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WOMEN IN POLITICS: Not Just Pretty Faces

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Sex and Politics

The Churchill Show that airs on NTV network is the biggest comedy stage in Kenya. The comedy format show has performed consistently as the highest viewed TV show on Sundays on GeoPoll ratings across the networks, with estimates of 2 million viewers. On the evening of 16th April 2017, the affable host Daniel Ndambuki, known by his moniker Churchill, had special guests. A series of high chairs were arranged on the front stage and strobe lights lit up the background. An excited crowd ushered in the four guests who were aspiring for the women’s representative position in Nairobi County.

The aspirants were led by the incumbent women’s representative for Nairobi County, Rachel Shebesh, and included contenders Esther Passaris, Karen Nyamu and Millicent Omanga. They took their positions on the high stools that mimicked an American town hall TV debate format to the loud cheers of the rival supporters. The Churchill show is an entertainment show that does not take itself too seriously, so no one was expecting a serious gender policy discussion. The first question was a soft ball thrown to the aspirants:

“What was your most memorable Easter holiday?”

Churchill tried to get serious with questions on the policy priorities in the first 100 days upon election and the challenges female politicians encounter on the campaign trail. Eventually he rounded it off with the burning question of the night:

Do women love each other? Do guys love each other?”

It was play on an old stereotype: women are their own worst enemies. But the aspirants challenged the sexist context of the question. Shebesh’s response was sharp and quick.

“Yes we do and we are tired of this old line that women do not support each other”.

Ever since it was enacted in the new 2010 Constitution, the women’s representative position in the National Assembly has been marked by tired old stereotypes.

The women’s rep position was introduced to address the underrepresentation of Kenyan women in politics. It was enshrined with a two-third gender rule aimed at ensuring women would have a legally mandated say in the country’s political affairs through affirmative action. The membership of the Kenyan National Assembly now consists of forty-seven women, each elected by the registered voters of the counties.

The run-up to the political party nomination provided a good indicator of the attitudes held by Kenyans on social media. Campaign billboards were deemed too sexy or cheesy, depending on who you talked to.

But despite the new political dispensation, media coverage of women politicians has been slow to adjust. The media has prioritised their looks over their policies and put immense pressure on female candidates to be seen as likable. The run-up to the political party nomination provided a good indicator of the attitudes held by Kenyans on social media. Campaign billboards were deemed too sexy or cheesy, depending on who you talked to. The gossip sites played up the physical appearances of women’s reps by lining them up on a beauty comparison ladder. Campaign slogans that would have passed as a cool identity reference for Nairobi’s urban youth swag, came under sharp criticism. Aspirants were accused of glamming up to draw voter attention instead of selling their policies.

Not that any of the male politicians were reading out their manifestos. Parody campaign posters of sexualised models began doing the social media comedic rounds. Sex appeal became a hot topic of fluff content sites and the tag flower girls turned into a euphemism for the women’s position.

Political campaigns are all about swaying public perceptions but those perceptions are constantly shifting. A good example was the flak that met the campaign slogans. Adopting Sheng, Nairobi’s urban youth language of choice, and appealing to their touch points is a standard political branding strategy. Rachel Shebesh upped her street credentials in 2013 claiming the title “Manzi wa Nai” (Girl from Nairobi) and she won the vote. For the 2017 election, she toned it down to “Mama Nai, Jenga Nai” (Nairobi Mother, Build Nairobi), perhaps cognisant of her seniority when compared to the younger aspirants. Millicent Omanga went for the slogan Supa na Works” (Beautiful Woman who Works). Bernadette Wangui Ng’ang’a, the nominated member of Nairobi County Assembly, hit the campaign trail with the slogan, “Ms B Tosha”(Miss B is enough). Nairobi County Assembly member Beatrice Kwamboka, formerly of the Mountain View Ward in Westlands constituency, went by the slogan “Mrembo wa Jiji” (The Beauty of the City). Karen Nyamu was labelled “Bae wa Nairobi” (Babe of Nairobi) by her admirers and she suffered image nightmares before her campaign strategists put forward the more kosher “Wakili na Mahustler” (Lawyer for the Hustlers), playing up her professional credentials as a lawyer. The message of the critics seemed clear: to be be a women’s representative you have to play the femininity card.

It did not escape keen observers that male candidates are expected to play up their masculinity attributes without the consequences that face female candidates. Every woman entering politics braces for gender bias and stereotypes that are deeply steeped in Kenya’s male-dominated political tradition. The entertainment media storylines and the social media reaction perpetually reduce the women’s rep to a beauty parade, and the level of scrutiny of a female candidates’ moral character is harsher. The female politician would be crucified for the slightest social transgressions where men get away with a slap on the wrist.

The objectification of the female candidate in public office is an occupational hazard, especially when one is perceived as good looking. It is what women’s rep Wambui Nganga termed as having to endure the stereotype of beauty without brains.

This mistreatment of women in politics is as old as the republic. A female politician has to fulfil the social requirements of the male gaze to succeed in this dirty game.

All of Nairobi’s women’s reps were drawn into defensive positions battling against character perceptions that were based on their appearances and rumours. Rachel Shebesh’s marriage was subject of running gossip mills. Esther Passaris’s battles with her estranged husband have been played out in the public court. Karen Nyamu endured repeated sexual innuendo and at one point had to defend herself against a cheeky mistaken identity clip of a Rwandese video vixen whose sole focus was a prominent derriere.

The online Nairobi News had a blazing headline: Beauties for Women Rep seat who Nairobi men can’t stop ogling- Photos!! Tuko.co.ke went with the click bait: , “Meet the beautiful women’s rep aspirants everyone is talking about (photos).

Columnist, Njoki Chege, who pens the popular City Girl column that runs in the Saturday Nation, called the women’s aspirants pathetic and did not hide her disdain for campaign posters that positioned them for the male gaze.

This mistreatment of women in politics is as old as the republic. A female politician has to fulfil the social requirements of the male gaze to succeed in this dirty game. The picture-perfect female politician has to be modelled in the image of Mother Teresa – known for her compassion and respected for her quiet resilience amidst criticism. The vocal woman who raises her voice immediately earns the masculine tag “Iron Lady” and only earns respect when she has proven to be as “strong as a man”.

Women in Kenyan Politics: Running the gauntlet

The women’s rep position, seen through the cultural patriarchal lenses and an established male gaze, is deemed a lesser political office solely because the occupant is female. It is not common knowledge that a women’s rep has similar functions to an MP and, unlike an MP who only represents a constituency, she represents an entire county. It is obvious that the role of the women’s rep is yet to be understood.

In 2013, a record 86 women parliamentarians joined the National Assembly, a historical achievement by any measure, 47 as women representatives from every county, 16 elected as Members of the National Assembly (MNA), 5 nominated MNAs and 18 nominated Senators. They were not just filling the numbers; many these women had taken up leadership roles and asserted their influence on state affairs. The most prominent was Joyce Laboso, who rose to the rank of Deputy Speaker, the first female deputy speaker in Kenya’s parliament. In her wake are the Senate Majority Chief Whip, Beatrice Elachi of the Jubilee party and the Minority Deputy Chief Whip Janet Ongera of CORD on the opposition’s side. Not to forget the 8 women listed as committee chairwomen.

The Mzalendo website that tallies parliamentary participation, places women’s representation in parliament at 21%, which though short of the constitutional threshold of 33%, is an incredible testament to work of the pioneering African feminists who fought for the right to representation and equal treatment of women in all sectors of society.

There is more to be celebrated than denigrated but only if one remains aware of the history of the women’s movement and the sacrifices of the pioneers. The pioneer leaders of the feminist movement in Kenya bore a heavy cross in their individual attempts to pave the way for numerical presence of women in the National Assembly.

Between 1963 and 1969, there were no women representatives in the Kenyan parliament. The first woman to be elected as MP was Grace Onyango of Kisumu Town, who was a member of the second Parliament in 1969. In the last ten Parliaments, Kenya has had a total of 75 women, 50 of whom were elected while the other 25 were nominated. Therefore, the leap in representation spurred by the new constitution cannot be underscored enough. It is a testament to the steady work of various actors in the progressive feminist movement whose contributions never made the front pages.

It is not common knowledge that a women’s rep has similar functions to an MP and, unlike an MP who only represents a constituency, she represents an entire county. It is obvious that the role of the women’s rep is yet to be understood.

The history of women agitating for political leadership is a lost chapter in Kenya’s democratic evolution and shift towards inclusivity for marginalised groups. The contribution of women parliamentarians, whether elected or nominated, has a long historical precedence and we have to look back to understand the distance that been covered. For women in leadership, it has never been a question of competence but rather gender prejudice.

Nairobi’s most glamourous years, the Golden Age, when it was known as the Green City in the Sun and the safari capital of the world, was under Margaret Kenyatta, the daughter of the first president Jomo Kenyatta. Nairobi in the 1970s was hailed as a modern and efficient cosmopolitan African city, one that Julius Nyerere of Tanzania described as “good as going to London”. Margaret Kenyatta served as Mayor of Nairobi from 1970 to 1976. Before that she was elected as Councillor for Dagoretti Ward in Nairobi in 1963 where she served for four consecutive terms.

She was the first African woman to become the mayor of Kenya’s capital city but she was not the first woman to be elected mayor in Kenya. That honour is reserved for Grace Onyango, a school teacher at Kisumu Union Primary. Grace Onyango was the first woman councillor of Kisumu Central ward before she become Kisumu Mayor following the death of the incumbent Mathias Ondiek in 1965. She was elected mayor of Kisumu in 1967 and as Kisumu Town MP in 1969, making her the first woman elected to the Kenyan parliament – the single woman in a club of 158 male parliamentarians. Grace Onyango also served as the first woman Secretary General of the Luo Union (East Africa).

The 1970s saw the emergence of Dr. Julia Ojiambo, who became MP for Busia South in 1974. It was also the decade of a phenomenal force in the name of Chelagat Mutai who got elected in 1973 as the youngest Member of Parliament in Kenya’s history at 24 years of age. Mutai, a two-term MP, was a fierce critic of the Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi regimes; she embodied integrity in a corrupted system.

The 1980s would see the rise of Hon. Phoebe Asiyo and Grace Ogot. Pheobe Asiyo, who also held the distinction as the first African Chairperson of the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation, was elected to Parliament to represent Karachuonyo in 1980 and held the seat till 1983. Hon. Asiyo was elected back to Parliament in 1992 in the multiparty system and served until 1997. Grace Ogot, who had already earned fame as a renowned storyteller and post-colonial feminist writer, entered Parliament in 1984 as MP for Gem after a by-election following the murder of the sitting MP, Horace Ongili Owiti. She was the only woman assistant minister in the cabinet of the then President Moi.

There was also Nyiva Mwenda who served three times as MP, the first time in 1974 and then returning after a long sojourn in the multiparty era to win the Kitui West constituency seat in 1992 and 2002. Nyiva Mwenda holds the distinction of being the first woman to serve as Minister for Culture and Social Services under Moi in 1992. The late 1990s into the early 2000s would introduce the formidable characters of Martha Karua, Beth Mugo and Wangari Maathai, who came to embody the greater feminist struggle of gender equity in governance.

Without an acknowledgement of the contribution of the pioneers, the two-third gender rule could be mistaken for tokenism, which it is not. The road to this representation has been long and hard. The efforts of a collective of concerned women drawn from the legal and academic fields and from civil society and NGOs increased gender sensitivity and awareness that eventually paid off in a gender-sensitive new constitution.

The Mzalendo website that tallies parliamentary participation, places women’s representation in parliament at 21%, which though short of the constitutional threshold of 33%, is an incredible testament to work of the pioneering African feminists who fought for the right to representation and equal treatment of women in all sectors of society.

The momentum towards the liberation of women began in earnest following a United Nations General Assembly proclamation in 1972. It was at this assembly that the year 1975 was chosen as the start of the International Women’s Year, back in an era where no one thought an all-women conference would be taken seriously. The first UN Conference on Women in 1975 was hosted by Mexico City and established the period between 1975 and 1985 as the Women’s Decade. The close of that decade would be commemorated in the third UN Conference on Women held in Nairobi in 1985.

The outcome of the conference would be the Nairobi Forward- Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women. The Nairobi Conference declared that gender equality was part and parcel of human activity, not an isolated or fringe issue, and that it was necessary for women to participate in all spheres, not only those relating to gender. The notable contributors of that decade were renowned feminists such as Thelma Awori, then deputy director of UNIFEM and chief of the Africa section and Professor Micere Mugo, who used poetry that drew from a feminist perspective to raise awareness and consciousness about the women’s movement. Other prominent names in the women’s movement in Kenya were Eddah Gachukia, Julia Ojiambo, Phoebe Asiyo, Wangari Maathai, Jane Kiano, Margaret Kenyatta, Maria Nzomo and Wambui Otieno.

Many of these highly educated women would often be accused of elitism. The Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO), then known as an NGO dealing with issues of women’s rights and gender equity, would be responsible for changing the perception of the women’s movement from just another elitist agenda to a grassroots movement. MYWO gained ground with its social welfare policies that targeted hundreds of small self-help groups in rural communities. In the 1980s the MYWO suffered an image problem after it became part of the ruling KANU party’s mobilisation agenda and a conduit for the populist propaganda that defined the Moi regime.

The real structural change of the political system began to be felt in the 1990s, largely as a direct result of the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action that was adopted unanimously by 189 countries. It was an agenda for women’s empowerment and the key global policy document on gender equality.

There is more to be celebrated than denigrated but only if one remains aware of the history of the women’s movement and the sacrifices of the pioneers. The pioneer leaders of the feminist movement in Kenya bore a heavy cross in their individual attempts to pave the way for numerical presence of women in the National Assembly.

The lobbying and mobilisation for affirmative action began in the 1990s when the push for proportional representation became a global agenda. Kenyan women organised their numbers to demand comprehensive constitutional reform to anchor the feminist struggle in the constitution. The first major light at the end of this long tunnel would be seen in 1996 following a motion moved in parliament by Hon. Charity Ngilu for the implementation the Beijing Platform for Action as envisioned after the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995 that served as a roadmap for the achievement of gender equity. Of particular concern to the male parliamentarians was a gender quota that was roundly rejected. The motion did not see the light of day.

The next woman to take a stab at it was Hon. Pheobe Asiyo, who tabled the Affirmative Action Bill in Parliament in 1997, which was also rejected. Hon. Beth Mugo would face the same fate in the year 2000 when she attempted to lobby for an increase in representation of women in Parliament. Concerted lobbying would take feminist activists another five years before the affirmative action agenda became a part of the draft constitution that was rejected at a charged National Referendum in 2005. The activists went back to the trenches, making a stronger case that would see affirmative action became a legally binding principle in the 2010 constitution.

The dream of a critical mass of women in parliament is within grasp. The significant changes in patriarchal political culture have been felt even as we appreciate that there is still much work ahead in the space of gender equity.

But the discourse of the feminist struggle has been waning over the years and the women’s movement that was vibrant in the 1970s through to the 1990s and dedicated towards total emancipation of women is now playing lip service to the cause. The conversations around women’s empowerment have gotten stuck in a numbers game and the calibre of representatives is worrying in some respects. Many are not guided by feminist grounding principles, which has raised concern amongst activists who question the motivations of the new crop of women leaders. The widespread lack of ideology-based politics means that political leaders become invested only when riding on the crest of a movement that they do not intrinsically support or whose ideals they do not believe in.

The conversations around women’s empowerment have gotten stuck in a numbers game and the calibre of representatives is worrying in some respects. Many are not guided by feminist grounding principles, which has raised concern amongst activists who question the motivations of the new crop of women leaders. The widespread lack of ideology-based politics means that political leaders become invested only when riding on the crest of a movement that they do not intrinsically support or whose ideals they do not believe in.

Increasing numbers of women in leadership positions does not necessarily impact directly on women’s issues. Electing more women cannot be the give–all solution to women’s issues. The wider picture of emancipation is lost in the Kenyan political space where personal gain takes precedence.

Dr. Achola Pala, a feminist scholar and anthropologist warns, We are losing the larger war for the battle.” The battle of the sexes provides a false consciousness partly because it pits tradition against modernisation/Westernisation, she argues. In an article titled The Ground We Stand On, she talks about the limitations of adopting a concept of human rights derived from a supposed universalised Western culture. “So many of us have often accepted the notion of African ‘traditional culture’ as if it were the enemy of women, and the word ‘Western’ as if it contained women’s rights.”

The emphasis on political representation and numbers loses sight of the larger emancipation solution, the cultural contest and the importance of cultivating a feminist consciousness. Many of the new key players lack this consciousness and remain in danger of privatising personal ambition that feeds into a social class disconnect between grassroots women and their representatives.

Feminist writer Lucy Oriang, in an opinion piece, laid out the challenges of the contemporary movement in a column titled “The Liberation is Dead, Long Live the Women of Kenya, “Talking about women is an industry in itself. A lot of words flow in boardrooms, policy documents and the best of Kenya’s hotels. Much of it is packaged so cleverly that it camouflages the fact that there is nothing new under that particular sun.”

Perhaps we should draw some wisdom from the bold African feminist voice of Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, who wrote “We should all be feminists”, for many seem to have forgotten that femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive. May the women who seek equity and equality for all stand up.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist.

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THE WALKING POOR: Nairobi Privileges the Motor Vehicle, Not the People

Fifty-five years after independence, Nairobi’s urban planning still privileges the high-heeled motorists over the walking poor. This, as PATRICK GATHARA explains, is rooted in colonial policy.

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To make our roads safer, we need to make them feel less safe

The return of the “Michuki Rules” (the stringent rules established by John Michuki, the former Transport Minister in Mwai Kibaki’s government) that targeted public transport operators has precipitated days of traffic chaos as matatus, the backbone of what passes for the city’s public transport system, declared a strike in protest. Newspaper headlines bemoaned the agony visited on drivers and commuters, with some decrying the traffic gridlock that ensued as private cars flooded the roads. The Daily Nation describing it as a “day of walking”.

It is a telling description and speaks to the low regard with which pedestrians in Nairobi are held. This despite the fact that even when matatus are on the roads, most Nairobians leg it to wherever they are going. According to the World Bank, more than 8 out of every 10 commutes involve walking as the primary or secondary mode of travel. Half of those trips are made completely on foot. The 2010 draft Sessional Paper on Integrated National Transport Policy states that nearly two-thirds of the city’s residents meet their daily travel needs by walking or cycling.

Despite this, the focus on motorised transport is understandable given the truly terrible state of transport infrastructure and traffic congestion. The Traffic Index 2018, a composite index published by the Serbia-based website numbeo.com (which claims to be “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries”) rates Nairobi as having the 12th worst traffic in the world, with one-way journeys averaging just under an hour. The World Bank says that Nairobi has “one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times” with commuting speeds of just 14 kilometers per hour.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the needs of pedestrians are mostly kicked to the kerb. In fact, as New York-based CityLab notes, “The ongoing battle for the roads of Nairobi is an extension of the city’s broader class segregation: Cars, a transit option for the city’s upper classes, command the road with superiority. Pedestrians, many of whom belong to Nairobi’s lower class of informal laborers, are funneled into dangerous and uncomfortable walking environments”.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile and the classist segregation of public spaces it represents has a long history. The article “Politics, policy and paratransit by Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of the University of Nairobi states that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalised transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility”. By 1928, just over two decades after it became the official capital of Kenya, the city had 5,000 cars “making it the city with the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world”. Thus traffic was a major concern even then. But it was still a city more concerned with the problems of a wealthy motoring few rather than those of the majority of its citizens. Europeans and Asians drove. Poor Africans have always walked.

Just as there was little planning in place to cater for the residential needs of the African majority (which resulted in the mushrooming of slums across the city) so there was little thought given to how they would move around. “The colonial, segregationist urban economy failed to cater for people who were not formally employed by the colonial government,” Klopp and Mitullah note.

When the Nairobi Town Bus, the precursor to Kenya Bus Services, was inaugurated in the 1930s, it was largely for the benefit of Europeans and Asians, as Isaiah Gibson Aduwo noted in 1990. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Kenya Bus Services “served the Eastern parts of the city [where Africans lived] using vehicles built on lorry chassis” according to the paper “The Metamorphosis of Kenya Bus Services Limited in the Provision of Urban Transport in Nairobi” by Tom Opiyo of the Department of Civil Engineering.

In fact, the growth of the matatu industry, which is the source of so much grief nowadays, is a direct result of Africans entrepreneuring their way around the public transport problems that the city government had failed to resolve given that the bus service remained out of reach for all but a minority of city residents. Still, nearly a century after it received its charter as a city, the only major change in the character of Nairobi has been the replacement of the colour bar with one based on class.

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital. The walking poor have to struggle daily for this constricted space on the street with the very perpetrators whose theft of public land has created this situation.

The privileging of the automobile has had a detrimental effect on the community life of the city. “Increased traffic has adverse impacts on public activities which once crowded the streets, such as markets, agoras, parades and processions, games, and community interactions. These have gradually disappeared to be replaced by automobiles,” notes the authors of the book The Geography of Transport Systems. “In many cases, these activities have shifted to shopping malls while in other cases, they have been abandoned altogether.” 

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital.

Few stop to ask about who ends up sacrificing the most at the altar of the vehicle and whether it is fair. After all, the vast majority of the walking poor do not hang out at the new swanky malls popping up across the city. Regardless, it is they who end up paying the highest price, both in lives and treasure, for Nairobi’s dysfunctional system, even when they benefit least from it. According to the National Transport Safety Authority, 60 per cent of fatal accidents on the city’s roads involve pedestrians. They also suffer a much higher rate of injury than other road users. Even the introduction of bodaboda (motorcycle taxis), which have brought motorised transport closer to the poor, has been quickly followed by a spike in accidents and deaths involving them.

Further, the street network is ultimately funded by public taxes, and it is the poor who contribute most of that. The rich and the middle classes may have a higher share of income tax but the poor, by sheer force of numbers, more than make up for it in the taxes they pay for accessing goods and services – the government’s largest single source of tax revenue. They basically subsidise car-owning residents’ travel on roads from which they themselves are actively excluded. And this has real implications for their ability to escape poverty as, according to the World Bank, for the average household, only 2 out of every 10 formal jobs are accessible within an hour of either walking or using public transport. In a car, however, that number rises to 9 out of every 10 jobs.

Today, the walking poor are mostly still treated as an after-thought when designing, building and repairing streets. The expansion of roads may be popular but it also generates huge inconveniences and dangers. Pedestrians are forced to either take long detours to find the nearest safe bridge to cross or to risk their lives trying to dash across six or eight lanes of road. The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

But that is an exception. Even when it comes to patching up streets, pedestrians are still left with the short end of the stick. It is common to find smooth roads lined with cratered pavements, which are peppered with open manholes or have been turned into parking spaces.

The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

As we increase the city acreage devoted to cars, there is little corresponding increase in land devoted to people. Within the city’s Central Business District, only two streets (Mama Ngina Drive and Aga Khan Walk) are devoted to pedestrian and non-motorised traffic. Hawkers are actively barred from accessing the CBD while matatus and buses can occupy streets (and pavements) for hours on end. In many city estates as well, home owners have grabbed sections of kerbs bordering their properties and converted them into parking spaces or flower gardens.

The county government has been making noises about introducing car-free days to encourage people to leave their vehicles at home but that will not happen as long as the city continues to be organised as it is. “[T]he default in Nairobi for the proper road user is the car,” notes Amiel Bize, a Columbia PhD candidate who has been studying pedestrian safety in Kenya since 2010.

Undoubtedly, the capital needs a sane motorised public transport system. It also needs to take care of its congestion problem. However, none of these objectives can be achieved if it does not take care of its walkability problem. The goal of re-engineering and reinventing Nairobi as a city for people, rather than a city for vehicles, will remain elusive as long as it does not cater to the needs of the majority of its population. It is this that led to Nairobi being ranked a lowly 186 out of 231 global cities in the New York-based consultancy Mercer’s 2018 quality of living survey.

Much of this will involve undoing a century of misconceptions about the desirability of walking. These misconceptions are captured in the Business Daily headline that read: “Traffic congestion slows down Nairobi to a walking city.” Yet the idea of “a walking city” is not a lamentable consequence of a failure of motorised transport but rather should be the desired outcome of effective policies to decongest roads. In fact, as The Geography of Transport Systems notes, “people tend to walk and cycle less when traffic is heavy”. The book emphasises that “traffic flows influence the life and interactions of residents and their usage of street space. More traffic impedes social interactions and street activities.” With the introduction of modern light rail, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, demonstrates how a combination of policies to improve public transport and a consistent commitment to investing in pedestrian infrastructure can help regenerate cities.

Rather than implementing separate policies, such as the Michuki Rules, to tame matatus and beating Kidero drums to tackle congestion, Nairobi should adopt an integrated plan whose aim should be to make the city a more humane and walkable place to live – a city where the streets are transformed from theatres of conflict and exclusion to arenas of interaction that welcome all people regardless of class.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

CLAUDIO BUTTICÈ examines the factors that influence internet freedom in Africa.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

With the possible exception of Kenya and South Africa, Internet freedom is constantly under attack in most African countries. Ethiopia has suffered a dramatic decline in Internet freedom over the past few years, the Ugandan government has imposed a tax on social media, and the Tanzanian government has taken down many websites – a pattern that closely mimics what happens in China and Korea. In a continent where Internet penetration stands at just 31.2 per cent, less than one-third of the population has access to the World Wide Web. Such restrictions on connectivity, as well as a lack of security, online manipulation and disinformation tactics, play a significant role in keeping many countries undeveloped.

Why online manipulation tactics are a threat to freedom

When the Internet started becoming a mainstream technology, many praised it as a liberating force that was helping millions of people to know the truth about the world they lived in. It didn’t take much for governments of the less democratic countries to understand the threat it posed to their power. Today, however, even many so-called “democracies” have learned how dangerous Internet freedom can be to their entrenched interests and privileges, and have taken action to disrupt it.

Between 2016 and 2018, Internet freedom was widely abused by many governments to distort the truth in their favour. Massive online manipulation tactics have been employed in countries such as China, Russia, Syria and Ethiopia. Even Western nations historically known for the independence of their media, such as the United States and Italy, have seen disinformation used to manipulate elections results. Information about many global events, such as the migratory flows from South America and Africa to the United States and Europe, have been distorted to fuel scare-mongering tactics. Governments in all the corners of the world use political and security reasons as excuses to restrict mobile Internet services, especially in areas populated by religious or ethnic minorities. Online dissent has been suppressed by altering, filtering or removing information on social media, and human rights defenders have often been threatened, attacked, or even killed to silence the few independent voices left. For instance, in March 2018, Rwandan blogger Joseph Nkusi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for incitement to civil disobedience and spreading rumours just because he offered a different perspective on the official narrative of the 1994 genocide.

Bots and fake news have been created and deployed to shape the opinion of countless numbers of people. Surreptitious grassroots support for government policies have been fabricated to justify even the most blatant violation of human rights. Many anti-democratic changes have been condoned by building social media bubbles where citizens falsely stand with regimes that are essentially endorsing themselves. And when online news media suffer the same level of restrictions and propaganda that plague the remaining traditional media, any hope for objectivity is lost forever.

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In a nutshell, when people have no access to the truth, or, at least, a different side of the truth, their freedom is stolen, and democracy dies. State-led interventions to restrict Internet freedom ensure that our eyes are open to one thing, and one thing only. Governments that resort to these tactics are scared by the idea of people knowing what is really happening because they have something to hide.

The Chinese influence

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”. Similar seminars have been held in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as in many African countries, including Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania, and Uganda. Unsurprisingly enough, these conferences are often followed by the implementation in those countries of some of the most restrictive and controversial cybercrime and social media laws.

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”.

The Chinese are also the same people who provided all those governments with high-tech surveillance tools to monitor people with no respect for their privacy or human rights. With the excuse of “maintaining public order,” autocrats and dictators started employing Artificial Intelligence-powered facial recognition software developed by Chinese companies such as Hikvision and CloudWalk. The latter signed a strategic partnership with the government of Zimbabwe to develop AI that can recognise African faces. Needless to say, the millions of Zimbabwean citizens who saw their personal data sold by the Zimbabwean government to a foreign agency had no say in the deal.

Much of the most important telecommunications infrastructure in these countries is built by China, which apparently doesn’t shun any opportunity to collect additional intelligence. In January 2018, much to their dismay, security staff at the African Union found that the computer system in the headquarters that the Chinese government had gifted the organisation was likely a Trojan horse for cyberespionage. Though China officially denied the reports, it appears that the system had been secretly sending data back to Shanghai servers every day for five years. It is not hard to see that there’s an agenda behind the Asian giant’s digital generosity towards smaller and poorer nations.

Social and blogging media taxes

The Ugandan “social media tax” is a glaring indication that something is wrong. After 32 years of entrenched power held with brutal strength, President Yoweri Museveni found in the Chinese seminars a flawless idea to rule out political opposition without any violence. The Ugandan government imposed an apparently harmless social media tax of 5 cents per day to put an end to “gossip”. Citizens who fail to pay the tax will be cut off from social media by their Internet service provider (ISP). In a country where 80 per cent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, five cents a day is no small deal. And since the tax is applied to all social media platforms and online messenger services, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, Line, and Skype, it quickly adds up. It has been estimated that it could drive up the Internet connection prices to an unacceptable 40 per cent of the average Ugandan’s monthly income.

To further enforce this policy, Uganda’s Communications Commission Executive Director, Godfrey Mutabazi, suggested telecom companies subject virtual private networks (VPNs) to the tax. In the meantime, ISPs have been ordered to block and switch off VPNs one by one. Banning VPNs is a move that China already tested as a successful tactic to stop those who found a rather simple method to circumvent Internet censorship. It would be a terribly effective way for Museveni to maintain his authoritarian regime without facing the international condemnation that comes with the use of tear gas and live rounds fired at demonstrators. And it could have similar effects as in Cameroon, which restricted Internet access for at least 150 days in 2017.

In 2017, neighbouring Tanzania praised the Chinese government’s efforts to replace social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter with “homegrown sites that are safe, constructive, and popular”. Shortly afterwards, in July 2018, several popular websites had to be shut down to avoid hefty fines imposed by a new troubling law that restricts criticism of the government. In an effort to “curb moral decadence” the government passed a provision that forces bloggers, online streaming platforms, YouTube TV channels, online radio stations, online forums, social media users and Internet cafes to pay a $930 fee to publish online. Bloggers are required to also provide a lengthy list of details and information, while Internet cafés must install surveillance cameras. Violating these new rules or posting anti-government statements on social media may lead to imprisonment for a minimum of 12 months or a fine of at least $2,200, or both. Once again, free expression in Africa was muzzled and curtailed through Internet censorship.

Surveillance and interception of communication

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Malawi, the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) – what Malawians call the “Spy Machine” – will allegedly monitor mobile phone service providers to ensure fair pricing and quality of service. Note that “allegedly” here is the key word. Its implementation was initially challenged in the High Court by civil rights movements but the Supreme Court eventually allowed it. Bottom line: the Spy Machine now allows Malawian government officers to listen to subscribers’ private conversations with no restriction. To ensure “quality of service”, of course.

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Kenya, in January 2017, the Communications Authority (CA) wanted to install a link at the data centre or mobile switching room of mobile operators to identify counterfeit or stolen phones. The purpose of this was supposedly to prevent terrorism in accordance with the provisions of the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, it was later alleged that this system could also intercept phone calls and its implementation was, therefore, blocked by the courts. It was also later alleged that middle boxes may be present on the Safaricom network and that law enforcement officers are allowed to extract private information before seeking a warrant. Other reports purportedly found that the CA procured the Israeli HIWIRE technology to capture, monitor, and analyse private activities on social media. Although all of these allegations are still just allegations and nothing else, it’s not hard to understand what the narrative is in this case.

The economic impact of Internet disruptions

Internet shutdowns have become common in sub-Saharan Africa, especially during elections or when public anti-government protests occur. Internet disruptions in the region have occurred in a total combined period of 236 days since 2015. But even if security agencies work with national communications regulators to order the disruptions for purported “national security reasons”, many African governments do not even realise how high the cost of these shutdowns is.

In Africa, the information communications technology (ICT) sector is thriving. Over the past two years, smartphone connections have doubled to almost 200 million, especially in countries such as South Africa, DR Congo, Cameroon, and Kenya. Broadband subscriptions, smartphone purchases, and the mobile money sector are expected to grow exponentially, providing unique opportunities for productivity gains to enterprises and governments. The ICT sector is a potent catalyst of economic growth since it provides the opportunity to overcome Africa’s logistical limitations, such as poor road networks and cumbersome bureaucracy. ICTs also allow for a reduction in organisational costs; they speed up the circulation of money, and contribute directly to the economy of many African countries in the form of fees and taxes paid by local and foreign ICT companies. The value added by the ICT ecosystem has been estimated at $10.5 billion in 2016, with an indirect productivity impact worth up to $62 billion.

It is hard to precisely estimate the economic cost of Internet disruptions because every shutdown of communication services affects countless services. Secondary economic damages are suffered by sectors affected by shutdowns, such as call centres, tourism and hospitality services and e-commerce. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa estimates that African governments have suffered a deficit of at least $235 million due to lost tax revenues caused by blocked digital access and reduced worker productivity – a significant sum as the African Union’s combined GDP amounts to only $1.5 trillion. Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Positive news

Africa’s Internet freedom is constantly under attack, but democratic forces are fighting back, and in some instances, were able to score some critical victories.

In May 2018, the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crime Act passed in Kenya provided authorities with the discretion of prosecuting individuals who were found guilty of “subverting national security” while interacting online. While the law purported to protect Internet users from things like cyber harassment, it was clearly created with the sole purpose of muzzling dissenting political views and freedom of expression. But on May 29, the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) sued the Attorney-General, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Inspector-General of Police and the Director of Public Prosecution, claiming the Act was unconstitutional. The High Court ruled in favour of the bloggers, suspending 22 provision of the law for further review.

Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Ethiopia, a nation which spearheaded censorship in Africa, is also slowly freeing itself from the draconian restrictions imposed by the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Although strong repressive measures are still present, the newly appointed Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has already started moving towards a more progressive agenda. A gender-balanced cabinet has been appointed, thousands of prisoners, including some prominent bloggers, have been released, dissidents have been allowed to return home, and hundreds of TV channels and websites have been unblocked. Ethiopians are now enjoying an unexpected new age of free expression, which other so-called democracies in the rest of Africa should emulate.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

CHRISTINE MUNGAI explores Kenya’s new prison industrial complex and unearths the fundamental flaws in Jubilee’s plan to make jails profitable.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

“When I first became involved in anti-prison activism dur­ing the late 1960s, I was astounded to learn that there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had anyone told me that in three decades, ten times as many peo­ple would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous.” ~ Angela Davis

In the one hundred years between the mid-1850s and 1980s – a period of nearly 130 years – the state of California constructed a total of nine prisons and two prison camps. But in the five years between 1984 and 1989, nine more prisons were constructed. It had taken more than a century to build the first nine prisons in California, and less than a decade for that number to double. Today, there are 34 state prisons in California, and this is not counting federal prisons or county jails – the equivalent of Kenya’s police cells. The state of California also has 43 prison “conservation” camps, whose inmates are procured to fight wildfires and respond to other public emergencies.

That the US is running a Prison Industrial Complex has been well documented. America accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Ava DuVernay’s gripping 2016 documentary, 13th, expertly tracks the policies, systems and forces that have pressed more than 2.3 million Americans – overwhelmingly black and Latino – into the prison system, so much so that in some neighbourhoods, going to prison is almost a normal rite of passage.

But what the figures above from California reveal is that the processes that produce mass incarceration of an entire demographic can be astonishingly rapid and diabolically efficient.

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“The first thing that happened when we got there is we were told to strip. In the open. All wardens sitting there watching. I think this was the worst thing to happen to us. We were many. The indignity of standing naked in front of strangers…” ~ Anonymous submission to #PrisonDiaries (courtesy of @MarigaThoithi)

 In early October, a press statement from the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) revealed a plan to establish the Kenya Prison Enterprise Corporation, a “state enterprise” that would reportedly expand the scope of prison work programmes “with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry, and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.”

The new corporation will also contribute to the realisation of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, particularly food security, affordable housing, and manufacturing,” a statement from State House said. The corporation will be mandated to “organise and manage” the assets of the Prisons Department, including 86 prison farms with a total of over 18,200 acres of land. The corporation will, at some point, “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector on different spheres” – a vague statement that could include private contracting of anything from construction of prison facilities to full operations.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

However, it is horrifying to think that the way to kill two birds – job creation and industrialisation – is by the deadly stone of expanding the prison sector, corralling people into a pool of cheap labour with almost no rights. Granted, there are many different privatisation models. Private firms can be contracted to build prisons, to manage them, or both. Countries such as the US, UK and Australia have privatised the entire chain of operations from construction to day-to-day operations, while in Europe the trend is to outsource specific functions, such as catering, administration, healthcare and security. In many Asian prisons, the private sector is more directly involved in the prison industry by contracting inmates to work in for-profit factories or firms. Kenya seems to be leaning towards a mixed model, where the corporation, for now, remains fully state-owned but is run with a private sector ethos.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

Kenya’s prisons house nearly 50,000 people in facilities designed to hold 14,000. Stories of horrific conditions of disease, vermin and lack of food are common.

Most of the support for the privatisation of prisons is in the form of two arguments: one, that the private sector can run prisons better than governments can; and two, and that prisons ought to support themselves financially.

The evidence is mixed on the first claim; privatisation does not always save money or improve efficiency. A 2011 investigative report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that private prisons “do not save money, cannot be demonstrated to save money in meaningful amounts, or may even cost more than government prisons.”

A value-for-money study commissioned by the Dutch government found that while operational costs in private prisons were reduced by 2-13%, savings disappeared once transaction and other financial costs were taken into account.

Some countries have rejected proposals to privatise prisons. In Costa Rica, although the government had signed a pre-contract to build a private prison with a capacity for 1,200 inmates at $73 million, it did not proceed with the deal, instead opting to build facilities at its own expense for 2,600 inmates at $10million. The Costa Rican government realised that going along with the deal would mean being locked into a contract that would spend $37 daily per inmate for 20 years, while in the state prisons the amount was $11. (Inmates in state facilities made up 80% of the prison population.) The government cancelled the contract, and opted instead to improve the situation of all inmates, raising the daily per capita amount to $16 for all those under confinement.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The second claim – that private prisons should be able to support themselves financially – is deeply rooted in a neoliberal ethos that judges the value of everything through the logic of the market. We see this in the announcement of the plan by PSCU, which stated that unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry would ultimately turn it into “a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity”.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The framing of this proposal is curious, particularly in the way it connects reformation with financial independence. It is neoliberalism offering rehabilitation through success in the market. (No wonder that the phrase “prominent Nairobi businessman/ woman” is often used to sanitise the reputation of people mired in scandal.)

Moreover, in a place like Kenya, where government contracts are often irregularly awarded and where corruption is endemic, privatisation can actually result in degraded services. Already, detectives are investigating a Sh6.2 billion scandal at the Prisons Department. A senior detective revealed a few weeks ago that investigators from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the anti-graft commission were closing in on suspects behind the suspicious spending on prisoners’ food, which was cleared last year although it is still marked as a pending bill.

Now, by linking the prisons sector with President Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, we are likely to see the emergence of a “hard-working performer” at the helm of the prison corporation who will point to the profits at the end of the prison pipeline as evidence of “cleaning up” the ailing penal system.

***

“The perpetrator is a product of criminal discourse and a victim of institutions that claim to deter crime, but are actually invested in perpetrating a police state where everyone is under surveillance and on the border of falling into criminality.” ~ Michel Foucault

All this is happening in a worrying context of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets the young, the poor and the urban. Last year, a damning audit by the National Council on the Administration of Justice revealed that the Kenyan state is essentially at war with informality. In practical terms, poverty is a crime.

Not only that, colonial laws against offences like vagrancy and loitering remain on our statute books and are vigorously enforced – as Carey Baraka articulated on the perils of being a young man on the streets of Nairobi and being forced to prove your existence by producing an ID card on demand. In fact, demands for ID documents assume that the black body in the city is not legitimate and must be accounted for.

“It’s an assumption that Africans can never be urban,” says city planner Constant Cap. “If you are urban, then you are not a real African, and you must explain your presence in the city to the powers that be. Our cities are actually not planned with us in mind – it is like they are not expecting permanent residents, just itinerant workers who trade their labour.”

This means that nearly 70% of court cases in our criminal judicial system are criminally petty, nuisance offences, or economically-driven (such as being drunk and disorderly, trading without a licence, loitering, causing a disturbance, or “preparing to commit a felony”). The dragnet is so large and indiscriminate that a Kenyan adult has a 1 in 10 chance of spending some time in police custody over the course of a year, although these figures skew heavily towards those who are young, male and poor.

In some ways, it is a logic that leans towards universal punishment rather than supporting universal prosperity – even for the small street trader who is really not doing anyone any harm, and certainly does not deserve jail time. As the economy continues to be depressed, we are likely to see more people who are unable to secure formal employment and who turn to informal trading on the street. This will make them more vulnerable to police harassment and arbitrary arrest.

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary is reeling from huge budget cuts this year. It had requested Sh31 billion to fund its operations for the current financial year but it was allocated Sh17 billion by the National Treasury. The latter figure was further reduced by Parliament to Sh14 billion. This means that judicial officers will likely be under more pressure to arrest and fine, as a prosecutor in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told me. “Petty offences are prosecuted vigorously in the judicial system because they are quick and easy to prove – the only witness needed in most cases is a police officer,” she said. “And the fines are now an even important source of money for the Judiciary.”

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

It doesn’t help that the key performance indicators (KPIs) for judicial officers are convictions. The gravity of the case doesn’t matter because “a conviction is a conviction, and magistrates get promoted on the basis of the number, not the type, of convictions,” the prosecutor told me, “even if the charges are just trespassing, hawking, illegal grazing, and the like.”

How might the profit incentive in the prisons change the trends in convictions and sentencing? “I definitely see a possibility for it to be more profitable to send people to jail than to fine them,” the prosecutor said. “Remandees are often given work to do things like sweep the governor’s compound – a profit motive in prisons will escalate this, and it will be framed as a favour to prisoners.”

***

But this is not all. The Kenyan education system is undergoing two major changes. On the one hand, the new curriculum has an increased focus on technical and vocational skills, and less of an emphasis on academic subjects. On the other hand, there is increased surveillance and militarisation of the school system, with authorities, including the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, issuing threats of a criminal record and jail time for students who protest or who are implicated in anti-social behaviour.

“This is to warn every student from primary school, secondary school, college and university that the DCI is archiving and profiling every criminal act and consolidating charges that may be preferred to each and every student involved in any crime,” the DCI tweeted in June.

A school-to-prison pipeline is therefore not far-fetched. With the new curriculum putting students on individual “talent” pathways, it will be easy to explain student failures on their lack of talent, thereby obscuring the bigger structural issues that might be at play. And now, students cannot complain, or they risk jail time.

“[The] negative characterization of poor and largely nonwhite youth is in sync with the broader push to replace social services with criminalization,” Alex Vitale writes in “The Criminalization of Youth”, an article in Jacobin magazine. “As more and more deprived neighborhoods are denied access to decent jobs and schools, their young people are criminalized as ‘the worst of the worst’ to ensure that the problems in these communities are understood as individual and group moral failures, rather than the result of rapacious market forces and a hollowed-out state.”

***

“Companies that service the criminal sys­tem need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long-term growth . . . In the criminal jus­tice field, the raw material is prisoners and indus­try will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply. For the supply of prisoners to grow, criminal justice policies must ensure a sufficient number of incarcerated [people] regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.” Steven Donziger

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This should worry us all because mere contact with the system leaves “a stain of criminality”, my prosecutor friend told me. “I’ve seen children and young people enter the criminal justice system for a small reason that could have been handled at home or in the community – and by the time the system is done with them, they are into proper crime: hardened, disillusioned and angry.”

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This is not a feature of a broken state apparatus; on the contrary, the state is acting just as it was designed to act, as Keguro Macharia reminds us:

One reads Kenyans demanding colonial systems work better, and weeps. 

– “we need police to do their work properly”

– “we need the laws implemented properly”

– “we need the judicial systems to work properly”

If you are being unhumaned, those systems are working properly.

If you are being executed, those systems are working properly.

If you are feeling frustrated and humiliated, those systems are working properly.

The demand cannot be that systems designed to unhuman Africans work properly.

The demand is abolition.

And as for Uhuru Kenyatta achieving the Big 4 agenda through prison “reform”, it would be worth looking at how the US government systematically and cynically deprived its black and brown citizens of liberty at a huge cost even to itself. Instead of building good public housing like the Housing Acts of 1949/65/68 mandated, the US rapidly built prisons. So in an evil kind of way, the US did end up investing in public housing – in jail.

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