and its Western allies to Counter Violent Extremism/Counter Jihadist Terrorism.
Similarly, well-documented governance issues and failures of the Kenyan government to manage basic administrative functions normally associated with a modern nation state – and essential for any success to be achieved in countering insurgency or fighting terrorism – have merely attracted more money for more quick fixes, community-based development solutions as well as increased joint training opportunities for selected KDF elements and, occasionally, counterparts from the United States (e.g. Massachusetts Air National Guard – September 2016). There are also ongoing deployments of US Special Forces personnel to “train, advise and assist” their KDF Special Forcescounterparts; the only time such activities come to light is when a US service member dies while temporarily deployed to Kenya and a notice briefly appears in some home town media outlet. Correspondent Margot Kiser has also reported in the Daily Beast about US soldiers in the Boni Forest / Lamu area.
On the Kenyan side of the bilateral relationship, there is a permanent, long-standing community of diverse political, social, economic and commercial interests, all of which derive benefits from continuing participation of the Kenyan government in America’s Forever War as it plays out in the Greater Horn of Africa. As will be explained in greater detail, regardless of the initial factors that motivated Operation Linda Nchi, there is no longer any reason to believe that the Kenyan government’s actions since 2011 have anything to do with strengthening Kenya’s national security within the context of the 2010 Constitution and in accordance with legitimate and acceptable national interests. The political class in Kenya is oblivious of the existential security threats confronting Kenya; there is an ingrained belief in the nation’s exceptionalism and resilience based on little more than hope and an unwillingness by the media, government, civil society and the private sector to demand accountability from their friends, relatives and colleagues occupying senior positions of power, influence and responsibility when things go wrong.
In 2014, I wrote about how Kenya had become a nation of “spin” and PR:
“… Kenya has developed into a nation where shameless deception and lying have become standard operating procedure in both public and private sectors; the effects of this Orwellian dystopia we have learned to accept initially means that we fail to identify and fix problems and ultimately suffer increasingly greater financial losses… our economy fails to grow and .. youth radicalization, crime and insecurity increase nationally.”
Although I was referring to the reporting in the media of bank failures, financial fraud and regulatory incompetence, it is true that the spinning of reality and PR whitewashes have replaced news reporting and analyses of all matters security.
With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities.
Further, Kenya’s failure to implement anti-money laundering policies and procedures has gone well beyond inhibiting economic growth and facilitating corruption. “Kenya on US blacklist over terrorism laws,” the Daily Nation reported in March 2012. The country had been found to not be lax in enactment of legislation criminalising the financing of terrorism. Nearly eight months later, Kenya remained on watch lists of countries failing to make sufficient progress to curb money laundering and to counter terrorist financing.
An example of how half full – even nearly empty – water glasses can be described as opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade can be found in an article in the Standard on Sunday by Prof. Peter Kagwanja. In the piece, titled “Latest move by USAID a warning to end dependence on aid”, he characterised the recent US suspension of $21 million earmarked for the Ministry of Health (after the Auditor-General found that billions of shillings in the ministry could not be accounted for) as being done on political grounds, ostensibly because corruption is a major campaign plank of the opposition; the suspension, he argued, presented an opportunity for Kenya to wean itself off aid.
However, Prof. Kagwanja finishes up by mentioning the US government’s commitment to spend $30 million on the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), implying that such spending constitutes approval rather than acquiescence. He also described the donation to the KDF of eight unarmed light transport helicopters and State Department approval of a controversial and seemingly hugely overpriced $418 million purchase of close air support aircraft, as examples of positive American support for the Kenyan government’s efforts to deal with terrorism and violent extremism.
Prof. Kagwanja is considered an international relations and security affairs expert and has presented his analyses and opinions on governance and security at the Washington DC Africa Center for Strategic Studies – an influential think tank affiliated with the Pentagon. As a senior and respected scholar, his views count and his credibility is seldom questioned by Americans active in the post- 9/11 Forever War on Global Terrorism. Whether US aid to Kenyan security forces is used effectively or KDF procurement decisions contribute to countering terrorism within East Africa is less important to the US officials involved than is protecting the American Homeland against Jihadist terrorism originating overseas. As will be explained, such disconnects between reality and fantasy, as well as different views on objectives to be achieved and relevant timelines, have created a perfect storm for national insecurity in Kenya as well as elsewhere throughout the Greater Horn of Africa.
Kenya’s War on Terror: Scorecard and Evaluation
The KDF Defence White Paper 2017, launched by President Kenyatta on 3 May 2017, emphasises threats to national security posed by neighboring states’ armed forces, as well as the existential threats in the form of radicalised Islamic youth tragically influenced by external Jihadist forces to become terrorists at home and abroad. Local influences and issues that motivate violent extremism, regardless of religion or political affiliation, are glossed over and no mention is made of the sort of counterinsurgency operations conducted by the British colonial authorities in Kenya in the 1950s against Mau Mau freedom fighters –then also referred to as terrorists – who were often executed as criminals when captured rather than treated as enemy combatants. There is no reference at all to counterinsurgency operations that focus on domestically-instigated conflicts.
This White Paper perfectly captures the thinking of the government’s and the country’s political class and corresponds to local interpretations of the place of Kenya in America’s Global War on Terrorism. Al Shabaab is essentially an insurgent group primarily fighting to take power in Somalia. It may have irredentist ambitions to establish a Greater Somalia within the Horn of Africa, and no doubt sees the frontline counties of Kenya adjacent to the international border as well as Tana River County and significant portions of the former Coast Province as being included in its area of operations. From a strategic perspective and remembering its main objectives, it is very likely that US military commanders view all of the Greater Horn of Africa as being one area of operation in the Global War on Terror -whether coordinated by Africom in Germany or US Centcom in Tampa, the enemy is Al Qaeda and its affiliate Al Shabaab, both of which are deemed to pose threats to Americans at home. The one stakeholder that has failed to embrace this expanded geographical combat zone has been Kenya which relies on borders, its role in a globalised war on terror and a notionally separate chain of command in AMISOM, to explain away the lack of progress in defeating Al Shabaab and improving domestic peace and security. It is the only actor seemingly without its own national objective.
A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption.
Conceptually, Operation Linda Nchi was flawed from the very beginning, and not because conventionally trained soldiers cannot defeat guerrillas. There was no reason to believe that Al Shabaab would engage in direct combat with the better armed and equipped Kenya Army professionals. Al Shabaab has historically disengaged on its own terms when in contact with AMISOM forces. And like AMISOM, the motorised road-bound KDF units occupied space without significantly diminishing Al Shabaab’s tactical capabilities.
Even assuming that the strategic objective underlying Operation Linda Nchi was to ultimately establish a permanent presence in support of a client semi-autonomous Jubaland Administration, the inevitable terrorist blowback within Kenya since the end of October 2011 has exposed massive cracks and gaps within Kenya’s entire security architecture, which have yet to be comprehensively considered or resolved despite fairly significant expenditure on new equipment and training by foreign experts of KDF and National Police Service (NPS) units and personnel.
With the assault on the KDF-manned camps in El Adde in January 2016 and Kulbiyow a year later, Al Shabaab has shown it can still mass sufficient numbers of trained fighters to successfully assault fixed defensive positions. Such conventional attacks have revealed shocking tactical deficiencies and lack of war fighting skills among KDF company grade officers and soldiers deployed to AMISOM. This latter revelation was completely unexpected and can be fixed but only if the KDF leadership believes there is a problem. Foreign military personnel generally avoid publicly commenting on these issues although they agree in private and off the record that the security leadership is either in deep denial or is simply not interested. There is no real disagreement about incompetence and poor military skills at all levels of the KDF.
With hindsight, Operation Linda Nchi was launched to put Kenya firmly on the side of the US and other western allies in the Global War on Terrorism but with little thought given to the country’s national security needs, capacities and capabilities. For example, as KDF troop numbers increased to nearly 4,600 and the Kenyan government announced its intention to join AMISOM, the government’s budgetary constraints and unanticipated consequential post- Operation Linda Nchi expenditures security operations nationwide nearly broke the bank; it became clear that much more financial support from friendly allies was required. Although Kismayu was seized at the end of September 2012 and the KDF withdrew some 800 troops, 3,660 remain assigned to AMISOM whose budgetary support (i.e. reimbursement for operational expenses, equipment losses, wear and tear, etc) remains critical to the government’s cash reserves and liquidity.
Further, opportunities for corruption abound whenever military procurement and security sectors’ expenditures take on lives of their own. Kenya is no exception although on a much smaller scale than in Somalia, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. Corruption saps morale and discipline but also keeps conflicts from being concluded. Though the secrecy surrounding security spending makes it difficult to question its effectiveness and accurately track financial flows, it is not an impossible task. However, the media in Kenya has shown little willingness to undertake these sorts of investigations.
That the 7,000 Al Shabaab main force militiamen retain their ability to carry out attacks is not testament to their training or professionalism; Al Shabaab is just not that good. Rather, their continued resilience and successes on the battlefield shows how bad Kenya is at handling existential security threats.
Why Kenya’s War on Terror Failing
In January, much media attention was focused on looming cuts in foreign assistance to African countries announced by the incoming Trump Administration, citing the need to save taxpayers’ money for use at home, as well as corruption, ineffectiveness and the seemingly open-ended nature of US funding for democracy and governance programmes. Notably, Trump was asking why “we” hadn’t defeated Al Shabaab after spending “hundreds of millions” on a wide range of military activities within the Horn of Africa. Divorced from the source and disregarding the so called complexities of the Global War on Terror and the much studied internal dynamics of Somalia, Trump’s question is absolutely valid and worth asking not only in relation to Al Shabaab in Somalia but, more importantly, also in relation to Kenya’s Forever War On Terror. To be precise, how can the abysmal performance of Kenyan security forces in its war against Al Shabaab be explained?
As this article is being written, Al Shabaab militants have ramped up their terror campaign in the counties of Mandera and Garissa; at least fourteen police officers were killed in three roadside explosions this week with many more wounded. In March this year, Al Shabaab announced its intention to disrupt the Kenya General Elections scheduled to be held in August. In fact, since early May attacks on soft targets have occurred with increasing frequency.
Regardless of all the renewed expressions of financial and military assistance coming out of the London Conference, Al Shabaab continues to launch terror attacks in and around Mogadishu with relative impunity. Its forces in southern Somalia move freely, and when Ethiopian forces not assigned to AMISOM withdrew without notice from towns and villages they had occupied, Al Shabaab quickly reasserted control.
In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters.
On 7 August 1998, Al Qaeda terrorists blew up the US Embassy located in Nairobi’s central business district; a simultaneous attack on a similar target in Dar es Salaam was less successful. Investigations into the Nairobi attack showed that an Al Qaeda sleeper cell had entered Kenya in 1993/94, acquired Kenyan IDs and passports, registered companies, opened bank accounts, established families and conducted business at the coast; all their documentation had either been obtained fraudulently or lawfully because of lapses and oversights in enforcing regulations and applicable laws in place 20 years before. In 2002 surviving Al Qaeda terrorists still in place in Kenya were able to successfully detonate a vehicle borne IED in the reception of the Israeli-owned Paradise Hotel on the north coast of Mombasa. Another Al Qaeda team managed to drive next to the runway at Mombasa’s Moi International Airport when an Israeli charter flight was taking off for Tel Aviv with a full load of tourists and fired surface-to-air missiles, smuggled over land from Somalia, at the plane. The missiles failed to hit the 747 but the terrorists also managed to elude capture. In 2010, Al Shabaab successfully detonated explosives in Kampala during which two venues crowded with World Cup spectators were hit. Subsequent investigations showed that much of the Al Shabaab planning, organisation and financing took place in Kenya where alleged terrorists were arrested and renditioned to stand trial in Uganda.
A recent Transparency International (TI) report on Nigeria examined the negative effects of massive corruption within military procurement, troop support and administration on the war against Boko Haram. -Nigerian officials are literally stealing their soldiers’ capabilities to defeat Boko Haram! Kenya is now on the cusp of Nigerian-style military procurement corruption. The acquisition of much needed IOMAX Air Tractor Close Air Support aircraft referred to by Prof. Kagwanja has been delayed – possibly irrevocably – because the original equipment manufacturer contends that the KDF is paying $125 million more than it should and getting them from a US Defence Contractor, L3 Technologies, that has no track record of supplying this sort of aircraft; in effect a “super broker” eating up to $125 million of Kenyan taxpayer money. The allegations are yet to be substantiated, though the US Air Force has been accused of not cooperating with congressional investigations.
As previously mentioned, the US has castigated Kenya for not doing enough to tackle terrorist financing; Kenya remained for another three years on a Financial Action Task Force (FATF) watch list of countries failing to enact legislation to curb money laundering and other assorted financial crimes. The still unresolved scam at the National Youth Service, dating back to early 2016, showed 28 commercial banks failing to report cash transactions in excess of $10,000 to the Central Bank of Kenya’s Financial Reporting Centre, as required by laws designed to curb money laundering.
The administrative chaos and regulatory confusion in Kenya militates against the prevention of the sorts of criminal activity that has brought down Dubai Bank, Imperial Bank, Chase Bank, Tsavo Securities, Discount Securities, Loita Asset Managers, Ngenye Kariuki Stockbrokers, and others. Vast amounts of money have gone missing through clever manipulation of existing laws and regulations, lax and/or complicit GOK regulators, and an overburdened outdated judicial system.
Three years ago, 18 foreign heads of mission, including US Ambassador Godec, jointly issued a letter demanding that the government put its financial house in order by enacting laws and actually implementing its own legislation. However, no timelines were set nor any punitive action described.
In many ways, the conditions that allowed an Al Qaeda sleeper cell to destroy the US Embassy in 1998 have become even more favourable for Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, ISIS, narcotics traffickers, poachers and international fraudsters. Yet this has seemingly had no effect on how American tax money is spent in Kenya. The only logical explanation is that the consistent and short-term protection of the [American] Homeland is the overarching priority of the US Government; Kenya is a sovereign country and what the natives do with our “training, assistance and advice” is really not something we can or should dictate. In any case the real dilemma is that Kenya – the government, the political class, the private sector and its mainstream media – is its own incubator of national insecurity and the situation can only get worse.
Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.
The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.
Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.
I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.
Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges
Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.
Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.
The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.
Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.
In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.
Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.
After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.
Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.
Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.
Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.
Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.
The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.
Enablers and drivers of development
The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.
From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.
The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.
The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.
Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.
As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.
The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.
The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.
Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.
In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.
Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.
This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.
Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.
The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.
Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”
However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.
As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.
Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:
Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”
It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:
Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.
In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.
Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:
Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.
However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.
Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.
While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.
This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.
In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.
This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.
But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”
These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.
“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”
Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.
It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.
The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.
Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.
In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).
In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.
Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.
These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.
Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.
Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’
Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’
When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.
One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.
Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.
From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.
Why money is never free
‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.
Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.
All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.
Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.
All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?
Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.
By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.
Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid
‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.
As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.
Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.
How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.
By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
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