In Yoweri Museveni’s fourth decade in power, the Ugandan state has shrunk into one man and a dog, himself and his police chief
Not since January 25, 1986 had I felt the slow-burning, debilitating fever that I did on May 20 this year, a fever you would know if you are Iraqi, Syrian, or Ugandan over 20, or South Sudanese of any age or era:
Although akin to malarial lethargy, it is not a proper fever, its toll on your body and mind operating at a remove from the latter. It will neither ground nor kill you, but as with malaria, you are sapped of energy, you have no appetite, the joie de vivre by which you claim membership to life has flown away. You want to withdraw into a dark corner and curl up.
I am labouring to describe in unfamiliar, personal terms, the physiological experience of being caught up in a violent military coup. To live through such a moment, is to experience war compressed into hours, days or weeks. There is a prolonged bath in adrenaline that is physically and mentally draining. There is the upending of routine and rule that kills your spirit.
So on May 20 this year, when I left the house and went to town, and this fever suddenly broke out in me, I instinctively understood that Uganda had turned a corner from which return may not be possible. And yet the trigger could not have been more trivial: My telephone line had been cut.
I had expected that to happen. In fact, I had wilfully participated in the loss of my line. An announcement had been made in early April saying that all phone users must re-register their lines or be cut off in seven days. I refused to comply. On the sixth day, the Prime Minister’s Office said the deadline had been extended by a month. I stayed home. The month came to an end and promptly, the lines were cut.
The people at the mall trying to get their phones reconnected were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN, jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion
When I got to town, I was more staggered than I could have expected. There at the mall, standing in ragged lines with the sun beating down on them, was a mass of people, local and international, who could no longer make or receive calls. It was the look on their faces that reminded me of 1979, 1985 and 1986, the coup years. It was the look of people in the midst of a calamity beyond prevention.
BETRAYAL OF THE DOCILE CONSUMER
I had refused to comply with the directive. But those in the lines had complied; was it just inefficiency or had they been guilty of forwarding memes the state disliked? It mattered not what had happened. There at the mall, with its high-end branded products, something heartbreaking was happening:
The people there were largely upper crust, in government, in cushy private sector, NGO, UN jobs – expatriates, well-to-do locals, denizens of Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, well-fed and secure in their status. But now their faces reflected fear mixed with confusion. This was their thing, this government and the economic ideology it espoused. Many had got their jobs by following regime diktats, not making noise, not being seen with noise-makers.
The economic encyclical they knew by heart had said that capitalist excess was good. Investors and consumers were protected by the regime. Yet now, the telephone, which had brought vast investments into the country, with its millions of dollars in taxes, had been switched off.
The regime had for over 20 years touted its openness. It had enthusiastically done what the IMF and World Bank had asked it to do, back in the early 1990s when it carried out what was then clothed in the euphemism of “structural adjustment policy” but today goes in the explicit nudity of “austerity”. It had punished its people with gut-wrenching impoverishment so it could please the Western powers and avoid regime change. Over the decades, barriers to “free trade” had come down. Uganda, the IMF told all who cared to listen, was business-friendly.
So to wake up that Saturday morning to the reality of a ham-fisted regulation, one that could strangle any multinational co-operation, was astounding. The faces in that mall asked all these questions but in the abstract: What had we done wrong? Had we not consumed (and done so conspicuously) like all well-brought up boys and girls are taught to? Had we not behaved like responsible adults by heeding Gordon Gecko’s dictum that greed is good? Had we not volunteered our energy and time on earth as a good, mostly Christian country and devoted our energy to making the rich richer? Why this punishment now?
In lieu of competitive politics, Museveni’s first decade in power had operated under a ‘broad-based’ system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks
To such exemplary behaviour were due such little rewards as walking into the most expensive restaurants, not so much to eat, as to snap pictures of the dinner for Instagram. Going out the door each day was a Facebook challenge. Now even that was no longer possible. I saw in their faces horror at the prospect of returning to the anonymity of the 1990s, to operating VCRs and having to twirl cassette tapes on a Bic pen to rewind them.
WE ALWAYS KNEW THE MILITARY WOULD TURN AROUND AND BITE US
The Museveni government had acted out of character. What had been concealed and contained for 31 years of his time in power had at last erupted, very publicly. We had lived with a military government for a full generation. One day, we always knew, it would turn around and bite us. If you had watched the Museveni regime for the past three decades, you would have noticed that at the close of each decade, his rule shifted gear in consequential ways. We were at the start of the fourth decade, which meant a new tempo had been embarked upon.
The first 10 years had been unchallenged rule by the complete set of ideologues he had brought with him from the bush war. They were the gushing, forward-rushing youthful stage during which the government could do no wrong and genuinely tried its best not to. That was the forward-rushing youthful stage. In lieu of competitive politics, the decade had operated under a “broad-based” system, a serious attempt at an ideology, a kind of reconciliation by which the soviets set up at parish level (going by the name of Resistance Councils) could also include, rather than execute, kulaks. The “good leadership”, “political will” by which Museveni has been described, were products of this period. Victory had brought goodwill and he was eager to show it.
The period ended with the passing of the 1995 constitution, the biggest goodwill of all. And then it started. Looking back, it would seem that Museveni’s longer lasting troubles began with that document. Ugandans had given the regime the benefit of the doubt in the first decade. Now they wanted something in return. The 1990s ended with the now famous “missive” Dr Kizza Besigye wrote in 1999 declaring Museveni a dictator. Besigye’s courage took Museveni aback, as did the massive crowds Besigye attracted when he first ran for president in 2001, dwarfing the numbers Museveni attracted, for the first time giving the president an undiluted assessment of what Ugandans thought of him.
The departure of Besigye from the war veterans’ camp opened the door for the haemorrhage of Museveni’s bush war colleagues, a bleeding he and the Movement were never to recover from; what was worse, the end of the second decade marked very emphatic victories against him from a Uganda Museveni thought he had vanquished.
Through a series of legal battles, lawyers of the Uganda People’s Congress and the Democratic Party, doyens of the anti-colonial years that had been banned from operating, revealed the contradiction between Museveni’s claim to have returned constitutional rule to Uganda, and his refusal to obey the same constitution. In an attempt to pre-empt the return of political parties, the government had organised the infamous Referendum of 2000, whose cloying rationale fooled few. The banned opposition parties, unwilling to lend political legitimacy to Museveni, refused to participate, whereupon the government propped up straw parties to act the part of the Yes side while it hogged the No role. In a poorly attended exercise, 90.7% of those that bothered to vote, estimated at 30 % of registered voters chose a “No Party” Movement system against the 9.3% who chose a “Multiparty” system.
To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44 %. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate
The result served as legal cover for one-party rule (described now as “no party rule”). But in 2004 a seven-judge panel of the Supreme Court declared it null and void. As if to save face, to show that it had known what it was doing, the government organised a second referendum on the same question, in 2005. This time, it was a little tricky. The government decided it wanted parties back, which meant that it was now sentimentally on the same side as the parties it had banned. It therefore invited the parties, which by law did not exist, to take the government’s side in declaring that it, the government, had been wrong. The parties refused to agree whereupon the government stood alone in acting the Yes side. But for the suffrage to be legal, there had to be a No side. For two decades, the government had said No. Now the government was saying Yes and therefore no one was saying No. Once again, props had to be found and money found to fund their No.
To show how much it believed in multiparty democracy, the government needed a stronger Yes than the 90% garnered by its No side the last time around. It allowed a Yes percentage figure of 92.44%. Some 4 million democracy-shy Ugandans now resoundingly allowed multiparty politics to operate.
NOBODY LOVES THE JACKBOOT
Having kept them under the military jackboot for 20 years, Museveni now castigated the parties for refusing to support their own return to life. They were “not contributing to Uganda’s development,” he said.
That was the spirit in which Museveni ruled for 20 years, that play-acting at magnanimity, the third-rate theatre by which he blarneyed his way through, year after year. He was after all a “good” leader and that called for “good” behaviour. It is easy to forget, but in the first two decades, Museveni cut a figure somewhere between a likeable clown and a deadly fighter.
The judicial humiliations of 2004-2005 were not isolated events. The end of his second decade in power presented Museveni with new realities neither he nor Ugandans could have anticipated. This period of irrevocable change started in 2003 and did not end until 2006-2007. Museveni’s perennial bogeymen, the figures he could invoke to frighten Ugandans into obedience, Idi Amin and Milton Obote, died (2003 and 2005), deaths that left him exposed. Suddenly, he was left alone. The shadows of the past gone, he would now be judged by his actions alone.
And then the war in northern Uganda jolted to an abrupt end. What had provided political ballast, the spectre of Nilotic rule that had made the Bantu southerners so uneasy, faded rapidly. To further complicate life for Museveni, the end of the northern war left him without a diversion to distract restless, politicised military officers, nor cover for the classified budgets to defence that had hitherto provided a useful slush fund.
But not as yet. An election was still looming in 2006 and Besigye had learnt nothing from the beatings and imprisonment he had suffered. Yet if the returned political parties were triumphant, the electorate did not share this triumph. The 92.44% voters who wanted them back did not show up for them. The crowded field of presidential candidates, which included Milton Obote’s widow, Miria Obote, played supporting roles to the protagonists.
Museveni, realising that the constitution he had nursed to life would not be on his side, began to make the moves that would lead to the funereal pall of May 20, 2017. He appointed one General Kale Kayihura as Inspector General of Police. The disastrous militarisation of the police had begun. Kayihura had made his name as commander of the Revenue Protection Unit, which went after smugglers and tax dodgers with methods that threw the operation into disrepute. He was not a nice man.
KAYIHURA, UGANDA’S LONGEST SERVING IGP
Footage courtesy of New Vision TV
Not forgetting what it had done to him, Museveni also moved against the judiciary through appointments and outright humiliation. In a striking display of what would characterise the next decade in power, the so-called Black Mamba squad invaded the High Court and rearrested 22 suspects granted bail by the judges. They were allegedly part of the People’s Redemption Army, allegedly linked to Besigye.
Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda
The drift away from constitutionalism had begun. It is still unbelievable, the degree of violence that the army and the police deployed in this, Museveni’s third decade in power, from the brutal actions on the streets during the 2011 elections, to the disarmament of Karamoja pastoralists. Whoever was in charge, was not of the calibre of Besigye, whose stewardship of battalions in the first decade of Museveni’s rule had won so much respect in most parts of Uganda. These were a raw, untempered lot. As the decades piled up, principled men and women refused to work with Museveni, leaving the dregs to exercise power.
THE COST OF DOING POLITICS IN UGANDA GOES UP
And then, 16 months before the 2011 elections, something exceedingly alarming happened. In September 2009, the King of Buganda, Kabaka Ronald Mutebi, set off to visit a district his kingdom claimed as part of its territory. Kayunga, home to the Baruli community, had been a vassal state in pre-colonial Buganda, so the visit provided ironies all around, not least for Buganda, which was demanding the return of its properties from the Uganda state, the same kind of demand the Baruli were making of the Buganda Kingdom. The government blocked the visit, upon which Buganda erupted. The extremely ethnicised nature of the riots that followed were a frightening demonstration of what people felt, that Museveni and his ethnic group were “oppressors” hell bent on a massive land grab. It brought out fears of the kind that lie just under the surface of African politics.
The cost of doing politics in Uganda had gone up. In the run up to the 2006 elections, plainclothes operatives had fired live bullets and killed a man, just yards from where the Kabaka stood next to Besigye. It had been the single most chilling episode of that campaign period, one which left the Buganda, long mass supporters of Museveni who had in the previous two elections voted overwhelmingly for him, in no doubt of what they were facing. The 2009 riots were a delayed reaction. The country became a less happy place, if it had been happy in the first place.
But newer global forces, particularly “terrorism,” provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was “an ally” in the “war on terror.” Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and replace lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda. The modus operandi of Museveni has been that there must always be a war; as rulers throughout the ages know, war enriches soldiers and is also a neat way to get rid of problematic officers.
The opposition had gained traction by now. The public had seen a side to the regime it would not forget. Only voter intimidation and rigging ensured the ruling party stayed in power in 2006. In 2011, in a bizarre move, Museveni courted northern Ugandan voters. The ballots returned significant gains for the Movement. It was a shocking event, for Museveni had always ignored the northern vote. But now, he had also lost southern support. The cost of buying the northern vote, as well as the amount of fear-mongering needed to secure it, was too high. It was not tried again in 2016, when the opposition returned to its previous sweep of the region.
Newer global forces, particularly ‘terrorism,’ provided fresh nomenclature. Now Uganda was an ally in the ‘war on terror.’ Renewed support from Washington boosted the regime and may well have bought it a decade extra in power. Sending troops to Somalia served to divert the military and inject income-replacing lost revenue from Congo and northern Uganda
However, it must be noted that faith in elections ended in 2001; whatever little remained burned out in 2006. What the government may have missed was that by participating in the 2011 elections, the opposition was in effect, simply looking for a casus belli – daring the government to show its hand – by which to justify its next move. The state duly obliged. The world and the judges agreed that the elections had been a sham. The demonstrations that followed (this was Arab Spring season) in the well-reported “Walk to Work” protests in which political leaders “siding” with the poor ditched their cars and walked to parliament, initiated a novel approach to Ugandan politics. It also neutralised the use of armed force. It was a battle of image for which Museveni the guerrilla-fighter could not have been more ill-prepared.
NEOLIBERALISM BEGINS TO UNRAVEL
It was also in this decade that the economic policies adopted in the early days of the regime had so endeared Museveni to Western powers, began to unravel. The failure of neoliberal economics to deliver promised “trickle down” benefits had done its damage in the Third World countries forced to swallow it. But following the 2008 banking crisis, the failures of that ideology had crept up from its Third World laboratories into the heartlands of extreme capitalism. While it had never really had a chance to work in a country like Uganda, the crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time the third decade in power was coming to a close.
Enter Amama Mbabazi. He had been Museveni’s co-tribune, a Movement pillar and prime minister from 2011 to 2014. It had always been rumoured that he had been the organiser, the man who made things work. He first publicly expressed his presidential ambitions back in 2000 when he accused Besigye of jumping the succession queue. Had there been a pact between him and Museveni that he would be president after him? And how patient was he going to be? In 2015, when it became plain that Mbabazi had presidential ambitions, the Movement machinery whirred into action to do what it had rarely, if ever, done. It turned against its own.
The crisis meant that the lifeline of foreign aid that had tube-fed the Museveni government suddenly ran dry. Incapable of providing the patronage he had once dispensed, and with poverty underlining the degree of income inequality, things had come to a head by the time his third decade in power was coming to a close
The subsequent ejection, failed presidential candidacy and fall of Mbabazi quickly faded out of sight and he was not to become a subject of public discussion afterwards. The essential rebellion had been Besigye’s 1999 missive. There was to be no repeat. Attention remained focused on the latter, whose arrests and trials continued apace.
That was on the surface. Underneath, the ouster of the cringe-worthily naive Mbabazi, as it is now turning out, was to provide the essential plot and character for Museveni’s entry into the fourth decade in power. It is the thread that led to the fear I read that afternoon of May 20:
The ouster of Mbabazi was accompanied by a purge of the government and of the Movement system of alleged Mbabazi supporters. The high-level paranoia that underneath his own system, rebellion was growing, denied Museveni trust in a system as complex as a government needs in order to function. And yet it had been that trust the knowledge technocrats had that the president was both reasonable and supportive, that had delivered the key achievements of his early days in office, like the economic recovery and the fight against HIV/Aids. These achievements had in various forms not survived beyond the first decade but the original impetus had created a momentum of goodwill, for the image of “good leadership,” once earned, is hard to lose, if only because society is desperate for it. At any rate, Museveni had always profited by the inexhaustible store of goodwill extended to him.
It was inexhaustible until it ran out. By 2014, when Museveni made the ill-advised and very public move to sign the so-called anti-gay Bill, there had been a considerable body of international opinion that he was not exactly a democrat. By inserting himself needlessly into the Western cultural wars, Museveni had blundered in a costly fashion. He may have calculated that it would improve his electoral chances back home, but his opponents were never going to support gay rights to start with. The advantage was cancelled out. His detractors in the West had their opportunity. They pounced.
Aid money was cut left, right and centre. They needed the money for their own people. What had been billed as economic recovery was revealed to have all along been baloney. Uganda under Museveni had never improved its productivity in real terms. It was an aid-money autarky all the time.
By the time the 2016 elections came and went, it was undeniable that the country was in serious trouble. Police and other civil servants, not least teachers, nurses and doctors, went months without pay. Medicine was unavailable in hospitals. At the same time, the internal witch hunt in government, and the air of fear and suspicion following the ouster of Amama Mbabazi was causing a cave-in from the other end: There was no money to pay public workers; at the same time, people in high office became afraid to work, in case they were seen to be ambitious.
FEAR AND INTIMIDATION TAKE OVER
Museveni’s innate instinct, the use of force and intimidation, seems to have taken over. The perennial troubles of Kasese, the Rwenzururu Kingdom, which predated colonial Uganda, and which had been handled diplomatically since the Obote I government in the 1960s, now met military force. More than 100 people were gunned down. It was not as if such a small kingdom could have caused national damage (its cause remains obscure outside the Rwenzori region), but it reflects what one analyst told me is the mentality of those whom the president now puts trust in – use maximum force.
Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming
Without respect and trust in the seasoned technocrats who shepherd political masters through the jungles of laws and acts and regulations that are effectively the “system,” a number of odd things have been happening in Uganda. Foremost among them is the failure to manage a looming food crisis in eastern Uganda. The coming environmental crisis, the first of which is the developing collapse of fish stocks, could have been avoided had the civil service been allowed to do its work. Every ministry, from Health, Education, to Energy, is feeling the chill wind of administrative paralysis, but not all of them have as yet displayed incompetence in the manner in which famine in eastern Uganda has shown up the Ministry of Agriculture. But it is coming. The spectacular bungling of telephone registration brought these issues to the fore.
A BOYISH, ALMOST FLAGRANT INFORMALITY
An order was given that telephone users “verify” their numbers. However, Ugandan citizens were told they could not use driving permits, passports, work IDs, local council IDs, only National IDs. It was a telling admission that the Ministry of Internal Affairs was inept, that its identity documents were a sham. A properly functioning government would have been advised against such a move for the demands of one arm of government must be reconciled across all government arms to ensure systemic uniformity. It is the reason there is a prime minister and a Secretary to the Cabinet. This one was a weird call, until it was revealed that the call came from the IGP’s office.
At his first press conference back in 2005, which I attended as journalist at The EastAfrican, I watched Gen. Kayihura’s demeanour. I observed his short attention span, his easily distracted manner, twiddling with his phone in the middle of taking press questions and his affinity for a boyish, almost vagrant informality. It was a frightening projection of things to come.
In 2017, you could see Gen Kayihura’s hand in that telephone debacle. A chess piece moved at the end of the second decade in power, had showed its own hand at the beginning of the fourth decade in power.
What it said, and what precipitated that fever that we felt on May 20, was the fact that the administrative state in Uganda, had been overthrown by the security forces. There had been a coup. The Office of the Prime Minister, which supervised the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which supervised the Police, was forced to humiliatingly “follow” the orders of a policeman; parliament recognised its own impotence by attacking the line minister who formally made the announcement, knowing well that the minister had simply been following the orders of the IGP, whom they dared not touch. Prime minister, parliament and line minister were all to be further humiliated when the NRM parliamentary caucus overruled all of them. Four days after shutting down phone lines, they switched them on back again, and said we would have three more months to comply with the registration order.
It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP
There is the misled belief that an Orwellian-sized national biometric database will give the state means to track everyone and prevent an Arab Spring-style social media uprising. Sources say the government’s investments in electronic surveillance have been extensive. When it first asked citizens to acquire National IDs in 2013, very few people bothered to register. Then someone had a brain wave – threaten to take away their phones, that will bring them running. And so for all of April and May, the entire country was thrown into turmoil. We wait to see what happens in August when the three-month extension runs out.
It has become clear that there are now two centres of power in Uganda, President Museveni and IGP Kayihura. Everyone else, from the vice president to district officers, has gone quiet. In a sign of how disastrous this leadership model is, the “old” model was forced to intervene after President Museveni jumped protocol and directly accused fictitious Chinese diplomats of ivory trafficking. The incensed Chinese put their foot down and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which had not been consulted when the letter of accusation was sent out by the president’s office, apologised publicly to China. What it demonstrated was the manner in which Museveni now micro-manages Uganda.
It has become clear now that, going into his fourth decade in power, Museveni has effectively shut down the Uganda state and is intent on ruling through a secret and sometimes not so secret cabal of gunslingers, chief among them his IGP Gen Kale Kayihura. But even in there, things are not going swimmingly, which may explain the ultra-violent execution of Gen Kayihura’s deputy, Felix Kaweesi, on March 17 this year. It was the killing that provided the justification for shutting down telephone lines. There is a deadly power struggle even within the securocratic redoubt into which Museveni’s fourth decade is retreating. The new front of cyber security and fear of the power of social media has meant that a new front of enemies has opened up; it is no longer just past leaders, Nilotics or opposition who are “against development”; it’s also now a teenager with WhatsApp who must be closely monitored.
There is a general realisation that time is running out. Those in positions of power and opportunity are taking as much cash out of the public and through their offices as they can while they still have the chance. Principled and seasoned individuals are opting out, leaving a bevy of the callow and ethnically loyal to take positions of authority. The centre retreats into self-serving fiction.
LOST AND NOT FOUND: What happens when people go missing in Kenya
It could be an empty bed or an untouched room. An automated horoscope on their Twitter account or a dormant Facebook profile. All that remains are memories. A family photo no one talks about anymore. Things left unsaid. Spaces left unfilled. Some choose to keep them that way in the hope that their loved one will walk back through the door.
But they don’t always do.
Mohammed Abdulkarim, popularly known as Czars, has been missing since October 2006. The teen heartthrob was barely a week away from his final high school exams and on the verge of what looked like it would be a wildly successful music career. The skinny, light-skinned 17-year-old was a national sensation for his song “Amka Ukatike.” Yet that day in 2006, he took a walk from their family home and never came back. Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade.
For Abdullahi Boru, those constant reminders are embedded in his career after his best friend and former housemate, Bogonko Bosire, went missing in September 2013. Bogonko was a pioneer blogger who ran a popular and controversial tabloid. He went missing at the height of the International Criminal Court cases against President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy, William Ruto, and from the little we know so far, probably because of them. “I’ve known Bogonko Bosire since 2000 when we joined journalism school. Then after we were done we shared a house as we fit into our first jobs” Boru says. For him, Bosire is still in the present tense, an unsolved disappearance that will one day have a solution. That same year, in December, a senior State House advisor called Albert Muriuki also disappeared. His case too, remains unsolved.
Last year, on the tenth anniversary of his disappearance, his father voiced that undying hope that he will find his way back, wherever he is. He’d kept his son’s room intact for a decade
For the family of independence hero Kung’u Karumba, one of the Kapenguria Six, that has been a 43-year-long wait. The freedom fighter disappeared in 1974 while on a business trip to Uganda and was most likely caught up in political upheaval. But there has never been any proof of his death, so his family has kept hope alive. In 2004, 30 years after he went missing, his youngest wife Esther Wanjiru told The Standard “I am still waiting for him to show up in his pickup van, KPD 304.”
Without a Trace
“The reasons why people go missing are almost as varied as the people themselves,” a tracing investigator who requested anonymity tells me. Outside of extrajudicial killings and conflict, other reasons why people disappear include kidnappings, accidents and suicide. Someone can leave intentionally because they decided to, or drifted away. Someone can be forced to go missing because of disease or an accident. Mental health conditions rank highly here.
A close friend’s family once lost her 80-year-old grandmother, who suffered from dementia, for three weeks. She turned up in Dodoma, Tanzania with no memory of how she got there. In an email conversation, a lady called Sharon Johnston who lives in New Zealand told me about the fruitless search for her father, Dr. Tony Johnston who had lived and worked in Kenya for three decades. She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight knit circle.
In the course of a week, I counted at least nine missing persons’ posters placed in different digital spaces, including several news alerts. Eight were kids below twelve years of age, and the ninth involving a teen, was deemed resolved after she was found at a friend’s house. I also scoured through a Facebook page called Kenya Missing & Unidentified Persons, which was set up to help families find their loved ones. Although it has not been updated since 2015, the page gives a small sample size of the people who go missing in Kenya. Of about 30 cases posted in a period of six months, most of them were relatively young (17-30 years old) and from a cursory glance, from the middle and lower socioeconomic classes. Almost all the cases involving older people, above 60 years of age, mentioned some form of mental illness.
She eventually found him in a home for the elderly, living with dementia. His property seemed to have changed hands, and visitation rights were controlled by the same tight-knit circle.
While Sharon was lucky in a way, most aren’t. Law enforcement agencies do not give priority to missing persons’ cases, and in some of them, are actually complicit. In one recent example, a human rights lawyer called Willie Kimani, his client, and a taxi driver were kidnapped and then killed by police officers. Such extrajudicial killings are at times followed by attempts to hide the bodies, or disfigure them beyond recognition.
Such police brutality and state violence have a long history in Kenya, even before the genocidal ‘50s. In precolonial Kenya, it was not unusual for people to leave and simply never come back. Some died in skirmishes, while others fell sick along the way. Others simply moved and made new homes elsewhere, sometimes leaving even their spouses behind. In the social dynamics of the time, this was not as serious as it is today, but the heartbreak was no less real.
But in that decade of the Mau Mau rebellion, disappearances especially of men from around Mount Kenya became commonplace. This would happen again, in the 2000s as Interior Security Minister John Michuki led a murderous effort to kill off the Mungiki, literally in this case. From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008. He was a young, skinny lad with shaggy hair, and most likely got caught up in the extrajudicial war on the Mungiki.
If someone you know goes missing today, the process goes something like this. You make a report to a police station where a bored police officer records your complaint. Then forwards it to a police station with an investigator from the Criminal Investigations Department (CID). If it’s a high profile case then it might get priority, and the digital and physical search will begin immediately. If you are absolutely lucky, and this is rare, then you will never get to hear those debilitating words “investigations are still ongoing” and “the file is still open.”
But more often than not, you will be unlucky. There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark. Access to a telecom company’s data may provide some answers as to the last place a phone was on, as well as the last people the person talked to. A find such as a car or clothes, as was the case with IEBC manager Chris Msando, may hint at a few things, but mostly say nothing. Add to this the fact that the investigation process is so opaque and complicated that it often feels like law enforcement agencies are not doing enough.
Most families supplement this with either searching for the person themselves or even hiring private investigators. A search of morgues is a common go-to solution, but it is often based on the hope that if the person is dead, they would be in the specific morgues the search party is looking into. The same goes for hospitals and hospices, and the search is grueling. At least one independent missing persons’ investigator was described to me as “…someone who walks into morgues the way he would a coffee shop.”
From hearing one of my grandmothers’ stories about how her dad left to pick rent from a residential building in Nairobi in 1954 and never came back, I moved to listening to one of my neighbors describe the last time she saw her son in 2008.
There are other avenues. The Red Cross has a tracing department in its offices across the world, including Kenya. The project, called “Restoring Family Links” is designed to help people look for their family members or restore contact with them. Their focus though, is on people who’ve gone missing due to conflict, disaster or migration. Without enough resources to expand this to cover all missing persons cases, even their assistance is limited.
Public appeals for information sometimes work. They can yield information about a sighting or identification of places where the family can start looking. But more often than not, each appeal for information is followed by many false leads. In the search for the teenage heartthrob Czars, for example, one of the earliest seemingly credible leads came from an entertainment journalist. He had gotten it from a source he trusted, and it looked promising at the time. Czars, the intel suggested, was living in Eastleigh, likely in the company of an older fling. That singular statement led to a wild-goose chase with journalists and the musician’s father scouring Eastleigh in vain.
Another infamous false lead example is in the days after Nyandarua MP JM Kariuki was killed. After he disappeared in early March 1975, then Vice President Daniel Arap Moi confidently said he had left the country for Zambia. It took a newspaper report to dispute this, and for five whole days, no one knew what had happened to the charismatic MP. His body was eventually found on March 12, 1975, mutilated.
Two decades before, another missing persons case had stood out in a decade of conflict. Mau Mau leader Stanley Mathenge disappeared one night in 1956, and for years the official story was that he had gone to Ethiopia to seek assistance for the cause. It stopped there, never explaining why the freedom army’s most formidable military mind chose to abandon the cause. Years later, in 2003, a stranger from Ethiopia was feted in his place, not only costing taxpayers’ money but also leaving the government embarrassed.
Like JM, its more likely Matheng’e never left Kenya. The most likely scenario was that his compatriot and power rival, Dedan Kimathi, had him killed and then weaved the Ethiopia story to avoid internal strife. Kimathi was himself shot and arrested later that year.
Some leads seem purely coincidental and others outright suspicious. In the case of Bogonko Bosire, that happened to be a terror attack. The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming. So they looked, through the rows upon rows of dead bodies from the mall, to no avail. A few times since, there has been some activity on his social media profiles. The last, at 5:30pm on August 10th 2016, was a new profile picture and name on his Facebook profile. “From time to time I check his Twitter handle to see if he’s back,” Boru tells me as we discuss his hope that his friend is still out there somewhere.
Where do We Go from Here?
Many cases remain unsolved because there is no coordinated effort to actually find them. Even well-meaning investigators are hampered by one thing, the lack of dependable data. While some patterns are easy to see, most of them aren’t. A child who disappears from home while in the care of her nanny has most likely been kidnapped, but not always. An aging man with a mental condition who goes missing on his way home probably got lost, but not always. A young man who disappears on his way home could have been shot by the police, but not always.
There is no national data on missing persons, or any related database to speak of. Everyone is, at the base of it, groping in the dark.
What Kenya needs is an integrated system that not only improves information flow between agencies and families, but also provides a support network for both. Part of this could be a searchable DNA and personal profile database for missing persons and unidentified remains. In countries like Scotland, for example, the standard operating procedures of policing give priority and resources to missing persons’ investigations.
There is some hope though. Earlier this year, the National Crime Research Center released a report on kidnappings in Kenya. In it, researchers found that you are most likely to be kidnapped if you are female, under 35 (and especially below 18) by men of around the same age. The report also ranked Kenya number 17 out of 19 in prevalence of kidnappings. It also looked into interventions and found that at least 12 different bodies, most of them government units such as the police and the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, are involved in addressing kidnapping cases. Some private organisations include Missing Child Kenya, which provides free resources to search for and rescue missing kids.
Still, there is a long way to go in improving our interventions in finding missing people. In 2008, the US state of New Jersey passed “Patricia’s Law”, a landmark law that describes the investigative process when looking for missing persons. Named after Patricia Viola, a 42-year-old wife and mother who disappeared in February 2001 (her remains were identified via DNA a decade later), the 2008 law was part of a combined effort beginning in 2004 to facilitate communication between agencies to ease the process of finding missing persons. The law not only dictates who should (and must) accept missing persons reports, but also describes stages in the investigation. For example, after 30 days missing, the law enforcement agency is required to take a DNA reference sample from the family. The DNA is run through the Combined DNA Index System for Missing Persons.
Beyond such a legislative backbone, law enforcement agencies also need dedicated resources and personnel. These can form the core structure to coordinate the effort with other agencies as well as stakeholders such as telecom companies. It would also ease communication with the families and friends, and even ease the pressure on morgues, hospitals and hospices.
The last time anyone ever saw the journalist was on 18th September 2013, three days before the Westgate terror attack. Although his family had already been searching for him at that point, the leads suggesting he could have perished there kept coming.
Dependable data will also help researchers identify patterns, and give law enforcement agencies to investigate. As is, beyond their current training and help from telecom agencies and the public, there is little else to go on. No one knows for sure how many people are currently missing, and without that, it is impossible to actually to solve open cases, and even mitigate future ones. Such patterns can be age, gender, risk, and even location. Disappearances of young women in one specific location, or area, could point towards a serial killer, for example. A string of disappearances of kids could point to a human trafficking ring, or even something more sinister.
Anyone can disappear without a trace. Even people in the limelight like Czars, Bogonko Bosire, and Albert Muriuki. All these cases remain unsolved, but their families and friends maintain the hope that that won’t be the case forever. They are only three in an ever-growing list of people who have gone missing without a trace, leaving behind nothing but memories and a never ending worry. The worry that someone is in trouble, or is somewhere lost, is not easy on anyone. Some families simply seek closure, a body to bury even, or just answers. But they are few and far between, and mostly obtained through sheer luck and at times effective policing.
For some those answers never come. As days become months, and then years, and memories fade, the lingering need to find those we love doesn’t dissipate. The worst, Sharon wrote, is in the not knowing.
A NIGERIAN STORY: How Healthcare is the Offspring of Imperialism and Corruption
As a Nigerian, the greatest scorn often finds you when you argue for Nigeria. Other Nigerians will mock you, denounce you as impractical or a dreamer, when you say that Nigeria is where your future lies. But why?
Nigeria as a heritage that separates the Nigerian from the Black American is awarded a loud (though false) superiority. The Nigeria that is evoked in jollof rice debates is praised. Even the Nigeria that must beat Ghana in the football match is supported. Yet, it remains that the Nigeria that will gain a Nigerian’s abuse is the real Nigeria – with its abusive civil servants, its police haggling for bribes and its megachurches auctioning salvation. This real Nigeria is the child of a mean parent called corruption. It’s useful to trace the family tree of this corruption but also useful to think about the way corruption earns Nigeria scorn to the degree that anyone who argues for that Nigeria is unworthy in some way—or should we say, she who argues for Nigeria is worthy of its corruption?
The Nigeria-corruption association has been repeated so often that it has long since become the small talk of world leaders; David Cameron’s aside to Queen Elizabeth II about “fantastically corrupt” Nigeria is but one example. That corruption touches every facet of life in Nigeria is a banality. As Michael Ogbeidi, a history professor at the University of Lagos, put it so accurately in his article, Political Leadership and the Corruption in Nigeria Since 1960, “Indeed, it is difficult to think of any social ill in [Nigeria] that is not traceable to the embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds, particularly as a direct or indirect consequence of the corruption perpetrated by the callous political leadership class since independence”.
Bureaucratic corruption affects healthcare and this is a very old problem both in Nigeria and throughout the formerly colonized world. When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country. The profits of colonial exploitation are so large they inspire disbelief. For instance, the British Ministry of Food made profits of 11 million pounds sterling in some years, according to Walter Rodney. As Rodney’s seminal text, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, so clearly explains: this obscene figure of 11 million pounds sterling per annum was the result of artificially low prices set by private capitalist investors in Britain. The British government allowed dummy organizations, like the West African Cocoa Control Board (est. 1938) to lie to and bully African farmers, while pretending to advocate for them. Moreover, farmers were mandated to sell their crops no matter what price they were given. The farmers did not have the might to stand up against the military and political power of the British government. They did not have a choice. They were not economic players in the game, just chess pieces to be thrown around the board. At any rate, 11 million pounds accounts for the profits of just one body, the British Ministry of Food, so we can only imagine the cumulative profits enjoyed by the British Empire.
When Nigeria was incorporated by Imperial Britain, it was conceived of as a repository of natural minerals and riches that could be exported for the benefit of the master race and country.
Whatever the final profits, the people of Nigeria didn’t share in the wealth generated from such exports. The people were simply the machinery of the capitalist endeavor. They were machinery in the sense that the colonial political and economic government had absolutely no consideration for their physical well-being. Instead, by allowing missionaries to overrun the landmass, they rid the country of traditional doctors and what is now referred to as homeopathic medicines. For all the superstition and abuse that occasionally accompanied it, traditional medicine functioned as a rudimentary healthcare infrastructure across the African continent. Aspects of these so-called primitive practices have real and proven benefits.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press. Cotton Mather, who is credited with introducing inoculation into North America, wrote extensively about how a West African born slave, Onesimus, told him about inoculation practices. After learning from Onesimus, Mather began interviewing other enslaved Africans who backed up Onesimus’ testimony of being inoculated as children. Mather then tested inoculation on slaves born outside of Africa and when it proved successful, he introduced it to the white population. But as the practice of inoculation became widespread throughout colonial America, and the rest of the West, its origins were conveniently forgotten.
Once the traditional healer was undermined by new religious concepts, Imperial Britain continued to loot the land and exploit the people. Never was there any real investment in an alternative healthcare infrastructure. There are those who quote the 19th century European lie: they brought us civilization; they brought us religion and railways and doctors! But the numbers don’t bear that out. Rodney notes that in the 1930s, the British colonial government maintained a 34-bed hospital for Ibadan when the city had a population of 500,000 people! The colonial government later expanded their medical facilities, but this was only after pressure from nationalist movements set up by people tired of economic and political exploitation.
For instance, West African medical practice is the foundation for inoculation and vaccination. In fact, when inoculation was introduced in colonial Boston during the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the origins of inoculation were so widely known that it was derided as “African” medicine and “Negroish thinking” in the press.
It’s obvious that the dearth of medical and healthcare infrastructure was inherited by the national government in the 1960s. Understanding this history, it can be easy to excuse Nigeria and the Nigerian elite. In fact, this is precisely the hope of the Nigerian political and economic elite.
But we can’t let this excuse win the day since the post-1960 era hasn’t seen a marked continual commitment to the healthcare infrastructure system. The initial investment in healthcare wasn’t bad. In fact, as AO Malu, of Benue State Teaching Hospital, points out, when the Ashby Commission on Higher Education recommended the expansion of educational facilities in 1960, the year of Nigeria’s independence, Medical Faculty at the London College of Ibadan (now known as the University of Ibadan) was expanded and new medical schools were established in Lagos and in Northern Nigeria. The newly independent government continued to found and support teaching hospitals, particularly in the southwestern and northwestern region of Nigeria (Malu).
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology. There is many a “middle class” Nigerian that can testify to their own birth or treatment in a Nigerian teaching hospital. Graduates in this 25-year span, from 1960 to 1985, also willingly testify to the maintenance of the facilities, which is no small thing since it both reflects and demands pride from the facilities’ users. It also reflects real material investment and demands it as well. But all of these testimonies are historical. The testimonies are about what the teaching hospitals used to be. Neglected by federal and state governments, the hospitals are today decrepit artifacts that are stuck with the technology of the last decade. I know one doctor who cried when she visited her alma mater in Rivers State, such was the state of the place with debris and rats. Another physician I know refused to discuss her medical school; she stammered, shook her head in anger and walked away. When she returned to the subject, she said only, “It was never, never like that before. The standard has really fallen.”
These teaching hospitals were instrumental in educating the vast majority of licensed nurses and doctors in Nigeria. Up until the late 1980s, they were known for professional teaching quality, their rigor, cleanliness and commitment to medically-appropriate technology.
But these “historical” hospitals are still hospitals. They still admit patients and attempt to treat them; they still admit students and attempt to educate them. Their treatment is curtailed by the lack of technological investment, the deteriorating facilities and the stagnated curriculum that Nigerian medical students are afforded. This is not the doing of some late 19th century Briton. It is the result of the rampant and insidious corruption executed by the political elite and their counterparts in the financial sector. As Professor Ogbeidi, notes in his article, citing this 2004 Reuters interview with then anti-graft chief Nuhu Ribadu, “Incontrovertibly, corruption became endemic in the 1990s during the military regimes of Babangida and Abacha, but a culture of impunity spread throughout the political class when democracy returned to Nigeria in 1999. In fact, corruption took over as an engine of the Nigerian society and replaced the rule of law”. In other words, the neglect of healthcare infrastructure is a product of recent and present-day choices that continually disregard the health of the people who are the machinery of the nation.
The teaching hospital model was never capable of nor adequate in caring for Africa’s most populous nation. It was a step in the correct direction, but a step that has been halted. As Professor Ogbeidi puts it: “As a consequence of unparalleled and unrivalled corruption in Nigeria, the healthcare delivery system… [has]become comatose and [is] nearing total collapse.”
So what are Nigerians left with? The vast majority of Nigerians who were never able to access teaching hospitals must rely on book doctors and unlicensed and unregulated pharmacies. A book doctor is a person who has learned about the practice of Western medicine solely from books. This book doctor never attended medical school, never sat for a medical certification or license exam and never completed a residency or rotation under the supervision of more experienced medical practitioner. Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises. Neither the federal nor state governments make any attempt to investigate them in the interest of the people.
My experience with the book doctor was fine. He was affable. All the materials I observed were clean and unused. His nurses were well-trained and products of nursing schools. Yet the facility did not have electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, running water, nor a toilet. (Outside of major Nigerian cities, it is not rare to go 2 or more months without electricity from the Nigerian energy grid, this is despite the fact that Nigeria sells energy to Togo, Benin, and Niger.) The book doctor instead powered his facility with a generator and bathroom functions were undertaken in a darkened room at the back of the property. The patients brought their own water.
Book doctors are common in areas outside of the major Nigerian cities. Having been to one myself, I can attest to the fact that they are not clandestine operations, but clearly marked persons with public enterprises.
Despite my benign experience, Nigerians die daily from inadequate care from book doctors, just as they die from the inadequate healthcare system throughout Nigeria. Death is the fruit of corruption.
The other fruit of corruption is the bankruptcy of Nigeria’s national wealth.
In making adequate healthcare difficult or impossible to access, the political class is making it an absolute necessity for people to seek medical help outside of Nigeria’s borders. This drives those people who can afford it, to go to African countries like Ghana and South Africa, or ever further to Europe, India, the Middle East or the Americas for medical care. This is an insane situation for a citizen of an oil-rich country.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling. This is money that was made in Nigeria but spent elsewhere; money that should be circulating in the Nigerian economy. Bu a real investment of capital into the construction and maintenance of medical infrastructure would not only stem this but also enrich the country, especially if the construction materials were purchased from Nigerian companies and Nigerians were employed in the labor.
But the same government that is legislating against “medical tourism” is led by President Mohammed Buhari who has become the “face of medical tourism.” President Buhari spent 7 weeks, from January to March, in London before offering up a vague explanation about his health. The lack of specificity was an allusion that was meant to be understood in the mind of the Nigerian citizen as you know we no get oyibo (white man) medicine na. Buhari left Nigeria for London again in May. When the Nigerian populace, aided by journalists, demanded that the President return and govern after an absence of more than 3 months, the president reluctantly returned. He has refused to say how much money the Nigerian government spent on his almost 5-month stay in London. No matter. The failing Nigerian healthcare system is implicit in the president’s long stay in high-priced London and the unstated, exorbitant price tag is yet another example of political corruption.
The Nigerian government acknowledges that sending medical tourists abroad is a real problem that has cost the country at least 1₦ billion –the equivalent of 690 million pounds sterling.
This drama, of course, comes after the 2010 death of President Umaru Musa Yar’adua whose 3-month medical stay in Saudi Arabia ended when the Nigerian government sent a delegation to “check on his health.” Yar’adua’s absence was explained to the Nigerian people as medical treatment, but during those 3 months, he was not seen in public and this fueled both rumor and a real leadership crisis in the federal government.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
Yet, still the middle class, takes the political and financial elite as “leaders” and follows them abroad. They are not leaders; they are elites by virtue of being on top of the capitalistic structure and because they are elitist, believing that only those at the top should have access to what are now called “basic human necessities,” including electricity and running water. If they were not elitist, they wouldn’t rob the country to the detriment of the health and very life of the people.
In going abroad, middle-class Nigerians are increasingly identifying service sectors and medical acumen with the West. This is dangerous because such identification alleviates the pressure to improve the facilities within Nigeria. The determination to go abroad should instead be replaced by the determination to improve the healthcare infrastructure at home.
The travels of Yar’adua and Buhari demonstrate in a practical, evidentiary manner that the Nigerian healthcare system has been abandoned by its political elites. They seek their health and medical care elsewhere and as a result, they have left the funding and maintenance of the healthcare infrastructure to the birds.
The portion of the Nigerian middle-class that does utilize the healthcare system have little encouragement. Added to the corruption that robs the system is the dearth of physicians who might otherwise provide superior care and demand attention from the political and financial elites. It is not that Nigerian isn’t training medics, but the problems already noted drive them to ply their trade abroad.
A 2013 article by the Foundation for the Advancement of International Medical Education and Research (FAIMER) is titled “Nigerian Medical School Graduates and the US Physician Workforce” and the title says it all. Despite the corruption and deteriorating conditions, Nigerian-educated medical professionals are skilled physicians who are able to practice throughout the world. This is good for them but bad for Nigeria.
According the statistics of the Educational Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates, at least 4300 Nigerian medical graduates were certified to practice in the United States between 1980 and 2012. That is 4,300 doctors who are not practicing in Nigeria. What would Nigeria be like with 4,300 more doctors? Before answering, consider that this is only one type of certification program doctors in the United States and Canada; it does not account for the medical graduates who have emigrated to mainland Europe, the UK, Australia, the Caribbean nations, India, or the increasingly, alluring South American republic of Brazil. Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria must educate another person to become part of the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses another bloc of people capable of putting pressure on the political class to fix the healthcare infrastructure. With the flight of medical graduates, Nigeria loses people who might create real national wealth by buying Nigerian made goods and supporting local industry, rather than the cheaply made, imports – the shine shine – that litter the market stalls of the subsistence worker and the Instagram pages of the so-called middle class. With the flight of the medical graduate, Nigeria is left stagnant.
Now consider that President of the Healthcare Federation of Nigeria, thinks that the correct estimate of Nigerian doctors practicing abroad is closer to 37,000. This is a real exodus with dangerous ramifications.
It is this stagnant Nigeria that earns a Nigerian the ridicule of his countrymen. At home, everyone (or so it seems) wants to travel abroad. Abroad, home is just a green-and-white outfit, a party theme on October 1st. Healthcare in Nigeria is a fatal casualty of continued political corruption. Medical tourism will cease only after the government has demonstrated sustained and responsible investment and maintenance of healthcare schools and facilities. Until then, the middle class will follow its political and economic elites in seeking medical treatment abroad; they will spend their hard-earned money in other countries and continue to wonder why death and bankruptcy follow them home to Nigeria.
THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill
Two road crashes in the first two weeks of November have robbed Kenya of six lives including that of Nyeri Governor, Wahome Gakuru, and once again brought to the fore the crisis of safety on the country’s roads and highways.
As of November 8, according to statistics released by the National Transport and Safety Authority, 2,387 people had lost their lives on our roads. In its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation shows Kenya’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in the world claiming an average of 29.1 lives per 100,000 people. By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000. Road crashes are among the top ten killers of Kenyans, account for between 45 and 60 percent of all admissions to surgical wards and cost the country up to 5 percent of GDP.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. While the number of registered vehicles on the roads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from just over 1 million to just under 1.8 million according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of both accidents and victims actually fell by about half says the 2015 study Analysis of Causes & Response Strategies of Road Traffic Accidents in Kenya. However, what should set off alarm bells is that despite this, the number of deaths barely budged. It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
In the face of such appalling statistics, it is nothing short of outrageous that the NTSA considers a reduction of 4 percent in the number of pedestrians who have lost their lives on the roads as “drastic”. Though overall deaths were down by a slightly higher 5.8 percent, it speaks to the low expectations the Authority has of itself that the numbers it is celebrating do not even come close its own rather modest target of reducing traffic fatalities by 12 percent.
By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000.
The widely trumpeted but almost always short-lived measures that have been taken by the government to address the issue over the last ten years -such the famous “Michuki rules”, the banning of night buses, enforcement of speed limits, introduction of random breathalyzer tests- have barely budged the average annual number of deaths which still hovers stubbornly around the 3000 mark. By contrast Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads managed to slash in half the number of traffic deaths between 2000 and 2014.
What are the Swedes doing right?
Unlike Kenya’s knee-jerk approach, where reactionary legal measures are quickly announced in the aftermath of a particularly horrific crash, with little research, forethought or long-term planning, and just as quickly forgotten, the Swedes have adopted a more systemic, evidence-based method. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, the Swedish Transport Administration does not believe that deaths and injuries on roads are an inevitable cost of having a functional road network. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg told The Economist in 2014. Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.
This focus on building “a system for the humans” is the central pillar of Vision Zero, the radical policy that since 1997, has governed the nation’s approach to transportation. It is even written into their laws. In the same year, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.
Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead, as Dinesh Mohan notes, the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”
Vision Zero seeks to not just reduce, but to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. But it does so, not primarily on the back of enforcement of punitive legislation as is the preferred approach in Kenya. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” says Belin. “If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.”
Enforcement of traffic rules is an important element but rather than merely bullying road users into compliance, the Swedes are building their system around the road users. Safety is not something that is added to the road system; it is an essential component of the system itself. As one analysis of the policy puts it: “Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the system set by the designers. If the users fail to obey the rules … or they obey and injuries occur nonetheless, the system designers must take steps to avoid people being killed or seriously injured.” The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.
In Kenya, the approach is diametrically opposite. While the NTSA acknowledges that 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, and blames everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, it rarely discusses the design of our road transport systems, the behaviour it incentivizes and how such errors are mitigated beyond arresting people and increasing fines.
Take the two crashes referenced at the beginning of this tale. Both happened at notorious “black spots”, one at Salgaa and the other at Kabati. Murang’a County Commissioner John Elung’ata says of Kabati, where the Governor died, that “motorists lose control whenever it rains”. The 14-kilometre stretch between Salgaa and Sachangwan along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has been the scene of multiple horrific accidents involving trucks. Yet in 2015, then NTSA Chairman, Lee Kinyanjui, whose agency blamed the crashes on “ignorant drivers” could only promise that “over and above fining those freewheeling, we will be recommending an immediate revocation of their licences and this should go to all the drivers. Reckless driving on our roads will no longer be there.” In these cases, administrators seem to have either resigned themselves to the inevitability of crashes or limited their responses to punishment. There was not talk of redesigning the road to eliminate the “black spot”. Instead Kinyanjui promised to “construct lorry park with a capacity of 200 vehicles where the NTSA officers will be checking lorries”.
But one could perhaps cut Kinyanjui a little slack. While the NTSA can only advise the national government on such design changes and mostly appears to confine itself to patrolling roads to catch errant drivers or chasing down jay-walking pedestrians, STA actually owns, constructs, operates and maintains all state roads in Sweden.
Obviously, a road system is more than just the state of the road and transport authorities have to coordinate with a wide array of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and road users. That system includes all factors that have a bearing on behaviour on the road. As such, the commitment to safety cannot be simply a matter for one body, but rather a national, even cultural commitment. As Belin says, “Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context.” It is, after all, the home of Volvo. Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death. A national obsession with safety is definitely a bonus. However, even without one, Kenya can make better infrastructural decisions that would reduce the risk of injury and death.
The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.
Take the Thika Superhighway, on which Governor Gakuru died, as an example. The road which rumbles through populated areas is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week. The difference between Thika Superhighway and, say, the UK’s M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly that such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behaviour on them.
We can also ask about emergency responses, or rather, the lack of them. And about the safety of guard rails and whether there are better alternatives. Road accidents, even when they do happen, need not result in grievous injury or death. Why weren’t systems for rescuing trapped people and getting them emergency care factored into the design of the road? How can Kenya fix this? And what rules for other existing and future highways?
Perhaps nowhere would such approach be beneficial than in addressing the safety problems posed by Kenya’s public transport system. According to the WHO, in Kenya “buses and matatus are the vehicles most frequently involved in fatal crashes and passenger in these vehicles account for 38 percent of total road deaths.” Although the 2015 study found that matatus only caused about a third as many accidents as cars and utility vehicles considering that matatus make up only about 5 percent of the about 2 million vehicles on our roads, the fact that they cause around 15 percent of accidents indicates a big problem.
The study found that “Kenyan drivers cause crashes largely because of behavioural and attitudinal problems” and that these problems were more acute in drivers of Public Service Vehicles. “While matatu drivers are viewed as crooks, they regard other drivers as amateurs and always try to show them that they have superior driving skills.”
However, adopting the Swedish approach, one would not just settle for blaming the drivers, as the study, the NTSA and pretty much all of Kenya does. Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death.
The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems – A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. Consider the Kenyan public transport system, which is privately owned and dominated by matatus.
Most matatu crews are not salaried. They basically have a deal with the matatu owner where they deliver an agreed sum every day and get to share what is left over. This means that their daily income is directly tied to how many people they carry and how many trips they make. At the same time, as this Africa Uncensored investigation reveals, most traffic policemen on the road are there, not to enforce the rules, but to extort bribes, matatus being a favourite target. In fact, during vetting by the National Police Service Commission last year, many traffic officers were unable to explain the source of their wealth and the many mobile transactions they seemed to be making. Given that it has been reported that most actually pay their superiors for the privilege of being deployed on the roads, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where they were sending the money.
The rub of this is that matatu drivers have big incentives to stop anywhere to pick up passengers and to make as many trips as possible, even when this means driving like madmen. The police, on the other hand, have little incentive to enforce the law. And given that many powerful government officials and senior police officers own matatus, there is little incentive to fix the problem.
Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the problem is less incompetent drivers with an attitude problem, but rather the perverse system of incentives which generates the behaviour. Thus the solutions proposed, such as retraining and recertifying drivers, will have little effect. As US philosopher Robert Pirsig, wrote in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Similarly, retraining drivers without changing the underlying system will resolve nothing.
Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.
Changing the system would require the NTSA to confront more powerful forces than lowly matatu crews, but is the true measure of the government’s commitment to dealing with the carnage matatu’s wreak on the road. However, it is not just where matatus are concerned that Kenya could benefit from a serious retooling. Rather than shooting from the hip when confronted with speeding or drinking drivers, the country would do well to adopt a research and evidence-based approach which looks at the problem in all its facets. For example, if, as one study found, “mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence,” should Kenya be focusing on those?
An important aspect of ensuring roads are safe is ensuring the road system caters for the needs of all its users, not just a few of them. That requires understanding how the roads are actually used. According to the World Bank’s Kenya State of the Cities Baseline Survey released in March 2014, half the labour force and three-quarters of students walk to work or to school. Another 43 percent and 19 percent respectively use matatus. Only 3 percent actually drive to work. Yet Kenyan roads treat pedestrian traffic as an afterthought and, as detailed above, the public transport system is in a shambles. This inevitably creates conflicts and, as statistics show, it is passengers and pedestrians who bear the brunt of the violence on our roads. Similarly, as the use of motorcycle-taxis, or bodaboda, has increased, so has the number of fatalities and injuries associated with them.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage. Well thought-out policies, including pedestrianizing the CBD, have been successfully adopted in cities like Pontevedra in Spain, which eliminated 53 percent of traffic in the city as a whole and 97 percent at its historical centre. “We inverted the pyramid,” its long serving Mayor, Miguel Lores, says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.” As a result, the city has not had a single traffic fatality in 6 years.
Understanding behaviour on the roads does not require condoning its unsavoury aspects. Rather, it means Kenya can get to grips with the systemic reasons such behaviour is prevalent and why it is destructive. It means, beyond demonizing road users, the NTSA and other stakeholders within and outside the government consider how they contribute to the problem, and what needs to change in order to either eliminate the incentives for that behaviour or to mitigate its effects.
Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage.
In fact, Kenyan roads are a microcosm of the colonially-inspired hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place on the time, lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of Kenyans. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates for whom nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. The tiny middle class is next in line and at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. When, periodically, their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can take over the streets entirely. Like the traffic police, the institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for their betters.
Eliminating traffic deaths and injuries is an achievable goal. But to do it, Kenya must change, not just its roads and its drivers, but itself. The country must revolutionize its approach to the problem and start seeing people as the reason the road system, and indeed the entire rubric of government, exists. In short, like Sweden, it must “create a system for the humans”.
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