“If democracy is someday to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.” (Piketty 2014: 570).
During the run-up to the US elections in November, a number of my African colleagues and friends told me that Trump would win the presidency. Several even opined that something good would come out of it in the end. Experience has taught me to treat such counterintuitive observations with a degree of cautious respect. But this particular appraisal was a tricky proposition.
Trump ran more on outrage with the status quo, homespun economic nationalism, and anti-Hillary sentiment than workable policies for reversing the domestic malaise framing his rude political rhetoric. The Tea Party crowd flocked to Trump’s campaign, presenting Trump with the kind of political stage suited to his unconventional and often reptilian behaviour. The national media feasted on Trump’s antics and divisive positions, but the condescending coverage of the campaign of a candidate who started out as an outlier also camouflaged the more clinical aspects of his strategy to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The poll numbers and sophisticated data analyses dismissed the likelihood of a Trump victory. But then the same electorate who twice elected Obama by sizeable majorities propelled his polar opposite into the White House.
For the many millions of Americans and others around the world distressed by the Trump campaign, the implications of his electoral-college victory was like waking up to a collective nightmare. Most of my friends, family and colleagues were stunned. Anger and agitation quickly replaced the shock. Obama’s bleak reaction, “Well, it’s not the Apocalypse,” offered little comfort.
This added up to a lot to think about as I made my way back to the US for the first time since 2004, arriving in the country two days after Trump’s inauguration. I was told to expect massive changes. My destination was Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah, socially the most conservative of the red states of the American West.
Exposure to racist theology like that of the Church of Latter Day Saints was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors
For decades, many Americans considered the Mormon-dominated state to be a quasi-theocratic no-go zone with a unique past that set Utah apart from other ultra-conservative Western states like Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas.
During my two previous trips I had found a large and variegated landscape of rangeland, desert, and mountains, with a large inland sea thrown in to boot. I found many similarities between Utah and Marsabit and the Lake Turkana region, including its traditional spatial and social separation from the rest of the country.
Mormons fleeing religious persecution in the East settled in Utah at a time when almost everyone else was heading to California. The Territory of Utah was officially recognised in 1851. It was the only Western state to allow slavery, and attempted to secede from the Union shortly afterwards. Washington was compelled to send in the army. Brigham Young, who had succeeded the religion’s founder, Joseph Smith, capitulated, but with the promise that the government would grant the Mormons autonomy to live according to their religion. The Church of Latter Day Saints has dominated the state’s economy and government ever since.
The Book of Mormon stated that the indigenous peoples the white settlers found in their new home originally came from the Middle East, but had divided into two antagonistic groups. The “Lamanites” were idolaters revealed to have extinguished a population of “Nephrite” Hebrews who had migrated to the New World several hundred years before the coming of Christ. Mormon scripture saw dark skin as a curse from God for wickedness, but otherwise taught that peoples of colour who converted and abandoned their culture would become white over time.
Exposure to this racist theology was a primary motivator for the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico. Tommy Smith won the 200 metres in world record time followed by John Carlos in third place. The medallists mounted the podium barefoot, to symbolise the poverty of their African-American community, and raised black-gloved fists in defiance during the raising of the American flag. The protest triggered an explosion of institutional indignation and recriminations portraying Smith and Carlos as Nazis and traitors. The firestorm also curtailed the running career of the Australian silver medallist who in solidarity wore the same human rights badge pinned to the Americans’ jerseys.
It was a radicalising moment: I compiled a comprehensive report of the protest and the conditions leading up to it for a high school project. The racism of the church of Latter Day Saints added to my impressions of the state based on the gruesome fate of the Westward-bound Donner party caravan and the numerous massacres of the local Amerindian communities during the early days of the territory. Many of us growing up at that time saw Utah as the American equivalent of Albania or North Korea.
The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval
Utah has evolved during the intervening decades. The US government has resettled refugees of diverse backgrounds in the state. Salt Lake City’s industry-friendly environment also attracted the tech companies relocating from California, bringing the formerly isolated state into the American mainstream over the past two decades. Readily available jobs, a reasonable cost of living, and a network of Kenyan friends and family already established in the former no-go zone attracted several of my kids to Salt Lake City.
The growing cultural diversity has not altered the state’s bedrock conservatism. Mitt Romney and George Bush Jr still received a phenomenal 72 per cent of Utah’s vote in 2012 and 2008. Although Donald Trump’s tally did not reach these heights in 2016, the sum of these factors designated this most red of states an appropriate re-entry point for my tour of Trump’s America.
Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News executive who became one of the key architects of the Trump campaign, declared that if you want to change politics you have to change culture first. There was the angst on the surface and uncertainty lurking underneath, but was the Republican clean sweep of White House, the Senate, and House of representatives really a marker of far-reaching culture change?
THE COUNTERCULTURAL ROOTS OF THE TRUMP PRESIDENCY
Bannon clearly arrived at his change-the-culture thesis by observing the counterculture that emerged while my generation came of age, a phenomenon that reshaped American society and politics along the way.
The post-World War II period was an era of unprecedented prosperity, middle-class growth and technological progress for the USA. Politics was something that our parents followed as it came around in four-year cycles. America was a truly great place to grow up, as long as you could keep the fear of nuclear Armageddon, and other industrial-scale threats, at a safe distance.
For the young Americans growing up in customisable bubbles coloured by the scientific advances underpinning the futuristic orientation of American society, that was harder to do as the 1960s wore on. The raised fists in Mexico City — along with other radicalising events like the Vietnam war, the violent suppression of the Yippie protests at the Chicago Democratic Convention, and the river in Cleveland that actually caught fire and burnt for 17 days — confirmed my own doubts about how wonderful everything was or was supposed to be.
The Civil Rights movement had already done most of the heavy lifting. This in turn provided a platform for the anti-war movement. Before long, what began as a political movement for peace and racial inclusion coalesced into a much broader social upheaval. The country entered a state of agitation sustained by an expanding range of worthy causes from the conditions of migrant farm workers to rampant industrial pollution. Much of the conflict was generational, and reflected a polarising explosion of new memes, pheromones, and mind-altering visions.
As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes
The sentiment at the time was that only a far-reaching cultural reorientation could triumph against the entrenched political order and the military-industrial complex controlling it. The mix of hot politics and cool culture was always more about challenging the conventional assumptions underpinning American exceptionalism than the political revolution advocated by the far-left fringe.
Waves of new music, innovative lifestyles, radical role models, and more mundane concerns like promoting healthy dietary choices rocked the national status quo. People started searching for alternatives to the mindless consumption of the planet’s limited resources. Tabs, buttons, and mushrooms opened up new internal vistas that encouraged interest in ancient cultures and their spiritual religious traditions. We probed the mystical symbols adorning the dollar bill and investigated the esoteric philosophies guiding the new nation’s founding fathers.
The combination of protests, new cultural orientations, and developments in the war zones of Southeast Asia shifted public opinion. Withdrawal from Vietnam accompanied progress on other fronts from race relations to female liberation. New legislation addressed discrimination based on colour, creed, and gender, reined in the CIA, and created the Environmental Protection Agency to control serial polluters.
The ship had been righted, the course of the nation redirected, and use of the term “politically correct” offered backhanded acknowledgement of the nation’s cultural makeover in politics. In the end, many of the political attitudes engendered by the counterculture followed long hair, frayed jeans, and recreational marijuana use into mainstream America.
The changes, affected over a relatively short period, had made America even more exceptional in our eyes. But some observers disagreed. The eminent anthropologist Marvin Harris opined that the main impact of the counterculture was selling a lot of records. Iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa said that rock music’s potential revolutionary impact had been felt mostly in the textile industry. Cultural revolution did little to change the nation’s political structures and economy.
As the awakening and the activism of the Vietnam era ran its course, American conservatives felt increasingly isolated. Their champion, the embattled president Nixon, resigned office in disgrace. Not only had their values been shunted aside, the country’s conservative hard core saw the reforms and new liberalism as a direct threat to the sources of their wealth. They were still wealthy, but had become dinosaurs inhabiting a political landscape dominated by progressive ideas and proponents of activist government. Conservative partisans like Steve Bannon may have missed the party, but they were taking notes.
IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT TRUMP
The Koch brothers are ferociously independent heirs to one of the largest private corporations in the United States. Like the Bush family and their cronies, their father, Fred Koch, built up his fortune during the 1930s, training Bolshevik engineers and selling his advanced oil refining technology and refineries to Stalin and Hitler’s Germany. His children’s nanny was a Hitler sympathiser, and after the war Fred Koch became a strong supporter of the rabidly anti-Communist John Birch Society to assuage his guilt over aiding the USSR. He transferred his extreme libertarian values to his sons, and after his death in 1967, Charles and David Koch bought out their two more liberal minded siblings.
In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists. Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations
Under the brothers, Koch Industries became the country’s second wealthiest private corporation, and they parlayed their financial muscle into the single most influential political machine in the country. Their first venture, David Koch’s run for the presidency on the Libertarian Party ticket in 1980, failed miserably. Plan B was based on a totally different approach. It began with annual summits attended by a handpicked list of like-minded individuals opposed to most forms of government regulation and taxation.
In Dark Money, a book first released in 2016, Jane Mayer tells the story of how the Koch Brothers assembled a network of 400 über-wealthy industrialists who leveraged their money and influence to penetrate the American political system for their personal financial benefit. The brothers are the sixth and seventh wealthiest Americans and their combined wealth makes them number one. Most of those they recruited belong to the top .01% of the country’s wealthiest billionaires and are known as the “invisible rich” because they operate private companies that shield them from public scrutiny and government rules for fiscal disclosure.
Mayer’s documentation of their activities reads like a virtual symphony of corporate crime in the form of fraud, tax avoidance, violations of workplace safety and employee welfare, foreign bribery, and environmental violations. Over several decades, this network, or the Kochtopus as it was dubbed by one analyst, spent billions of dollars funnelled through tax-free foundations and charities exempted from public oversight to promote their objectives.
The Koch summits provided the institutional foundation and financial support for a long-term strategy based on three overlapping components: The reformulation of libertarian ideology in terms of ideas and concepts enabling its propagation within mainstream society; the creation of institutions for translating this free-market ideology into policy positions and legislation; and building political vehicles on the ground for placing politicians aligned with their ideas and policies into public office.
Most of the Koch-networked and -funded institutions and political action committees, like Americans for Prosperity, flew underneath the radar. At the same time, an array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena, fuelling the culture wars that influenced otherwise politically moderate citizens.
The Koch network funded think tanks based in respected universities to reinforce their anti-government ideology and critiques of public spending. Covertly funded political action committees were used to gain control of executive offices and legislative bodies. Over a period of 40 years, the Koch Brothers and their clique of archconservative supporters patiently cultivated a right-wing movement, often with more power to block and obstruct than to legislate their own agenda.
An array of media personalities, talk show hosts, and academic celebrities duplicated the role that rock musicians, intellectuals and artists, political activists, and outspoken athletes like Mohammed Ali played in energising the masses several decades before. They elevated the role of divisive social issues like abortion rights in the political arena
But despite the inroads and influence generated by their free-flowing money, the Koch network still lacked a nation-wide vehicle for mobilising grassroots supporters.
ENTER BARACK OBAMA, PURSUED BY MAD HATTERS
Help came from an unexpected source.
The election of Barrack Obama in 2008 triggered the formation of the anti-government Tea Party movement. Its emergence enabled the Koch network to dedicate their annual summit in 2009 to organise an all-out assault on the Democrats during the 2010 mid-term elections. Tea Party candidates defeated Democrat and mainstream Republican incumbents as the GOP regained control of the House and Senate. The trend continued in 2012, even though Obama retained the White House with a 5.5 million-vote margin of victory.
Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain.
The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald. Trump blitzed the field, reducing both establishment candidates like Jeb Bush and Tea Party aspirants to props in his carnival-style campaign. He proceeded to tweet himself into the White House, portraying himself as a new and independent force in American politics.
That he was. “I even did without a guitar and piano,” he quipped, a jibe referring to the star power Hillary Clinton trundled out at the end of her self-satisfied campaign.
Actually, the Trump team had something much better. Cambridge Analytica is a company dedicated to “the use of data to change behaviour,” or in the case of the 2016 election, using emotional manipulation based on psychological profiling to induce people to vote against their own socioeconomic interest. Electoral analysts confirm that CA helped sway the vote in key swing states like Florida, North Carolina, and Michigan, but their advanced analytics arguably required the distortionary prism cultivated by the alt-right players like Breitbart News and Steve Bannon to be effective.
THE REAL HOMELAND INSECURITY
It is easy to denigrate Trump the person. But Trump the politician scored some important points on my political scorecard. I had witnessed the beginning of the decline overtaking rural areas in the American South, and now even communities and people in America’s heartland who did everything by the book to adapt to the industrial decline still couldn’t win. The economic nationalism agenda clearly spoke to their concerns, even if it was short on viable solutions.
Despite their growing clout within the federal and state governments, the Koch-Tea Party coalition could not field a viable presidential candidate of their own creation, as demonstrated by the succession of inchoate candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, Ben Carson, Michelle Bachmann, and the pizza king Herman Cain. The problem was about to repeat itself in 2016, until along came the Donald
A Trump versus Bernie Sanders contest focusing debate on the overlapping issues at the core of both candidates’ campaigns would have been much better for the country and the eventual winner. That did not happen thanks to the Democratic National Committee’s pro-Hillary machinations. Instead, we got a noisy post-truth spectacle that made one candidate look like a sleazy demagogue while the other came across as an opportunistic mannikin compromised by special interests.
The country emerged from the polls more polarised than ever, and the acrimony of the aftermath offered little hope for improvement. The fact that Trump was not part of the Kochtopus and the Koch brothers did not support his campaign offered some hope: Maybe the guy would revert to the former Democrat who was cool with Dennis Rodman on The Celebrity Apprentice. But then again, Vice President Michael Pence was a Koch-funded poodle; Trump promptly loaded his Cabinet with Koch partisans like Betsy DeVoss and Ben Carson.
It was not easy to see where my friend’s “something good will come out this” would come from with these people in charge.
A few days after I arrived in Utah, Trump announced his Muslim travel ban. A wave of spontaneous protests erupted as airport authorities detained several hundred arrivals from abroad including a former Middle Eastern head of state. The mainstream media went into overdrive and anti-Trump posts proliferated on social media, many of them creative, incisive, and entertaining. This and the breaking news about Russia drove a former State Department official to lament that the US has become a “Banana Republic.”
Although a federal judge declared the ban unconstitutional on the first working day following the executive order, a Utah-based friend from Lamu, spooked by the ban, still felt it necessary to travel back to Kenya to escort his wife, who had just received her long-awaited US visa, past airport immigration and security. More significantly, three days later, the LDS church issued a statement opposing the ban.
I argued that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. At least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over
This was unexpected news, as was a University of Utah study that reported most Muslim immigrants found the state more welcoming and adjusting to the US easier in Utah’s family oriented and no-alcohol Mormon culture. I also discovered that the religion’s founder and prophet, Joseph Smith, was actually an abolitionist, and that the Utah territory granted women the right to vote in 1870, 50 years before the federal government legislated universal suffrage by passing the 19th Amendment (Congress responded by disenfranchising Utah women with the Edmunds–Tucker Act, which was designed to weaken the Mormons politically and punish them for polygamy).
Red America is not as monolithic as it may appear in media political narratives. I spent Super Bowl Sunday in Salt Lake City with a houseful of Mexican relatives. More of them were more upset with the New England Patriot’s last minute Trump-style victory than worried about Trump’s wall.
I visited blue America. We convened a large family gathering in Los Angeles, and spent time with friends in San Francisco. There were a lot of Teslas and other electric cars, and a few self-driving vehicles on the freeways, their passengers contently working on phones and tablets.
THE COMING SECESSION OF HOTEL CALIFORNIA?
California is the high-tech future. But it is also the land of a new long-tail market peasantry. Internet-savvy entrepreneurs were surviving by reselling appliances and other recycled items. Co-operatives in the form of Internet-based groups were pooling their knowledge to utilise the online economy.
I have in-laws in LA who subsist by swapping coupons and minimising household costs through scientific shopping for bargains and stocking their freezer with food reduced for clearance.
Despite their struggle to keep body and soul intact, every month they host poetry readings and other cultural events in their home that are attended by dozens of friends and associates more concerned with the fate of the country than their own declining incomes.
The two coasts had emerged as the centre of anti-Trump activism, and some of the protests, like the student protests in Berkeley that forced the administration to cancel an appearance by the Breitbart editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, crossed the line, violating basic constitutional and democratic principles. When I mentioned the retrogressive nature of some of these developments, my friends in California ranted about the new regime and talked about secession in terms that recalled my conversations with the Mombasa Republican Council’s leadership.
I responded by arguing that the election was the best thing that happened for progressive forces in decades. It woke people up, and saved the world from a hawkish and dissembling Hillary. Contributions to the American Civil Liberties Union were spiking; at least the decades of drift culminating in the aristocratic takeover of party and state by the Clinton dynasty were over.
Other developments of the past several months painted a much more nuanced picture of the state of the nation. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick revisited the spirit of the Mexico Olympic protest by refusing to stand for the national anthem. In pro-Trump Louisiana, the city of New Orleans took down the statue of Robert E. Lee — the state’s last remaining symbol of the Confederacy. John McCain penned an incisive op-ed in the New York Times underscoring the importance of human rights in foreign policy as an extension of domestic American values. Bob Dylan, the first poet of the counterculture, became a Nobel laureate.
The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic
After the election, the website for the largest Tea Party PAC crowed that it took the anti-war movement 25 years to elect one of their own to the White House while they had done the same over the course of two electoral cycles. In reality, the success rate of Tea Party candidates peaked in 2012. Now minority politicians with names like Chokwe Lumumba and Khalid Kamau were winning seats in local government. Unheralded candidates recently won by-elections for seats in New Hampshire and New Jersey districts that had never elected a Democrat.
In his book What’s Wrong With Kansas, Thomas Frank describes how conservatives used religion and the culture wars to flip the formerly progressive state into a Republican stronghold. A decade later, the economy is tanking, while the state’s model education system deteriorates due to the spending cuts instituted by the Koch-supported Governor. Back in another flyover state, there are helped wanted signs everywhere and the Utah economy is booming. The difference is not accidental.
After I returned to Kenya, Bloomberg News published an article entitled How Utah is Keeping the American Dream Alive. The writer begins by confessing, “There’s no getting around it: For a girl raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Salt Lake City is a very weird place.” She then proceeds to detail how the state government is collaborating with Latter Day Saints agencies to provide social protection for the poor while providing job training addressing local demand for skilled and semi-skilled labour. The formula is generating Scandinavian levels of social mobility in a state with a small but committed civil service and the country’s lowest per capita expenditure on education.
FACING AN UNEXCEPTIONAL FUTURE?
In 2017, I found a country not so different from the one I left on the brink of electing Barack Obama. Communication was efficient and uncomplicated; people were without exception polite, helpful, and friendly. The malls were filled with new versions of the usual stuff, and if you shopped smart most of it was much cheaper than it would cost in Kenya. Smoking reefer was laissez faire or just legal. The junk food was healthier, and the country was awash with innovative ideas and creative content. East Africa has changed so much more during the interim. But appearances can be deceptive.
Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going. Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right
The United States is a highly dualistic nation held together by a strong political centre. The nation’s political trajectory has consistently zigzagged between right and left of centre over the course of my lifetime. This makes for a lot of contradictions, but also for a more purple Republic over the long run. The transition from Obama to Trump was consistent with this dialectic, which is also a source of American democracy’s distinctive pattern of continuous change and incremental reform. President Trump is the latest exhibit in this tradition, but there are caveats.
The problem is not that Trump’s diagnoses of the nation’s problems were not on target. His vision for making America Great Again, in contrast, is informed by nostalgia, special interests, and backward-looking solutions. Trump’s proposed budget and tax cuts will injure the less educated and economically insecure voters who flocked to his rallies. The jobs at the Carrier factory Trump “saved” from being outsourced to Mexico are to be automated. Many elements of the economic nationalism he showcased on the stump are already in remission, and he is retreating from the foreign policy positions he used to whip up the crowds. He turned the government’s Middle East foreign policy over to the Saudis in exchange for a large order of weapons.
The future of the middle class is uncertain. The accelerating pace of machine learning and artificial intelligence may bring about the economic singularity within a generation. The country I grew up in was about exploration, problem solving, and optimising potential as we moved forward. Now I sense that for many Americans, the future is as murky as the Great Salt Lake on a cloudy winter day.
EVIL WINNERS WHO INVESTED IN PSEUDO-CHARITIES
The Koch Brothers and their friends tried to manufacture a new political culture based on libertarian values, but are really perpetuating the same financial industrial royalty presidents from Jefferson to Eisenhower warned us about. The likes of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are following the tradition of other American philanthropists guided by noblesse oblige; the super wealthy populating the alt-right are evil winners who invested in pseudo-charities dedicated to advancing their own narrow interests.
Things were humming along until an outsider crashed the party.
Now the Trump presidency is unravelling in the face of problems largely of his own making. Our institutions are engaged, and my only hope is Trump & Co stay in office long enough to take down the whole prevaricating, alternative fact, toxic waste emitting and hate-mongering circus. We have seen worse, and I don’t begrudge the sincere citizens who played their trump card on the Donald having their day in the sun. But now it’s time to sort out the unprecedented crisis of inequality facing capitalism everywhere. Truth will make a comeback, and there is a world of well-informed and innovative solutions out there to get things going.
Once again, it’s looking like my African friends got it right.
THE BATTLE FOR KENYA’S SOUL: Will history absolve them?
Perhaps the timing was wrong. Or just right. Soon after the Miguna Miguna arrest-and-deportation circus began, I opened an autobiography I had just been gifted. The book, Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles, by Duncan Ndegwa, came highly recommended. Little did I know what I was in for.
Duncan Ndegwa was Kenya’s first Head of Civil Service and its second Central Bank Governor. He was in the sanctum sanctorum in those early years. His story promised to be insightful, if not tantalising, revealing the many struggles Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, faced. But it made me angry.
I wasn’t sure why I got angrier and angrier after I got past the diversionary chapters on culture. But I did. Eventually, I scanned through my notes and scribbled them in pencil on one of the blank pages at the back of the book. Then it all made sense. I was reading the past while it was happening in my present. If the past was ever a prologue, Kenya in 2018 is it. We are stuck in a destructive cycle.
Quick, try placing these two statements in the last five decades of Kenya’s history:
- He openly warned the media against misusing press freedom to “misinform the public”.
- He was charged with treason, which was later changed to the lesser crime of incitement.
The first entry is from a speech by Tom Mboya in 1962, but those words have been used many times since. They could as well have been said by Argwings Kodhek, or his boss Jomo. Or in 1979, when newspapers were ordered not to publish an opinion poll. Or by Kalonzo Musyoka in 1990, when he filed a motion to ban a newspaper from covering Parliament proceedings. They could even be taken from John Michuki’s infamous “if you rattle a snake” retort.
The second statement refers to the short-lived treason charge against Maina Kamanda in 2001. He had said that President Daniel arap Moi should be shot in bed if he tried to extend his term. The charge of treason, the crime of betraying one’s country, has been a constant threat against outspoken opposition MPs since independence. Whether applied in 1971 or in 2018, this weighty threat is still firmly in place.
The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
You’ve heard both phrases lately, and you will hear them again. These are what the academic Joyce Nyairo calls “the grammar of the state”. The way the state speaks with those it governs has barely evolved over the last six decades. That’s because although the faces have changed, the essence of the state hasn’t; it hasn’t even kept up with those it governs.
Tyranny of the accursed
In many ways, the last decade has felt like a marathon through the first 30 years after independence. The son wants to eradicate the same things that his father promised to focus on 55 years ago. Detention without trial is back. We have launched wars on human rights, a new constitution, devolution, and Somalia. The concerted effort to reset to the KANU code is in full gear. We are back to essentially a one-party state with a growing greed and hold on all arms of government. We have the makings of a Sun King who can do no wrong, and in whose wisdom and undying love for our wellbeing we must trust.
There’s a tough-talking Interior Cabinet Minister with a disdain for the law and basic decency. Our maize scandals are now an annual thing and pilfering from the state is now a legitimate way to join the upper ranks of society. A fake political rivalry continues to eclipse real social and economic issues. Politics has become entertainment in all but name, an expensive escape from realities. We are now numb to theft of land, taxes, and even borrowed money, in this dark comedy.
This reality is not accidental; it was the entire purpose of the creation of the Kenyan state. In his treatise on this, Darius Okolla says that this founding ethos of the colony never went away. In fact, in the last sixty years and four presidents later, it is even more entrenched. Now as then, the needs of a few appear as the needs of the many, as do their problems. “Personal problems” are not the same as the “you” in “security starts with you”.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it. The problem is their myopic view of what the Kenyan state could be, as becomes clear in Ndegwa’s memoirs. The men around Jomo deified him, and even when he was senile and dying, shielded him like one would a monarch. It wasn’t Jomo the man, or the icon, that they worshipped, but the head of this zombie elite. He wasn’t just actively refusing to build a formidable Kenyan state; he was leading the way in destroying it.
A constant argument I’ve heard is that it was important for Jomo and Moi to rule as they did because they had inherited a traumatised society. The argument is that such a society is fragile and needs a firm hand to guide it through the healing process. It is the dangerous justification for “benevolent dictatorship”. That firmer hand promised repeatedly by Jubilee mandarins before and after the last election is a slippery slope. It is the same one with which the opposition handles its internal elections. This argument is back in our news diet, based on the same laws and ideals. What’s missing from it is that this “firmer hand” traumatised society in more ways than the colonial unit had, more so because the black aristocracy had no direction or plan beyond acquisition.
Publicly, and in such personal records as memoirs, this elite class continuously pretends it worked for the good of the country. But it turns out that our definition of country differs. For them it was a running plantation that requires little or no input, where a slave working class is either a vote, a weapon, a taxpayer, or all three. To keep this intact, the greatest inheritance Uhuru’s fathers left him was an assortment of oppressive colonial laws. They retained that same colonial attitude to dissent, peasant revolutions, and oaths. Laws on treason, sedition and secession remained untouched. Some were even shored up and legitimised as necessary, such as the Emergency laws.
Of the many adjectives Okolla uses to describe the Kenyan elite, the one that sticks out the most, is “zombie”. The image of the undead it conjures is a reminder that while elites may try to extricate themselves from the society they actively ruin, they cannot detach themselves from it.
Inherited from a monarchy, these laws were designed to protect and deify the throne. They protected their perceived God-given right to rule, and fenced off the rituals, like oathing, that even attempted to challenge this. For example, the law used to arrest Miguna Miguna was passed in 1955 to fight the peasant irredentism that was the Mau Mau. Another interesting fight in the last five years was whether governors could fly official flags on their cars. In a pseudo-monarchy, the symbols of power, such as flags and oaths, must be protected to legitimise the power of the few, even among themselves. Yet that legitimacy remains shaky at best.
The identity problem
Two significant events will take place between now and 2020. The first is a census, in 2019, that will no doubt be assessed more for its political meaning than its socio-economic importance. We will be on the upper layers of 51 million people by the end of this year, with a net gain of one person every 25 seconds. Most of this population is under 25, and with a life expectancy of 62 years, is not even halfway through its lifespan.
Yet, given our deliberate and structured apathy to the destructive parts of our history, it will not be a surprise if the same conversations are still around in 40 years. Then, on June 11, 2020, most of mainland Kenya will mark a century since it was carved out as a colony. The 12-mile coastal strip will follow two months later, and the north five years after that. With that, the entire patchwork that is the Kenyan state will be a century-old. But the Kenyans within this boardroom experiment will still be struggling with what exactly it means to be Kenyan. Kenyanness is still a weapon, as shown by the cases of Ernsteine Kiano, Sheikh Khalid Balala, Miguna Miguna and Mohammed Sirat. All four found themselves “unKenyaned” for their personal and political stands, as if being born in a particular place (or married in, in the case of Ernsteine) should not be the foundation of all rights and inheritances.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things. It is a blood relative who, after years of self-imposed exile, returns to the family fold when he’s diagnosed with a terminal disease. His reason? Because he needs his people to bury him.
In Ndegwa’s book, there’s a way he talks about the Shifta War that is both condescending and revealing. First, the state of emergency that allowed Jomo and Moi to rule the North-East by decree was illegal. Ndegwa says as much, but cheekily defends it as a necessary breach of the law. Second, there is an appalling distance in the way he talks about an attempt to deport all Somalis from Eastleigh, and his failure to follow an order from his boss in a related event. The worst thing about this “othering” is that it is not unique to him or to the Jomo administration; it is a tool used by politicians even today.
The future of the Kenyan experiment
There is no Kenyan identity to reclaim. It has never existed, and there’s a possibility it might never exist. There are layers, yes, between officialdom and what we actually are and want to be.
I encountered this properly when I wrote “Nicholas Biwott was Not a Good Man” in response to the flurry of hagiographies that followed his death. The things in that obituary were common knowledge, but they were missing from the most read obituaries. My article was followed by statements like “Africans don’t speak ill of the dead”, which is a lie. My subject had himself been obsessed with his legacy, probably being the first among Kenya’s elite who paid to have the Internet scrub off any bad stories about him. If anything, Biwott epitomised the murk of the zombie elite. For him, the problem wasn’t that he wasn’t contrite about the lives he had ruined in his quest for wealth and power, but how history remembered him. He escalated (and demanded) the official silence we somehow now believe was a precolonial thing. We collectively censor “bad” stories about public figures, in much the same way that sexual predators roamed Hollywood for decades, unpunished.
Our zombie elite, united only in greed, has ensured that it remains the main cast. Their whims and fights steal newspaper acreage from the people. It is not just about publicity; it is part of their innate desire to live forever, to be “remembered well” even when they have done bad things.
But the problem is that when official histories are written, people like him will get away with their contribution to the stagnation of the Kenyan state. Their concerted efforts to keep our identity in stasis, by both feeding off the land and actively trying to shape how such stories survive, will be lost in the threads of history. The elite of the day will actually promote this, not because of any other reason but a desire to sustain this destructive form of memory. It will still permeate through our social networks as if death, by itself the only certainty, somehow cleanses one of all the evil one has done.
In The Burden of History, American historian Hayden V. White wrote that “…we require a history that will educate us to discontinuity more than ever before; for discontinuity, disruption, and chaos is our lot.” There’s nothing like an objective history, White argued, because while historical facts are scientifically verifiable, stories are not. And societies are built on stories. If you control a society’s stories, whether through censorship, tyranny, litigation or official narratives, you control its future.
Here, the resurgence of the KANU state is not as scary as it should be because we are eternal optimists. Because in the way stories are distilled, present-day problems are new and the solutions for them haven’t been tried before. Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation. We have learnt to accept the dichotomy between what makes it to official history, which includes media and eulogies, and what we discuss outside of it. This allows us to live double lives, and to drive our society further up the pedestal from which it will eventually collapse.
Our institutionalised amnesia is not accidental, and neither is our official silence. But in our homes, and in bars and next to church noticeboards, we whisper to each other about the true state of the nation.
In a discussion I had about Ndegwa’s memoirs, an acquaintance told me I was being harsh on the old man. I offered that the purpose of memoirs is not just to tell one’s story for one’s legacy, but to fit it in a slot in the sands of time. Its purpose is to invite us into a journey that is not our own, to see and experience a different life. It is not just that we might learn something about the author, but that we might also learn something about ourselves. What I learnt about us from that book is that we are stuck in a cycle that can’t be sustained.
That was primarily why Walking in Kenyatta’s Struggles pissed me off so much. In Ndegwa’s boastful stories about how he and others deliberately undermined devolution, subverted the constitution and ostracised entire regions, I saw the men and women around Uhuru Kenyatta today. When they are aging and obsessed about their legacy, they will try to justify turning Kenya into the tyranny it is swiftly becoming. Memoirs will speak of the common good that is national security, and why ignoring court orders was the only choice. They will celebrate the handshakes and the failed projects. People who are actively destroying this society today will become “statesmen” and “stateswomen”.
And the taxpayers in this jua kali nation will let this be. In the coming years, they might even replace them in the list of great nation builders.
But will history absolve them?
HOW TO LOOT AN AFRICAN COUNTRY: Will unsustainable debts lead to state capture in Uganda?
In January 2018, at the annual Makerere University Tumusiime-Mutebile Centre of Excellence (TMCE) Business Dialogue, the Ugandan Minister of Internal Affairs, Ruhakana Rugunda, stated that Uganda was now in a position to finance 70% of its budget. However, despite the rosy declaration by the National Resistance Movement stalwart, all indications point to an economy in free fall and one not poised to make major economic breakthroughs.
Basic healthcare remains a serious challenge: despite a commitment made with several other African countries to allocating 15% of their budgets to the health sector, Uganda allocates less than 10% (just over 6% this year) of its budget to health. A cholera outbreak in western Uganda in late 2017 signaled yet another drug stock-out. There were reports from the central region of a lack of drugs to treat hepatitis-B. A major drug and consumables (e.g. gloves) shortage was also reported in Mbale in eastern Uganda in January 2018. The Mbale Regional Referral Hospital, which serves a catchment area of four million people, had received no drug consignments for two months.
Then in February this year, the Parliamentary Accounts Committee announced that a loan taken in 2016, in part to pay for drugs bought by the National Medical Stores, was not in fact passed on to the organisations for which it was borrowed. The Speaker of Parliament ordered a special audit to establish the use of the money.
At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
The Secretary to the Treasury, Keith Muhakanizi, has so far explained that the funds were used for general budget support required in the last fiscal year: to plug a UGX 288 billion revenue shortfall, supplementary expenditure of UGX156 billion, and to substitute more expensive domestic borrowing amounting to 280 billion Uganda shillings.
Parliament is up in arms because when approval for the loan for budget support was first sought, it was rejected. Following a revised request emphasising the need for essential drugs, the request was approved. However, Parliament says it was duped as the beneficiaries were never advised about the arrival of the funds.
Muhakanizi is adamant that the money was banked in the government’s consolidated fund, along with all other sources of funds, and disbursed in the usual manner. One source says it is clear from the loan documents that it was never tied to the purchase of drugs. Furthermore, it appears that Parliament approved the loan on verbal presentations as to its usage, not on the loan documents. If this is so (the Auditor General is still investigating), then Parliament has revealed itself to be negligent in scrutinising and approving loans.
The underlying problem appears to be that, even with the PTA loan, there were simply insufficient funds for government business and the Treasury was unable to disburse all the money required by all sectors, even for essential expenditure like drugs. (Non-essential expenditure seems easier. It will be remembered that in 2016 a gratuity of UGX6.2 billion was paid by the President to 42 celebrity public servants as a reward for carrying out their ordinary duties. The Secretary to the Treasury was part of this privileged group.)
Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans.
The cash crisis persisted in 2018. At the beginning of the year, news filtered through that universal secondary education was being scaled back, with the facility being closed in some 800 private schools that have been implementing it through public-private partnerships. Over 200,000 students are expected to be affected.
This is not surprising as there has been a shortfall in expected revenues of UGX300 billion in the first half of the current fiscal year, according to the Finance Minister, Matia Kasaija. The shortfall is expected to double by the end of the year. By way of explanation, Kasaija claims that the budget estimates for 2017/1018 were wrong in some cases and there have been unexpected expenditures in others. The upshot, says Kasaija, is that ministries, departments and agencies have put in requests for an extra UGX2.3 trillion. This is needed for salaries, pensions, security and social assistance grants to low-income households, energy, as well as for the development budget. So far, only 38% (870 billion) of the excess expenditure has been approved in supplementary budgets.
Speaking of energy, Uganda is also experiencing a shortage of petrol. As with all fuel shortages, explanations include the refurbishment of infrastructure for the storage and transport of fuel, limited international supplies, delays in the construction of a pipeline from Kenya to Uganda, Kenyans, and myriad other excuses. What is not clear is why Uganda’s statutory fuel reserves are not replenished and in fact reserved for such emergencies. Why are the fuel reserves sold on the open market?
At the time of writing, news of the Uganda Police’s budget woes broke. The latest quarterly treasury release of UGX137 billion is sufficient only to fund operations at the Inspector General of Police’s headquarters and in three administrative regions, namely, Kampala Metropolitan, East Kyoga, Sipi and East Rwenzori. This means other operations, including criminal investigations and intelligence in Northern, Central and much of Western Uganda, are not funded. The Inspector General of Police has explained that operations will be rotated i.e. the next release will be used on operations in the areas that lost out this time.
Even though food is provided for, the association of police suppliers has suspended supplies while it demands payment of UGX 33 billion in arrears. This figure almost exactly matches the amount the police expects to spend on tear gas alone in a year. Total police arrears amount to UGX125 billion or a quarter of the annual budget. Suppliers have claimed that they are often threatened when pushing for payment.
The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
Primary health, education and transport – all designated as priority areas for development – are affected by what can only be the slow-motion collapse of the Ugandan economy. Contrary to Rugunda’s misleading claims in January and talk of an “economic take-off”, the country is in fact struggling to finance 47% of its budget through revenues, according to Parliament Watch, an independent NGO; the other 53% is to be financed by more loans. Foreign exchange fluctuations and further falls in commodity prices could make the situation worse.
Konkola, Hambantota and other stories
The trouble with loans to administratively weak countries and to full-on captured states is that they are irresponsibly used and are unsustainable. It is also public knowledge that significant portions of public funds, which would include loans and grants made to the government of Uganda, if not squandered are stolen outright.
Unsustainable debt will eventually lead to a loss of Uganda’s ability to even generate income. Prime examples of this dynamic would be the Konkola Copper Mines in Zambia, Hambantota Harbour in Sri Lanka and Mozambique’s liquid natural gas deposits.
In 2014, under pressure from the World Bank to repay its debt, the Government of Zambia sought to sell Konkola, Zambia’s largest copper mines. The price was set at US$400 million, presumably after professional evaluation of Konkola’s potential revenues. The Indian entrepreneur Anil Agarwal who bought Konkola tells the story of how he did not even have US$4 million at his disposal when he approached the Zambian government but “took a chance” and offered US$25 million for the mines. There may be some details missing from his account, but he claims that some months later, when he had forgotten about his offer, he received a telephone call from Zambia and a voice said, “The mines are yours.”
He then found himself in the presence of President Mwanawasa and later the Zambian Parliament, being hailed as a great man. Addressing an investment conference in Bangalore in 2014, Agarwal boasted that Konkola had earned his company, Vedanta, between US$500 million and US$1 billion annually since he bought it – more than even its original sale price.
Another example is from Hambantota on the southern tip of Sri Lanka, which derives from an ancient civilization noted for its irrigation and prosperous salt production industry. The harbour is the site of a port built in 2010 with a loan from China. A feasibility study for international ship-building, repair and freight services looked good on paper. However, like Uganda’s budgets, the feasibility study did not pan out and Sri Lanka defaulted on the loan repayments. Under the terms of the agreement, the harbour became the property of China for the next 99 years. There was an outcry, of course. Issues such as the initial viability of the loan were raised. Readjustments followed and now the harbour is a joint venture between China and Sri Lanka. Joint ventures managed by economic predators are no more profitable than unsustainable loans.
The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour.
More recently, in 2017, Mozambique lost future revenue from newly discovered natural gas deposits when the government defaulted on secret loans of US$2 billion. There too, a dodgy feasibility study showed that the loan was sustainable but it turns out it will take Mozambique ten years and most of the gas income to cover the loan and penalties for defaulting. The military and fishing equipment that it was ostensibly used for was being searched for by an international audit firm. The fishing fleet bought with some of the funds was rusting in dock as the business proved to be a loss-maker from the start. The government admitted that the fishing project was, in fact, a front for military acquisitions.
Of the many accounts of the Mozambican debt crisis, Ugandans and citizens of other developing countries should at least read the one by Bodo Ellmers of the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt, if only to form an idea of how our own oil discoveries could be squandered even before commercial production begins.
Naturally, after following developments in Zambia, Sri Lanka and Mozambique, one becomes nervous about Uganda’s situation. The existence and terms of loans – the properties mortgaged – remain a state secret. It is possible that when (not if) Uganda defaults, public assets or whole districts could become the property of the People’s Republic of China, just like Hambantota harbour. Chinese extractors are already mining the Lweera Wetland for sand at an industrial rate. The question is, could this official departure from national environmental policy be part of a secret concession sold to the Chinese by the usual suspects?
Is there a danger that title to or rights in other state assets will be or have been transferred to someone like Anil Agarwal or the Guptas, now that the latter have been flushed out of South Africa? It is a reasonable question, patriotic even, given that Uganda is a veteran of cartoonish business deals.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated.
A recent Department of Justice statement revealed the modus operandi for looting state assets employed by predator “investors” and their local agents when it charged one Patrick Ho with bribing the Foreign Minister, Sam Kutesa, in return for assorted business favours for a Chinese state entity. These costly concessions included, but were not limited to, direct access to the President (resulting in) extended tax holidays, free land by the square kilometer, forests, transfers of public machinery and plants on promises of future payments after they become profitable, and so on. It is in the public interest that Parliament investigates the sustainability of Uganda’s entire debt burden and what the country stands to lose in the event of a default.
Restitution of control
The process of recovery from this parlous state will not be easy. Taking South Africa as an example, a state under the control of regime stalwarts and foreign divestors – the Gupta brothers – it took the constant coordinated efforts of the Economic Freedom Fighters to oust ex-President Jacob Zuma by: a) keeping the public informed about the inner workings of the regime; and b) naming the perpetrators. Working within the law, the EFF rejected attempts to normalise state capture by repeatedly bringing government business in Parliament to a halt. The resulting international spotlight on South Africa made Zuma’s position untenable. He resigned days after he was unable to make a last State of the Nation address.
Uganda is still in the normalisation-of-fraud phase during which the illusion of a country on the move is perpetuated. Increasingly elaborate state functions, like the Budget Speech, the State of the Nation address and Independence and Heroes day celebrations belie the desperate realities.
Meanwhile, envoys from complicit countries continue to make high-profile visits to Ugandan government officials, even those implicated in financial scandals. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund churn out evaluation reports deliberately fabricating achievements and downplaying the impact of failures in administrative and economic reforms. Concrete examples can be found in the evaluation of the Economic and Financial Management Programme, the Public Service Performance Enhancement Programme and the Education Sector Adjustment Credit. 
Until the Ugandan Parliament recognises the capture of the state for what it is, and by whom, and becomes serious about scrutinising public debt, Uganda is going nowhere.
 For records of misleading World Bank reports on Ugandan projects, see Mary Serumaga, The case for repudiation of Uganda’s public debt, 8 December 2017 by Mary Serumaga published by the Committee for Repudiation of Illegitimate Debt.
WADING INTO TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth
*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.
An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.
The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.
Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.
In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy. If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!
The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.
How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!
This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.
Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.
Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.
There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?
Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”
A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.
Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.
Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.
Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.
In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.
But can we rely on the youth to deliver?
Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:
The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.
Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing. He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.
We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”
According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute, Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi. Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.
It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.
Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.
The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.
In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu. But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.
Where Are Those Songs? Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:
Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […] Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.
Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.
In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:
Chilled body but not my soul…
We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.
I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.
Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.
Let us demand the dreams of our children.
Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.
Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA
Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.
Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337
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