About 10 years ago, I was preparing to move with my family to Nairobi from the United States just as Kenya was well into the 2007 election campaign. Although I was taking up a temporary job in “democracy assistance” as the resident director for East Africa of the non-governmental International Republican Institute, I was told to expect limited duties specific to the upcoming election.
My job was to step in to manage the office and supervise a small set of ongoing programmes, primarily one involving the training of women and youth in skills to run for office. We were also wrapping up a programme for the State Department training Muslim women regionally for increased political participation and had an agreement with the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) to conduct polling that had started with an exit poll for the 2005 referendum. We had done a survey that spring and would finish the programme with a survey early that fall, before the presidential race went into the home stretch.
I was on six months’ “public service leave” from my job in the States as a lawyer for a Fortune 50 American defence contractor and had previously been a volunteer trainer for IRI in Mongolia late in the Clinton administration and an election observer in Kyrgyzstan in 2005.
HITTING THE GROUND
My first week in Nairobi, I accompanied the consultant I was replacing to meet most of the presidential candidates to privately brief them on the results of our most recent opinion survey, our next to last in the programme. We also called on US ambassador Michael Ranneberger, who expressed his desire to have IRI observe the upcoming election, which my predecessor had been telling me Ranneberger wanted. Any plans for such an observation mission had been disclaimed in Washington the week before, and I had trouble getting anyone back in the home office to take the idea seriously, as they confirmed with USAid that an observation mission was not in the works.
The paperwork with USAid for our public opinion and exit poll programme from 2005 unsurprisingly expressed the agency’s concern about the negative trends that had materialised from the seemingly promising democratic breakthrough in the 2002 vote
In preparing for my democracy assistance posting, I had naturally read up on the stillbirth of the promised constitutional reform in the failed “Wako Draft” constitution following the 2002 “Rainbow Coalition” leading to the rise of the Orange Democratic Movement and Kibaki’s purge of his erstwhile anti-Moi allies of the 2002 opposition. I also read up on the recent scandals. Of particular concern, of course, were the Anglo Leasing scams involving corruption in important national security acquisitions revealed by John Githongo who was subsequently blocked from carrying forward as “Anti-Corruption Czar” in the Kibaki administration and went into exile in London. Then there was the 2006 raid, only a year old then, on the Standard newspaper and the KTN television studios, which evoked the “bad old days” of single-party rule and a tightly controlled press and drew condemnation from the diplomatic community, including the US ambassador at the time, Mark Bellamy. The related “Armenian Brothers” circus made Kenya’s security operations look profoundly compromised by criminals. The paperwork with USAid for our public opinion and exit poll programme from 2005 unsurprisingly expressed the agency’s concern about the negative trends that had materialised from the seemingly promising democratic breakthrough in the 2002 vote in which opposition politicians united to support Kibaki against Moi’s choice of his predecessor Kenyatta’s unheralded son Uhuru.
THE AMBASSADOR WAS SURPRISINGLY UPBEAT
Given this background, I was surprised to find Ranneberger seemingly quite upbeat about the state of things under Kibaki as the campaign started to jell for the upcoming election. He made it clear that he wanted IRI to conduct a blue ribbon election observation mission to feature an “African success story.”
My first public event at the embassy residence in the posh Muthaiga neighbourhood was the US Independence Day celebration. The guests of honour were internal security minister John Michuki, representing President Kibaki, and Uhuru Kenyatta, as “the leader of the official opposition.” Michuki featured in my mind for taking credit for the infamous Standard raid on behalf of Kibaki, saying to the media house, “If you rattle a snake, you should expect to be bitten.” “Retired” president Moi, although not in the official receiving line, planted himself front and centre to prominently greet guests. Michuki spoke about his recent “security co-operation” visit to the United States. Vice president Moody Awori was also introduced, but Michuki rather than Awori represented Kibaki.
So the diplomatic tenor had changed for some reason, at least in the approach of the ambassador, who had arrived in mid-2006, although I was perhaps slower than I should have been in fully appreciating the difficulties this would entail for me as an NGO worker engaged in democracy assistance, especially faced with an assertive ambassador who did not formally control our USAid agreement out of Washington, which at the time still involved only the polling and was scheduled to wrap up with a survey in September.
PROCEEDING TOWARDS DISASTER
In August, our office had a distinguished visitor from our board of directors, the late ambassador Richard Williamson, an especially well liked senior figure within IRI. “Rich” took the occasion to visit our Kenya programme while waiting in Nairobi for his visa to Khartoum to travel on to Juba in Southern Sudan. President Bush was to announce his appointment soon as his new Special Envoy to Sudan and we used the time to take him to meet Raila and Kalonzo as the ODM and ODM-K leaders along with a minister or two, and called on ambassador Ranneberger. Ranneberger again said that he wanted IRI to observe the election. Based on this, Rich was persuaded that we would be doing an observation and afterwards we proceeded to discuss who should be recruited as lead delegate. Rich and my boss who had come out from Washington with him arrived at the idea of Lloyd Pierson, a former IRI Africa director who had been the immediate past USAid assistant administrator for Africa. When I pointed out that I recalled seeing a favourable quote by Pierson in one of Raila’s campaign brochures, that idea was nixed. Neither of them had other specific suggestions at the time.
By October the surveys were showing what I sensed to be the conditions ‘on the ground’ — the opposition under the Orange Democratic Movement had put together in its six-member Pentagon’ a broad enough multi-ethnic coalition, building upon the momentum from the unrequited reformist sentiments from 2002, to have a plurality in a divided electorate
Following up afterwards with the USAid Mission, they now said they would “move heaven and earth” to meet the ambassador’s wish to fund an election observation mission. Likewise, USAid wanted to extend our polling programme — which started with the exit poll for the 2005 Constitutional Referendum — with an exit poll for the 2007 election. Although I knew that the ambassador was expressing confidence in “an African success story,” expecting a “free and fair” election, and expecting Kibaki to win, USAid told me that the intent of the exit poll, as with the one we had done in 2002, and on this contract in 2005, was among other things to deter election fraud and this was confirmed in our amended agreement.
To cut a long story short, by October the surveys were showing what I sensed to be the conditions “on the ground” — the opposition under the Orange Democratic Movement in the form now of the ODM Party had put together in its six-member “Pentagon” a broad enough multi-ethnic coalition, building upon the momentum from the unrequited reformist sentiments from 2002 and the successful blocking of the insufficient Wako Draft, to have a plurality in a divided electorate. Kibaki was very slow to assent to the start of his re-election campaign and conveyed a vibe that it was beneath him to do such “retail politics.” Formally, Kibaki was the Member of Parliament for Othaya from the Democratic Party, his vehicle since Moi gave in to pressure from activists and politicians like Odinga to allow non-Kanu parties in 1992. Kibaki had not seemed to want to run as a DP candidate, nor was he willing ultimately to join NARC-Kenya, whose leaders considered themselves the rightful heirs to the 2002 NARC vehicle. The NARC party papers themselves were controlled by Charity Ngilu, a 1997 presidential candidate herself who departed to become the sixth member of the ODM Pentagon. Eventually, Kibaki gave the nod to a new hybrid formation as a re-election vehicle, the Party of National Unity, PNU, both a party through which Kibaki sought re-election to the Othaya seat, and a coalition of various parties associated with politicians in ethnic groups — in other words, a gambit to match up and compete with the regional/ethnic Pentagon.
According to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service in February 2008, during the post-election crisis, by the early fall of 2007, Kibaki’s key aides were admitting to their analyst that Kibaki was not going to win the vote. This was supported by the surveys showing a persistent opposition lead. Unlike today, the election then retained the “first past the post” system that had allowed Moi to claim re-election with 40% or less of the vote, officially, in 1992 and 1997. Odinga was consistently polling well shy of a majority but ahead of Moi’s 1992 and 1997 numbers, with Kibaki trailing by a few points. As the election date closed in, the race tightened a bit, but the scenario did not reverse, and then ODM opened up a bit more of a lead. Although at the last minute the Gallup organisation of the US came in and did a late poll showing Kibaki trailing by only two points in the national vote – this was trumpeted by Ranneberger as showing the race as “too close to call” – the firms regularly polling the race continued to show Kibaki trailing beyond the margin of error. This included both the reputable Steadman and Strategic pollsters that had had a long relationship with the USAid IRI programme dating back to its inception in the 1990s, including the exit polls from 2002, 2005 and again for 2007.
According to a report published by the US Congressional Research Service in February 2008, during the post-election crisis, by the early fall of 2007, Kibaki’s key aides were admitting to their analyst that Kibaki was not going to win the vote
POLL OBSERVATION ON A SHOESTRING
When we got the agreement from USAid for the election observation, funded at a shoestring amount at the end of the fiscal year, USAid had included descriptions by prior job description of various individuals that the ambassador had mentioned previously that he wanted to have invited. These IRI ignored in preparing for our independent observation as an NGO subject to an international code of conduct for independent election observation. As USAid’s right to “substantial participation” in return for their funding, the agreement stipulated its approval of IRI’s “lead delegate/s,” and it repeated the ambassador’s desire for former assistant secretaries of state Chester Crocker and Connie Newman. Ranneberger had worked under Crocker on Angola issues during the Cold War and Newman had served briefly in that role in the first George W. Bush administration, during which time Ranneberger had been her deputy. IRI disagreed with USAid’s right to approval of this appointment as a violation of our independence but did invite Crocker and Newman. Crocker was unavailable but Newman, also an IRI board member, accepted. IRI also invited former ambassadors to Kenya Johnnie Carson and Mark Bellamy. Ranneberger in a call to me well ahead of the election had said that Carson “would not be a good idea,” and that Bellamy should not be included as he was “considered to be anti-government.”
Carson, who was at the time serving as the Africa director for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had to decline, whereas Bellamy was scheduled to participate. On Thursday, December13, 2007, two weeks before the election, I got a call from USAid and was asked to fax our final delegation list — due to be released from IRI in Washington that day – to a number for the ambassador. After sending the fax, I was driving to lunch with my wife and a friend, the spouse of another US NGO worker who had been a Carter Centre election observer in another recent African election and had volunteered to help. I received a call from the ambassador who loudly chewed me out to the point that I had to pull over and step out on the roadside. Ranneberger was incensed that we had Bellamy on the list, and said that he was “laying down a marker” that this was not to happen. He said he did not want to hear that it was a decision from my Washington office as he was holding me “personally responsible as the person on the ground.” If we did not drop Bellamy he would pull the funding for the observation mission, adding that I should not doubt that he could do this.
Arriving in Dagoretti for lunch, I phoned Washington and my USAid contact in Nairobi. Long story short, IRI’s president at the time, who had been assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labour himself during the first G.W. Bush Administration, called then assistant secretary of state Jendayi Frazer to tell her, as he reported, “to get her ambassador under control,” then, on arriving in Thailand for Christmas and Burma meetings, called Ranneberger directly. As a result, I was told to expect that Ranneberger would ask to meet me, and that Bellamy was reluctantly dropped (with a cover story that IRI was not able to secure his plane ticket) but that I was to accept “no more BS” from the ambassador.
The next day, as I was leaving the polling firm, I got a call asking me to come meet the ambassador at his residence the next afternoon. So on Saturday afternoon, December 15, 2007, I drove to the embassy residence in Muthaiga. As it turned out, the purpose of the meeting was more substantive than just smoothing things over after the arm-twisting on Bellamy. I will explain a couple of salient points from this meeting that remain to me significant in trying to learn what happened with the election 12 days later.
I received a call from the ambassador who loudly chewed me out to the point that I had to pull over and step out on the roadside. Ranneberger was incensed that we had Bellamy on the observer mission list, and said that he was “laying down a marker” that this was not to happen. He said he did not want to hear that it was a decision from my Washington office
To start, Ranneberger elaborated on the importance of removing Bellamy from the delegation because of the notion that he was perceived as “anti-government,” obviously meaning anti the Kibaki administration. When Ranneberger had originally raised this objection as Bellamy earlier in the month, I had asked for input from our Kenyan programme staff who reported that this did not seem to be Bellamy’s general reputation in Kenya and IRI staff had checked this with State Department contacts in Washington and found no support for that view there either.
Ranneberger did let me know that he knew what Bellamy had been told about why he had been dropped from the delegation. In other words, he was letting me know, without taking responsibility for the situation himself, that he knew that “we” at IRI had lied to Bellamy. IRI was in a difficult situation not of our making on Bellamy; would we cancel the election observation (as the only international NGO scheduled to observe, this would raise lots of questions we could not answer) or let the ambassador interfere with our delegation? Regardless, once the directive from the top was given to lie to Bellamy about why he was off the list, IRI no longer had completely clean hands.
Another thing in particular stands out now from that meeting in light of what I later learned through Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department after I returned to the US.
The ambassador told me that Saturday that “people are saying” that Raila Odinga, ahead in the polls for president as the vote was nearing, could lose his own Langata parliamentary constituency (which under the existing system would disqualify him from becoming president even if he got the most votes nationally). This was “out of the blue” for me because I certainly was not aware of anyone who thought that. Odinga’s PNU opponent Stanley Livando had made a big splash and spent substantial money when he first announced his candidacy, but he had not seemed to get obvious traction in the race. Naturally, I wondered who the “people” Ranneberger was referring to were. Ranneberger said that a Raila loss in Langata would be “explosive” and that he wanted to take Ms Newman with him to observe voting there on election day.
Ranneberger also went on to say that he wanted to take Ms Newman separately to meet with Kibaki’s State House advisor Stanley Murage on the day before the election, with no explanation offered as to why. I reported all this by e-mail to Washington.
Ranneberger in Nairobi made no disclosure of what he had witnessed but encouraged Kenyans to accept the results announced by the ECK that Sunday and formal congratulations were issued from a State Department spokesman back in the US
Alarm bells went off at IRI’s Washington headquarters when they received my e-mail. I noted Murage’s reputation as “Kibaki’s Karl Rove” (he was also referred to by a former diplomat as “Kibaki’s bagman”). After people were back in the office that Monday, I was called by the top executives present in Washington (in the absence of the then-president in Thailand) in the wee hours of the morning my time. I was instructed that it was imperative that the private meeting with Murage – “absolutely improper” – not take place. Connie was to stay with the rest of the delegation and not go off separately with the ambassador on election day or otherwise. I was given the option to “pull the plug” on the observation mission based on the concerns about Ranneberger’s approach. The ambassador, rather than either IRI or USAid, had initiated the observation mission in the first place, and IRI was heavily occupied with other, larger observations. Nonetheless, based on assurances that Ms Newman would be fully “on board” in our agreement, that she would steer clear of separate interaction with the ambassador and that the Murage meeting would not happen, and my belief that it would be an “incident” in its own right to cancel the observation, we agreed to go forward with precautions.
A SEPARATE LAST-MINUTE POLL OF THE LANGATA PARLIAMENTARY RACE
I got the idea of commissioning a separate last-minute poll of the Langata parliamentary race. I thought that the notion that Livondo would beat Odinga in Langata seemed farfetched, but objective data from before the vote could prove important. I also made sure that we scheduled an “oversample” for Langata for the national exit poll so that we would have a statistically valid measure of the actual election day results in the parliamentary race.
On to the Freedom of Information releases: On Tuesday, December 18, a Ranneberger cable went to the Secretary of State entitled “Kenya Elections: State of Play on Election.” This cable says nothing about the “explosive” Langata parliamentary race issue that Ranneberger had raised with me on Saturday, three days earlier. It concludes: “Given the closeness of the election contest, the perceived legitimacy of the election outcome could determine whether the losing side accepts the results with minimal disturbances. Our staff’s commendable response to the call for volunteers over the Christmas holiday allows us to deploy teams to all sections of the country, providing a representative view of the vote as a whole. In addition, our decision to host the joint observation control room will provide much greater access to real-time information; allowing a more comprehensive analysis of the election process.”
Next, we have a cable from Christmas Eve, December 24, three days before the election. First thing that morning, the IRI observation delegates were briefed on the election by a top Ranneberger aide. I told him then that we had commissioned the separate Langata poll. He said that the ambassador would be very interested, and I agreed to bring results with me to the embassy residence that evening when the ambassador hosted a reception for the delegation. The results showed Odinga winning by more than two-to-one.
In this cable from the day he learned about our Langata poll, unlike the one on December 18, Ranneberger added a discussion of the Langata race:
“11. We have credible reports that some within the Kibaki camp could be trying to orchestrate a defeat of Odinga in his constituency of Langata, which includes the huge slum of Kibera. This could involve some combination of causing disorder in order to disenfranchise some of his supporters and/or bringing in double-registered Kikuyu supporters of the PNU’s candidate from outside. To be elected president, a candidate must fulfil three conditions: Have a plurality of the popular vote; have at least 25% in 5 of the 8 provinces; and be an elected Member of Parliament. Thus, defeat of Odinga in his constituency is a tempting silver bullet. The ambassador, as well as the UK and German ambassadors, will observe in the Langata constituency. If Odinga were to lose Langata, Kibaki would become president if he has the next highest vote total and 25% in 5 provinces (both candidates will likely meet the 25% rule).
12. The outside chance that widespread fraud in the election process could force us to call into question the result would be enormously damaging to US interests. We hold Kenya up as a democratic model not only for the continent, but for the developing world, and we have a vast partnership with this country on key issues ranging from efforts against HIV/Aids, to collaboration on Somalia and Sudan, to priority anti-terrorism activities.
. . .
14. As long as the electoral process is credible, the US-Kenya partnership will continue to grow and serve mutual interests regardless of who is elected. While Kibaki has a proven track record with us, Odinga is also a friend of the US . . .
15. It is likely that the winner will schedule a quick inauguration (consistent with past practice) to bless the result and, potentially, to forestall any serious challenge to the results. There is no credible mechanism to challenge the results, hence likely recourse to the streets if the result is questionable. The courts are both inefficient and corrupt. Pronouncements by the Chairman of the Electoral Commission and observers, particularly from the US, will therefore have be [sic] crucial in helping shape the judgement of the Kenyan people. With an 87% approval rating in Kenya, our statements are closely watched and respected. I feel that we are well-prepared to meet this large responsibility and, in the process, to advance US interests.” END
None of this material about a possible scheme to steal the election in Langata — or the notion that being “forced” to question the election result would be “enormously damaging to US interests” was mentioned in the briefing to the observation delegation or to me that Christmas Eve. Weeks after the election, the Standard newspaper ran a piece reporting that the original plan of the Kibaki camp had been to rig the Langata parliamentary race, but at the last minute a switch was made to change the votes at the central tally, supposedly on the basis of the strength of early returns for Odinga in Western and Rift Valley Provinces.
Ultimately, the election resulted in disaster, with at least 1,200 killed and half a million displaced in post-election violence after open rigging.
The Electoral Commission of Kenya had voted earlier in December, according to the subsequent report of the Kreigler Commission, not to use laptop computers that had been purchased as a key feature of the USAid-funded election assistance effort through the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. This decision was never explained and without the computers there was no way to quickly get verifiable results from the voting stations quickly to Nairobi.
The reality of the process was explained to me by a Member of Parliament during the post-election violence (PEV). He said that weeks before the election, when Kibaki had broken the crucial precedent first negotiated between the opposition and Moi back in 1997 to split the authority to appoint members of the Electoral Commission and unilaterally stacked the Commission with 19 of his own choices in the 21 spots, the political players recognised that the process was going to be a no-holds-barred scramble for power and all bets were off on rules.
Also that January, during the PEV, a third-country diplomat explained to me privately that his country had learned that ECK returning officers in key locations had been paid “life changing” amounts of money to turn off their cellphones and drop out of contract with Nairobi so that the vote totals under their jurisdiction could be “marked up” in Nairobi to increase the president’s votes for re-election (consistent with what Ranneberger described in his then-classified January 2, 2008 cable as discussed below). This diplomat explained that his country had discovered the bribery too late, supposedly, to do anything about it. One possible reason for the alleged bribery to be discovered so late would be that the scheme to mark up the central tallies was a last minute substitute for the “credibly reported” Langata scheme Ranneberger mentioned in his Washington cable of December 24 and his meeting with me on December 15.
I expected that the president’s men would learn that IRI had also undertaken the special poll of the Langata Constituency. After the stacking of the ECK, another fateful turning point seems to me to have been the deployment by the president’s re-election team of the Administration Police in the days before the vote. This was something we all witnessed on live television thanks to broadcast reporting from KTN, but which the government denied. The ambassador’s aide confirmed to our observation delegation that this deployment was in fact a use of government security resources for the president’s re-election. Two of the deployed AP officers were killed by mobs and it seems that the atmosphere of a physical power struggle rather than a contest of democratic persuasion ratcheted up that much more at that point.
The fact is that I never have been able to identify a time when Kibaki actually said in public during my time “on the ground” that he was actually willing to entertain losing the election and giving up office in favour of the opposition. Eventually, shortly before the vote, his foreign minister, Moses Wetangula (now in the opposition) said that such a willingness was there, but he seemed to be conspicuously speaking to foreign diplomats rather than to ordinary Kenyans. To this day, no incumbent president in Kenya has ever been found by election officials to have lost a re-election bid.
DONOR VS. DONOR: THE UNITED STATES AND THE EUROPEANS SPLIT
On Wednesday, January 2, 2008, Ranneberger cabled Washington about witnessing with the head of the EU Election Observation Mission, Alexander Graf Lambsdorf, the changing of the vote tallies at the ECK headquarters over the weekend before, leading to the announcement of a Kibaki win on the evening of Sunday, December 30, 2007. The cable, which was declassified and released to me in redacted form through the Freedom of Information Act, reports “[M]uch can happen between the casting of votes and the final tabulation of ballots, and it did.”
The ECK’s partial review of the irregularities was also of questionable credibility, given that all of the commission members were appointed by the Kibaki government, and a number of them were suspected of being clearly biased and/or involved in doctoring at ECK headquarters. The Chairman of the ECK, Samuel Kivuitu, who was widely respected, was surrounded by staff of uncertain reliability and competence. It is worth noting that parliamentary results were not disputed because they were tabulated and announced at constituency tabulation centres, thus allowing no interference at ECK headquarters.
Presidential results by polling station never were published. The suppressed media reporting of the election results that disappeared with Michuki’s broadcast ban did not resurface except for the admission by the owner of the Citizen network in parliament in December 2016 that the numbers had indicated an Odinga win
Kivuitu had only limited authority as head of the ECK. The ECK worked on a majority vote system. It is also important to note that the ECK was required by law to announce the results as received from the tabulation centres. Some obvious irregularities like reporting unrealistically high turnout or clearly altered results could be rejected. There was, however, only a rejection of the results in one constituency in which violence resulted in destroyed ballots. Other alleged irregularities, such as announcing results that ECK personnel personally inflated, should have been, could have been, but were not corrected. At one point Kivuitu told me that his concerns about the tabulation process were serious enough that “if it were up to me, I would not announce the results.” In the end, he participated with other commissioners in an announcement late on December 30.
My team and I, as well as the head of the EU observer mission, were at the ECK vote tabulation centre throughout the tabulation process, and aggressively intervened with Kivuitu and other commissioners and staff to work for transparency. Our judgement is that the tabulation process was seriously flawed but, without having direct access to polling station numbers and doing a polling-station based recount, it is impossible to determine which candidate actually received the most votes. We had consistently predicted a close election. There were accusations of serious irregularities with respect to about 20% of the 210 constituencies. Some ECK insiders have alleged that the purpose of the delay in announcing the results in some of the constituencies was to determine the true count and then rejig it in such a manner as to make up for gaps in the votes for Kibaki.
Announced results differed from results initially received by ECK from the tally centres. We have seen documents that illustrate this. In a close election, with Kibaki winning by about 230,000 votes, such irregularities may have been enough to make a difference.
Nonetheless, Ranneberger in Nairobi made no disclosure of what he had witnessed but encouraged Kenyans to accept the results announced by the ECK that Sunday and formal congratulations were issued from a State Department spokesman back in the US. Live broadcasting was shut down by order of Michuki. Eventually, I received on appeal of a FOI Act request originally from 2009 a copy of a document prepared by the State Department in Washington as “talking points” for the media on election day itself that “spins” an acceptance of an announcement of a Kibaki win with opposition objections.
European foreign ministries and diplomats in the meantime criticised what was obviously a highly irregular process with the suspect tallies and the hurried, secretive swearing-in of Kibaki. On Monday, the State Department changed position through its main spokesman in Washington, saying that “we are not congratulating anyone.” On Tuesday, New Year’s Day, the EU observation mission held a press conference and released its preliminary report, making clear that the election process had fallen “far short of key regional and international standards for democratic elections. Most significantly, they were marred by the lack of transparency in processing and tabulating presidential results, which raises concern about the accuracy of the final result in this election.” The EU observers and other Europeans called for remedial measures, including an immediate independent investigation and audit, with all results openly published. Ranneberger, however, instead of supporting the European calls for remedial action, was immediately promoting “power sharing” for Odinga with Kibaki instead.
The EU seemed to switch positions and come around to support the State Department’s posture, abandoning remediation in favour of “power sharing.” In that time of heightened sensitivity, trying to decipher what was happening, I tied this contemporaneously to reports that secretary of state Condoleezza Rice called EU head diplomat Javier Solano on Thursday, January 3. My 2009 FOI Act request for documents related to that call identified that there was such a document but it was classified and remained too sensitive to release in any form at all. I appealed to no avail, and then last year submitted a request for Mandatory Declassification Review, which was also denied on the same grounds. My latest appeal of that decision has been pending for a few months now.
Many years later, a former senior diplomat was willing to tell me that the US policy was not to assist Kibaki over Raila, and that the US expected consistent relations going forward either way — which fits with the pre-election Nairobi to Washington cables I had got from FOI — but that the policy was to support whatever the ECK announced. A blunter take on what Ranneberger claimed in his cable of December 18, that it would somehow damage US interests if we were “forced” to question the ECK’s results. Assuming it to be true that the State Department was going to back whatever the ECK announced regardless, it was unlucky for me that no one told me about this before the election, as I surely would have taken the opportunity to cancel the IRI election observation mission since the State Department was not supporting the democracy assistance purposes of our agreement with USAid in working for free elections and observing independently in order to, among other things, oppose fraud.
EXIT POLL TOO HOT A POTATO
This policy would also suggest a reason that the exit poll that we conducted for USAid, which indicated a win for Odinga rather than Kibaki, was such a “hot potato” that it was held without public comment by IRI until a statement of January 15, responding to leaks of the results, that the poll was “likely invalid”, then on February 7, after it became a topic of inquiry in a US Senate hearing, definitely “invalid,” then released as valid in August, the day before the experts from the University of California, San Diego who had been heavily involved in the poll design and execution were to testify about it to the Kreigler Commission, having released it themselves in July after a six-month embargo imposed in their consulting contract with IRI.
Ranneberger insisted, though USAid, over my objection, on getting preliminary results of the exit poll on the afternoon of the voting before the polls closed, but clearly did not want the results released to the public as the other exit polls for USAid had been. Ranneberger answered questions from Kenyans and others in an online State Department Q&A on March 12, 2008 while the exit poll was still officially “invalid” and claimed that the poll had just been a “capacity building programme” and never intended to be released.
The USAid contract documents, which I of course had myself and of which I also obtained copies of through FOIA, show the contrary, and I also got a copy of the plan for public release by IRI of the first poll under that agreement, the exit poll from the 2005 Wako Draft referendum. If the State Department policy was to affirm whatever the ECK decided, the exit poll with a contradictory result was decidedly inconvenient.
I did not get anything about this from my FOIA requests, but in the fall of 2010, Daily Nation ran a story reporting that Wikileaks had published documents indicating that three members of the ECK itself had been slapped with “visa bans” by the United States in February 2008 on the basis of evidence that they had accepted bribes. Although Ranneberger had tweeted that former Attorney General Wako was subject to a visa ban at some point, nothing has ever been said publicly by the State Department to my knowledge about the ECK bribery issue.
At the end of the day, Kibaki stayed in office throughout for his second full term. On February 28, he signed his deal with Odinga for “power sharing,” against the active resistance of many on his side. From his unilateral Cabinet appointments of January 8, Kalonzo Musyoka stayed on as vice president and Uhuru Kenyatta was promoted to deputy prime minister from local government minister when the Cabinet was expanded to include various opposition figures in the “Government of National Unity,” including Odinga as prime minister and his running mate Musalia Mudavadi as the other deputy prime minister. Of the two lions who faced off at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre as the drama over the late and missing election returns played out, Martha Karua stayed on for a time as justice minister before resigning, and agriculture minister William Ruto realigned politically after he came under fire over corruption allegations, as well as the ICC charges for the PEV that also stuck to Kenyatta.
THE POLITICIANS FORGIVE THEMSELVES
Collectively, Kenya’s leading politicians agreed to forgive themselves for the election fraud, and for the post-election murder and mayhem. The Kreigler Commission made recommendations for the future, but stayed off the crucial machinations at the ECK. Presidential results by polling station never were published. The suppressed media reporting of the election results that disappeared with Michuki’s broadcast ban did not resurface except for the admission of the owner of the Citizen network in parliament in December 2016 that the numbers had indicated an Odinga win. With much shuttle diplomacy and artful stonewalling of requests for phone, banking and property records — along with a lot of extraordinary misfortune and changes of heart by witnesses, the ICC was thwarted and no local tribunal ever convened to address the violence.
Early during my time in Kenya, Moi and Kibaki made up after their 2002 rift, with Kibaki appointing Moi as his envoy for the Sudan/Southern Sudan negotiations and Moi endorsing Kibaki’s re-election. For 2013, Kibaki completed what had been Moi’s original intention of handing off to Uhuru Kenyatta from 2002, with Ruto back in the fold after his brief time in opposition in 2007-08. Again, in 2013, USAid financed a results transmission system for the electoral commission through IFES. The procurement was botched and the system was not workable, but rather than being shelved from the outset it was set up and used initially to show up on a big screen at Bomas of Kenya some partial results indicating a large lead for Kenyatta before being shut down.
Weeks after the election, the Standard newspaper ran a piece reporting that the original plan of the Kibaki camp had been to rig the Langata parliamentary race, but at the last minute a switch was made to change the votes at the central tally
Without knowing the background of the botched procurement, “experts” told the media this slice of results indicated a “commanding lead” for the Uhuruto ticket from the onset.
The local civil society think tank AfriCOG (disclosure: I consulted briefly with AfriCOG on “observing the election observers”) petitioned the High Court to enjoin the electoral commission from announcing “final” results with the results transmission system shut down but was turned down on jurisdictional grounds, even though the High Court found the petition to raise significant questions. In the absence of the legally prescribed system to transmit the results to Nairobi, there was once again physical drama at the central headquarters, with observers excluded and no backup system in place to obtain verified results from each polling station — the only location where the paper ballots are counted.
Once again, observers were excluded as noted in the final reports of the Carter Centre and Election Observation Group (ELOG) funded by the donors as international and domestic observations respectively. The electoral commission announced final results six days after the vote, with a day to spare on the deadline, even without all the polling station results. Coincidentally, I am sure, the Uhuruto ticket was determined to have .07% more votes than needed to avoid a runoff. The Supreme Court held a truncated hearing quickly following the election, consolidating the challenges to the electoral commission by AfriCOG and by the opposition. The court excluded much of the evidence submitted by the opposition and ignored much of that submitted by AfriCOG; it ordered a recount of votes from a sampling of boxes, but then went ahead and ruled, declining to upset the announced commission verdict without the limited recount being completed and in spite of the fact that significant discrepancies materialised.
Significantly, the Supreme Court found that the botched procurements of key technology, the results transmission system and voter registration and identification systems, smacked of fraud and ordered that they be investigated on that basis. A mere ruling by the Supreme Court was not enough to actually prompt any such investigation in Kenya, unfortunately. Months went by without publication of alleged election results and the electoral commission even refused to testify to parliament. What was eventually published later was incomplete. The electoral commission members were eventually swapped out once again, early this year, after the opposition was willing to expend a small number of lives to protest the inaction of the incumbent government in regard to issues that now included convictions in the UK for bribes paid to Kenyan election and education officials in the scandal known as “Chickengate.” Like the old ECK, the members of the commission were bought out rather than fired, and of course there has been impunity for the bribery even though it was proven in court in the UK.
HERE WE GO AGAIN
So here we are again, in 2017, and I am waiting for answers to my questions as to who is paying for the acquisition of this year’s version of the results transmission system, the so-called Kenya Integrated Election Management System, or KIEMS. I hope it is straightforward and transparent and handles the simple task of sending the results of the vote counting at the polling stations to Nairobi this time.
As an American, it is none of my business whom Kenyans vote for, but with all the investment of Kenyan blood, sweat and tears, and American and other donor funds, I will be disquieted until Kenyans are able to count on knowing how they have voted and be in a position to move their frozen politics forward with the kind of hope that existed before the debacle of 2007.
THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children
The highly hyped youngest country in the world has aged so fast that it now lies on the region’s sick bed in the hope that the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which convened on February 5th 2018, will salvage something from its nearly five years of civil war. “Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?” a passer-by asked in astonishment. The truth is that for historic reasons South Sudan does not fit comfortably where it situates politically, economically and diplomatically as a sovereign nation.
“History does not repeat itself”, was Marx’s repudiation of Hegel’s metaphysics: “It occurs as a tragedy, and then a farce.” The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) successfully midwifed the (1994-2005) peace talks that led to the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA provided the people of southern Sudan the inalienable right to self-determination. When the time for a referendum came on 9 January 2011, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly (98.3%) for independence and the Republic of South Sudan was born on 9 July 2011. That was the tragedy. Who could imagine that a country that was barely three years-old and that was emerging from twenty-one years of a devastating war of national liberation could get embroiled in another war?
The roots of the civil war locate in the internal political contradictions in the SPLM, which is linked to the failure of the SPLM leaders to address the fundamental issues of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of the people that underpinned the war of national liberation. This is reflected in the abject poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition prevalent in the new nation, which submerge their consciousness and prevents them from correctly gauging their reality.
“Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?”
The reasons for South Sudan’s failure are simple: The SPLM leaders spearheaded the war of national liberation without an ideology; they never envisaged or envisioned the state and society they desired and hence lack – or could not marry – the theory and practice of liberation. Moreover, their refusal to politically educate and organise their people entrenched an ethnic-based ideology that expunged progressive thinking among the combatants and the masses of the people. The absence of democratic institutions and instruments of power resulted in the personification, rather than the institutionalisation, of the SPLM’s authority. The linkage between state power and ethnic hubris rolled into an explosive alloy driving the ethnicised power politics.
The internal SPLM contradictions were nothing more than a power struggle within its top echelon. This had been the cause of its splits and internecine fighting since the SPLA/M inception in 1983. These contradictions were not ideological but political in character, revolving around personalities rather than issues. Sometimes they permeated into ethnic and provincial domains where they became violent and susceptible to exploitation by the common enemy feeding into its proxy wars of counterinsurgency.
The death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM Chairman, the SPLA Commander-in- Chief, the first Vice President of the Republic of the Sudan and the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, in a tragic helicopter crash on 30 July 2005 deprived the SPLM and the people of southern Sudan of a moderate voice that could prevent the escalation of internal feuds. The new leadership of South Sudan, comprising two incompatible and uncompromising leaders, quickly sent the people of South Sudan into war. This erupted on 15 December 2013 and continues unabated except for a break following the IGAD-mediated peace agreement on resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015.
What is the problem?
Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. This could not be much further from the reality. Although, the two leaders indeed are factors at the secondary and tertiary levels of the contradiction, the fundamental contradiction underpinning the war in South Sudan is the centuries’ old condition of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of its people. Failure to address that fundamental contradiction was the driver of the southern Sudan people’s struggle against the different regimes that came and went in Khartoum since Sudan’s independence in 1956, including the war of national liberation spearheaded by the SPLM/A.
The independence of South Sudan did not change the nature of the contradiction, particularly following the paradigm shift the SPLM leadership undertook from revolution to right-wing neoliberalism in the dying days of the Cold War and the superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa. The shift transformed the SPLM leaders into an elitist class completely alienated from the masses of the people. This facilitated and accelerated the consummation of the liberal peace agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum in 2005, giving the SPLM full control of the subnational entity known as the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The SPLM leaders had no programme or strategy for managing the unfamiliar ground the CPA lobbed them onto i.e. to run the government and the state.
Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon.
GoSS had an annual budget of between five and six billion US dollars from its share of the oil revenues. However, the SPLM, the dominant and leading political party in GoSS, did not have a programme for addressing the social and economic development of South Sudan. The political, military and burgeoning commercial/business elite that evolved in the context of the war economy plaited into a parasitic capitalist class; parasitic in that it did not command any means of production but derived its wealth consequent to its control of the state and its resources through the agency of corruption and outright theft from state coffers. Instead of providing development and social services, the members of this class dolled themselves in self-aggrandisement that they christened ‘payback time’ in a political patronage system suggesting that the war of national liberation was about nothing but rent-seeking.
The SPLM leaders jettisoned the liberation era pledge to construct a society based on freedom, justice, fraternity and prosperity for all. Thus, corruption, tribalism, nepotism, impunity, insecurity and ethnic conflicts were the characteristic features of the interim period between 9 January 2005 and 9 July 2011 and only the general and genuine desire by the people for the successful implementation of the referendum on self-determination constituted the constraint that prevented an all-out eruption of violence. The political environment was tense and gearing towards a totalitarian dictatorship as President Salva Kiir erected oppressive tools in the SPLM system, exploiting people’s patience as they waited to vote for independence.
A provision in the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (ICSS, 2005) stated that should the result of the referendum be in favour of independence, the ICSS would become the transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, with amendments relevant to the changed status of South Sudan. Instead of following that provision, President Kiir ordered for the crafting of a completely new constitution that gave him excessive powers, making him an imperial president. Thus, South Sudan became independent on an undemocratic and oppressive transitional constitution in which power was concentrated in the presidency. President Kiir particularly liked the provision that he could fire his deputy, which was done specifically with the incumbent, Machar, in mind. The transitional constitution eroded all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the interim constitution. This marked the beginning of South Sudan’s political troubles.
This development coincided with the upsurge of Dinka (Jieng) ethnic nationalism, with its ideology of hegemony and domination. The Dinka is the single largest nationality in South Sudan. The formation of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) – representing the social, economic and political interests of the Dinka people – as a power broker around Kiir’s presidency was part of engineering a totalitarian political dispensation in the young republic. President Kiir used his executive powers in the JCE to paralyse the political functions of the SPLM, shifting power from the SPLM General-Secretariat through the office of the president (OP) to the JCE, which now evolved into a quasi-state institution.
At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty. The South Sudan Pound lost value against foreign currencies from 2.5 to the US dollar in 2011 to 250 in 2018. The negative social and economic indices inspired political protests, demonstrations and opposition to the regime’s oppressive policies in different parts of South Sudan. This raised the political temperatures within the top leadership of the SPLM, fuelling the power struggle between President Kiir and Vice President Machar, which reached a crisis point in July 2013 when the President dismissed his deputy.
In an extraordinary assembly of IGAD Heads of State and Government in Nairobi on 27 December 2013, the region decided to intervene to resolve the conflict in South Sudan. Unfortunately, unlike its experience of mediating the conflict between the Sudan and the SPLM, which ushered in the CPA, the region this time round shot itself in the foot. The four countries involved in the mediation (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Sudan) each had their respective national economic, security and political interests in South Sudan. Uganda had the UPDF and Air Forces involved in the war on the side of Kiir’s government. Sudan had its SPLM/A–North and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels operating from South Sudan with the support of Uganda. The Sudan also had its commercial interests as oil from South Sudan still transits through the Sudan to international markets.
The respective security, economic and political interests of these countries created an environment of competition among them and therefore interfered in their collective efforts to resolve the conflict. The regional mediation of the South Sudan conflict was flawed in many aspects. The negotiation modality involved many stakeholders on the principle of inclusivity when only two parties, namely the SPLM in government and the SPLM/A in the opposition, were fighting the war. The mediation advanced the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) before sealing the agreement. This introduced the issue of power sharing, which was like placing the cart before the horse. After sixteen months of intermittent negotiation, there was an Agreement on the Resolution of Crisis in South Sudan (ARCISS), which the SPLM/A (IO) and other parties signed on 17 August, and which Salva Kiir reluctantly signed on 26 August.
At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty.
The agreement provided for power sharing between the SPLM in government (Kiir, 53%), the SPLM/A in the opposition (Machar, 33%), the SPLM political leaders or individual arrested and detained in the wake of the violence on 15 December 2013 (7%) and the other 18 registered political parties (7%). It took eight months before the parties started implementing the peace agreement. This was partly due to the government’s reluctance and intransigence and partly due to the weakness demonstrated by the mediators, the peace guarantors and the international community to bring pressure to bear on President Kiir to enable the operationalisation of ARCISS instruments. The body formed to oversee and supervise the implementation, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) chaired by former Botswana President Festus Mogae, proved ineffective in the face of procrastination, bullying and outright defiance by government functionaries. The transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) was formed on 29 April 2016 before the amended constitution incorporating ARCISS was promulgated, rendering it difficult to operationalise.
In addition to the difficulties President Kiir erected to frustrate TGoNU functions, a rebellion was brewing in Dr. Machar’s party. Taban Deng Gai, who was the SPLM/A (IO)’s chief negotiator, was not pleased that Riek Machar had denied him the petroleum portfolio in the TGoNU. He shifted allegiance to President Kiir in a conspiracy that triggered the fighting in the presidential palace on 8 July 2016, rekindling the war and precipitating the collapse of the TGoNU as well as the ARCISS. President Kiir later appointed Taban Deng Gai as the first vice president in lieu of Dr. Machar. This was a flagrant violation of ARCISS.
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a visit to Nairobi later in the month, forced the IGAD Council of Ministers to recognise the de facto new situation in South Sudan. The United States had played a pivotal role in the consummation of the CPA and in the conducting of the referendum on self-determination that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. The region therefore could not effectively intervene to stop the deteriorating humanitarian situation caused by the escalation of the war, which now engulfed the hitherto peaceful areas in Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal consequent to the emergence and proliferation of armed opposition groups. This situation continued until finally in June 2017, the JMEC Chair, Mr. Festus Mogae, finally admitted that ARCISS was fatally disabled and required revitalisation.
Revitalisation of ARCISS
The intricacy of diplomacy renders difficult the interpretation and operationalisation of certain terminologies. In the current context of South Sudan, “the revitalisation of ARCISS” is meaningless as it is not be feasible without Dr. Machar, who has been holed up in South Africa since November 2016 on the advice of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Since the 30-month ARCISS transition period is almost expiring, the IGAD mediators should have started a new peace process involving the newly formed political and armed opposition groups. However, IGAD proceeded with their plan to consult and draw an agenda for the revitalisation of ARCISS. This agenda included a meeting in December 2017 to recommit the parties to the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. The parties signed the agreement on 21 December, but it never came into force because the government started its dry season military offensive to regain the territories under the armed opposition in Equatoria and Jonglei. This caused further humanitarian crises, with people streaming into Ethiopia and Uganda to seek refuge.
The second phase of the revitalisation process commenced on 4 February 2018 and was expected to continue until 16 February. The objectives of this phase are: a) restore the permanent ceasefire; b) achieve full and inclusive implementation of ARCISS; and c) develop a revised and realistic timeline and implementation schedule towards democratic elections at the end of the transitional period.
These are unrealistic objectives. First, the government has demonstrated a complete lack of interest in sharing power with the opposition. Secondly, the mediators have failed to deploy the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force from Rwanda and Ethiopia that would have provided security for Juba and other major towns. Thirdly, the armed opposition, the SPLM/A (IO), provides no military threat to the government because of an undeclared arms embargo imposed on it and the incarceration of its leader in South Africa. Fourthly, the transitional period that ARCISS provided ends in May 2018, which is the beginning of the rainy season in South Sudan. Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo. It would not be possible to bring them back to partake in elections in such a short time. Fifthly, assuming that the high-level revitalisation forum ends in an agreement, a new transitional period must factor in reconciliation and must enable the repatriation and resettlement of refugees.
Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo.
The revitalisation process is therefore a tall order in terms of the commitment of the IGAD region, the African Union and other interested parties to enforce the implementation of the resultant agreement. It would also require walking the extra diplomatic and political mile to force President Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to accept the agreement and its implementation in the letter and spirit in which the parties negotiated and agreed to it.
The entire process reeks of liberal peacemaking. The usual shortcoming of liberal peacemaking is that it leaves the regime intact. The superficial reforms it provides rarely impact the character and essence of the regime and end up recreating the conditions for renewed conflict. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement between the May regime of Gaafar Nimeri and the South Sudan Liberation Movement of Joseph Lagu created the conditions for the formation of the SPLM/A and the war of national liberation (1983-2005). The CPA created the conditions for the ongoing wars in the Sudan and South Sudan. Other examples exist in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. Therefore, whatever agreement the interested parties may come up with, the people of South Sudan should receive it with caution.
What then is the solution to the conflict in South Sudan?
A national democratic revolution
The plethora of problems afflicting the people of South Sudan are typical of when a people emerge from a war of national liberation or from colonial bondage. These problems obtained, and even continued to multiply, in South Sudan because the SPLM leaders decided to construct and maintain neocolonial relations with global comprador capitalism in order to perpetuate the system of extraction and plunder of South Sudan’s natural resources. This has left the country bankrupt and in economic meltdown while the people have been pauperised.
The essence of the war of national liberation that the SPLM spearheaded was to develop and free the national productive forces from any kind of foreign interference and domination. In this context, the SPLM hitherto counted as one of the forces of national democratic revolution in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However, the socio-economic and political developments in South Sudan since 2005 have demonstrated that the SPLM leaders have jettisoned the liberation pledge they made in 1983 and abandoned the path to national democratic revolution.
Until we successfully carry out a national democratic revolution for the social, economic and political development of our people, these problems will endure. We have to complete the national democratic revolution by implementing its programme in the social, economic and political spheres. We must construct a national democratic state that emancipates our people from the poverty, ignorance, political and ideological illiteracy, and superstition, which if left alone, could pop up in different forms: ethnic chauvinism and bigotry; religious, gender and racial discrimination; nepotism and favouritism; electoral fraud; political exclusion; and economic marginalisation and exploitation. These could quickly become the drivers of future conflict.
However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms.
Notwithstanding their political weaknesses and lack or organisation, the forces of the national democratic revolution exist in South Sudan in social groups, civil society and community-based organisations, and in the political parties and armed opposition. Some of these are actively participating in daily social and economic struggles and some may be hibernating, waiting for the opportune time. The tools for national democratic revolution range from what already exists now in the form of waging a revolutionary armed struggle, to demonstrations and processions, sit-ins and civil disobedience in towns and cities. We tried these methods successfully before in the popular uprising against the first military government of Ibrahim Abboud and Jaafar Nimeiri’s totalitarian dictatorship in Sudan.
However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms. It is imperative to complete the national democratic revolution and the construction of the national democratic state to address social and economic development, as well as the secondary contradictions inherent in the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural multiplicities of South Sudan. This is necessary whether or not the IGAD-led revitalisation of ARCISS succeeds in forcing the parties – through diplomatic arm-twisting by development partners – to agree to a power-sharing timeline and some reforms in the system.
In conclusion, the people of South Sudan are in such a dire social, economic and humanitarian situation that there is no time to waste in sterile debates about power-sharing and reforms of a system that has become, as Dr. Garang used to say of the government in Khartoum, “too deformed to be reformed”. It is about time the patriotic democratic social and political forces pulled together to salvage the country and its people.
BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth
At a cybercafé somewhere in Nairobi’s South B estate, stone-faced male clients are glued to their computers. They are youthful, the type that ought to be attending college, or if they are working, should be at their respective work places. It is mid-morning on a weekday, the cybercafé’s computers are all occupied and the young men are not on the Internet doing research for a term paper, collecting data, compiling a literature review, or cleaning up their CVs; they are busy placing bets on football games that are being played thousands of kilometres away, mostly in European cities.
This cybercafé is a replica of the many cybercafés spread all over the city and in suburban areas that have been turned into betting sites. “Cybercafés are no longer the Internet places you knew where people came to download serious stuff, upload a government document or even watch porn,” said Moha, the cybercafé’s owner and himself a former betting addict. “With the introduction of online betting in Kenya, the cybercafé business was transformed and acquired a new model.”
In Rongai town in Kajiado County, 25 kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, college students and young professionals have turned to cybercafés to gamble in the football betting craze that has left many residents befuddled. “All of them are male and between the ages of 19 and 35 years,” said a cybercafé owner. “A young man who was working for an IT company left his job to bet full time.” In Kikuyu town, Kiambu County, many young men have been sucked into the betting craze. They spend all day holed up in cybercafés, betting on nondescript teams in faraway countries, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine. They pay KSh1,000 upfront to cybercafés daily to satiate their betting addiction.
“Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.
A recovering gambler, Moha was so compulsively addicted to betting that he would bet his cybercafé’s daily proceeds relentlessly and non-stop. Convinced that the following day would be better than the previous one, he would place his bet again and again. Again and again, he would lose: day after day, week after week, month after month. “Just when the business was now about to collapse, I woke up to my senses. I was lucky, I salvaged myself. It could have been worse,” said Moha. At the end of his betting mania, Moha had lost hundreds of thousands of shillings. “That money was never meant to be mine,” he consoled himself.
A full-time occupation
Moha’s cybercafé is decked with a smart 43-inch TV that beams the latest European leagues’ football matches live. I watched as young men worked their bets with the seriousness of college students sitting for an exam. “Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.
Njoroge is your archetypal Kenyan gambler: intelligent, male, young, urbane and computer savvy. He is a recent graduate of Technical University of Kenya. He finished his BSc in IT studies just last year and told me that he was in the process of looking for a job. But as he looks for a job, he said, he is hooked to betting. “I will not lie to you – I cannot stop betting because I have become an addict.” Njoroge has been betting since 2013, when he first entered university as a freshman. “But I will also congratulate myself, I have been able to tame my betting mania to now just once a week,” said Njoroge. “I bet every Friday and I have cupped my betting to no more than KSh3,000. That is the maximum that I can bet.”
I asked Njoroge what was the highest amount he had ever won during his four years of betting. “Twenty-one thousand,” he replied. “I don’t play huge bets. For me to have won the KSh21,000, I had placed a bet of KSh1,000.” Since then, he has been winning small amounts ranging from KSh3,000 to 6,000. Was it out of choice that he was betting small money? I asked him. “Not really. It is because I have never had a huge lump sum. If I did, trust me, I would play in the big league. The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the reward,” Njoroge reminded me.
“Although I am not able for now to stay away from betting, I consider myself a safe bet,” said Njoroge. “I have been betting at Moha’s cyber for a while now and I know all my fellow gamblers. I do not consider myself a serial gambler.” Njoroge told me of a banker who worked at Kenya Commercial Bank who bet every single day. “His online account always has a floating minimum of KSh10,000 for placing his bets. Many times he has lost huge amounts, but he seems to have a constant supply of money. He does not seem to worry about his losses.” Every morning at 7am, his banker betting friend passes by at the cybercafé and places his bet before leaving for work. In the evenings, before going home, he passes by again and places more bets. “I think betting is like a sickness,” mused Njoroge. “I look at the banking fellow and I cannot believe that he often bets to win only KSh1,000 on top of his minimum KSh10,000.”
“Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”
Anthropologist Natasha Schull says, “For gamblers, it is not always the sense of chance that is attractive, but the predictability of the game that underpins the escapism. Even winning disrupts this state of dissociation.”
Before releasing Njoroge to go back to his computer machine, I asked him whether he was genuinely worried that his addiction would (finally) get the better of him. “That is why I am seriously looking for a job. I am hoping once I get a job, I will quit betting.” It sounded more of a wish than an expectation.
“But once you get a job, won’t you start earning some good pay and that may induce you into placing bigger bets? I mean you will now have the bigger cash you been craving for?” I asked him. “Remember what you told me about the greater the odds, the higher the reward?” He paused, then said, “Let me go back.”
“Betting is a sickness, a sickness that can only be cured by oneself,” said Simon Kinuthia, a recovered gambler, who once lived in East London and came back home in 2008. It is in East London that he first learned how to bet and eventually got hooked. “Betting and gambling joints are all over the city of London. They are like your local neighbourhood kiosks here in Nairobi.” As a restaurant supervisor in East London, Kinuthia would use his break to dash to the nearest betting kiosk to place a bet.” He been back in Kenya for nearly ten years now, and says he would bet even his house rent and would be perpetually broke and always in debt “because you must always borrow to feed your addiction. Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”
With his colleagues, Kinuthia would bet in the morning, at tea break, during the lunch hour, in the evenings and even at night. “When we got our weekly pay, we would all head to gambling joints and bet the whole night. We would lose all our money, possibly only one of us would win his bets,” said Kinuthia. Yet, that did not deter them. “The more you lose, the more you want to place even more bets, erroneously believing it was not your lucky night. It is a paradox.”
Kinuthia, who is an accountant by profession, told me that betting is a business based on the understanding of probabilities. “What is the probability of a gambler winning the jackpot?” posed Kinuthia. “It is one out of 10 million, assuming every day 10 million Kenyans are placing their bets. In other words, your chances of not winning the big money is 99.9 per cent.” Many of these people, Kinuthia said, have little or no understanding of the probability of losses.
Kinuthia has faithfully kept away from betting in Kenya. “I saw people (in the UK) lose jobs, others got into manic depression. Others who could not live with the shame of losing everything they ever owned – after being auctioned – and of having mounting debts, committed suicide. “Betting is like being a drug addict: People begin using drugs as a leisure activity in the false belief that they can quit anytime, if the leisure becomes boring, or if they find something better to do,” said Kinuthia. “But no sooner do you start dabbling in drugs, then you realise you want more and more of the same. It is no longer a leisure activity, but an addiction that has to be fed to keep it going. That is precisely how betting works, even on the most innocent people, who cheat themselves they are doing it for fun, and if not for fun, at least then to win some money. They soon realise they are hooked onto an alluring activity that is intoxicating, that like a drug gives them a kick, or if you, like ‘a shot in the arm.’”
Social anthropologists have long observed that gamblers use their bets to chase losses and often they seek to be in a world where they can forget their problems. I found this to be true of my newspaper vendor friend, who has spawned a business idea from the betting mania: selling photocopied newspaper pages with “hot games” for betting. At KSh20 per page, the vendor mainly sells the information to security guards, casual labourers, matatu drivers and conductors, street vegetable vendors and hawkers, job seekers, as well as jobless Kenyans. All of these people’s dream is to win the jackpot and merrily transform their “miserable” lives by becoming instant millionaires. It is a dream fed daily by the fantastic news that a peasant women from Kakamega County can actually win KSh25 million from placing her bet correctly.
This paradox – of losing hard-earned cash in a betting game and instead of quitting, you immerse yourself even further in the quagmire is something I found prevalent among university students. To understand how the betting mania has caught on among Kenyan youth, I went to the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus, where science and medical students are housed. It is a campus for “serious students” who are not even supposed to have time to socialise. But with the onset of online betting in Kenya, Chiromo campus students have not been spared the craze.
Victor Rago, who is studying chemistry, admitted to me that the betting mania has afflicted his campus and is driving many students crazy. “Today students spend more time betting than they do in their academics. If only they spent half the time they did in analysing football matches so as to place the correct bets, we would have very many first class honours.” Rago told me about his roommate, who in their second year in 2017, placed his bet one Saturday afternoon with Ksh200. As luck would have it, by the evening his roomie was worth KSh250,000 sent to his smart phone. “I knew he had ‘struck gold’, because when he came to the room, he said he wanted us to go into town and eat some real food at some real restaurant. He excitedly told me he had won 250K and it was proper for him to take some time and enjoy life. For a whole semester he did not show up in the lecture theatre.”
Rago said students were now spending all their energies dreaming every single day about betting and winning bigtime money. It has become a full-time occupation for them. Studies have become secondary. “Here at Chiromo, there are betting groups, just like there are tutorial groups, but the betting groups are superseding the tutorial groups by the day,” said Rago. I asked him why many of these betting groups are mostly composed of male students. “Male students are ardent football followers, which they have done for a long period, so they have a knack for better and greater analysis and I also suspect they are not averse to risks.”
But that does mean female students do not bet, said Rago. “They do, but they are not in the forefront. And, because they are not as adept analysts like their male counterparts, they rely on ‘seasoned analysts’ to predict for them.” Many of the so-called seasoned analysts run online advisory chats on Telegram applications. “They are also WhatsApp advisory chats, but many gamblers prefer the Telegram app,” said Rago. He said the Telegram app is preferred because your contact details are not exposed to everyone. Unlike WhatsApp, where, if you have to belong to a chat group, you must share your mobile phone number, the Telegram app is created such that it is controlled by a sole administrator and he or she does not need to know your telephone number to chat with his or her clients.
“One of the biggest of these Telegram app online ‘professional predictors’ is called Binti Foota,” said Rago. Ostensibly targeted at females who do not have the time to analyse or follow football matches religiously, it has an accumulated a following of nearly 19,000 gamblers. “What the betting craze has done is to spawn another industry, which is feeding into the gambler’s addiction,” said Rago. “So, for KSh530 a fortnight, Binti Foota can help you predict the outcome of football games. If you pay her KSh1,030, the site can predict for you for 34 days.” Rago said many of the female students who bet make the bulk of Binti Foota chat followers. “Binti Foota’s identity is not known, neither does she have to know the identity of her clients. So, if you are dissatisfied with her analyses, what you can do is migrate to another prediction site, or bad mouth her on a different site,” said Rago.
Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.
The student told me these online “professional predictors” had been infiltrated by online scammers, who have been conning people of their money in the guise of helping them place winning bets. “Many of the so-called online analysts and professional predictors are just scammers preying on the gambler’s addiction.” Scammers from as far as Nigeria have opened Telegram chat groups that pronounce how they have helped people win hundreds of millions of shillings. And because people are predisposed to greed, they fall prey to such scams,” said Rago.
He added that because of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviour displayed by the student gamblers, most of these students tend to neglect their studies and suffer from pendulum-like mood swings that are unpredictable. Rago told me of the Kenyatta University second-year student who committed suicide last year. “The student bet all his tuition fees – KSh80,000. What he did was to place two bets: KSh40,000 each. The odds were high, but he took the risk, convinced he would at least win one gamble. When he lost both bets, his world came crumbling down.”
Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.
The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the rewards is a principle many gamblers abide by, hoping to cash in on the odds they have placed. Many times, the risk is not worth it, “but then”, said Rago, “gambling is a compulsive behaviour disorder that overtime grips gamblers, who like alcoholics, to cure their alcoholism, must first accept they are suffering from an alcohol problem. Gamblers must also come to terms with their odd behaviour that drives them to bet compulsively.”
A consultant periodontist described to me how self-destructive compulsive behaviour disorder can be. A part-time lecturer, he narrated to me how one of his best students pulled out of class in his third year. “Aaah daktari, this course is taking too long: my peers are making money out there and here I am slogging through an unending degree course,” the student replied when he asked him why he had decided to pull out of medical school. “To my consternation, I did not know he had been betting on the side,” the consultant said. “I was told that his friends were boasting to him that by the time he is finished with his medical degree, they would be owners of real estate and funky vehicles.” His friends apparently were full-time gamblers and some had shown him their bank slips.
The consultant said he should not have been overly surprised: some of the young doctors known as registrars have become master gamblers. “In between their clinical rounds in the hospitals, the physicians are glued to their smart phones busy betting, so much so that one would be inclined to think that betting is one of their examinable units.” But the most shocking revelation came when he learned that some parents were encouraging their children to bet, oblivious of the dangers they are getting their children into.
I met a senior-level manager at one of the better known sports gaming companies for a chat in their posh offices in Nairobi. If a company’s employees is an indication of who its clientele might be, this sports gaming company told it all: The employees I saw were young – hardly more than 33 years-old with a look that declared: “We are here, we have arrived”. “It is not true sports gaming companies are impacting negatively on the Kenyan society, much less its youth,” he ventured to tell me. “This is a wrong notion that is being perpetrated by the mainstream media. It has become all hype and no substance. What I want are facts and figures, not emotional lurid stories.” He reeled off from his head the statistics from a recent poll conducted last November to find out how Kenyan youth are spending their money. “The survey, GeoPoll, showed that 26 per cent of the youth spend their money on saving and expenditure and only five per cent spent their money on betting. Which youth is this that is being destroyed by betting? The Kenyan media is obsessed with sensational reporting,” said the manager.
Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.
The manager, who is not authorised to talk to the media, described betting as an entertainment and said people are entitled to some fun, some leisure, albeit in a controlled environment. “We operate under the rules and obligations of the Betting Control Licensing Board. We are therefore legitimate. What is destroying the youth is not sport gaming companies – on the contrary – it is the so-called amusement machines that are now found all the over the place, including villages in some far-off counties. Those machines are the problem: they are illegal, unregulated and accessed by all and sundry. Of course, most of them are used by pupils and students alike, who are yet to be of the adult age, that is above 18 years. That is what the government and the media should be concerned with and not licensed, legal betting companies,” pointed out the manager. The government should clamp down on these machines, not ask sports gaming companies to part with astronomical taxes – “it just does not make sense. We are a business, not a philanthropic company. The government is being unreasonable when it says sports gaming companies are making so much money, so they have to pay taxes that are pegged to their turnover. It never happens anywhere in the world.”
Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.
The manager said his company has a cap on the amount one can bet in a day: KSh20,000. “I should let you know, we are not reckless. We also do not want people to overstretch their enjoyment.” Sports gaming companies and casinos consider gambling a “victimless” recreation, and therefore, a matter of moral indifference.
The sports gaming companies are up in arms because the government has asked them to pay 35 per cent on their monthly turnover in taxes. “And do not forget we still have to pay the annual 30 per cent corporate tax. Some people are misadvising the government,” said the manager. This “misadvising” began last April, 2017, when Henry Rotich, the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 50 per cent tax on sports gaming companies when he presented the national budget. He also came up with the Finance Bill, which President Uhuru Kenyatta refused to sign, insisting sports gaming companies ought to pay the 50 per cent tax.
Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth.
When the matter was taken up by Parliament, it was shot down; parliamentarians rejected the 50 per cent tax idea and said that the tax should remain at 7.5 per cent. “Now we don’t know where this 35 per cent is coming from. There is a misconception about sport gaming companies in this country: That we make abnormal and humongous profits. The most profitable company in Kenya is Safaricom. I have not heard the government say, since Safaricom makes billions of shillings, they should pay higher taxes than what they are paying currently, because they happen to be making tonnes of money.”
I told the manager that my preliminary inquiries on the betting mania, especially among the youth, is that it is distracting them from productive activities, be it studies or work. I also told him that betting is unwittingly creating among the most productive cadre of Kenyans a false notion that gambling can be considered an economic activity.
“Kenya is not a theocracy and gambling has existed in independent Kenya for the last 50 years,” shot back the manager. “Where is all this hullabaloo about sports gaming companies coming from suddenly? I sense business envy here from some (powerful) quarters. Could be it that some people are sore because they cannot believe they missed an opportunity to make money?” The manager told me that a tycoon close to the powers that be fought one of the sports gaming companies when it started its operations, arguing that these companies were corrupting the morals of the youth. There are currently 25 sports gaming companies in Kenya, according to latest Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) statistics, which were compiled last year in June.
“The argument about morals is both laughable and superfluous,” said the manager. “What then should we say of alcohol? Shouldn’t the government then shut down all the bars and drinking dens to curb alcoholism? What about beer and liquor manufacturing companies? Shouldn’t the government tax them an arm and a leg because they encourage our youth to drink? Alcohol is not only harmful to their health, but also leads to anti-social behaviour.” The morality argument falls flat on its face, said the manager. “That is the province of the purveyors of heavenly realm. I have not heard them say betting will take the youth to hell or that they are engaged in a sinful activity. ”
The manager dispelled the notion that betting and gambling are reckless behaviour. “Life is about gambling. Did you know prayer is a gamble? Everyday people are offering prayers to God, which are not fulfilled. Yet, they continue praying and they will not stop. At least we fulfil part of our bargain by paying people for their gambles. I can tell you this without a shadow of a doubt, we are going to create millionaires like no industry has done in modern Kenya.”
Anecdotal evidence shows that online betting is impoverishing poor people and reducing their levels of productivity. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Director General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), recently observed: “:….you are seeing sports gambling in Kenya today, but nobody is telling the gambling firms not to accept money from poor gamblers. It is the poor who must be told that they will live with the consequences of dreaming that gambling is an investment.” It is a fact that gamblers are drawn disproportionately from the poor and the low-income classes, who can ill afford to gamble: they are susceptible to the lure of quick imagined riches. This class of people are in financial doldrums and other societal tribulations that make them vulnerable to fantastic dreams of sudden wealth.
A tax expert who did not want his name revealed said, “One of the sports gaming company’s act of sponsorship withdrawal can be interpreted as an act of industry intimidation. The company is taking advantage of the fact that there is no direct evidence attributing societal problems to its activities.” Sportpesa, one of the better known gaming companies, withdrew its sponsorship of 10 sporting entities in Kenya that it was supporting after the government asked all sports gaming companies to pay an upgraded tax of 35 percent.
The tax consultant pointed out that Chapter 12 of the Kenyan Constitution on public finance management requires the creation of a tax system that promotes an equitable society. “Translation: Sports gaming companies such as Sportpesa are obliged to engage in good management practices by not holding the country to ransom, and using scaremongering tactics and threats such as job losses, withdrawing to another country or jurisdiction.”
Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth. I thought of the young man Njoroge – smart and forward-looking – yet, gambling, a debased form of speculation, had reduced him to lusting for sudden wealth that is not linked to the process that produces goods or services. Through gambling he hopes to grow wealth without actually working for it.
BIG FAT AFRICAN WEDDINGS: Commercialisation of traditional culture, and its consequences
During the early 1800s, the Nuer of South Sudan began pushing out of their traditional homeland and increased their territory four-fold at the expense of their Dinka and Anuak neighbours by the late 1880s. The anthropologist Raymond Kelley described it as one of most prominent cases of tribal imperialism in the ethnographic record. According to his analysis, the Nuer expansion, which involved the acquisition of resources far beyond that required to satisfy their normal material needs, was driven by the rising cost of bride price.
Today we are witnessing a variation on bride price inflation of a different order. The institution of marriage has given rise to a new economic growth sector in the form of the wedding industry. For example, the wedding industry is now estimated to be worth US$ 60 billion in the United States and over $300 Billion globally. The global figures probably do not include Africa, where the wedding industry is a newer but even faster growing phenomenon in many African nations.
An ancient institution
Marriage is the most ancient and stable of human institutions. Anthropologists trace the institution to the need to avoid incest and establish the paternity of offspring.
Stone Age humans formalised the contractual bonding of husband and wife through the exchange of gifts, and most hunter-gatherer societies engaged in ritual courtship. We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.
We do not yet know whether or not mitochondrial Eve’s marriage was arranged, but we do know that the institution of marriage contributed to the competitive advantage of Homo sapiens over their non-marrying Neanderthal neighbours.
It is not difficult to see how the institutionalised demands of maintaining a healthy gene pool could make a critical difference in circumstances where humans lived in small and isolated groups. Human bands invested in social networks and developed complex kinship systems, while the cavemen who mated by clubbing a woman and dragging her to his cave became dumb and dumber over time. In any event, marriage became a defining feature of human existence.
One scientific publication described the institution in evolutionary terms as “reciprocal exogamy including the exchange of mates, goods, and services, and involving multiple kin lineages often existing in multiple residential communities”. Anthropologists investigating the roots of the institution note that these parameters have remained relatively unchanged over the millennia.
With the rise of agriculture, marriage came to mark the passage from childhood to adulthood, conferring new rights and responsibilities in the process. The celebrations accompanying marriage played a fundamental role in fostering communal identity and solidarity. Before long, marriage was also key factor in building political relationships—a function that was elevated when the rise of royal dynasties saw marriage become an instrument of foreign policy.
This matrix of factors still obtains for marriage in African society. The institution is about much more than formalising the bio-emotional bond between two individuals, which now characterises Western practice. In most societies, it encompasses normative behaviour patterns and traits, including the wedding ceremonies and exchanges that formalise the contract. The marriage itself comes with expectations of relative permanence: shared residence, gender-based division of labour and management of resources, a sexual relationship oriented towards procreation and cooperation in child bearing and training.
While these factors, like the primacy of the nuclear family, are universal, the model based on the contract’s societal benefits has experienced significant attrition during the modern era. The wedding industry is the latest development to complicate the human dimension of marriage, and it appears to be racing out of control.
During the 1960s, weddings, especially the lavish high-cost version, came to be seen as effete. The contract was increasingly seen as a bond based on the relationship between two individuals. Divorce rates shot up and non-traditional unions between individuals of different backgrounds, including people of different religious, racial or social origins, proliferated. Pairing was about love. The resulting unions did not require an external religious or secular authority to legitimise it; the conventional ceremonial component was passé.
This encouraged the pursuit of innovative weddings, often held in unorthodox settings that appeal to the romantic ideal. The barefoot-on- the-beach wedding was popularised when Becks betrothed Posh in a sarong. The couple showcased several outfits, including bright violet costumes for the wedding party and a matching cowboy hat for baby Brooklyn. David Beckham later admitted that the garb made him look like “one of the guys in Dumb and Dumber” [the movie].
The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.
The Beckham extravaganza came after Princess Diana’s 1981 “wedding of the century”, which made celebrity weddings fashionable. The wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton set a new bar for the 21st century—although, as in the case of the Diana event, most of the reported cost of $34 million was spent on security; the cost of the bride’s dress, at $434,000, was modest in comparison.
In many places, weddings have always provided a stage for conspicuous consumption. The prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed, built a 20,000-seat stadium specially built for his seven-day, $100 million nuptials in 1981. The fashion among wealthy Indians is flying the entire wedding party consisting of several hundred guests to exotic destinations abroad.
Such extreme examples underscore the meteoric rise of the wedding industry across the planet. Fashionable contemporary weddings across the world now involve a full complement dressmakers, florists, reception halls, event planners, photographers, caterers, limo firms, DJs, bands, and jewellery designers. Few people can match the glass coach, the 25-foot bridal train, and the estimated 750 million television viewers of Princess Diana’s wedding, but many are willing to go into debt to finance a ceremony that is becoming the nuptial version of the arms race.
The wedding industry is flourishing across continents and cultures. In China, the $57-billion industry is registering a 7.8 per cent annual growth, but this will soon be trumped by India where the industry is expanding by 25 per cent a year. In the United Arab Emirates, the average cost of nuptials is estimated to be around $80,000. In the US, the average cost of a wedding is equivalent to a year’s salary for many service-sector employees or a year of university education.
These numbers appear to reflect relative differentials in income. The most expensive place in the US to get married is Manhattan, where the average cost is over $76,000, or five times the cost in Utah where the typical wedding expenditure is $15,257. The fact that this state is booming economically points to the influence of culture as well—which may represent the best hope for mitigating the more ominous implications accompanying the commercialisation of marriage and sexuality.
The Big African Wedding
During a trip to Addis Ababa last year, I went to a studio to get some passport pictures. There were several picture albums in the waiting area. They were actually gigantic, hardcover ledgers showcasing glamorous pictures of wedding couples, bridesmaids, best men, and other sundry wedding participants conspicuously adorned in some of the most expensively elegant finery I have ever seen. During the remainder of my visit I began to notice the proliferation of large and small wedding shops across the city.
I initially thought it was an Ethiopian thing. Wrong. Once alerted to its existence, evidence of Africa’s new wedding industry started to pop up everywhere. In Zambia there are weddings that last two weeks. The wedding industry in Kampala has seen the ten event organising companies operating in 2010 to grow to more than a hundred in 2017. Televised weddings provide revenue for Ugandan television stations that now charge 1 million shillings ($330) to broadcast lavish weddings.
Nigeria, true to form, is at the forefront of Africa’s new wedding sector. The industry that some say is fueled by Nigerians’ natural love of celebration probably owes more to their competitive nature. The CEO of one Nigerian wedding planning company explains: “People want their event to be the best. They want it to better than the next person’s so they won’t spare any expense to do whatever they need to do to get it done.”
This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills. Although the currency on display under thick glass attracted the attention of Nigeria’s audacious criminal class, it usually ended up back in the bank on Monday morning. Spraying guests with dollars upped the ante in the country’s “go big or go home” stakes.
Kenya’s fast growing wedding industry has spawned hundreds of wedding planners and businesses offering everything from florists to high-end caterers and other related specialists. This service sector actually dates back to the Western infatuation with the wedding as an adventure theme, which has drawn couples from abroad to Kenya to tie the knot. The wedding-in-the-bush is a niche market that is still doing well, based on the number of Kenyan tour companies advertising diverse safari wedding packages. But it is small change compared to the new urban African wedding complex with its complement of service providers, magazines, television shows, and family brokers skilled at maximising the returns on nubile daughters.
This is a country where the wealthy elite once threw parties where they would impress their guests by displaying millions of Naira bank notes in glass cases. Now, “getting it done” at weddings includes stunts like “spraying” the wedding guests with US dollar bills.
On the one hand, the industry is a tech-savvy, Internet friendly economic sub-sector, but on the other, it is just another globalised neoliberal cash cow. At least in West Africa the industry is spawning a new fashion industry showcasing creative variations on traditional clothing. Fashionable African wedding attire has even added a few hundred boards to the 38 million and growing Pinterest wedding posts, and its pretty neat stuff. Kenya’s wedding juggernaut, in contrast, is driven by the couples’ marked preference for the Eurocentric “white” wedding.
“White” Kenyan weddings
Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset. This line of critique makes Kenya’s first Big Shot wedding a bit incongruous—it was actually celebrated in Maasailand.
Sometime around the mid-1970s, the expansive Maasai Minister in Jomo Kenyatta’s government, Stanley Oloitiptip, threw an exceptionably exorbitant wedding for his oldest son. Stylistically, it contradicted almost everything Maasai culture stood for. It was certainly as outsized by the more modern standards of the day as the girth of the physically immense politician.
The irrepressible Oloitiptip justified the spectacle as a testament to “the fruits of Uhuru”. This explanation focused public attention on the diversion of state resources to fund the affair, a concern further compounded by the fact that the Honourable Minister had sired 46 other children.
As it turned out, there was no happy ending for the Big Man. In 1985, he suddenly found himself in prison for the misuse of public resources. Like the overpriced wedding gowns at the centre of contemporary weddings, the five normal prison uniforms sewn together to clothe him were used for only one day: he was released on bond the following morning and passed away several days later.
Although the Kenyan public has been treated to the occasional high profile wedding since then, the new big wedding phenomenon is defined by its distribution and scale. This is why some commentators applaud it as a vibrant growth industry and others hype it as symbolic of middle class prosperity—even though a large portion of newly weds don’t have the money to pay for their weddings.
The moral of the Oliotiptip story dovetails with other qualities associated with the big wedding trend. Close to a quarter of the couples opting for these bling weddings go into debt to finance them, and the majority of them regret the expenditure soon afterwards. A more disturbing statistic: the bigger the wedding, the shorter the marriage.
Even so, the trend persists. One Ugandan professional stated that he has saved 50 million shillings for a big wedding. He says he only wants to have a wedding that befits his status as an educated man. If he can’t afford that, he’d rather not have a wedding at all. No wedding is now the norm for many, and no marriage at all is increasingly common. One regional study found that 50 per cent of young couples were living in free unions and another 25 per cent of women were raising children as single mothers.
Traditional communitas versus wedding bling
Weddings have long served as a vehicle for conspicuous consumption and the spread of consumer culture. The fact that both the rich and the middle classes now own fancy cars, TVs and designer handbags has raised the status-generating power of one-time social events like weddings. Wedding planners say that the industry is driven by women’s desire to be a Queen, and the center of attention albeit for one day. Men play along for reasons of status and prestige.
Traditional ceremonies were ritualised communal affairs imbued with layers of symbolism and meaning. The primary functions of many ceremonies, such as weddings, were to mark passage to a new stage of the life cycle and to foster unity within the community. The anthropologist Victor Turner’s classic study on African ritual and ceremony focused on the deep properties of these phenomena, and the universal role of liminality and communitas.
Liminality refers to the beginning or transitional stage in a process. The person at the centre of the transition is often regarded to be in a weak and dangerous or inauspicious state. Rituals based on the society’s spiritual, magical and religious traditions generate a state of communitas to insure the safe transition of the person in this liminal state.
The term communitas is associated with sharing a common experience that takes a whole community to the next level. Rites, rituals and ceremonies designed to temporarily negate differentials of rank and status create a social space based on homogeneity, equality and anonymity. This promotes a sense of group wholeness. Individuality is submerged in unity in a manner facilitating transformation. The way the spirit of a harambee fund-raising event induces you to contribute beyond your planned contribution is an example of the same.
The public ceremony is, in this sense, not an event, but part of a social process that facilitates the safe transition of the liminal individual, be it from girl to woman, boy to man, or candidate to group chief and leader. The state of communitas it engenders imbues the group with a lasting sense of unity and solidarity that allows society to function despite its internal conflicts and inequalities of wealth and status.
Turner describes how the process works in the case of the appointment of a new chief among the Ndembu of Zambia. After a period of sexual abstinence, the new candidate and is wife are housed in the specially constructed kafu, or death hut. They are dressed in rags and made to assume a submissive position. While in this state of liminality, elders revile the future leader: “Be silent! You are a mean and selfish fool, one who is bad-tempered! You do not love your fellows, you are only angry with them! Meanness and theft are all you have! Yet here we have called you and we say that you must succeed to the chieftainship.”
The couple are abused and forced to stay awake all night while commoners are invited to berate them for any misdeeds large or small. They are beaten and rubbed with special herbs. After this ordeal, the chief-to-be is instructed in his duties:
We have desired you and you only for our chief. Let your wife prepare food for the people who come here to the capital village. Do not be selfish, do not keep the chieftainship to yourself! You must laugh with the people, you must abstain from witchcraft! You must not be killing people! You must not be ungenerous to people! Today you are born as a new chief. If you were mean, and used to eat your cassava mush or your meat alone, today you are in the chieftainship. You must give up your selfish ways, you must welcome everyone, you are the chief!
The ritual results in the figurative death of the liminal candidate and his rebirth as a leader. Turner goes on to detail how many other ceremonial processes across cultures, including the coronation of Popes, display many of the same structural attributes.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o built a literary career by exposing the mentality behind many Kenyans’ inverted relationship with indigenous values and preference for the trifles identified with Western ways. The contemporary white wedding is the latest flagship for this mindset.
Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions, and most cultural and religious weddings display similar dynamics to sanctify and bless the marriage contract.
In my own case, prior my own wedding, the idea of getting married was a remote and distant prospect. I was living in Lamu, and the process started as an idea suggested by close friends who told me, “Marrying is easy and since you are here you should give it a try even if just for a week.” The idea evolved into an experimental possibility that in turn led to a proposal to marry, arranged in the usual manner.
The only request from my side was that the marriage ceremony would be a small, private affair. Swahili weddings, in my view, were carnival style affairs that did not fit my style. I wanted a closed personal ceremony to go with the already exotic circumstances.
“Sure, we will do it that way if that’s what you want,” my future in-laws told me. Although I did not know it, at the time, I was totally out of my depth, in a liminal state of ignorance, weakness, naiveté, and vulnerability.
I also did not realise that the coast was home to the region’s most developed indigenous wedding industry. As the time approached, I was informed of a series of unanticipated developments: a bus arrived with furniture and other trappings; the next day another came from Mombasa with a posse of musicians, a boat arrived with guests from the islands, and so on. This build-up countered my expectations of a small intimate wedding.
A week before the actual event, people started addressing me as Bwana Harusi. Lamu’s normally shy ladies began to accost me with propositions, and several times women dragged me into their homes as I passed through the town’s narrow alleys. My “handlers” told me that as Bwana Harusi I was fair game for such mischief until the formal marriage; it was best I stay indoors. They were otherwise helpful but not very informative. Among other things, they did not explain that a proper wedding is mandatory for a girl’s first marriage, and that the arrangements were the exclusive province of the bride’s family.
Three days of robust wedding celebrations ensued. I became caught up in the spirit, and consented to options for the groom’s side, like holding the kirumbizi stick fighting dance and the all-night kesha party. My father surrogate arranged for the kirumbizi, which coincided with the district secondary school sports tournament. The presence of the archipelago’s most athletically inclined youth insured it was the most fiercely contested kirumbizi stick fighting in Lamu’s modern history. Swept away by the spirit of this communitas, I ended up splurging on food, miraa for my Somali friends, and a Bajuni msondo dance followed by what became a public party while the bride’s taarabu music echoed through the other side of time.
After sunrise I was married in the kind of simple ceremony I had originally requested, although there was still one last surprise.
I had paid the conventional dowry for that time of several thousand shillings. But when the actual moment came, I was confused when I heard the town’s most respected sheikh ask me the formulaic question: Do you agree to marry Safiya binti Mohammed Ali for the mahari of 50 Kenya shillings?
This was repeated three times. Though mystified and bewildered, I managed to utter “kabeitu, or “I agree” in Arabic. Only later did I learn that the small sum substituted for the dowry proper, often referred to as mahari ya Kiarabu, is designed to protect the family, which typically ends up spending more than the dowry on the wedding. The provision comes into effect if the marriage fails or the groom has legitimate cause for rejecting the bride and reclaims the mahari proper. The dowry proper, in any case, goes to the wife, and not her father.
In the evening I was escorted to the bride’s house where, according to the Swahili tradition of fungati, we spent the next week in the wedding suite where we were treated as royalty. We were both all so liminal at the time, although for different reasons. By the end of the week’s seclusion I was integrated into the extended family and emerged as a culturally validated member of Lamu society.
Traditional weddings are a benign version of this ceremonial process where two individuals are reborn and transformed into a legally recognised husband and wife sanctified by the higher powers. The passages on marriage in the Quran, Bible and other religious texts underscore the sanctity and spiritual quality of such unions
As individuals, my wife and I were and still are very different people from totally different backgrounds. I am not sure if our union would have survived if it began as the private affair I originally envisioned. It took a while, but I came to understand how the process of public communitas and internal family bonding contributed to the fact that forty-one years later we are still together.
There is a broader moral to this love story.
The impact of commercialised weddings
Victor Turner observes that liminality and communitas are essentially phenomena of transition. His analysis explains why many modern phenomena, from millenarian movements and the counter-cultural quest for alternative lifestyles to the rise of Nazism, borrow much of their mythology and symbolism from traditional rites de passage, either in the cultures in which they originate or in the cultures with which they are in contact. Turner documents many forms of these phenomena from once-a- generation ceremonies to the rituals of everyday life.
The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear. Lela Anwar, an administrator with the coast’s Donge Charity Network, offers the following commentary on Mombasa’s changing wedding complex.
A typical wedding in Mombasa now costs more than an average citizen’s salary, yet they are getting bigger and more dramatic. The Nikkah, the nucleus of any Islamic wedding, is a straightforward and inexpensive affair because it mainly involves a recitation of wedding vows followed by attendees sharing a quick repast of coffee and haluwa in the mosque. It is also a mainly male event, complemented by a smaller gathering of female relatives and close friends in another room. Even though the nikkah is the most essential part of the wedding, the reception consumes the majority of time, financial, and human resources. The reception, known as kupamba in Swahili, is an extravagant women-only event featuring an often evening of loud music, outlandish hairdos and makeup, jewel-studded dresses, and multiple servings of fancy food and drinks. Local women view the kupamba through the lens of social class: the fancier the reception is, the more status conferred on the family. Curiously, the kupamba celebration can exert more leverage on social class than actual wealth. A family that hosts an outlandish wedding is regarded as ‘high class’ even if the wedding was funded by loans and donations from extended family and friends.
Muslims are aware that the Prophet Muhammad recommended simple weddings yet despite the religious incentive for sticking to the sunnah traditions, the scale and costs of Swahili weddings continue to rise. This phenomenon is linked to attributed gender dynamics, and specifically to gender roles that are socially enforced in traditional Swahili societies. There are certain female social activities that are frowned upon even though it is fairly acceptable for men to go clubbing or spend long hours away from the family consuming miraa or pursuing other forms of entertainment. Swahili women who deviate from their prescribed roles are, in contrast, given negative labels and may be castigated as being promiscuous or prostitutes. Unlike men, you rarely see women spending hours with friends partaking in social activities outside the home. With almost no outlet or spaces available to women for entertainment, weddings are now the default venues where they can dress up and enjoy an evening of music and fun within a socially acceptable environment. Weddings are an outlet for self-expression; an opportunity for the traditional Swahili woman to morph into a glamour queen. They are a welcome respite from her daily, culturally prescribed cocoon.
Weddings are so important that now invitation cards are sold for as much as Ksh. 7000 by invitees unable to attend. The downside of this commercialisation is that increasingly large numbers of urban and peri-urban youth are finding it difficult to marry. This has provided an entry point for radicalisation and terrorist recruitment as two recent studies on the coast of Kenya have documented.
The wedding industry, as discussed in the first section of this essay, in many ways contradicts the role of traditional cultural processes. Weddings as events emphasise the conspicuous expenditure of resources for the sake of prestige and competition. Instead of transforming the couples to live in harmony and contribute to the public good, bling weddings condemn many of them to an uphill struggle to survive as a pair.
More traditional wedding ceremonies, as the passage above indicates, offer Swahili women a degree of gender-based communitas. The contemporary coastal wedding, however, also reinforces structural inequalities contributing to the radicalisation of both male and female youth. Sex is a powerful and dangerous force that easily leads one into a state of liminal danger. The wedding industry taps into this for material gain. Jihadi radicals effectively exploit the negative aspect of the same social change to recruit individuals who for various economic and ideological reasons fall outside the boundaries of mainstream Islam.
The role of such factors, including constraints associated with the commercialisation of weddings, have been documented by researchers on Kenya’s coast and elsewhere. In the meantime, it turns out that a range of high profile players in the West have discovered the value of communitas and other spiritual techniques that help merge the individual “I” into the collective “We”. Advocates include the top echelon of Google and other Silicon Valley executives, some of most decorated US Navy Seals team leaders, and other copacetic entrepreneurs like Richard Branson. The 2017 book, Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal, reports how these players are seeking out ways of replicating the ecstatic sense of unity embedded in the African rituals studied by Victor Turner and others. In the words of the authors, “This feeling tightens social bonds and ignites enduring passion—the kind that lets us come together to plan, organize, and tackle great challenges.”
The same insights apply to the recruitment of jihadi terrorists, and the communal synergy generated by organisations like ISIS, Al Shabaab, and Boko Haram. The “Islamist problem” may appear far removed from the issues raised by the region’s wedding industry, but the two developments are more closely linked than it may appear.
For the techies, entrepreneurs and soldiers who have adopted pursuits from yoga and bio-feedback meditation to psychedelics and extreme sports, getting into this zone is about enhancing productivity and their cutting edge. It is hardly surprising that the bad guys have developed their own form of communitas to do the same. In any event, society needs more of the problem-solving passion the world’s top entrepreneurs are seeking to cultivate than the competition driven by the bling of the wedding industry—especially when it comes to some of the human surrogates now being generated by artificial intelligence technology.
The rise of the wedding industry bookends one side of a larger neoliberal trend of inequality and social polarisation; developments on the other side of the spectrum have given rise to the technologically enabled sexbot, first predicted in the original 1975 version of Stepford Wives and updated in more recent films like Blade Runner and Ex Machina. One blogger summed up the implications for marriage and the family as an existential threat to humanity: “This will blow up the world. It will make crack cocaine look like decaffeinated coffee.”
A return to the ritually-reinforced social bonds that made the celebration of marriage a universal rite of passage is needed to sustain the family unit as the most basic human institution. Creative variations on the modern wedding may yet provide a platform for adaptive cultural innovations on this front. For example, last December, Laabied Mohammed Gurcharan of the Donge Network established a new precedent for Mombasa’s wedding scene. Instead of the usual by- invitation-only event, he shared his wedding feast with the children of the Mama Dhahabu Orphanage.
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