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WOMEN IN POLITICS: Not Just Pretty Faces

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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 journalist, editor and a curator at The Elephant.

Politics

A Dictator’s Guide: How Museveni Wins Elections and Reproduces Power in Uganda

Caricatures aside, how do President Yoweri Museveni and the National Revolutionary Movement state reproduce power? It’s been 31 years.

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Recent weeks have seen increased global media attention to Uganda following the incidents surrounding the arrest of popular musician and legislator, Bobi Wine; emblematic events that have marked the shrinking democratic space in Uganda and the growing popular struggles for political change in the country.

The spotlight is also informed by wider trends across the continent over the past few years—particularly the unanticipated fall of veteran autocrats Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Yaya Jammeh in Gambia, and most recently Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe—which led to speculation about whether Yoweri Museveni, in power in Uganda since 1986, might be the next to exit this shrinking club of Africa’s strongmen.

Yet the Museveni state, and the immense presidential power that is its defining characteristic, has received far less attention, thus obscuring some of the issues at hand. Comprehending its dynamics requires paying attention to at-least three turning points in the National Resistance Movement’s history, which resulted in a gradual weeding-out of Museveni’s contemporaries and potential opponents from the NRM, then the mobilisation of military conflict to shore up regime legitimacy, and the policing of urban spaces to contain the increasingly frequent signals of potential revolution. Together, these dynamics crystallised presidential power in Uganda, run down key state institutions, and set the stage for the recent tensions and likely many more to come.

The purge

From the late 1990s, there has been a gradual weeding out the old guard in the NRM, which through an informal “succession queue,” had posed an internal challenge to the continuity of Museveni’s rule. It all started amidst the heated debates in the late 1990s over the reform of the then decaying Movement system; debates that pitted a younger club of reformists against an older group. The resultant split led to the exit of many critical voices from the NRM’s ranks, and began to bolster Museveni’s grip on power in a manner that was unprecedented. It also opened the lid on official corruption and the abuse of public offices.

Over the years, the purge also got rid of many political and military elites—the so-called “historicals”—many of whom shared Museveni’s sense of entitlement to political office rooted in their contribution to the 1980-1985 liberation war, and some of whom probably had an eye on his seat.

By 2005 the purge was at its peak; that year the constitutional amendment that removed presidential term limits—passed after a bribe to every legislator—saw almost all insiders that were opposed to it, summarily dismissed. As many of them joined the ranks of the opposition, Museveni’s inner circle was left with mainly sycophants whose loyalty was more hinged on patronage than anything else. Questioning the president or harboring presidential ambitions within the NRM had become tantamount to a crime.

By 2011 the process was almost complete, with the dismissal of Vice President Gilbert Bukenya, whose growing popularity among rural farmers was interpreted as a nascent presidential bid, resulting in his firing.

One man remained standing, Museveni’s long-time friend Amama Mbabazi. His friendship with Museveni had long fueled rumors that he would succeed “the big man” at some point. In 2015, however, his attempt to run against Museveni in the ruling party primaries also earned him an expulsion from both the secretary general position of the ruling party as well as the prime ministerial office.

The departure of Mbabazi marked the end of any pretensions to a succession plan within the NRM. He was unpopular, with a record tainted by corruption scandals and complicity in Museveni’s authoritarianism, but his status as a “president-in-waiting” had given the NRM at least the semblance of an institution that could survive beyond Museveni’s tenure, which his firing effectively ended.

What is left now is perhaps only the “Muhoozi project,” a supposed plan by Museveni to have his son Muhoozi Kainerugaba succeed him. Lately it has been given credence by the son’s rapid rise to commanding positions in elite sections of the Ugandan military. But with an increasingly insecure Museveni heavily reliant on familial relationships and patronage networks, even the Muhoozi project appears very unlikely. What is clear, though, is that the over time, the presidency has essentially become Museveni’s property.

Exporting peace?

Fundamental to Museveni’s personalisation of power also has been the role of military conflict, both local and regional. First was the rebellion by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, which over its two-decade span enabled a continuation of the military ethos of the NRM. The war’s dynamics were indeed complex, and rooted in a longer history that predated even the NRM government, but undoubtedly it provided a ready excuse for the various shades of authoritarianism that came to define Museveni’s rule.

With war ongoing in the north, any challenge to Museveni’s rule was easily constructed as a threat to the peace already secured in the rest of the country, providing an absurd logic for clamping down on political opposition. More importantly, the emergency state born of it, frequently provided a justification for the president to side-step democratic institutions and processes, while at the same time rationalising the government’s disproportionate expenditure on the military. It also fed into Museveni’s self-perception as a “freedom fighter,” buttressed the personality cult around him, and empowered him to further undermine any checks on his power.

By the late 2000s the LRA war was coming to an end—but another war had taken over its function just in time. From the early 2000s, Uganda’s participation in a regional security project in the context of the War on Terror, particularly in the Somalian conflict, rehabilitated the regime’s international image and provided cover for the narrowing political space at home, as well as facilitating a further entrenchment of Museveni’s rule.

As post-9/11 Western foreign policy began to prioritise stability over political reform, Museveni increasingly postured as the regional peacemaker, endearing himself to donors while further sweeping the calls for democratic change at home under the carpet—and earning big from it.

It is easy to overlook the impact of these military engagements, but the point is that together they accentuated the role of the military in Ugandan politics and further entrenched Museveni’s power to degrees that perhaps even the NRM’s own roots in a guerrilla movement could never have reached.

Policing protest

The expulsion of powerful elites from the ruling circles and the politicisation of military conflict had just started to cement Musevenism, when a new threat emerged on the horizon. It involved not the usual antagonists—gun-toting rebels or ruling party elites—but ordinary protesters. And they were challenging the NRM on an unfamiliar battleground—not in the jungles, but on the streets: the 2011 “Walk-to-Work” protests, rejecting the rising fuel and food prices, were unprecedented.

But there is another reason the protests constituted a new threat. For long the NRM had mastered the art of winning elections. The majority constituencies were rural, and allegedly strongholds of the regime. The electoral commission itself was largely answerable to Museveni. With rural constituencies in one hand and the electoral body in the other, the NRM could safely ignore the minority opposition-dominated urban constituencies. Electoral defeat thus never constituted a threat to the NRM, at least at parliamentary and presidential levels.

But now the protesters had turned the tables, and were challenging the regime immediately after one of its landslide victories. The streets could not be rigged. In a moment, they had shifted the locus of Ugandan politics from the rural to the urban, and from institutional to informal spaces. And they were picking lessons from a strange source: North Africa. There, where Museveni’s old friend Gaddafi, among others, was facing a sudden exit under pressure from similar struggles. Things could quickly get out of hand. A strategic response was urgent.

The regime went into overdrive. The 2011 protests were snuffed out, and from then, the policing of urban spaces became central to the logic and working of the Museveni state. Draconian laws on public assembly and free speech came into effect, enacted by a rubber-stamp parliament that was already firmly in Museveni’s hands. Police partnered with criminal gangs, notably the Boda Boda 2010, to curb what was called “public disorder”—really the official name for peaceful protest. As police’s mandate expanded to include the pursuit of regime critics, its budget ballooned, and its chief, General Kale Kayihura, became the most powerful person after Museveni—before his recent dismissal.

For a while, the regime seemed triumphant. Organising and protest became virtually impossible, as urban areas came under 24/7 surveillance. Moreover, key state institutions—the parliament, electoral commission, judiciary, military and now the police—were all in the service of the NRM, and all voices of dissent had been effectively silenced. In time, the constitution would be amended again, by the NRM-dominated house, this time to remove the presidential age limit—the last obstacle to Museveni’s life presidency—followed by a new tax on social media, to curb “gossip.” Museveni was now truly invincible. Or so it seemed.

But the dreams of “walk-to-work”—the nightmare for the Museveni state—had never really disappeared, and behind the tightly-patrolled streets always lay the simmering quest for change. That is how we arrived at the present moment, with a popstar representing the widespread aspiration for better government, and a seemingly all-powerful president suddenly struggling for legitimacy. Whatever direction the current popular struggles ultimately take, what is certain is that they are learning well from history, and are a harbinger of many more to come.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Politics

The Enduring Blind Spots of America’s Africa Policy

America should move way from making the military the face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

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The Enduring Blind Spots of America's Africa Policy
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While Donald Trump’s administration completely neglected America-Africa relations, the blind spots bedeviling America’s Africa policy preceded his 2016 election. Correcting the systemic flaws of the past 30 years will require a complete rethink after the controversial President’s departure.

To remedy America’s Africa policy, President Joseph Biden’s administration should pivot away from counterterrorism to supporting democratic governance as a principal rather than as mere convenience, and cooperate with China on climate change, peace, and security on the continent.

America’s Africa policy 

America’s post-Cold War Africa policy has had three distinct and discernible phases. The first phase was an expansionist outlook undergirded by humanitarian intervention. The second was nonintervention, a stance triggered by the experience of the first phase. The third is the use of “smart” military interventions using military allies.  

The turning point for the first phase was in 1989 when a victorious America pursued an expansive foreign policy approach predicated on humanitarian intervention. Somalia became the first African test case of this policy when, in 1992, America sent almost 30,000 troops to support Operation Restore Hope’s humanitarian mission which took place against the background of the collapse of the Somalia government in 1991.

On 3-4 October 1993, during the Battle of Mogadishu, 18 US servicemen were killed in a fight with warlords who controlled Mogadishu then, and the bodies of the marines dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. The media coverage increased pressure on the politicians and six months later America withdrew from Somalia — a case of the New World Order meeting the harsh reality of civil conflict.

The chastening experience resulted in America scaling back its involvement in internal conflicts in far-flung places. The result was the emergence of the second phase — non-engagement when Rwanda’s Genocide erupted in 1994 and almost a million people died in 100 days revealed the limitations of over-correcting the Somalia experience. This “non-interference” phase lasted until the twin Nairobi and Dar es Salaam US embassy bombings by Al Qaeda in 1998.

This gave way to the third phase with the realisation that the new threat to America was no longer primarily from state actors, but from transnational non-state actors using failing states as safe havens. The 2002 National Security Strategy states: “the events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states . . . can pose as a great danger to our national interests as strong states.”

Counterterrorism training and equipping of African militaries is the central plank of this new security policy. As a result, counterterrorism funding has skyrocketed as has America’s military footprint in Africa. As a result, Africa has become the theatre in which the Global forever War on Terror is fought.

The counterterrorism traps 

The reflexive reaction to the events of September 11 2001 spawned an interlocking web of covert and overt military and non-military operations. These efforts, initially deemed necessary and temporary, have since morphed into a self-sustaining system complete with agencies, institutions and a specialised lingo that pervades every realm of America’s engagement with Africa.

The United States Africa Command (Africom) is the vehicle of America’s engagement with the continent. Counterterrorism blurred the line between security, development, and humanitarian assistance with a host of implications including unrelenting militarisation which America’s policy establishment embraced uncritically as the sine qua non of America’s diplomacy, their obvious flaws notwithstanding. The securitisation of problems became self-fulfilling and self-sustaining.

The embrace of counterterrorism could not have come at a worse time for Africa’s efforts at democratization. In many African countries, political and military elites have now developed a predictable rule-based compact governing accession to power via elections rather than the coups of the past.

“Smart” African leaders exploited the securitised approach in two main ways: closing the political space and criminalising dissent as “terrorism” and as a source of free money. In Ethiopia, Yonatan Tesfaye, a former spokesman of the Semayawi (Blue) Party, was detained in December 2015 on charges under Article 4 of Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation ((EATP), arguably one of the the country’s most severe pieces of legislation. But Ethiopia has received millions of dollars from the United States.

The Department of Defense hardly says anything in public but gives out plenty of money without asking questions about human rights and good governance. Being a counterterrorism hub has become insurance policy against any form of criticism regardless of state malfeasance.

Egypt is one such hub. According to the Congressional Research Service, for the 2021 financial year, the Trump Administration has requested a total of US$1.4 billion in bilateral assistance for Egypt, which Congress approved in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all US funding for Egypt comes from the Foreign Military Finance (FMF) account and is in turn used to purchase military equipment of US origin, spare parts, training, and maintenance from US firms.

Another country that is a counterterrorism hub in the Horn of Africa is Ethiopia. For the few months they were in charge, the Union of Islamic Courts (ICU) brought order and stability to the country.  Although they were linked to only a few of Mogadishu’s local courts, on 24 December 2006, Ethiopia’s military intervened in Somalia to contain the rise of Al Shabaab’s political and military influence.

The ouster of the ICU by Ethiopia aggravated the deep historical enmity between Somalia and Ethiopia, something Al Shabaab — initially the youth wing of the ICU — subsequently exploited through a mix of Somali nationalism, Islamist ideology, and Western anti-imperialism. Al Shabaab presented themselves as the vanguard against Ethiopia and other external aggressors, providing the group with an opportunity to translate their rhetoric into action.

Ethiopia’s intervention in Somalia could not have taken place without America’s blessing. The intervention took place three weeks after General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces from the Middle East to Afghanistan, met with the then Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi.  The intervention generated a vicious self-sustaining loop. Ethiopians are in Somalia because of Al Shabaab, and Al Shabaab says they will continue fighting as long as foreign troops are inside Somalia.

America has rewarded Ethiopia handsomely for its role as the Horn of Africa’s policeman. In both Ethiopia’s and Egypt’s case, on the score of human rights and good governance, the net losers are the citizens.

Drone attacks 

In keeping with the War on Terror being for forever, and despite departing Somalia in 1993, America outsourced a massive chunk of the fight against Al Shabaab to Ethiopia primarily, and later, to AMISOM. America is still engaged in Somalia where it has approximately 800 troops, including special forces that help train Somalia’s army to fight against Al Shabaab.

America carried out its first drone strike in Somalia in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure. Under the Trump administration, however, the US has dramatically increased the frequency of drone attacks and loosened the oversight required to approve strike targets in Somalia. In March 2017, President Trump secretly designated parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”, meaning that the high-level inter-agency vetting of proposed strikes and the need to demonstrate with near certainty that civilians would not be injured or killed no longer applied. Last year, the US acknowledged conducting 63 airstrikes in the country, and in late August last year, the US admitted that it had carried out 46 strikes in 2020.

A lack of transparency regarding civilian casualties and the absence of empirical evidence that the strikes lead to a reduction in terrorism in Somalia suggest that expanding to Kenya would be ill-advised. The US has only acknowledged having caused civilian casualties in Somalia three times. Between 2016 and 2019, AFRICOM failed to conduct a single interview with civilian witnesses of its airstrikes in Somalia.

Despite this level of engagement, defeating Al Shabaab remains a remote possibility.

Containing the Chinese takeover 

The Trump Administration did not have an Africa policy. The closest approximation of a policy during Trump’s tenure was stated in a speech delivered by John Bolton at a Conservative think tank decrying  China’s nefarious activities in Africa.  Even with a policy, where the counterterrorism framework views Africa as a problem to be solved by military means, the containing China policy views African countries as lacking the agency to act in their own interests. The problem with this argument is that it is patronising; Africans cannot decide what is right for them.

Over the last decades, while America was busy creating the interlocking counterterrorism infrastructure in Africa, China was building large-scale infrastructure across the continent. Where America sees Africa as a problem to be solved, China sees Africa as an opportunity to be seized.

Almost two years into the Trump administration, there were no US ambassadors deployed in 20 of Africa’s 54 countries even while America was maintaining a network of 29 military bases.  By comparison China, has 50 embassies spread across Africa.

For three consecutive years America’s administration has proposed deep and disproportionate cuts to diplomacy and development while China has doubled its foreign affairs budget since 2011. In 2018, China increased its funding for diplomacy by nearly 16 per cent and its funding for foreign aid by almost 7 per cent.

As a show of how engagement with Africa is low on the list of US priorities, Trump appointed a luxury handbag designer as America’s ambassador to South Africa on 14 November 2018. Kenya’s ambassador is a political appointee who, when he is not sparring with Kenyans on Twitter, is supporting a discredited coal mining project.

The US anti-China arguments emphasize that China does not believe in human rights and good governance, and that China’s funding of large infrastructure projects is essentially debt-trap diplomacy. The anti-China rhetoric coming from American officials is not driven by altruism but by the realisation that they have fallen behind China in Africa.

By the middle of this century Africa’s population is expected to double to roughly two billion. Nigeria will become the second most populous country globally by 2100, behind only India. The 24-country African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) entered into force on 30 May 2019. AfCFTA will ultimately bring together all 55 member states of the African Union covering a market of more than 1.2 billion people — including a growing middle class — and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$3.4 trillion.

While Chinese infrastructure projects grab the headlines, China has moved into diversifying its engagement with Africa. The country has increased its investments in Africa by more than 520 per cent over the last 15 years, surpassing the US as the largest trading partner for Africa in 2009 and becoming the top exporter to 19 out of 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

Some of the legacy Chinese investments have come at a steep environmental price and with an unsustainable debt. Kenya’s Standard Gauge Railway is bleeding money and is economically unviable.

A fresh start

Supporting democratic governance and learning to cooperate with China are two areas that will make America part of Africa’s future rather than its past.

America should pivot way from making the military the most visible face of its engagement with Africa and instead invest in deepening democracy as a principled approach rather than a convenient choice.

Despite the elegy about its retreat in Africa, democracy enjoys tremendous support. According to an Afro barometer poll, almost 70 per cent of Africans say democracy is their preferred form of government. Large majorities also reject alternative authoritarian regimes such as presidential dictatorships, military rule, and one-party governments. Democracy, while still fledgling, remains a positive trend; since 2015, there have been 34 peaceful transfers of power.

However, such positive metrics go hand in hand with a worrying inclination by presidents to change constitutions to extend their terms in office. Since 2015, leaders of 13 countries have evaded or overseen the weakening of term limit restrictions that had been in place. Democracy might be less sexy, but ignoring it is perilous. There are no apps or switches to flip to arrest this slide. It requires hard work that America is well equipped to support but has chosen not to in a range of countries in recent years There is a difference between interfering in the internal affairs of a country and complete abdication or (in some cases) supporting leaders who engage in activities that are inimical to deepening democracy.

The damage wrought by the Trump presidency and neo-liberal counterterrorism policies will take time to undo, but symbolic efforts can go a long way to bridging the gap.

America must also contend with China being an indispensable player in Africa and learn to cooperate rather than compete in order to achieve optimal outcomes.

China has 2,458 military and police personnel serving in eight missions around the globe, far more than the combined contribution of personnel by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council, Russia, the US, France and Britain. China had more than 2,400 Chinese troops take part in seven UN peacekeeping missions across the continent — most notably in Mali and South Sudan. Of the 14 current UN peacekeeping missions, seven are in Africa, consuming two-thirds of the budget.

Climate change and conflict resolution provide opportunities for cooperation. Disproportionate reliance on rain-fed agriculture and low adaptation to the adverse impact of climate change make Africa vulnerable to the damaging effects of climate change, the consequences of which will transcend Africa. Through a combination of research, development, technological transfer and multilateral investment, America and China could stave off the impact of climate change in Africa.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts

Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee.

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Hijacking Kenya’s Health Spending: Companies Linked to Powerful MP Received Suspicious Procurement Contracts
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Two obscure companies linked to Kitui South MP Rachael Kaki Nyamai were paid at least KSh24.2 million to deliver medical supplies under single-source agreements at the time the MP was chair of the National Assembly’s Health Committee, an investigation by Africa Uncensored and The Elephant has uncovered.

One of the companies was also awarded a mysterious Ksh 4.3 billion agreement to supply 8 million bottles of hand sanitizer, according to the government’s procurement system.

The contracts were awarded in 2015 as authorities moved to contain the threat from the Ebola outbreak that was ravaging West Africa and threatening to spread across the continent as well as from flooding related to the El-Nino weather phenomenon.

The investigation found that between 2014 and 2016, the Ministry of Health handed out hundreds of questionable non-compete tenders related to impending disasters, with a total value of KSh176 billion including three no-bid contracts to two firms, Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, linked to Mrs Nyamai, whose committee oversaw the ministry’s funding – a clear conflict of interest.

Number of Suppliers Allocated BPAAlthough authorities have since scrutinized some of the suspicious contracts and misappropriated health funds, the investigation revealed a handful of contracts that were not made public, nor questioned by the health committee.

Mrs Nyamai declined to comment for the story.

Nyamai has been accused by fellow members of parliament of thwarting an investigation of a separate alleged fraud. In 2016, a leaked internal audit report accused the Ministry of Health — colloquially referred to for its location at Afya House — of misappropriating funds in excess of nearly $60 million during the 2015/2016 financial year. Media stories described unauthorized suppliers, fraudulent transactions, and duplicate payments, citing the leaked document.

Members of the National Assembly’s Health Committee threatened to investigate by bringing the suppliers in for questioning, and then accused Nyamai, the committee chairperson, of blocking their probe. Members of the committee signed a petition calling for the removal of Nyamai and her deputy, but the petition reportedly went missing. Nyamai now heads the National Assembly’s Committee on Lands.

Transactions for companies owned by Mrs Nyamai’s relatives were among 25,727 leaked procurement records reviewed by reporters from Africa Uncensored, Finance Uncovered, The Elephant, and OCCRP. The data includes transactions by eight government agencies between August 2014 and January 2018, and reveals both questionable contracts as well as problems that continue to plague the government’s accounting tool, IFMIS.

The Integrated Financial Management Information System was adopted to improve efficiency and accountability. Instead, it has been used to fast-track corruption.

Hand sanitizer was an important tool in fighting transmission of Ebola, according to a WHO health expert. In one transaction, the Ministry of Health paid Sh5.4 million for “the supply of Ebola reagents for hand sanitizer” to a company owned by a niece of the MP who chaired the parliamentary health committee. However, it’s unclear what Ebola reagents, which are meant for Ebola testing, have to do with hand sanitizer. Kenya’s Ministry of Health made 84 other transactions to various vendors during this period, earmarked specifically for Ebola-related spending. These included:

  • Public awareness campaigns and adverts paid to print, radio and tv media platforms, totalling at least KSh122 million.
  • Printed materials totalling at least KSh214 million for Ebola prevention and information posters, contact tracing forms, technical guideline and point-of-entry forms, brochures and decision charts, etc. Most of the payments were made to six obscure companies.
  • Ebola-related pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical supplies, including hand sanitizer
  • Ebola-related conferences, catering, and travel expenses
  • At least KSh15 millions paid to a single vendor for isolation beds

Hacking the System

Tira Southshore Holdings Limited and Ameken Minewest Company Limited, appear to have no history of dealing in hygiene or medical supplies. Yet they were awarded three blanket purchase agreements, which are usually reserved for trusted vendors who provide recurring supplies such as newspapers and tea, or services such as office cleaning.

“A blanket agreement is something which should be exceptional, in my view,” says former Auditor-General, Edward Ouko.

But the leaked data show more than 2,000 such agreements, marked as approved by the heads of procurement in various ministries. About KSh176 billion (about $1.7 billion) was committed under such contracts over 42 months.

“Any other method of procurement, there must be competition. And in this one there is no competition,” explained a procurement officer, who spoke generally about blanket purchase agreements on background. “You have avoided sourcing.”

The Ministry of Health did not respond to detailed questions, while Mrs Nyamai declined to comment on the contracts in question.

Procurement experts say blanket purchase agreements are used in Kenya to short-circuit the competitive process. A ministry’s head of procurement can request authority from the National Treasury to create blanket agreements for certain vendors. Those companies can then be asked by procurement employees to deliver supplies and services without competing for a tender.

Once in the system, these single-source contracts are prone to corruption, as orders and payments can simply be made without the detailed documentation required under standard procurements. With limited time and resources, government auditors say they struggle especially with reconciling purchases made under blanket agreements.

The agreements were almost always followed by standard purchase orders that indicated the same vendor and the same amount which is unusual and raises fears of duplication. Some of these transactions were generated days or weeks after the blanket agreements, many with missing or mismatched explanations. It’s unclear whether any of these actually constituted duplicate payments.

For example, the leaked data show two transactions for Ameken Minewest for Sh6.9 million each — a blanket purchase order for El Nino mitigation supplies and a standard order for the supply of chlorine tablets eight days later. Tira Southshore also had two transactions of Sh12 million each — a blanket purchase for the “supply of lab reagents for cholera,” and six days later a standard order for the supply of chlorine powder.

Auditors say both the amounts and the timing of such payments are suspicious because blanket agreements should be paid in installments.

“It could well be a duplicate, using the same information, to get through the process. Because you make a blanket [agreement], then the intention is to do duplicates, so that it can pass through the cash payee phase several times without delivering more,” said Ouko upon reviewing some of the transactions for Tira Southshore. This weakness makes the IFMIS system prone to abuse, he added.

In addition, a KSh4 billion contract for hand sanitizer between the Health Ministry’s Preventive and Promotive Health Department and Tira Southshore was approved as a blanket purchase agreement in April 2015. The following month, a standard purchase order was generated for the same amount but without a description of services — this transaction is marked in the system as incomplete. A third transaction — this one for 0 shillings — was generated 10 days later by the same procurement employee, using the original order description: “please supply hand sanitizers 5oomls as per contract Moh/dpphs/dsru/008/14-15-MTC/17/14-15(min.no.6).

Reporters were unable to confirm whether KSh4 billion was paid by the ministry. The leaked data doesn’t include payment disbursement details, and the MOH has not responded to requests for information.

“I can assure you there’s no 4 billion, not even 1 billion. Not even 10 million that I have ever done, that has ever gone through Tira’s account, through that bank account,” said the co-owner of the company, Abigael Mukeli. She insisted that Tira Southshore never had a contract to deliver hand sanitizer, but declined to answer specific questions. It is unclear how a company without a contract would appear as a vendor in IFMIS, alongside contract details.

It is possible that payments could end up in bank accounts other than the ones associated with the supplier. That is because IFMIS also allowed for the creation of duplicate suppliers, according to a 2016 audit of the procurement system. That audit found almost 50 cases of duplication of the same vendor.

“Presence of active duplicate supplier master records increases the possibility of potential duplicate payments, misuse of bank account information, [and] reconciliation issues,” the auditors warned.

They also found such blatant security vulnerabilities as ghost and duplicate login IDs, deactivated requirements for password resets, and remote access for some procurement employees.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

IFMIS was promoted as a solution for a faster procurement process and more transparent management of public funds. But the way the system was installed and used in Kenya compromised its extolled safeguards, according to auditors.

“There is a human element in the system,” said Ouko. “So if the human element is also not working as expected then the system cannot be perfect.”

The former head of the internal audit unit at the health ministry, Bernard Muchere, confirmed in an interview that IFMIS can be manipulated.

Masking the Setup

Ms Mukeli, the co-owner of Tira Southshore and Ameken Minewest, is the niece of Mrs Nyamai, according to local sources and social media investigation, although she denied the relationship to reporters. According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms Mukeli works at Kenya Medical Supplies Agency, a medical logistics agency under the Ministry of Health, now embroiled in a COVID procurement scandal.

Ms Mukeli’s mother, who is the MP’s elder sister, co-owns Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., which shares a post office box with Tira Southshore and Mematira Holdings Limited, which was opened in 2018, is co-owned by Mrs Nyamai’s husband and daughter, and is currently the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest. Documents also show that a company called Icpher Consultants was originally registered to the MP, who was listed as the beneficial owner.

Co-owner of Tira Southshore Holdings Limited, Abigael Mukeli, described the company to reporters as a health consulting firm. However Tira Southshore also holds an active exploration license for the industrial mining in a 27-square-kilometer area in Kitui County, including in the restricted South Kitui National Reserve. According to government records, the application for mining limestone in Mutomo sub-county — Nyamai’s hometown — was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018.

Mukeli is also a minority owner of Ameken Minewest Company Limited, which also holds an active mining license in Mutomo sub-county of Kitui, in an area covering 135.5 square kilometers. Government records show that the application for the mining of limestone, magnesite, and manganese was initiated in 2015 and granted in 2018. Two weeks after the license was granted, Mematira Holdings Limited was incorporated, with Nyamai’s husband and daughter as directors. Today, Mematira Holdings is the majority shareholder of Ameken Minewest, which is now in the process of obtaining another mining license in Kitui County.

According to public documents, Ameken also dabbles in road works and the transport of liquefied petroleum gas. And it’s been named by the Directorate of Criminal Investigations in a fuel fraud scheme.

Yet another company, Wet Blue Proprietors Logistics Ltd., shares a phone number with Tira Southshore and another post office box with Icpher Consultants Company Ltd., according to a Kenya National Highway Authority list of pre-qualified vendors.

Family LinksMrs Nyamai and her husband co-own Wet Blue. The consulting company was opened in 2010, the same year that the lawmaker completed her PhD work in HIV/AIDS education in Denmark.

Wet Blue was licenced in 2014 as a dam contractor and supplier of water, sewerage, irrigation and electromechanical works. It’s also listed by KENHA as a vetted consultant for HIV/AIDS mitigation services, together with Icpher Consultants.

It is unclear why these companies are qualified to deliver all these services simultaneously.

“Shell companies receiving contracts in the public sector in Kenya have enabled corruption, fraud and tax evasion in the country. They are literally special purpose vehicles to conduct ‘heists’ and with no track record to deliver the public goods, works or services procured,” said Sheila Masinde, executive director of Transparency International-Kenya.

Both MOH and Ms Mukeli refused to confirm whether the ordered supplies were delivered.

Mrs Nyamai also co-owns Ameken Petroleum Limited together with Alfred Agoi Masadia and Allan Sila Kithome.

Mr Agoi is an ANC Party MP for Sabatia Constituency in Vihiga County, and was on the same Health Committee as Mrs Nyamai, a Jubilee Party legislator. Mr Sila is a philanthropist who is campaigning for the Kitui County senate seat in the 2022 election.

Juliet Atellah at The Elephant and Finance Uncovered in the UK contributed reporting.

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