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THE NUMBERS GAME: Predicting Winners and Losers in the August 2017 Poll

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Two Horse Race
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Back in September 2016, I published a piece on Facebook that suggested, based on recent party dissolutions and mergers into Jubilee and the accompanying defections by numerous politicians, that – barring discontinuous events, such as the death of a senior leader – the August 2017 general elections in Kenya were already almost over and that Jubilee’s victory seemed assured. The key data I used was the publicly declared political affiliations of each incumbent constituency MP and governor. At the time, the Jubilee bandwagon looked near unstoppable, with two-thirds of the elected constituency incumbents then in their camp (compared to only half after the 2013 elections). Nine months have passed since then. With hindsight, how accurate does that prediction look today?

What follows is an independent, unpaid analysis. It is not sponsored or supported by any political party, and it makes no attempt to argue right or wrong, or to favour one alliance over the other; it is purely to assess the current situation and to make an educated guess as to the likely outcomes. As it contains predictions about the unknowable future, it will of course be wrong in many details. But Kenyan election results are far from random; they follow regular patterns and rarely exhibit discontinuous changes, and it is possible to make educated guesses about what will happen based on previous experience. This piece of crystal ball gazing assumes no sudden deaths or disbarments amongst senior leaders, and it doesn’t suggest these results are immutable. Most voters are pretty clearly spoken for, but there is still a sufficiently large “floating vote” to change the result.

Reading the Kenyan media, the answer to my question would seem to be “no”: my 2016 prediction of a Jubilee victory doesn’t look good at all. The opposition NASA has had an excellent 2017. Since the start of the year, it has formally brought Musalia Mudavadi’s Amani National Congress (ANC) and Isaac Ruto’s Chama Cha Mashinani (CCM) into the CORD alliance of ODM, Wiper and FORD-Kenya, creating NASA (The National Super Alliance). Its aim was to emulate the national alliance that created the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), which defeated Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002 (and to respond to the creation of the Jubilee Alliance Party itself). It has also chosen its presidential and vice presidential candidates without mass defections among those who lost out. Energised by numerous real or imagined corruption scandals and by the recent food crisis, Jubilee has been on the defensive throughout. For example, the opposition took good advantage of the grand opening of the Standard Gauge Railway between Nairobi and Mombasa, intended to be a “signature” Jubilee achievement, by focusing on alleged corruption in its procurement, leaving Jubilee’s claims of service delivery looking hollow and unconvincing.

NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two candidates up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides.

However, a strong performance doesn’t yet mean victory. There are several reasons why my prediction back in September 2016 of a 55-45 victory for Kenyatta over the (yet to be chosen at that time) opposition candidate remains plausible.

Firstly, the opposition shunned the chance to play a different game, and faced up to Jubilee with exactly the same lead players as had fought and lost in 2013. NASA’s choice of Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka as presidential and vice presidential candidate, respectively, was both logical and predictable, but also a conservative strategy that set the two alliances up for an exact reprise of 2013, with the same two frontmen on both sides. On that basis, it is hard to see the result being materially different. For NASA, the opportunity to improve on their 42% performance in 2013 lies with the incorporation of much of Mudavadi’s vote (4% nationwide, mostly in western Kenya) into NASA. For Jubilee to improve on their 50% performance in 2013, it needs to leverage the power of incumbency, its deeper pockets, the resources it has allocated to specific communities, and the positive messages (hard to sell as they are proving) about their delivery to Kenyans during 2013-17.

Secondly, Jubilee is only just beginning to start campaigning in earnest, and has substantial resources in reserve. Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto are now touring nationwide, leading public rallies with exhortations to support Jubilee because of the (state) resources they have directed to local communities and the (state) jobs they have given to local elites in classic KANU-era style. At the moment they appear strangely uncertain and unconvincing in their message. But elections are not won on the campaign dais. There is much more work which can and will be done at the grassroots in parallel to target specific swing groups and persuade voters in those regions to stay with the “devil they know”. Jubilee is significantly wealthier than NASA, with a more unitary command structure and better campaign technical support. It has barely started to attack Odinga and Musyoka personally, and there is a huge amount of mud which could – and probably will be – thrown at NASA between now and August.

Third, Jubilee went into the primaries with the support of even more MPs than it had in 2016. Rather than mass defections to NASA, the stream has continued to flow (though more slowly) to Jubilee. Individual politicians can be both “leading” and “lagging” indicators, either encouraging their constituents to change course or responding to a disquiet already felt at the grassroots. But they rarely make a change without expectations of at least a chance of electoral victory.

The attached images show where the 290 elected constituency MPs stood at the beginning of the party primaries, viewed by county, and each sized according to the number of seats in that county.

This is a new view of Kenya by constituency, organised according to the 47 counties. One square is one parliamentary constituency, whatever its geographical size or population. Rough geographical similarity is preserved, but it is only rough.

Opinion polls show the gap between the alliances narrowing, but Jubilee is still ahead. The end-May Ipsos poll after Odinga and Musyoka were declared as the presidential candidates showed a 47%-42% lead for Jubilee, but with 10% of those polled undecided or unwilling to answer. With so many successful or near-successful insurgent political campaigns over the last 18 months (Brexit, Trump, Macron, Le Pen, and most recently, Corbyn) nothing is certain. But most of those undecided/unwilling voters will go with one or the other alliance in the end. If simplistically, one split the “undecided/unwilling” down the middle, the result from this poll would be a 52-47 victory for Jubilee. In practice, the undecideds will probably fall – if lessons can be learned from other recent elections – slightly in favour of the more conservative option (here, the incumbent). No poll at any point has yet suggested a NASA victory.

Although a mess, the April-May 2017 party primaries were probably better run than ever before, despite the ensuing complaints, cancellations and court cases. Apart from rotating and refreshing ethno-regional political elites, however, they changed little at the national level. Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries. Virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance. With so many independents, the main parties do risk splitting their vote in some marginal seats. Both alliances have this problem, though Jubilee’s is more severe. But NASA has an even more serious difficulty – their Wiper, ODM and ANC candidates are standing against each other without any pre-election deal in many parliamentary, senate and gubernatorial seats, including in Kakamega, Vihiga, Kisii, Mombasa and Taita-Taveta counties. If some cannot be persuaded to stand down, they will split their votes and may allow Jubilee candidates to slip through. This is only a problem at lower levels in the political structure though. Although eight presidential candidates have been cleared, the national race is effectively a two-horse one and a second round is very unlikely (in contrast to 2013, when Mudavadi was running as a third force and the runoff chance was much higher).

Party-hopping after losing has been banned, but it has been replaced this time round by a plethora of newly-independent candidates. However, these politicians are not truly independent; they are simply allies of one national faction or other who were unsuccessful in the primaries, and virtually none have changed their underlying allegiance.

Next, democracy is a numbers game. The “tyranny of numbers”, has become a curious point of contention in Kenya over the last decade. But much depends on how you present the concept. The “tyranny of numbers” is also “one man, one vote”: electoral democracy where all are equal and no-one’s vote is more important than any other’s. As long as that widely supported and widely praised system is in use in Kenya, victory comes with winning the support of most voting adults, not of most clans, ethnic groups or counties. So, to understand where Kenya stands, we need to look at two key numbers: the number of registered voters in each county and their propensity to turn out for their favoured candidates, and to combine these with a model of voting preference amongst the people in those counties. And, like it or not, the majority of Kenyans (probably two-thirds) can have their political alliances predicted with a high degree of confidence based on their ethnicity. This heuristic can be confirmed (or challenged) by examining where key politicians are standing in each community, the number of voters turning out in the various party primaries, fighting and complaints of intimidation by weaker parties, and whether the other “side” can even find a candidate willing to risk standing for them in some seats.

We now have provisional and unaudited registration results from February 2017 which show that 3.5 million voters were added in the last three months, with the growth fastest in the Coast and North-Eastern regions and in Nairobi. There are no obvious signs so far of structural pro-government bias in the allocation of voter registration kits or in these unaudited results. These numbers give us a strong (though unvalidated) baseline to work predictively. Next, we need to estimate the turnout figures in each county. 2013’s numbers are a solid basis for this, though turnouts will probably be a little lower across the board this time than last. Some of the turnouts last time (such as in Mandera) were very suspect and this analysis assumes – for now – that these exceptions return to the norm.

Finally, we need to make a judgement about how each county and each community within that county is likely to vote, based on previous experience, but adjusted for events and changing alliances since 2013, and the influence of major regional political figures. So, let us run through the old provinces or regions and the 47 counties one by one, to set the basis for that prediction.

Since 2016, the generally pro-CORD/ODM Mijikenda coast (Kilifi, Kwale and parts of Mombasa) has once more solidified for NASA. Many of the MPs who defected with pomp and pride to Jubilee in 2016 now look very vulnerable and Jubilee’s inroads in 2016 seem to have been reversed. Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse.

Western Province now seems solidly for NASA too. But the result nationwide will hinge on how well Mudavadi, Moses Wetangula and others can turn out the Luhya for NASA (with no “horse in the race” now and relatively low registration in Mudavadi’s home Vihiga). Through ex-New FORD-Kenya recruits, Jubilee still has a position of sorts among the Bukusu of Bungoma and Trans-Nzoia. But I suspect Jubilee is going to poll no more than 10-15% of the vote in Western overall, even including their majority support amongst the Iteso of Busia and Kalenjin of Mount Elgon.

In contrast, Nairobi seems to be firming up narrowly for Jubilee, especially in the governorship, where Mike Sonko’s spectacular campaign is overwhelming ODM incumbent Evans Kidero’s low profile and modest legacy. A 50-50 split looks plausible at the moment, though this may change. This assumes that pro-Jubilee independent Peter Kenneth will not materially split the Jubilee vote or create a cross-party movement and that the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) does not disbar Sonko or Kidero or both.

As in 2013, Central Province will vote entirely for Jubilee. NASA has no candidates and no prospect of support here, the homeland of the Kikuyu community that is still numerically the largest in the country. Apart from the ethnically mixed peri-urban areas of southern Kiambu, more than 95% of voters in the province will back “their President”.

Despite misgivings about the regional dominance of the controversial Hassan Joho and the Arab/Swahili community, NASA will win almost all the Coast, except Tana River, Lamu and perhaps one seat in Taita Taveta. In Nyanza, Odinga will get virtually every Luo vote, his support as solid as ever, and a plurality (perhaps 70%) of Gusii votes, where again the 2016 defectors to Jubilee look to be falling en masse. The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling Jubilee party than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term.

Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong. Despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, regional support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm. The support for maverick Kipsigis Governor Isaac Ruto is the key variable here. With strong support in Bomet, he has the potential to fracture the southern Kalenjin vote and bring a material chunk to NASA. But I suspect that many of his supporters will vote for him for governor and Uhuru and Ruto for the presidency. Trans-Nzoia will split but probably favour NASA, Laikipia will favour Jubilee, while Nakuru will be a solid Jubilee zone.

The Somali North-East, in contrast, is stronger for the ruling alliance than in 2013. Mandera was already wholly Jubilee in 2013 and remains so, and Wajir has been moving steadily towards Jubilee during Kenyatta’s term. The incumbents have worked hard among the Somali and now only Garissa remains a battleground. The mostly pastoralist non-Somali northerners (the Samburu, Turkana, Borana, Gabbra, Rendille, Orma, Burji and Wardei) of the Rift, North of Eastern and Tana River will vote mostly Jubilee or allied parties. However there will be a few constituencies where those alliances reverse and Samburu and Turkana might still vote ODM. Among the southern communities, the Kuria will remain Jubilee, but the larger and politically significant Maasai will again split their affections. With Jubilee having made several missteps and put forward a lacklustre set of candidates, NASA will do better here than in 2013, and will probably win Narok, while Kajiado might go NASA at governor level but Uhuru for president.

In the southern half of the old Eastern province, the densely populated Embu and Meru are solidly for Jubilee (despite Odinga’s efforts) and will vote more than 90% for Kenyatta and Ruto. The key question in Eastern is how well NASA will do in Ukambani. It will win a majority in all three counties, to be sure, but their support appears weaker than in 2013. Then, Musyoka delivered 85% of the vote in Ukambani for Raila, with a turnout of 84%, not a census vote but a strong performance. Now, however, he is struggling, even after his selection as NASA’s vice presidential candidate. He has lost nearly half of his Ukambani MPs (10 out of 23) who have gradually defected to Jubilee, while recent internal disputes within Wiper and his estrangement with two of his most senior and experienced allies (Machakos Senator Johnstone Muthama and Kitui Governor David Musila) leaves him vulnerable. He also faces an insurgency of unknown power in Machakos led by influential Governor Alfred Mutua, whose “Maendeleo Chap Chap” party is allied with Jubilee. I suspect, based on current knowledge, that Jubilee will poll 20-30% of the Kamba vote.

Jubilee will also win almost all the Kalenjin voters in the Rift Valley, bar the Kipsigis of Kericho, Bomet, western Nakuru and northern Narok. The alliance between Ruto and Kenyatta remains deep and strong, and despite doubts about whether the Kikuyu will really hand over the presidency to William Ruto in 2022, support for “their man” and for the power-sharing deal remains firm.

Applying this analysis at the county level gives us the following prediction for winning candidates at the presidential and county levels: 17 counties are solid for NASA, 22 for Jubilee and eight are still – in my view – in play.

June 2017 predictions of winning presidential and gubernatorial candidates

*In this image, one square is one county, whatever its size or population.

While the presidency remains the most coveted job, experience since 2013 has shown that governorships are extremely lucrative and politically rewarding roles, with MPs coming third, senators and the reserved seats for women in the house next, and county assembly members (MCAs) last (even though county assembly members are the closest to the grassroots and most likely to be known personally to voters).

As in 2013, all six contests will tend to follow a similar pattern, with most (though not all) voters voting the same way for the presidency, senator, governor and women’s representative, with more variability at parliamentary and MCA levels. I predict that Jubilee will win 23-26 governorships and NASA 21-24. The symbolically important Senate – created in the 2010 Constitution to enshrine a US-style division of legislative powers – has proved of limited effectiveness, and is likely to be abolished in the next Parliament (as its predecessor was in 1966-7).

The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.

Nationally, the combination of registration numbers, turnout and an ethnically and historically voting-based preference model still predicts a first round win for Uhuru and Ruto, by 53% to 46% (with a maximum of 1% of votes to other candidates). It suggests Kenyatta and Ruto will get roughly 8.5 million votes (of which more than 5 million will come from the Kalenjin and Kikuyu communities) while Odinga and Musyoka will poll 7.5 million, of which approximately 3 million will come from Luo and Kamba voters. This would be on a national turnout of 83%, with a regional variation from 90% in Central and Luo Nyanza to 65% in Mombasa, Kilifi and Kwale. Turnout is one of the great imponderables, however, and elections can be won or lost on the day based on successes or failures at the grassroots level in turning out supporters. Historically, Jubilee and its predecessor alliances have been slightly better than NASA and its predecessors at this, but in this election, Jubilee may have less of an advantage here.

Finally, let us turn to the referee and organiser of the upcoming contest, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC). The IEBC, after an appalling 2016, seems to have stabilised under its new lower-profile leadership. It appears to be trying to keep its head down and focus on technical delivery of its mandate, while trying to cope with a stream of complaints and allegations of bias. It has had good success in ending party hopping, but it has so far failed to exercise its authority over the integrity issues raised about a number of high profile candidates, and has not yet responded to evidence of salaried civil servants campaigning for Jubilee. In fact, it is struggling to match its duties and obligations to the timelines allocated and seems unable to proceed whilst following competitive procurement procedures, with its every decision contested in the courts. The heavy legacy of “Chickengate” makes the IEBC extremely vulnerable to campaigns by NASA (or indeed by Jubilee, if needed) alleging its systematic incompetence and corruption, and therefore bias. That has not started yet in earnest, but the groundwork is being laid to undermine the credibility of the commission by election day, if NASA believes it will lose and that Jubilee will cheat to win.

Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross.

Whether Jubilee could and would in fact cheat to win if necessary – in a way the IEBC could either not prevent or in which it was complicit – is a hypothetical question with strong judgemental implications. Both sides cheated last time, to varying degrees (local stuffing, forced voting and voting dead voters in their homelands). There is a strong suspicion that Kenyatta’s presidential numbers were topped up at some point in the counting process to push him over the 50%+1 threshold, which probably didn’t change the final result but finished it on the first round rather than in a runoff. The recent court case (strongly backed by NASA) to ensure that the results announced by constituency returning officers are final and cannot be corrected at the IEBC-controlled national tallying centre, even if obviously arithmetically incorrect, is designed to address this most contentious part of the whole election: the critical and semi-opaque presidential count at the national tallying centre. But whatever the outcome of that case, the presidential count will be a key flashpoint after polling day.

The recent focus on electronic transmission of the results – which so spectacularly failed in 2013 – as safer and more reliable than stamped and attested paper forms, is a potentially dangerous misunderstanding. In truth, the speed, independence and impartiality of an electronic system relies entirely on the competence, neutrality and independence of the small number of technical staff managing the IEBC’s databases and servers (who could be personally subjected to very strong pressures to “lose” passwords or make adjustments themselves to numbers) and on the ability of those teams to protect their IT systems from external hacking attempts, which the IEBC now admits happened in 2013. In fact, subtle manipulation is easier to carry out and much harder to spot electronically than with paper forms.

Will NASA and its leadership cry foul if they lose or if they think they are losing? Yes, of course they will, as they and their predecessors did in 2007 (with good reason) and 2013 (less certainly). Whether there will be any basis for this is, of course, unknowable in advance, but what is clear from 2013 is that the presidential election petition rules are so restrictive and time-bound that a successful presidential petition remains extremely unlikely under those rules. Will there be post-election violence? Personally, I believe the experience of 2007-8 was so appalling and salutary for Kenyans that any trouble will be localised, unless the electoral abuses are gross. But that still depends on how things work out over the next eight weeks. And some observers are predicting more serious trouble in specific counties.

But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement that will follow the August elections.

So, the champion’s and the challenger’s players are on the pitch, the game is under way and the substitute referee’s whistle has blown. Inevitably, things will change and these predictions will need updating. I hope to do that periodically during the campaign and to “call” the result on election night. On 3 March 2013, I predicted a 50% vote for Uhuru, 42% for Odinga, with all others getting 8%. Excluding spoilt ballots, the actuals were 50.5% Kenyatta, 43.8% Odinga and 6% for the others. I’m unlikely to get it so close again.

But whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Kenya remains polarised and dangerously divided, almost down the middle, and that there is little trust or goodwill between the two major parties to work with each other in whatever political settlement follows the August elections.


Editors Comment: This article was written on the 16th of June 2017

Kenya: A History Since Independence

Charles Hornsby is the author of Kenya: A History since Independence.
He lives in Ireland.

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Charles Hornsby is the author of Kenya; A History since Independence and lives in Ireland.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan

Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.

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Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Photo: Marco Longari/AFP
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First published by our partner OCCRP and Mail & Guardian (South Africa, in English).

In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.

In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.

Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.

Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan.

Key sites for arms deals between the Republic of the Congo and Azerbaijan. Credit: Edin Pasovic/OCCRP

There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.

His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.

OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is seen in 2014. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Amanda Lucidon/White House

Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)

Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.

Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.

The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.

Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.

Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.

OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.

Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.

Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.

“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”

A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.

Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso

The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.

The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The port of Derince in Turkey, where the most recent arms shipment set off for Brazzaville. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.

In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.

Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.

“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.

The Pool Offensive

The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.

In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.

One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.

After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

A burnt-out vehicle is seen on the road from Brazzaville to Kinkala. Credit: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN, via The New Humanitarian

 

The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.

“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”

The Baku-Brazzaville Connection

Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s Ilham Aliyev, right, is seen with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a 2018 parade in Baku. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Government of Azerbaijan

Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.

Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.

Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.

But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.

The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

A Silk Way Airlines Boeing-737 leaves Hong Kong in 1999. Credit: Wilco

Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.

Braced for a Crackdown

As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.

Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.

In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets Denis Sassou Nguesso at a U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington, D.C., on August 6, 2014. Credit: U.S. Department of State/Flickr

Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.

Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.

And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.

“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.

“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”

Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class

Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.

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A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
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Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?

I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.

The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.

Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”

Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.

The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.

Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.

Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”

Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.

In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.

But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.

For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.

The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.

Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:

“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”

How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?

One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.

Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.

It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day,  as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.

There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.

Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.

Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.

The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.

However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof.  Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.

Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.

And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.

In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.

With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.

BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.

And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.

Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring

Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.

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For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
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Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.

Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.

What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.

Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.

Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.

In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited.  ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.

The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.

I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.

By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.

Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.

We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.

The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.

In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”

This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?

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