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.
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.
African Continent a Milking Cow for Google and Facebook
‘Sandwich’ helps tech giants avoid tax in Africa via the Netherlands and Ireland.
Google’s office at the airport residential area in Accra, Ghana, sits inside a plain white and blue two-storey building that could do with a coat of paint. Google, which made more than US$ 160 billion in global revenue in 2019, of which an estimated US$ eighteen billion in ‘Africa and the Middle East’, pays no tax in Ghana, nor does it do so in most of the countries on the African continent.
It is able to escape tax duties because of an old regulation that says that an individual or entity must have a ‘physical presence’ in the country in order to owe tax. And Google’s Accra office clearly defines itself as ‘not a physical presence.’ When asked, a front desk employee at the building says it is perfectly alright for Google not to display its logo on the door outside. ‘It is our right to choose if we do that or not’. A visitor to the building, who said she was there for a different company, said she had no idea Google was based inside.
Facebook is even less visible. Even though practically all 250 million smartphone owners in Africa use Facebook, it only has an office in South Africa, making that country the only one on the continent where it pays tax.
Brick and mortar
The physical presence rule in African tax laws is ‘remnant of a situation before the digital economy, where a company could only act in a country if it had a “brick and mortar” building’, says an official of the Nigerian Federal Inland Revenue Service (FIRS), who wants to remain anonymous. ‘Many countries did not foresee the digital economy and its ability to generate income without a physical presence. This is why tax laws didn’t cover them’.
Tax administrations globally have initiated changes to allow for the taxing of digital entities since at least 2017. African countries still lag behind, which is why the continent continues to provide lucrative gains for the tech giants. A 2018 PriceWaterhouseCoopers report noted that Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has seen an average of a thirty percent year-on-year growth in internet advertising in the last five years, and that the same sector in that country is projected, in 2020, to amount to US$ 125 million in the entertainment and media industry alone.
‘Their revenue comes from me’.
William Ansah, Ghana-based CEO of leading West African advertising company Origin 8, pays a significant amount of his budget to online services. He says he is aware that tax on his payments to Facebook and Google escapes his country through what is commonly referred to as ‘transfer pricing’ and feels bad about it. ‘These companies should pay tax here, in Ghana, because their revenue comes from me’, he says, showing us a receipt from Google Ireland for his payments. During this investigation we were also shown an advert receipt from a Nigerian Facebook ad that listed ‘Ireland’ as the destination of the payment.
Like Google, Facebook does not provide country-by-country reports of its revenue from Africa or even from the African continent as a whole, but the tech giant reported general revenue of US$ sixty billion as a whole from ‘Rest of the world’, which is the world minus the USA, Canada, Europe and Asia.
The specific transfer pricing construction Google and other tech giants such as Facebook use to channel income away from tax obligations is called an ‘Irish Double’ or ‘Dutch Sandwich’, since both countries are used in the scheme. In the construction, the income is declared in Ireland, then routed to the Netherlands, then transferred to Bermuda, where Google Ireland is officially located. Bermuda is a country with no corporation tax. According to documents filed at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce in December 2018, Google moved US$ 22,7 billion through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017.
An ongoing court case in Ghana — albeit on a different issue — recently highlighted attempts by Google to justify its tax-avoiding practices in that country. The case against Google Ghana and Google Inc, now called Google LLC in the USA, was started by lawyer George Agyemang Sarpong, who held that both entities were responsible for defamatory material against him that had been posted on the Ghana platform. Responding to the charge, Google Ghana contended in court documents that it was not the ‘owner of the search engine www.google.com.gh’; that it did not ‘operate or control the search engine’ and that ‘its business (was) different from Google Inc’.
Google Ghana is an ‘artificial intelligence research facility’.
Google Ghana describes itself in company papers as an ‘Artificial Intelligence research facility’. It says that its business is to ‘provide sales and operational support for services provided by other legal entities’, a construction whereby these other legal entities — in this case Google Inc — are responsible for any material on the platform. Google Ghana emphasised during the court case that Ghana’s advertising money was also correctly paid to Google Ireland Ltd, because this company is formally a part of Google Inc.
Rowland Kissi, law lecturer at the University of Professional Studies in Accra describes Google’s defence in the Sarpong court case as a ‘clever attempt’ by the business to shirk all ‘future liability of the platform’. Kissi is cautiously optimistic about the outcome, though: while the case is ongoing, the court has already asserted that ‘the distinction regarding who is responsible for material appearing on www.google.com.gh, is not so clear as to absolve the first defendant (Google Ghana) from blame before trial’. According to leading tax lawyer and expert Abdallah Ali-Nakyea, if the ‘government can establish that Google Ghana is an agent of Google Inc, the state could compel it to pay all relevant taxes including income taxes and withholding taxes’.
Like most countries, especially in Africa, Nigeria and Ghana have become more cash-strapped than usual as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic. While lockdowns enforced by governments to stop the spread of the virus have caused sharp contractions of the economy worldwide, ‘much worse than during the 2008–09 financial crisis’, according to the International Monetary Fund, Africa has experienced unprecedented shrinking, with sectors such as aviation, tourism and hospitality hardest hit. (Ironically, in the same period, tech giants like Google and Facebook have emerged from the pandemic stronger, due to, among others, the new reality that people work from home.)
With much needed tax income still absent, many countries have become even more dependent on charitable handouts. Nigeria recently sent out a tweet to ask international tech personality and philanthropist, Elon Musk, for a donation of ventilators to help weather the COVID 19 pandemic: ‘Dear @elonmusk @Tesla, Federal Government of Nigeria needs support with 100-500 ventilators to assist with #Covid19 cases arising every day in Nigeria’, it said. After Nigerians on Twitter accused the government of historically not investing adequately in public health, pointing at neglect leading to a situation where a government ministry was now begging for help on social media, the tweet was deleted. A government spokesperson later commented that the tweet had been ‘unauthorised’.
Cost to public
The criticism that governments often mismanage their budgets and that much money is lost to corruption regularly features in public debates in many countries in Africa, including Nigeria. However, executive secretary Logan Wort of the African Tax Administration Forum ATAF has argued that this view should not be used to excuse tax avoidance. In a previous interview with ZAM Wort said that ‘African countries must develop their tax base. It is only in this way that we can become independent from handouts and resource exploitation. Then, if a government does not use the tax money in the way it should, it must be held accountable by the taxpayers. A tax paying people is a questioning people’.
‘A tax paying people is a questioning people’
Commenting on this investigation, Alex Ezenagu, Professor of Taxation and Commercial Law at Hamad Bin Khalifa University in Qatar, adds that in matters of tax avoidance by ‘popular multinationals such as Facebook and Google, it is important to understand the cost to the public. If (large) businesses don’t pay tax, the burden is shifted to either small businesses or low income earners because the revenue deficit would have to be met one way or another’. For example, a Nigerian revenue gap may cause the government to increase other taxes, Ezenagu says, such as value added tax, which increased from five to seven and a half percent in Nigeria in January. ‘When multinationals don’t pay tax, you are taxed more as a person’.
Nigeria has recently begun to tighten its tax laws, thereby following in the footsteps of Europe, that last year made it more difficult for the digital multinationals to use the ‘Irish Double’ to escape tax in their countries. South Africa, too, in 2019 tailored changes to its tax laws in order to close remaining legal loopholes used by the tech giants. These ‘could raise (tax income) up to US$ 290 million a year’ more from companies like Google and Facebook, a South African finance source said. With US$ 290 million, Ghana’s could fund its flagship free senior high school education; Nigeria could fully fund the annual budget (2016/2017 figures) of Oyo, a state in the south west of the country.
Waiting for the Finance Minister
Nigeria’s new Finance Act, signed into law in January 2020, has expanded provisions to shift the country’s focus from physical presence to ‘significant economic presence’. The new law leaves the question whether a prospective taxpayer has a ‘significant economic presence’ in Nigeria to the determination of the Finance Minister, whose action with regard to the tech giants is awaited.
In Ghana, digital taxation discussions are slowly gaining momentum among policy makers. The Deputy Commissioner of that country’s Large Taxpayer Office, Edward Gyamerah, said in a June 2019 presentation that current rules ‘must be revised to cover the digital economy and deal with companies that don’t have traditional brick-and-mortar office presences’. However, a top government official at Ghana’s Ministry of Finance who was not authorised to speak publicly stated that, ‘from the taxation policy point of view, the government has not paid a lot attention to digital taxation’.
He blamed the ‘complexity of developing robust infrastructure to assess e-commerce activity in the country’ as a major reason for the government’s inaction on this, but hoped that a broad digital tax policy would still be announced in 2020.” Until the authorities get around to this, he said he believed that, ‘Google and Facebook will (continue to) pay close to nothing in Ghana’.
Google Nigeria did not respond to several requests for interviews; Google Ghana did not respond to a request for comment on this investigation. Neither entities responded to a list of questions, which included queries as to what of their activities in the two countries might be liable for tax, and whether they could publish country by country revenues generated in Africa. When reached by phone, Google Nigeria’s Head of Communications, Taiwo Kola Ogunlade, said that he couldn’t speak on the company’s taxation status. Facebook spokesperson Kezia Anim-Addo said in an email: ‘Facebook pays all taxes required by law in the countries in which we operate (where we have offices), and we will continue to comply with our obligations’.
Note: The figure of eighteen billion US$ as revenue for Google in ‘Africa and the Middle East’ over 2019 was arrived at as follows. Google’s EMEA figures for 2019 indicate US$ 40 billion revenue for ‘Africa, Europe and the Middle East’ all together. According to this German publication, Google’s revenue in Europe was 22 billion in 2019. This leaves US$ eighteen billion for Africa and the Middle East.
This article was first published by our partner ZAM Magazine.
An Unlikely Alliance: What Africa and Asia can teach each other
Once African and Asian leaders looked towards each other for guidance. What possibilities can a renewed cross-continental solidarity offer?
When independent Congo’s first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated in 1962, over 100,000 people protested in Beijing Workers’ Stadium. Thousands more protested in New Delhi and Singapore.
When Sudan lacked a formal plaque at the 1955 Bandung Conference, where the leaders of Asia and Africa declared the Third World project, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru wrote “Sudan” on his handkerchief, ensuring Africa’s then largest country a seat.
It was a time when Asia and Africa, home to almost 80 percent of humanity, found kinship in their shared trauma and conjoined destiny. Both were always spoken of in tandem. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” drew inspiration from what he saw overseas: “The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jet like speed toward gaining political independence.”
Too often we forget that the most defining event of the 20th century was not World War II or the Cold War, but the liberation of billions in Asia and Africa between the 1950s and 1980s as citizens of almost 100 new-born countries.
It also marked the revival of an ancient, pre-European connection. Historically, Asia and Africa were enmeshed centers of wealth and knowledge and the gatekeepers of the most lucrative trade routes. The Roman Empire’s richest region was North Africa, not Europe. A severe trade imbalance with South Asia forced Roman emissaries to beg spice traders in Tamil Nadu to limit their exports.
Western Europeans left their shores in desperation, not exploration, in the 1500s to secure a maritime route to the wealthy Indian Ocean trading system that integrated Asia and Africa. Somali traders grew rich as middlemen transiting coveted varieties of cinnamon from South Asia to Southern Europe. The Swahili coast shipped gold, ivory, and wildlife to China. Transferring the world economy to the Atlantic first required Portugal’s violent undoing of the flow of goods and peoples between Asia and Africa.
In Bandung, Indonesia’s Sukarno declared “a new departure” in which peoples of both continents no longer had “their futures mortgaged to an alien system.”
Yet that departure became a wide divergence that is complex to comprehend. Over the last few years, I’ve shuttled between the megacities of Asia to East and Central Africa. I also grew up in four Asian countries—India, Thailand, Philippines, and Singapore—and lived through Southeast Asia’s exponential rise.
The gap between Africa and East Asia, including Southeast Asia, is perplexing because we share much in common—culture, values, spirit, and worldview. I’m reminded of this in Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, or Ghana, where I’ve felt an immediate sense of fraternity.
It’s now a familiar story: 70 years ago, African incomes and literacy rates were higher than East Asia, then an epicenter of major wars. But in one generation, East Asia achieved wealth, human development, and standards of living that rival a tired, less relevant Western world.
The shockingly inept response by many Western countries to a historic pandemic has only amplified calls for Africa to abandon the Western model and learn from its once closest allies. A new book titled Asian Aspiration: How and Why Africa Should Emulate Asia, hit stores this year, co-authored by former Nigerian and Ethiopian heads of state. An op-ed in Kenya’s Star newspaper even prior suggested Kenyans shift their gaze from the supposed advancement of Westerners to “the progress of our comrades in the East.”
The incessant idea that Africa’s future lies in models not of its own making can be patronising. But Africa can indeed learn from the successes and pitfalls of East Asia, the world’s most economically dynamic region also built from scratch, while imparting wisdom of its own.
Many who previously pondered this gap came up with multiple theories, but often ignored a simple reality: Africa’s geography. Like Latin America, Africa is bedeviled by a predatory power to its north that siphons capital, talent, labor, and hope. By contrast, East Asia, even with several U.S. bases, is an ocean away from the United States and a 12-hour flight from Western Europe.
Europe’s proximity to Africa also cultivated a perennial barrier to development: the Western aid industry. Whether I’m in Haiti or Chad, the sheer domination of Western NGOs, development agencies, aid convoys, and all manner of plunder masquerading as goodwill—$40 billion more illicitly flows out of Africa than incoming loans and aid combined—is something I never saw even 25 years ago in Southeast Asia. Industries look for growth opportunities. Developed societies with robust public systems in East Asia offer few for saviors. The streets of Bangkok and Hanoi are lined with Toyotas and tourists, not wide-eyed youths in armored vehicles guided by white burden. The development industry and most of its participants I’ve had the misfortune of meeting are toxic. Large swaths of Africa remain under occupation of a different kind.
For much of the 20th century, Africa also faced a virulent settler colony in its south which destabilized the region and was so hateful of Black Africans that its mercenaries set up a series of bogus health clinics to surreptitiously spread HIV under the guise of charitable healthcare.
East Asia’s settler colony, Australia, was never able to replicate South Africa’s belligerence. It did lay waste to Papua New Guinea (where it continues to imprison asylum-seekers) but Australia never invaded or occupied Indonesia or the Philippines.
Another fallacy explaining African inertia is poor leadership. Leadership is paramount, but Africa produced a generation of independence era leaders whose values and decency the world desperately needs today. All were killed or overthrown by the West—because Africa is a far deeper reservoir of resources than East Asia.
South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are not resource rich. Thailand was never even colonized. An Asian country afflicted by similar conditions to Africa is mineral-rich Myanmar, closed to the wider world and progress for decades. Showcases of democracy aside, its kleptocratic, authoritarian political culture, like many African countries, was inherited from British rule. George Orwell’s less referenced book Burma Days, a recount of his time as a police officer in colonial Burma, called the British Empire “a despotism with theft as its final object.”
Resources prevented African leaders from towing a middle road that kept Western powers happy while investing in their society. The choice was resource nationalism or authoritarian acquiescence “with theft as its final object.” It was either Lumumba or Mobutu.
East Asian success stories worked within the global capitalist system and conducted deft diplomacy to placate Western superiority complexes while fortifying relationships with the rest of the global South. At independence, Singapore dispatched diplomats around the world, including several African countries, to build trade ties. Its manufacturing companies provided cassette tapes for Sudan’s then booming music industry. It hired Israeli advisors to train its military while staying in the good books of neighbors and Arab partners who stood with the Palestinians. These maneuvers are only possible when you aren’t sitting on $24 trillion worth of minerals.
Geography aided East Asia. Colonial borders, with a few exceptions, resembled some form of community that came before the nation-state. Consider both the Malay and Korean Peninsulas. Thailand’s borders, while amended as concessions to imperial powers, conformed largely to the cultural and linguistic boundaries of ancient Siam.
Africa’s artificial borders concocted nation-states with no experience as a community of any kind. The nation-state model creates fissures even in Europe, with the Yugoslav wars and constant, violently suppressed demands for statehood by the Basques and Catalans in Spain, not to mention a referendum by the Scots. Partitions across Africa, a special kind of cartographic violence, congealed animosity for generations.
So while Africans were marginally better off at independence than East Asians, structurally they actually did not have a head start. But Africa still thrived in the 1970s. It is only now reaching average income levels akin to half a century ago. To dismiss the continent’s record since independence as a perennial failure is a historically illiterate point of view. Its cultural output and musical dynamism were astonishing—arguably unrivaled—during this era. Liverpool and Manchester? Try Luanda and Mogadishu.
Africans were well aware of the right course but were thwarted more viciously than East Asia’s most developed states. Perhaps the West is more tolerant of Asian success because of racial hierarchies, just as the US parades Asian-American affluence as a symbol of the universality of the US-led Western model but violently responds to the smallest hint of actual wealth creation in Black-American communities.
Now, amid a precarious coming decade, East Asia indeed offers prescriptions for not only natural allies like Africans but societies worldwide seeking transformation in record time.
First off, it’s all about networks. Do the rules of your country facilitate local, regional, and international networks? A new Harvard study concluded that brisk business travel has the single biggest impact on building networks, diffusing knowledge, and birthing new industries. Europe’s own development benefited from its small land space, which tailored expansive, tight-knit networks that rapidly spread ideas revolutionizing everything from the sciences to football tactics.
Frequent trips to any major city in East Asia connect you to lucrative networks half a world away. Business travel (at least before the chaos of coronavirus) to East Asia is accessible, affordable, and hassle-free. The right infrastructure and laws—state-of-the-art airports, good accommodations, low-cost, high-speed telecommunications, rapid transportation links and whole scale visa liberalization—are needed to accommodate network-building travelers of every stripe and budget. African countries should follow suit, and streamline business travel, which would allow African travelers to build dense regional and continental networks—currently a tough ask when pre-pandemic flights from Nairobi to London were far cheaper than to neighboring capitals.
Since the 1980s, the Anglo-American West, ideologically intoxicated by deregulation, abdicated their society’s fate to self-interested individuals and free markets alone. East Asian countries enacted hardcore capitalist policies but never bought into this demented idea. The US and UK spent the last four decades dismantling their states; East Asian countries meanwhile reinforced their capacity with vast investments in education, telecommunication, and especially healthcare.
Thailand abandoned the neoliberal approach to healthcare in the early 2000s for a private-public model that guaranteed universal coverage and secured its place as the first country in Asia to eliminate HIV transmission from mother to child. Both Singapore and Hong Kong have the most efficient healthcare systems in the world. Sharply guided public health policies underwrote East Asia’s masterful management of COVID-19. Vietnam and Laos had zero deaths from coronavirus while Germany, somehow a celebrated success story in the Western press, has over 9,000 deaths.
Recently, Kenya sought Thailand’s expertise in revamping a typically price-gouged private healthcare system. Ethiopia invited Vietnamese telecommunication companies to make its systems reliable, fast, and, like much of Southeast Asia, affordable.
In the Nigerian and Kenyan corners of Twitter, “The Singapore Solution” resonates. People yearn for a Lee Kuan Yew figure. Lee once told an Indian audience that Singapore’s model cannot be adopted by India, which, according to him, “is not a real country…Instead it is thirty-two separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”
The same can be said about Nigeria and Kenya. Singapore is an entrepot state of a few million at the gateway to the Malacca Straits, the world’s busiest shipping lane, with deep ancestral ties to China and India, the world’s richest economies for 1,800 of the last 2,000 years.
Each country’s trajectory is highly contingent on a set of unique circumstances and should never be applied wholesale. With the immense benefit of hindsight, Africans can choose from the best, most fitting lessons from the region, while staying vigilant of and mitigating many pitfalls.
For every one of me, inheritors of East Asia’s boom, there are, like New York City and London in the early 1900s, millions trapped as cheap labor servicing endless growth, forced to compete over scraps in unforgiving cities. East Asian inequality is nauseating. South Korea has the highest elderly poverty rate in the OECD, with almost half of its senior citizens condemned to destitution rather than retirement. Only disparities that torture the soul can create award-winning films like Parasite.
This is a feature, not a bug, of East Asia’s rapid growth. Opening up to global capitalism inevitably instills hierarchies and racialized aspirations. When I see advertisements for new luxury condominiums, possibly the most prevalent hoardings in Southeast Asia, it’s an image of a white man with his East Asian wife and mixed-race child. The message is clear. As Frantz Fanon wrote, “you are rich because you are white, you are white because you are rich.”
East Asia may not have the levels of violent, heartless racism on brazen display in Western societies, but the 1990s were a turning point. East Asians began to look down on those modernization taught them to distrust. You don’t go from mourning an assassinated Congolese leader by the thousands to treating African expatriates as diseased in one generation without a drastic, very recent shift.
Some Westerners, like washed up drunks screaming profanities at a bar, might be tempted to repeat the mantras falsely underlining their sense of superiority to make preposterous demands of such young countries pieced together overnight. They might ask, “Well what of democracy? Human rights? Freedom of the press? Free markets?” These are all wonderful things, if they actually existed.
Not a single Western country was a democracy during its development. Western Europe had a fascist government in Spain until 1975. France and Britain fought horrific wars to deny Algeria and Kenya independence even after defeating Nazism. You can’t be a democracy when you deny democracy to others. European colonies were run as totalitarian dictatorships and lasted well into the late 20th century.
Freedom of the press? Try criticizing Israel in the mainstream US or German media.
Human rights? Europe lets migrants drown by the thousands in the Mediterranean. Australia has offshore camps for asylum seekers where abuse and rape are rampant. The US has kids in cages and its cops murder young Black men for sport.
Free markets? Both the US and Britain were viciously protectionist societies that relied on massive state intervention, and overwhelming military force, to mint its corporations.
The marriage of free markets to supposedly liberal democracy gave us Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, and kept war criminal Benjamin Netanyahu as Israel’s longest serving leader. The Western liberal order, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra meticulously reveals, is an “incubator for authoritarianism” because it’s premised on fairy tales.
An open society, a vibrant marketplace, and a respect for human dignity are of course worthy and necessary goals. More representative forms of government, hopefully devised by us rather than imported from Cornwall, England, will arrive. We need not be “Jeffersonian Democrats”; we can surely do better than a system championed by slave owners. As Deng Xiaoping said when China opened up after its century of humiliation, “Let some people get rich first,” which should be interpreted as a call to enrich societies as a whole before succumbing to obnoxious Western moralizing about values they rarely practice themselves.
Advancement need not only be predicated on economic growth and democratic politics and Africa need not only be the student and Asia the mentor. Asia has much to learn from Africa’s grand investments in culture in its earliest days. Aside from Vietnam, whose communist government funded the arts, and South Korea, which subsidized its K-Pop industry, most East Asian countries pay little attention to their cultural prowess on the world stage.
When kids in Djibouti listen to songs on their phone, it’s Somali music or Nigerian hits. Hop in a taxi in Accra or Khartoum and you hear that country’s sound. Africans listen to their own music. Southeast Asia does not. The richest music is derided as a pastime of lower classes, unfit for well-heeled urban elites. Talent gets lost in the never-ending roster of cover bands for top 40 American pop.
In Jakarta’s many behemoth malls, “you will not hear Indonesian music,” wrote journalist Vincent Bevins. “You will not hear Japanese music, or anything from Asia… It will all have been packaged and sold in the USA.” It’s the same story anywhere in the region.
This may seem trivial, but a country’s image is vital to any lasting progress. In a world no longer able to “identify with, let alone aspire to, Hollywood’s white fantasies of power, wealth and sex,” wrote Fatima Bhutto in New Kings of the World: Dispatches from Bollywood, Dizi, and K-Pop, “a vast cultural movement is emerging from the global South… Truly global in its range and allure, it is the biggest challenge to America’s monopoly of soft power since the end of the Second World War.”
African countries laid the foundations in the ‘70s to fill this vacuum. Their image will be defined in the next decades by their stellar music, set to be in our lifetimes the global staple and standard. Independent labels and corporate players like UMG and Sony, now with headquarters in Lagos and Abidjan, have ensured unprecedented international access to Africa’s abundance of music, past and present.
African literary festivals have also blossomed, adding to an impressive six percent growth in the industry. It’s only a matter of time before small and multinational publishing houses scout a new cadre of young African writers to make household names, as they did in South Asia. Africa hosts over 35 annual literary festivals, even in struggling cities like Mogadishu, while East Asia only enjoys 21.
Economic engines inevitably slow. Southeast Asia in particular must emulate African pride in its own music and related expressions of culture to seize on openings left behind by a once omnipotent cultural hegemony in full retreat. South Korea understood this early and enjoys a powerful, beloved global brand molded by pop music and films, not per capita income.
Even if Africa and Asia swap carefully selected approaches, ultimate success is only possible from a unity akin to the 1955 Bandung Conference. When we again mingle and ally, when we mourn each other’s dead, when we scribble names on napkins as acts of solidarity, we will again realize our lasting success. The final phase to complete the process of decolonization will have to be done jointly, in unison, or never at all.
Fear and Loathing in Kenya’s Parliament
Parliament’s failure to enact laws to bring women into elected national leadership has only exposed its soft underbelly, revealing a combination of narcissism and incompetence.
A month before Chief Justice David Maraga advised the president to dissolve parliament, legislators were toying with plans to delete the constitutional requirement that would include women in national political leadership.
“You cannot compel citizens to elect either men or the other gender,” said Justin Muturi. Speaking at a parliamentary retreat, the Speaker of the National Assembly appeared to have lost whatever empathy he previously harboured for affirmative action legislation to promote women’s participation in elected leadership in June 2016.
Following the CJ’s September 21 advice, Muturi mobilised the Parliamentary Service Commission, which he chairs, to mount a court challenge against it. He remarked: “The clamour to pass legislation to ensure [the] two-thirds gender principle potentially violates the sovereign will of the electorate at least to the extent that such legislation will demand top-ups or nominations of women”.
Jeremiah Kioni, who chairs the Constitution Implementation Oversight Committee, told the parliamentary retreat that politicians only agreed to include the clause on the inclusion of women in elective leadership in the 2010 constitution “to stabilise the country and cool tempers”.
Unknown to many at the time of the retreat debate, the Speakers of the National Assembly and the Senate had received an August 3 letter from Chief Justice David Maraga informing them that he was considering six different petitions asking him to advise the president to dissolve parliament as provided for in the constitution. The letter followed up on a 25 June 2019 one inquiring about the progress made by Parliament in enacting laws to increase women’s participation in leadership.
In August, Muturi cautioned members of parliament that there was a real risk of dissolution over failure to enact the law on including women in leadership, but since Maraga delivered his coup de grâce on September 21, the Speaker has gone on the warpath.
Although the constitution – which was passed by 68.6 per cent adult suffrage in August 2010 – gave parliament independence, it contains a suicide clause giving the president the power of dissolution should it fail to enact laws that bring the constitution into application. The clause kicks in if the High Court certifies and declares that parliament has failed to pass a law within the required timelines.
The constitutional provision requiring that no gender should constitute more than two thirds of any elective or appointive body has been successfully implemented in county assemblies, but it has remained a sticking point at the national level. Elections for the National Assembly and the Senate in 2017, and the subsequent allocation of special seats, gave women only 23 per cent of the share of legislative leadership at the national level – a 9 per cent improvement on the 2013 elections.
A 2018 National Democratic Institute survey of gender participation in politics found that “[w]omen who had served in specially nominated positions, for example, were more likely to win an election than those who had never held office at all”.
A combination of political chicanery, slothful self-interest and duplicitous male chauvinism has repeatedly thwarted efforts to create an inclusive national legislature. The laws required to cash the promissory note given to women when the country passed the Constitution have never been passed because neither the National Assembly nor the Senate has been able to muster the two-thirds quorum required to debate a constitutional amendment.
The National Gender and Equality Commission documents the Journey to Gender Parity in Political Representation, noting the four floundering attempts to enact laws that would increase the number of women in national legislatures.
In each instance, the bills proposed to become law had already been developed off-site, complete with a costing of what each option would mean for the taxpayer, and all that was required of MPs was for them to show up and make the quorum for the bills to come under consideration.
The last effort at passing the gender law had been stepped down from the order paper in November 2018 over fears that there would be lack of quorum to consider it since it touched on the constitution. The bill was the product of painstaking negotiation, bargaining, and deal making involving over 50 organisations and that had lined up President Uhuru Kenyatta, political party leaders Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka.
When the proposed law was put to the National Assembly in February 2019, the headcount came in at 174 MPs – 59 short of the 233 required to consider a law relating to the constitution. Earlier, under the hammer of the High Court in 2016 to pass a similar law, Speaker Muturi innovated a way to get round the requirement for constitutional amendment law proposals to wait 90 days, fast-tracked the bill through the 11th Parliament – only for it to fail because there was no quorum to consider it.
Frustrations over the repeated failure to pass laws that promote women’s increased participation in elective politics have triggered a record number of court petitions. The most consequential of these is the petition filed by the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, from which the High Court issued a declaration that parliament had indeed failed to perform its duty to enact a law to promote the participation of women in national elective leadership.
The Speaker of the National Assembly lost an appeal against the 2017 High Court decisionordering parliament to enact the law providing for inclusive leadership within 60 days.
Last year, on 5 April, the Court of Appeal observed that the repeated failure to get a quorum to pass the law “does not speak of a good faith effort to implement the gender principle”, noting that Parliament had already exhausted the option of extending for a year the deadline for enacting the gender law.
That decision confirmed parliament’s failure to perform its duty, and within two months inspired five petitions requesting the Chief Justice to advise that it be dissolved. The Law Society of Kenya lodged its petition with the Chief Justice in June this year.
Ken Ogutu, who teaches law at the University of Nairobi, analogises the current dilemma to a construction project where the main contractor has completed the main structure of a new house and a subcontractor is then left to do the finishing to ensure the house is completed to the required standards. “The main contractor gives the subcontractor a schedule of the finishing he must do and by when, and if the subcontractor fails to complete these tasks within the specified timelines, he is fired and a new one hired to do the work”.
Parliament has argued that it has passed all the other laws and should not be punished for not enacting the gender inclusion laws.
The Chief Justice’s advice to dissolve Parliament will likely expose the institution’s hidden weaknesses. Its failure to enact laws to bring women into elected national leadership has only exposed its soft underbelly, revealing a combination of narcissism and incompetence.
Beneath the shining veneer of success, evident in the passage of 47 out of the 48 laws required to implement the constitution as outlined in its Fifth Schedule, there is plenty of evidence that parliament is still stuck in the old constitutional order. Some argue that parliament has been the weak link in turning Kenya into a constitutional democracy.
Since 2011, Kenya Law Reports has documented 48 statutes or amendments to the law that the courts have struck down for being unconstitutional. Eight of the controversial laws struck down by the High Court or the Court of Appeal relate to the management of competition in elections.
Judges sitting singly or in panels of three in the High Court, or in the Court of Appeal, have struck down parliament’s attempts at power grabs by avoiding public participation and making laws that violate the constitution. It is even more worrying that the 48 are only those laws that citizens or organisations have challenged, meaning that there could be a great deal of unconstitutionality hidden in other laws.
For example, commenting on the attempt to sinecure seats for political party leaders in the election law, appellate judges Festus Azangalala, Patrick Kiage and Jamilla Mohammed wrote in their judgment: “[F]ar from attaining the true object of protecting the rights of the marginalized as envisioned by the constitution, the inclusion of Presidential and Deputy Presidential candidates in Article 34(9) of the Elections Act does violence to all reason and logic by arbitrary and irrational superimposition of well-heeled individuals on a list of the disadvantaged and marginalized to the detriment of the protected classes or interests”.
Other judges have described some of the legislative attempts as “overreach” or “no longer [serving] any purpose in the statute books of this country”. Judge Mumbi Ngugi, commenting on the anti-corruption law passed by parliament, remarked: “The provisions […], apart from obfuscating, indeed helping to obliterate the political hygiene, were contrary to the constitutional requirements of integrity in governance, were against the national values and principles of governance and the principles of leadership and integrity in . . . the Constitution . . . [and] entrenched corruption and impunity in the land”.
The low quality of laws emanating from parliament since the promulgation of the constitution in 2010 arises from several factors, among them competence gaps and self-interest, and despite the inclusion of an entire chapter on integrity in the constitution, the country’s politics is weighed down by poor political hygiene. Similarly, the law on qualification for election as a member of parliament sets a very low threshold while the one for recalling elected leaders is impossible to apply.
Data aggregated from the parliamentary website shows that 72 per cent of all members of the National Assembly are university graduates, but many of the qualifications listed appear to be shotgun degrees from notorious religious institutions acquired in the nick of time to clear the hurdle for election. The modest intellectual heft of members in the National Assembly especially makes the institution unsuited for the task of navigating a Western-style democracy in the design of the constitution.
Some 40 MPs have law degrees, but the Kenya Law Reform Commission, the Attorney General’s office, and various interest groups carry out much of the legislative drafting. Parliament is then often left with the duty of playing rubber stamp.
At moments of national crisis, legislative initiative has tended to emanate from outside parliament, whose members are then invited to endorse whatever deal has been agreed. Cases in point from recent history include the resolution of the stalemate over changing the composition of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission in 2017, and the political détente in the aftermath of the putative 2017 presidential election.
In a global first of game-warden-turned-poacher, the Public Accounts Committee, Kenya’s parliamentary watchdog, was disbanded over allegations of corruption. The Conflict of Interest Bill was only published last year and is yet to reach the floor of parliament. It was not the only instance of members of parliament literally feathering their nests. Legislators have been most voluble in defending the benefits they feel entitled to, and clinging onto the control of the constituency development fund, which they have turned into a pot of patronage.
The constitution refashioned parliament as an independent institution with law-making, oversight and budgeting powers. The institution has not acquitted itself in watching over public institutions and spending, often playing catch-up with reports of the Auditor General. Its lax fiscal management and oversight has resulted in the country’s debt stock growing from Sh1.78 trillion in 2013 to the current Sh6.7 trillion. Only this year, the Sh500 billion contract for the construction of the standard gauge railway using Chinese loans was found to have been illegal.
Its review of the annual reports from the judiciary and the 14 constitutional commissions has been lacklustre, with the worst case being the parlous state of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. One of the concerns raised about dissolving parliament is around the readiness of the commission to undertake nationwide parliamentary elections, given that four of the seven commissioners have resigned and have not been replaced, and that the institution does not have a sufficient budget to undertake its work.
Another anxiety around the dissolution of parliament has been that the electorate would not cure the gender imbalance in the national legislature through an election. That anxiety is a misapprehension.
On 20 April 2017, in deciding a case filed by Katiba Institute, Justice Enock Mwita ordered that political parties formulate rules and regulations to bring to life the two-thirds gender principle during nominations for the 290 constituency-based elective positions for members of the National Assembly and the 47 county-based elective positions for members of the Senate within six months. He added that if they failed to do so, the IEBC should devise an administrative mechanism to ensure that the two-thirds gender principle is realised within political parties during nomination exercises for parliamentary elections.
The August 2017 High Court judgment requires the IEBC to ensure that party lists contribute to the realisation of the gender principle. The decision has not been appealed or vacated. Given the parliament’s proclivity to pursue the interests of its members in increasing their pay even when not allowed to do so, it is not unlikely that MPs, detained by their own fear of political competition, have refused to see how affirmative action legislation would increase women’s participation in politics.
For now, the Chief Justice’s advice to the president to dissolve parliament has been challenged in court by two citizens, with Judge Weldon Korir certifying that the case raises constitutional questions that need to be adjudicated by an uneven number of judges. It is not unlikely that the matter could go all the way to the Court of Appeal, meaning that the earliest a final position could be settled is February next year.
The dissolution saga will likely highlight the distance yet to be covered in realising the parliament Kenyans wanted to establish through the constitution. Although parliament has a five-year term, it can be extended in times of war or emergency for a period of one year each time, for a maximum of one year. The corollary is that its term can be shortened if it fails to live up to constitutional expectations.
Bereft of any real power or competence and unable to cut the umbilical cord binding it to the executive, parliament will be President Uhuru Kenyatta’s poodle waiting on his charity. And as the president concludes the political calculation of the costs and benefits of dissolving parliament, the country will be assessing its legislature’s performance not just on gender but on everything else.
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