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ELECTION 2017: A Silent Panic in Kenya

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Fearing a repeat of the 2007/8 post-election violence, Luo and Luhya men in Nairobi and Naivasha are sending their families to their ‘rural homes’

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About a month ago, I bumped into an old friend by sheer chance on the streets of Nairobi. Night Atieno and I grew up together in the same city estate and, although we hardly met thereafter, every encounter was an opportunity to catch up and laugh about the good old estate days.

After the usual exchange of pleasantries, Night straightaway asked me what my thoughts on the impending August general election were. “We are planning to vote very early in the morning, after which we must leave town by latest 9am,” she said. “We will then drive all the way to Mwanza. By nightfall, Inshallah, we shall be taking supper with my in-laws.” Mwanza, the second largest city, after Dar es Salaam, is the lakeshore town in the northwestern region of Tanzania.

THIS TIME, THERE’S NO GOING TO THE SUPREME COURT

Looking at me right in the eyes, she whispered: “Listen, this time, there’s no going to the Supreme Court.” She was referring to the first ever Presidential Election Petition case No. 5 taken to the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in March 2013 by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the opposition coalition led by Raila Amolo Odinga, seeking to overturn the election victory of the Jubilee coalition led by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, today the fourth president of Kenya.

On March 9, five days after the general election that was held on March 4, 2013, Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC), through its then chairman Issack Hassan, announced the election results thus: Uhuru Kenyatta — 6,173,433 votes which constituted 50.07 percent of the total votes cast, beating Raila’s 5,340,546, which comprised 43.31 percent.

Suing the IEBC on March 16, 2013, Raila sought to stop the swearing in of Uhuru as a president. It never came to pass. Uhuru was sworn in as the president on April 9, 2013 at Kasarani Stadium.

The Supreme Court judges led by then Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, in arriving at their verdict, said: “In summary, the evidence in our opinion, does not disclose any profound irregularity in the management of the electoral process, nor does it gravely impeach the mode of participation in the electoral process by any of the candidates who offered himself or herself before the voting public.”

The judges further said: “It is not evident, on the facts of this case, that the candidate declared as the president-elect had not obtained the basic vote-threshold justifying his being declared as such. We will therefore disallow the petition, and uphold the presidential election results as declared by IEBC on March 9, 2013.”

That Supreme Court judgment read under less than 10 minutes cast a shadow of devastation and disquiet over the opposition’s core supporters. The promulgation of the new Constitution in August 27, 2010, had created the hitherto new Supreme Court and heralded a new confidence in a much-maligned justice system among Kenyans in all walks of life.

So, when Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just fervently voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour. It is not hyperbole to state that ever since the reading of that very short judgment by former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, a majority of Raila’s supporters have yet to overcome the spirit of deflation that engulfed them.

When Raila went to the Supreme Court to seek electoral justice, his loyal supporters who had just voted for him, believed in the benign promise of a new court that had promised to dispense justice without fear or favour

To date, the subject of one of the shortest judgements ever passed by a Supreme Court, has become a taboo narrative among opposition supporters and even among some of the leading lawyers across the country. “Let’s just put it this way,” a prominent Nairobi lawyer who did not want his name disclosed, told me, “The Supreme Court failed in its maiden moment to inspire confidence among Kenyans. It made this worse by its mode of presentation of the verdict.” The lawyer said even among themselves as senior counsels, the conversation around the Supreme Court judgement leaves “a sour taste in the mouth.”

In a parting shot, Night, who is a businesswoman, told me “Kama mbaya, mbaya…wacha wanaume waonane.” If the worst comes to the worst…so be it. Let men face each other!

Night’s scheduled temporary migration in August is part of a silent movement that has been taking place since December among the people of Nyanza and the larger western Kenya who live in Nairobi city, Eldoret and Naivasha towns.

“In the guise of travelling upcountry for Christmas holiday 2016, many family men from the ghettos of Nairobi transported their wives and children to their rural homesteads in Nyanza and Western Kenya,” said my source who spoke to me in confidence. “The month of December was just the right time because the children were on holiday, were relocating to their rural homes and so there was ample time to transit to new schools.”

“I’m a board member of a school in Siaya County,” my confidant told me. “When we sat in January 2017, to admit fresh pupils and pupils seeking transfers, we dwelt mainly with parents from Nairobi and Eldoret.” Investigating further on where the parents from Nairobi were from, he found out they largely came from Kariobangi North, Mathare North, Mathare 4A, Ngei/Huruma and Ngomongo.

It is not for nothing that the parents from some of the toughest slums of Nairobi are sending their children and extended family back home. These slums, today divided between Embakasi North, Mathare and Ruaraka constituencies, were the sites of bloodletting following the bungled December, 2007 general election that led to at least 1,400 people getting killed and 600,000 Kenyans displaced countrywide, especially in the Rift Valley region.

These ghettos, which are inhabited largely by the two “antagonist” ethnic communities — the Kikuyus and Luos — exploded into violence on December 30, 2007, when young men from the two communities faced off with weapons such as daggers, hunting knives and, pangas.

NOBODY IS TAKING ANY CHANCES, ESPECIALLY IN THE NAIROBI SLUMS

Regardless of whatever outcome is anticipated a month from now, given the heightened tensions, “Nobody is taking any chances, least of all the people living in the slums, who bore the greatest brunt of the violence,” said my informant.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally. In Ngei and Huruma slums, which are in Mathare constituency, and are adjacent to each other, Luo and Luhya men have been changing houses, moving closer to their kinsmen within the same area. In the sprawling Mathare slum. for example, there are areas that are predominantly populated by Kikuyus, while others are populated by Luos. This “cross-border” movement — of shifting rented accommodation to beef up and secure their respective ethnic group safety— has been going on since January.

If the slums are witnessing a vertical exodus, that of families moving from the urban to the rural, the men who have remained behind have been also moving, but horizontally

In the peri-urban areas bordering the city on the south, a similar movement has been also taking place. Non-Kikuyus, mostly Luos living in the Riruta Satellite area, too have been sending their family back to their ancestral homes in western Kenya. Riruta Satellite is a quasi-rural, quasi-ghetto,village bordering the Waithaka area, mainly populated by Kikuyus.

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don't divide us

Translation: We have been neighbours. On 8th of August don’t divide us

Riruta and Waithaka areas are in Dagoretti South constituency, which in Kenyan political parlance “belongs” to the Jubilee Party coalition. A friend — a veteran journalist who worked for the defunct Kenya Times in the 1980s and is from the Luo community and who has lived in Riruta Satellite for close to three decades — confided to me that his kinsmen have been shipping their families back home during the December and Easter holidays.

To the north of Riruta is Kawangware, a sprawling ghetto today populated equally by Kikuyus and Luhyas. Many Luhya families were settled in Kawangware and Kangemi areas, which are in Dagoretti North and Westlands constituencies respectively, during the time of Fred Gumo when he was appointed as a City Council commissioner by former president Daniel Arap Moi in 1989. Gumo was later to serve as a three-term MP for Westlands.

GET THE AWAY FROM SODOM

The Luhya families, like their counterparts from the Nyanza region, have relocated their wives and children — “Wacha wao waende nyumbani tubaki tukilinda mji (Let the women and children be sent away so that we men can remain to guard the homes),” a Luhya man from Sodom told me. Sodom is a sprawling slum in Kangemi that stretches down to the valley that borders the leafy suburb of Lavington.

During the 2007-2008 post-election violence, Sodom, especially the area around Kihumbu-ini Primary School and Kangemi gichagi (village), became a site of violence pitting the Luhya community against the Kikuyu, who consider themselves indigenous to the area.

The slumlords who had built the timber shacks rented by the Luhyas quickly changed sides and, as the violence spiralled into us vs them, meaning the Kikuyus versus anybody else, whoever was deemed not to have voted for president Mwai Kibaki was harassed and even killed.

Mungiki, whose peripheral meaning is translated as the multitude, is a Kikuyu youth movement that began in the plains of Ng’arua and Sopili in Nyahururu around 1987. Over the years, it mutated into a militia for hire by the political elite.

Thiong’o, who is a landlord in Kangemi, told me there is a silent face-off between the Kikuyus and Luhyas: “Right now, we are not talking to each other [meaning no discussions that may lead to politics] until August 8. But we are ready for them. If they think they will be voting Raila so they can be paying reduced rent… they are in for a rude shock. We landlords have agreed that in the very unlikely event Raila is sworn in as president, we would rather burn the houses than see these western people dictate to us the rents we charge.”

Still, with all his bravado and ethnic machismo, Thiong’o nevertheless whispered to me that once he has voted, he will be gone to his rural home in Murang’a to follow the vote count among his relatives.

“Kikuyu tenants too have been changing houses and moving closer to their fellow kith and kin,” said a tenant I interviewed recently. “If you may recall, there used to be a village called Kijiji cha Chawa (the louse village), sandwiched between Huruma and Mathare 4A, that was largely inhabited by Kikuyus. Many of them were killed [during the 2008 post-election violence]; those who were able to escape, ran away, and whatever was left was destroyed youth from the Luo community.” Today, what used to be a slum dwelling is a playing field connected to Huruma by a footbridge.

“The Kikuyu landlords are aware of these movements, but they will not talk about them openly,” said a landlord from Huruma, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In fact, some of them are abetting these movements, as they also prepare to secure and safeguard their property.” Once bitten, twice shy. Landlords who burnt their fingers in the violence following the 2007/8 general election have come up with ingenious ways of ensuring their steady income is not interrupted and their property not destroyed.

“Kikuyu landlords, the majority of whose tenants are Luos, have evolved a symbiotic relationship with them. The tenants have been given the freedom to pick one of their own as the buildings’ caretakers, collecting rent on the landlords’ behalf, as they also ensure that the buildings are well maintained.”

In the Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus

The horizontal movements have not only been taking place in the northeastern slums of Nairobi. In the infamous Kibera slum, quiet movements have been taking place as the country hurtles towards elections. For instance, Kikuyu families living in Gatwekera village, which is largely composed of Luos, have been relocating to Laini Saba village, nearer to their fellow Kikuyus.

The regrouping of the menfolk along ethnic lines in the major ghettos and peri-urban areas of Nairobi is to create buffer zones, just in case the violence of 2007/8 is repeated. “It is as if you were watching a pantomime: There are a lot of rhythmic motions by silent men, who very well know what they are plotting against each other, but nobody has the guts to stop and say; ‘But why are we doing this to one another?’,” observed my confidant.

Barely 100km northwest of Nairobi, Naivasha, one of the towns in the Rift valley region that was badly affected by the 2007-2008 post-election violence, is witnessing its own vertical and horizontal migrations. Presiding over a memorial service in the town in mid-June, Nakuru Catholic Diocese head Bishop Maurice Muhata observed, “Some families are transporting their children to their rural homes ahead of the election and this is very wrong.”

A cosmopolitan town mainly populated by Kikuyus, Naivasha nonetheless has a minority migrant labour force mostly drawn from Nyanza and western Kenya, who are employed as casual labourers in the large mechanised flower farms in Karagita, Kawere and Kongoni on the Moi South Road. Ten years ago, as the violence spread into the inner towns, Naivasha and Nakuru’s migrant workers bore the brunt of revenge violence by marauding Mungiki youth imported into the towns to murder and pillage the Luo people and their property.

Since the trashing of the presidential petition on March 30, 2013, the silent narrative out there among the opposition’s legion of supporters has been that there is no turning to the (Supreme) Court and there is no crying foul in case their party is (at least to their minds) unfairly defeated yet again. Beginning in 2016, this resolve has been gaining currency, telling opposition supporters that they should be prepared for any eventuality.

WE ARE NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS LYING DOWN

The National Super Alliance (NASA) presidential flagbearer Raila Odinga seemed to feed into this urgency when in an exclusive press interview at his home in Nairobi’s Karen suburb, he told the interviewer on January 28: “I have said clearly, we are democrats. We would like to have a fair game. If we lose unfairly, we will not accept… We are saying we are not going to take it lying down this time round.”

Roundi hii kutawaka nare” (this time round, there will be real fire), a fiercely loyal supporter of the opposition told me last year. “Ile gwoko ya 2007, itakuwa chai ya saa nne,” (The violence that erupted in 2007 will be likened to ten o’clock tea). Middle-aged and going by the moniker Roger Millah, the Luo man declared, matter-of-factly: “Electoral theft cannot be allowed to continue unchecked; this thing has to be sorted out once and for all.”

For Florence Kanyua, a vocal Bunge la Mwananchi (people’s parliament) activist from Nairobi, there is no mincing of words: “Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business. The governing coalition has been warned that it cannot steal the election once again and hope to get away with it.”

Kanyua was addressing her fellow Bunge members, who have created their own space at the cross-section of Mama Ngina Street and City Hall Way, right in the CBD centre. Here, the members congregate in the evenings from 6.pm-8.30pm to dissect the day’s political happenings. When we met, she had a special topic she wanted to lecture them on.

“The church does not know what it’s talking about, because it has been overtaken by events. Its peace message is tired and useless — what we need is justice, not peace,” her tenor voice boomed, reverberating beyond the ethnically diverse group of men who surrounded her. “In 2007, when the peace message would have made sense, the church was nowhere to be found or heard; it had compromised itself by taking sides in the politics of the day.”

The result, Kanyua told her crowd, was that the church lost its credibility because it had become partisan. “Kenyans were killed in a church in Burnt Forest in Eldoret — where was the voice of the church when Kenyans needed that voice most? It was nowhere. Why? Because the church became part of the post-election violence. The church ought to know Kenyans are a peaceful people: what they are craving for is justice. The church should not douse us with its peace rhetoric.”

The truth of the matter is Kanyua was not saying anything new. Months after a peace agreement had been ironed out between President Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga in February 2008, with the help of former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, I had a long chat with a Diocesan Catholic priest from the Archdiocese of Nairobi.

Every Kenyan is hoping for a peaceful election, but a peaceful election does not mean we should not demand justice and when that justice is taken away, we are expected ‘to move on’, just because, apparently, Kenyans love their peace. This time, Kenyans will say no monkey business

“Why did the Catholic Church — the largest, most influential and powerful church in the country — fail Kenyans in the 2007-2008 post-election violence?” I asked him. “The church did not fail Kenyans in 2007/8,” said the priest, who spoke to me on condition that what we were discussing was strictly between a parishioner and his confessor. “The post-election violence was the culmination of a church that had ceded its moral authority to the state five years earlier. The church was reaping the fruits of its lack of moral indignation and its overt indulgence of a state that had come to regard the Catholic Church as its ruling partner.”

In the 1990s, the Catholic Church had thrown it weight behind a fledging opposition that was continually harassed by former president Daniel arap Moi. When, in 2003, Mwai Kibaki, the compromise opposition candidate, floored Moi’s protégé Uhuru Kenyatta, the Church celebrated with the new President.

After all, he was a Catholic, “But fundamentally, the then head of the Catholic Church in Kenya, retired Archbishop Ndingi Mwana ’Nzeki, was a friend of Kibaki,” the priest reminded me. “The Church literally went to bed with the state. A criticism of the government was considered to be a criticism of the president himself.”

THE CATHOLIC CHURCH LOOKED THE OTHER WAY

The Catholic Church is very hierarchical, just like the military – you must obey your superiors without question. “Individually, a priest is a mere cog in the institutional, powerful wheel that is the Church. You do not want to mess with it — you can be easily crushed.” The priest told me president Kibaki indulged the Church and did its bidding. In return, the Church unquestioningly looked the other way, as his government took the Church’s support for granted, and engaged in wanton corruption.

“I knew the Church had completely lost its moral compass, when in the lead up to the 2007 general election, our brother priests in Central Kenya openly canvassed for president Kibaki from the pulpit.” The priest told me that some of his fellow priests went beyond their call of duty to invite politicians to politick from the pulpit itself. “The Church had become the state and the state had become the Church.

“Should it shock anyone that when political violence threatened to blanket the country, the Catholic Church did not stand up to be counted?” asked the priest. “The post-election violence aftermath divided the Episcopal Conference of Bishops so much that they never could agree on anything for a long time. The violence had divided the bishops on ethnic fault lines with great bitterness and so too the legion of priests working in the thousands of parishes spread all over Kenya.”

The priest nostalgically told me how he longed for the days when the Church was led by the late Michael Cardinal Maurice Otunga. “Yes, he was conservative, yes, he was pro-establishment — but pro-establishment with checks and balances.” The priest told me even president Moi knew his limits with Cardinal Otunga. “In his reign, as cardinal, he never allowed the Church to be divided along ethnic lines and would never have allowed any politician —including president Moi — anywhere near the Catholic Church pulpit.

“How we miss the pastoral letters penned by the Episcopal Conference of Bishops then: They were direct, powerful and spoke to the heart of the nation. After addressing the nation and the government through the letter, Cardinal Otunga would direct the letter be read and communicated to the Catholics parishes all over the country.”

Two days before Raila and his NASA team went to campaign in Tharaka Nithi County in Meru on June 16, 2017, I visited a printing press on River Road in downtown Nairobi. The press, owned by a Tharaka man, was incidentally printing flags and posters to be used in NASA’s rally. Out of the blue, he said: “Hawa watu wamezoea kuiba kura za Raila, wajaribu tena… kutawaka moto. (These people who are used to stealing Raila’s votes, we dare them to try again….they will be starting a fire).”

THE SPECTRE OF VIOLENCE HAUNTS KENYA

Although I have been conducting my interviews in formal English and Kiswahili and very often in Sheng, not even that lyrical “rebel” language spoken in the ghettos and county council estates of the Eastlands area aptly captures what Kenyan writer Yvonne Owuor calls the third official language of Kenya — the language of silence (after English and Kiswahili). As these “political” realignments in the ghettos of Nairobi take place silently, but openly, in anticipation of an ominous “uncertainty” a spectre could be haunting Kenya — the spectre of violence.

“Uncertainty is not a good experience,” a Kenyan university don told me recently. “Since 2007, uncertainty in the Kenyan political terrain has come to mean a foreboding of violence.” We were having a sumptuous lunch in an exclusive Nairobi club, where the nouveau riche pontificate on the shifting sands of Kenyan politics far from the madding crowd.

The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins. They should not wait to be collateral damage

“Let us not us not kid ourselves,” said the professor, who asked that I should not reveal her designation. “After the post-election violence of 2007-2008, our national politics has never been the same again.” The don, a Kikuyu, teaches at Kabianga University in Kericho County. “I timed my 2017 annual leave to fall in the month of August. I am not taking any chances.”

She observed how her boss, a Kalenjin professor, had, with a light touch, teased her about being timid. “I thought now we are on the same side?” She said she laughed about it, but still presented him with her leave form. “It is better to be safe than sorry.”

“I was there when the March 2016 Kericho Senator seat by-election took place,” she explained. “Although it was strictly a family feud, there was an eerie feeling that if matters were to get out of hand, violence would erupt.” Seemingly thinking aloud, she added: “The Kikuyus living in the North Rift would be well advised to take leave before August 8. They live there at the mercy of the Kalenjins, They should not wait to be collateral damage. I mean if things were to go wrong…”

The crux of the matter is that the relationship between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins in the Rift Valley region has always been fragile and frosty. Since the orgy of violence that visited the North Rift after the 2007 general election, the area has remained a powder keg of bottled up emotions.

The International Crisis Group addresses the professor’s fears in its latest report, Kenya’s Rift Valley: Old Wounds, Devolution’s New Anxieties. It quotes a governance expert saying: “The alliance between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin following Jubilee’s 2013 election victory lulled many into believing historical foes were on an ‘irreversible’ course to overcoming animosities. Yet Rift Valley reconciliation remains superficial. What we have is negative peace … calm.”

This false calm seems to have reared its ugly head once again in Eldoret town and its environs. After the shambolic and bruising Jubilee Party nominations in April, the battle for the Uasin Gishu County governor’s seat has boiled down to a fight between the incumbent Jackson Mandago and Zedekiah Bundotich Kiprop alias Buzeki, a middle-aged, lean, bespectacled nouveau riche, who is running on an independent ticket and looks poised to snatch the seat from Mandago.

Feeling the heat from Buzeki, the exiting governor has resorted to the time-tested politics of us versus them in his bid to fend off the younger contestant, invoking the lingo of “aliens amid our people.” Mandago and his allies have been sending a menacing warning to outsiders who must know their place or else… vacate the county forthwith.

The aliens being referred to here are the Kikuyus, who are mostly to be found in Eldoret town itself and in its satellite towns such as Turbo. In Turbo, most Kikuyus are concentrated in Huruma ward, the most populous ward, so much so that the Member of the County Assembly is also a Kikuyu. Ditto Market ward in Eldoret town. It is populated by Kikuyu people, most of whom are traders. Market ward’s MCA is also a Kikuyu.

Why do the Kikuyus in the North Rift find themselves, once again, in the shadow of the valley of death — even though “they are on the same side with the Kalenjins?”

When the violence of 2007/8 erupted in the North Rift, Huruma and Market wards were the most affected. No prizes for guessing why.

In 2014, I travelled to Karatina, a market town about 100 km north of Nairobi, on the Nairobi-Nyeri highway, to meet one Njeri from Nyeri town. Njeri had been one the biggest mitumba (secondhand clothes) traders in Eldoret town. She had lived in the town — to be precise, in Market ward — for 15 years. “I had built my business from scratch. Every Eldoret resident knew me as ‘Njeri wa Mitumba.’ I was successful, I had made it. But then the 2007 general election came and everything all of a sudden went topsy-turvy.”

Between sips of cold White Cap beer at Star Bucks Hotel, Njeri narrated to me how on December 30, 2007, her world came crashing down. “The arsonists specifically went looking for my godown. They bayed for my blood. But before they got me, they torched the godown and my Ksh5 million stock went up in flames.”

What saved her life, she told me, was that her Kalenjin friend called her in the dead of the night and asked her to leave the town immediately. “Don’t take anything — just go.”

How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs , Uhuru and Ruto

“I went back to my folks’ place in Nyeri town, where I grew up, with nothing but the clothes I had on.” Seven years later, she was yet to rebuild her life — not so much in terms of capital to start a new life, but that she had yet to adjust to Nyeri life. “Eldoret had been my home. I went there as a determined young girl ready to sacrifice and work my arse off.”

Njeri told me that when, in 2013 Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto teamed up to run for the presidency, she was devastated. “My fellow Kikuyus from Nyeri could not understand me, but then how could they, I had spent my adulthood in the Rift Valley diaspora and that is when it dawned on me that there is a huge difference in how ancestral Kikuyus and diaspora Kikuyus view national politics.”

AN ARMISTICE WRITTEN ON QUICKSAND

As I headed back to Nairobi and she to Nyeri, she stated that political violence will always stalk the Kikuyus in the North Rift. “Have the people who perpetrated the violence ever been punished? The artificial armistice between the Kikuyus and Kalenjins is written on quicksand.”

The rumour in the town is that Buzeki, whose wife is allegedly Kikuyu, will attract the Kikuyu votes – which, if that happens, could be the game changer. The intra-Jubilee Party political squabbles are nowhere near safer for the Kikuyu community in the tumultuous North Rift than they were in the lead up to the December 2007 general election. “We will count the votes Buzeki gets and if he gets 100 votes, then a certain community will have to move out of Eldoret,” Mandago is quoted to have said.

Yet something more sinister allegedly took place in Eldoret that went unannounced. Early in February 2017, when the IEBC opened voter registration centres countrywide, Mungiki youth were purportedly shipped from towns such as Nairobi and Nakuru to register in Eldoret North constituency, Deputy President Ruto’s former constituency. It did not take long for the local community to realise there were “strangers” among them. According to reports, the young men were thrown out of town and the story did not reverberate beyond Eldoret.

All this despite the fact that Deputy President William Ruto, whose International Criminal Court case once threatened to tear up the manuscript on which the Kikuyu-Kalenjin truce was written, has stayed united with President Uhuru Kenyatta.

The International Crisis Group report notes that the “dismissal of Ruto’s case [in April 2016] brought particular relief in Rift Valley, where uncertainty over his fate was beginning to sow division within the governing coalition. Claims Kenyatta was not doing enough to get his Deputy President off the hook fed Kalenjin mistrust, heightening fears of renewal of inter-communal tension.”

Yet, with a section of the Kalenjin nation seemingly throwing its support behind the opposition coalition NASA, it is likely that were violence to start, it would consume Bomet County and the adjoining towns of Kericho and Sotik, says Ali Abkula. Abkula was The National Alliance (TNA) political director in the lead-up to the 2013 general election. TNA is the political vehicle that President Uhuru used to ascend to power.

Bomet County Governor Isaac Ruto in April 2017 joined the NASA Four — Raila Odinga, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula — to form the Pentagon. Ruto is a Kipsigis, the largest and the most populous of the nine Kalenjin sub-tribes. They mostly inhabit the South Rift and for the better part of Jubilee rule, have been complaining of how they have been receiving the short end of the stick from the Jubilee government, even after voting for the coalition en masse in 2013.

On the weekend of June 17-18, Ruto addressed a rally in Nakuru town and hit out at both President Uhuru and his Deputy William Ruto (no relation). Reminding them that the country does not belong to two tribes — the Kalenjins and Kikuyus — he accused them of sending the country down the drain. He told the crowd what the electorate wanted was justice and not war. “Sisi hatutaki vita….tunataka kupiga kura kwa amani ndio tupate haki… wasitutishe. (We do not want war…what we want is to vote peacefully and get justice…we will not be threatened).”

Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition

The community’s beef with the senior Ruto, the Deputy President, who himself is a Kipsigis, but grew up among the Nandis of Eldoret after his parents migrated north in the late 1960s, is that he dished out all the plum state jobs to the Nandis and neglected to fulfil the development promises he lured them with.

An elderly Kipsigis man, having tea in a kibanda (roadside shack) in Kericho town in early June, got into an argument with fellow tea customers about the forthcoming elections. In a fit of anger and fury, he stood up and said: “Saa yote huyu mzee…. Saa yote huyu mzee… Huyu mzee ametukosea nini? Kwani Raila akiongoza itakuwa nini? Wacha sasa aongoze moto iwake. Sisi Kipsigis tumechoka na uongo wa hawa majambazi wawili (Every time this old man….Every time this old man. How has this old man ever wronged us? If Raila led this country, what would happen? Let him now lead so that there can be fireworks. We the Kipsigis people are tired of the chicanery shown to us by these two thugs (Uhuru and Ruto).”

Determined to slice off a chunk of the huge Kalenjin consolidated vote, Governor Ruto has stoked real fear in the heart of the Jubilee coalition. “Sometime early this year, the Kipsigis elders met and gave the Governor the go-ahead to form an alliance with the opposition NASA,” an elder from the community said to me.

On June 17, Emurua Dikirr outgoing MP Jonathan Ng’eno was in Narok North attending a funeral service. Looking visibly agitated he asked the congregation: “Kwani tukipigia Raila kura tutakufa? (If we choose to vote for Raila, are we going to die?)”

“The intransigency and the digging in by both Jubilee Party and NASA is ominous,” says Ali. “It does not augur well for the country. Like in the 2007 general election, the August 8 election involves the unseating of an incumbent.” Such a scenario, he says, is always fraught with overtones of political violence.

On the same day Ng’eno was telling his constituency they could vote for the opposition leader Raila Odinga, Raila himself was telling the Maasai people in Kajiado County to not dispose of their land hastily. The comment was quickly hijacked by Jubilee Party aficionados who used this remark to paint Raila as a warmonger. No sooner had Raila finished uttering those words than leaflets were already in circulation in the county.

“We woke up the following day to find leaflets strewn everywhere and pinned on electricity poles saying that ‘foreigners’ such as Kikuyus and Kisiis should vacate Kajiado,” said Mzee Kanjory who lives in Corner Baridi. Mzee Kanjory said that many of the leaflets were dropped off in the Pipeline area. Pipeline is the stretch between Isinya and Kiserian towns.

“This area is really cosmopolitan; Kikuyus, Kisiis, Luhyas, Luos, Maasais all have invested in this area,” said Mzee Kanjory. “It would be a good starting place to foment ethnic tension in Kajiado County.” If violence were to occur in Kajiado, the Mzee assured me, it would be brutal and genocidal.

“This is a county that has been harbouring festering wounds for a long time among the local Maasai people, who, even though they sold their land on a willing-buyer willing-seller basis, still feel they were cheated. It would only take a small trigger to ignite an inferno.”

The forthcoming general election, which is already showing signs of being the hottest contested ever, has put Kenyans on edge. Among the Kikuyu speakers, an eight-minute video clip has been making the rounds through the social media, warning them of relinquishing power to the opposition. Entitled Mt Kenya Group — Ngai Emwena Witu — “God is on our side,” the video is a montage of Kikuyu popular songs carefully selected to evoke ethnic passions, as well as to create a siege mentality among the larger Kikuyu community.

The lyrics disguised as a clarion credo to rally The House of Mumbi — a catchphrase used by ethnic bigots to evoke a sense of emotional oneness among the Kikuyu nation — are a subtle call to arms if the opposition NASA coalition were to wrest power from the Kikuyu.

CALING ALL KIKUYUS

Calling all Kikuyus, wherever they are, to vote for President Uhuru Kenyatta, the jingoism expressed in the amateur production is frighteningly unabashed and unapologetic in its war cry: “We must protect Uthamaki (political king) at all costs. We must stop the opposition from capturing power by all means. We will not accept to be defeated, because defeat does not exist in our lexicon. Therefore, the House of Mumbi cannot be defeated.”

In a bizarre request to the Inspector General of Police Joseph Boinnet, the Kiambu County governor seat candidate and Kabete MP Ferdinand Waititu asked him to deploy only Kikuyu police officers to the county. “The deployment is the only way our people will effectively communicate to the police and therefore boost security,” said Waititu on June 29.

With a fidgety ruling coalition seemingly under siege from a resurgent opposition, determined to snatch power from a faltering coalition — but one with immense powers of incumbency — we could be headed for a civil war if the election is not properly conducted.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?

The economic hardship aggravated by COVID-19 and the mistreatment of Kenyans in China have re-opened old wounds among the Kikuyu, who are now questioning whether Uhuru Kenyatta was really the right choice for president.

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?
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Last week, my friend Njuguna called to tell me he wanted us to meet. I went to their home in Gitaru, not too far from the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and 15 km from the Nairobi city centre. The family was going to have a Skype call with their kid sister, who is now marooned in Wuhan city in Hubei Province, central China.

Six years ago, after Nyambura finished her high school studies, the family put together their resources to send her to China to study medicine, something she had always dreamed of doing. Last December, she graduated from university as a physician and even found a temporary job at a local hospital. Last November, she told her eldest brother Njuguna that she wanted to gain some experience and earn some money before coming home.

Then the coronavirus explosion happened and her life was turned topsy-turvy.

Nyambura told her family that COVID-19 was possibly detected in mid-November in Wuhan, but when it could not be kept under wraps for too long by the Chinese authorities – as they figured out how to control and manage it – the authorities were forced to report the first infection cases after Christmas 2019.

Now, talking to her family from some street corner in Wuhan city, Nyambura was sobbing on Skype, beseeching her family to save her life and not abandon her. On seeing her home and family, she broke down and wept uncontrollably. She thought of how she would have been safe and sound at home among her family, among people she would feel secure with, in her country, where she would mingle and walk freely without fear of being beaten, insulted and harassed for being a foreigner.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar. She was now living on the streets; a fully trained doctor, homeless, penniless, and cowering under the brutalities of a racist regime that her government was scared of confronting.

“The unkempt kids that live and scrounge on the streets of Nairobi are 100 times better than me here in Wuhan,” said a tearful Nyambura. “They are scrounging at home in the full knowledge that nobody will beat them, they scrounge among their people and even though the street boys and girls can be rogue, the people can never disown them, or even beat them recklessly, no one would ever allow that.” In China, said Nyambura, the blacks were being treated like stray cats.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar.

Describing the current situation in China, Nyambura said the country had become a nightmare for Africans, for Kenyans, for anybody with black pigmentation. But she could not believe the extent to which the Kenyan government feared the Chinese, the extent to which the Kenyan government was ready to abandon and disown its people. “At least the Nigerian embassy has registered its displeasure with the Chinese authorities, stood with its people and asked the Nigerian representatives to collect the names of all the Nigerians in Wuhan for safe evacuation. Right now to be a Kenyan in Wuhan, or indeed elsewhere in China, is akin to abandonment, to statelessness, to be entirely on your own, to have been sacrificed,” said the physician.

“Why is Sarah Serem [the Kenyan ambassador to China] lying? Why?” sobbed Nyambura to her family. “She’s been telling you that the people who have been thrown of their houses, who are being kicked around and beaten up and button-holed are illegal migrants, Kenyans who supposedly are without papers…these are outright lies. Am I illegal in China? Am I not in the streets? Don’t I have all the papers? Why is she lying to Kenyans?”

But assuming the Kenyans in China are indeed illegally here, posed Nyambura, “doesn’t an ‘illegal’ Kenyan have rights? Doesn’t she have a life worthy of being protected? Doesn’t she require representation from her government? A Kenyan in a foreign country, whether illegal or legal is a Kenyan. Civilized and thinking governments first don’t stop to ask whether their people stuck in some foreign country are illegal or legal. They move in to evacuate and protect them…they can later on, if it’s really necessary, deal with the issues of how and why they went to that county in the first place after they are finally home safe.”

Diplomats are people who are employed by their respective governments to officially lie on their behalf. “But what [Ambassador] Macharia Kamau [the Principal Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry] and Serem are doing is denying our existence, calling us all manner of names, pandering to Chinese authorities’ whims. It is the worst thing a government can do to its people,” said a crying Nyambura. “To think that we have a responsible government…to believe that the government cared for its people…we’ve all along been cheated and fooled…it’s been a con-game through and through,” trailed off the physician.

The family asked her why the Chinese authorities suddenly found it fit to openly discriminate and harass the Africans. “You know when coronavirus first manifested itself, for some unexplained reason, it did not affect and infect Africans, or more correctly, black people, in China. As the Chinese were getting ravaged by the deadly disease, black people went about their business, unperturbed, apparently, oblivious of the malaise. It, therefore, seems to me, to their chagrin, the Chinese were really irked by this state of affairs. They thought, ‘Why is it that we the Chinese (who believe they are superior to the black race) are dying off, yet these blacks seems to be immune?’ they wondered.”

After the conversation, which lasted something like 45 minutes, Nyambura’s family was distraught, fraught with fear and foreboding. As is wont with many families, they bent their heads and fervently prayed for their sister and imploring the Lord God to “ring her life with the mighty blood of Jesus”.

***

The Njuguna family not only voted for Uhuru Kenyatta three times, it vigorously campaigned for him and the Jubilee Party. I know this because Njuguna and I have known each other for quite some time now. But thinking about the predicament of his youngest sister thousands of kilometres away has made him question his choices. “What kind of government do we have?” (He was not asking me, he was thinking aloud.) “What does Macharia mean when he says hiring a plane is not like hiring a matatu? When Serem disowns Kenyans in China. What’s going on in her head?”

In 2017, we had many arguments and conversations regarding that year’s presidential elections on August 8. I was sceptical about Uhuru’s re-election and he was cocksure that his fortunes, and that of his family, would rise. “How?” I kept on asking him. His response: “The Chinese are building a highway outside our village. It’s going to change our fortunes.”

Two years into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term, the project has not only stalled, but Njuguna does not want to hear anything to do with Uhuru or the Chinese.

When the Chinese started constructing the section on Gitaru, there was a huge uproar among Gitaru villagers. The villagers accused the Chinese of not employing any of their kith and kin. “The Chinese were doing everything, including the simplest of tasks, like dredging the tunnels, driving the trucks and even using the theodolite,” Njuguna recalled. “The local people went to complain to the local administration and the Chinese were asked to be considerate.”

“Do you know why the road has stopped?” asked Njuguna. “It is because Uhuru’s government has delayed paying the property owners their dues to allow the Chinese contractor to expand the road by building drainage that needs to build first. The people are so angry they don’t want to hear about Uhuru and his Jubilee Party government.”

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

I asked him whether he had been bewitched during the 2013 and 2017 elections. He said yes. “How else can I explain my total conviction in Uhuru’s presidency without wanting to brook any contrary opinion? My sister being stuck in China is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We are through with Uhuru…”

Even I was taken aback by his brazen candour. “The Kenyatta family has been the millstone around the Kikuyu’s necks. Do you know why our people are loiterers around the country? Do you know why our people are impoverished? Because the Kenyatta family grabbed all the prime lands in the ancestral Kikuyuland. I’ve told you about our pieces of land in Naivasha and Nakuru? He has now given a Danish company huge tracts of land in Naivasha to build a beer factory,” he complained.

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

“I’m done with Uhuru… I’m really done with him. I regret why I voted for him, why I campaigned for him… it is a mistake I hope never to repeat again,” grumbled Njuguna. “Uhuru can find money for musicians, find money for politicians, dead and alive, but he cannot find money to evacuate Kenyans suffering in a faraway country for no fault of theirs. Once again, for the umpteenth time, President Uhuru has thrown the Kikuyus under the bus,” growled Njuguna.

In the lead-up to the 2017 presidential elections, Njuguna and I had had many heated discussions on who Kenyans should elect as president. That time he told me, “Uhuru ni gaitu ga guicirira…mukuigwa uguo…” Uhuru is ours by birth and blood…you can lump it if you don’t like it.

***

“Iguthua ndogoria, itikinyagira nyeki,” said my friend, a matatu driver to me. Translated metaphorically, it means a limping shepherd leads his flock astray. Literally it means, a leader who lacks foresight cannot lead his people to greener pastures. Essentially, he becomes a burden to his people.

My friend was in a mood to speak his mind “in these times of coronavirus, where our world has been thrown into utter confusion”. He was taking his matatu to the garage for service in Kawangware, so he asked me if I could I accompany him.

“If I didn’t take care of this matatu, regularly making sure it’s well-serviced, it’s clean, that generally it is in a good condition, would I really feed my family? Would I claim to be a right thinking human being who cares about the welfare of his people? I wouldn’t, because it would keep on breaking down, and I would lose face with my loyal customers and my business would be wobbly. That is what Uhuru’s leadership has become. I will tell you this, many Kikuyus voted for him believing that he would lead us to greener pastures, that he would care for our interests, that he would not let us suffer, that he would remember he is where he is because of the sacrifices of the people, many of them strugglers and poor.

“But look what happened? Kikuyus hitched their wagon on a fading horse, a wild horse that didn’t, in the first place, know where it was headed and how it was heading wherever it was heading. Yet we Kikuyus couldn’t stop to ask these important questions because we were consumed by ethnic jingoism. We were all in a tribally induced trance…now we’re all paying for it. I’ve thought about these things: cooked up presidential elections, tribal voting, about Uhuru, politicians, why people are suffering, and now coronavirus and I can tell you we’re living in apocalyptic times.

“I’ve listened to Uhuru in his addresses to the nation – the man lost the plot a long time ago. He is so disconnected from the people, I wonder whether he truly listens to himself. But I’m told these people [politicians] never stop playing games with us, the electorate. ‘My fellow Kenyans’…when did we become his fellow Kenyans? Do you know there are Kenyans who are starving, because they don’t have food to feed their children?”

My matatu driver friend said that in some parts of Kiambu County, where he grew up and still lives, he knows of families that have been rendered jobless. Even with their meagre incomes, at least they could afford to buy food. “Now that meagre pay is not forthcoming. How do you expect these people to survive? Still, the president talks of ‘my fellow Kenyans’. No muhaka ticiria uhoro wa muturire witu wa hau kabere.” We must seriously think of how lives will be in the future.

“For me, I already have”, said the driver. “I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never again participate in electoral politics. What’s the point? Uhuru and his band of politicians can spend millions of shillings cheating our mothers with branded lesos [kitenge-like wrapping cloth, popular with women], caps and T-Shirts, yet he cannot find money to buy the same women masks. In his first address to the nation during these coronavirus times, the president said he had allocated so many millions to money paid to old people. That money is in the government portals – just like the stadia were built in the portals. I can tell you, the last time that money was paid to the retirees was way back, six months ago.

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

Coronavirus, said the matatu driver, had exposed President Uhuru’s administration: “It doesn’t know what it’s doing. Every time Uhuru takes to the podium to address the nation, he repeats the same things that he said the last time, hence, the speeches have become boring and repetitive. Or regurgitates what Muthai Kagwe [the Cabinet Secretary for Health] has been saying. It’s threats, warnings and blaming the youth, the poor and those who cannot afford to self-distance, quarantine, and even self-isolate, because for them it is a matter of life and death.”

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

My friend said the president had relegated everything concerning coronavirus to Mutahi. “Where is his leadership? It is missing, because I cannot see it. It looks like his spin doctors have told him to be occasionally holding press conferences to be seen to be on top of things. So he has become a talking head, talking to himself. Meanwhile, Mutahi’s major preoccupation in his numerously press conferences is to constantly frighten us with numbers, issue threats and condemn the poor and the less privileged.”

If there is one thing coronavirus ought to teach us, said my friend, is that we Kenyans need to think long and hard about the future of the country: “What do we want for ourselves? What kind of leaders do we desire? How do we right the political wrongs we’ve made? Talking specifically to my fellow Kikuyus: How do we unchain ourselves from the Kenyatta family servitude? This will be critical if the Kikuyu people in the coming years hope to be part of the struggle to liberate the country from the shackles of predatory politics.”

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