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RIDING THAT TRAIN, HIGH ON COCAINE: Standard Gauge Railways In Kenya and Tanzania

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China colonises Africa
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Kenya has both narrow and standard gauge railways running in parallel between Mombasa and Nairobi. Tanzania is gearing up to build a standard gauge line to Morogoro and beyond while it goes ahead with rehabilitating the existing metre gauge line. The SGR is portrayed as an ambitious regional policy linking the six EAC countries, but without unprecedented cross-border cooperation and financial commitments, it is likely to end up as two costly unfinished initiatives: Luxury passenger trains from Mombasa to Nairobi and Dar to Morogoro and (maybe) Dodoma. As collateral damage, these politically driven projects sound the death knell of the existing railway networks, including moribund branch-lines, which have suffered from decades of neglect and poor management.

For better or for worse, most cross-border freight will continue to be transported by road thanks to the private fleets of trucks built up during the post-liberalisation years in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda

For better or for worse, most cross-border freight will continue to be transported by road thanks to the private fleets of trucks built up during the post-liberalisation years in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The political influence of the trucking lobbies will help keep the roads in a reasonable state of repair. In theory, China’s One Belt One Road initiative includes the EAC-wide SGR, but in practice the rollout of the new railway will depend on intra-EAC politics, the availability of Chinese loans, or other funding, such as a sovereign “railway bond.” Going further down this route would be a recipe for disaster.

KENYA: A NEW ‘LUNATIC EXPRESS’?

“In terms of industrialisation and job creation, the impact of the SGR will be massive.”[1]

On May 31, President Uhuru Kenyatta inaugurated the Madaraka Express, thus fulfilling one of his 2012 election promises ahead of the 2017 election. If as seems likely, he retains the presidency, he will be looking for funds to continue the Express to Naivasha and beyond. The government has sold Kenyans the notion that SGR is preferable in all respects to the existing metre gauge. It is modern, faster, safer and capable of carrying greater loads, Kenyans are told. The country’s overused and murderous roads will be given a breather as freight and passengers revert en masse to rail.

Implausibly large increases in freight are required to justify the costs involved, particularly if the SGR is to extend beyond Nairobi. At $3.8 billion, the first section of the SGR is considered highly overpriced

More sober analysis suggests that, beyond short-term gains in terms of greater customer convenience, the SGR is likely to be economically and financially unviable. Implausibly large increases in freight are required to justify the costs involved, particularly if the SGR is to extend beyond Nairobi. At $3.8 billion, the first section of the SGR is considered highly overpriced.[2] To continue the line from Nairobi to the Ugandan border would cost an additional $7.2 billion, nearly double the cost of the Mombasa-Nairobi stretch.[3] Speed is not a key issue for freight, which is where the potential profits lie. What matters is cost, predictability and reliability.[4] For the projected freight volumes and axle loads, upgrading the metre gauge would have been quite adequate, some argue, at a fraction of the cost of SGR, and could have been entirely financed through the Railway Development Levy on imports.[5] SGR’s purported advantages over other gauges have been over-hyped: Brazil and South Africa move much more freight than the EAC is ever likely to with metre gauge and Cape Gauge respectively. As to being modern, the standard gauge has been around since the 1840s, when the US government declared it as the standard to be followed in all future railway construction for interconnectivity purposes.[6]

Currently, 95% of the freight leaving Mombasa goes by road and three-quarters of all freight is destined for Nairobi. Extending the SGR beyond Nairobi is unlikely to be economically viable. Trains cannot compete with trucks for scattered destinations in Kenya and further afield.[7] Last, anything near the cost of the Mombasa to Nairobi line ($5.6 million per kilometre) would be difficult to sell to Kenyans or potential financiers, and a more reasonable construction cost per km would lay bare the rip-off of SGR Part 1.

Qalaa Holdings, the main Rift Valley Railway (RVR) concessionaire, are rightly worried that the SGR will put them out of business. In 2014, RVR received a $70 million loan from a consortium of international financing agencies, as part of their $287 million financing plan for the period 2011-16. Though progress has been slow, RVR has at least increased its freight volumes, from under a million tonnes in 2012 to 1.5 million tonnes in 2014.[8] In April, Kenya Railways Corporation served RVR with a termination notice for failing to pay fees and missing performance targets.[9] Uganda is also terminating its agreement with RVR, who are likely to sue the GoK /GoU for the loss of business occasioned by the opening of the new line.[10]

By the standards of political corruption in Kenya, the SGR arguably represents considerable progress. Whereas the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scams involved simple looting of the Kenyan Treasury over largely bogus projects, the SGR gives Kenyans a spanking new railway

There is a view that KRC and Uganda Railways Corporation were never happy with the privatisation of the “lunatic express,” which was heavily leveraged by donors, and that the SGR will serve to kill it off once and for all. If this happens, there will be no freight service to Kampala until the SGR is extended. Moreover, all the narrow- gauge branch lines that could have been rehabilitated will be closed down once and for all.[11]

By the standards of political corruption in Kenya, the SGR arguably represents considerable progress. Whereas the Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing scams involved simple looting of the Kenyan Treasury over largely bogus projects, the SGR gives Kenyans a spanking new railway that will whizz them between Mombasa and Nairobi in double quick time with (hopefully) minimum risk to life and limb. No wonder wananchi are cheering. Even if the railway is (say) a billion dollars (Ksh100 billion) overpriced, that’s still a snip compared with the cost of Goldenberg (an estimated 10% of GNP)! Unfortunately, the cost of running uneconomic services may in the long-run exceed the cost of Goldenberg and Anglo-Leasing combined.

But equally sobering is the fact that just to build the Mombasa to Kampala SGR would cost in the region of a quarter of Kenya’s 2015 GDP at present estimates. There must be other priorities.

TANZANIA: PLAYING CATCH-UP?

“The new train is expected to travel at high speed of 160 kilometres per hour…”[12]

President Magufuli’s SGR initiative is his flagship infrastructure development project, but finding finance has proven problematic.[13] In January 2014, the SGR process was endorsed enthusiastically by the Davos World Economic Forum, attended by President Jakaya Kikwete. An agreement signed in May 2015 with the China Railway Materials Group proposed a standard gauge line from Dar es Salaam to Mwanza, Kigoma and Msongati in Burundi costing $7.6 billion. China’s Exim Bank would fund 10% of the project, which was partly justified as a means of accessing large mineral deposits in Tanzania and Burundi, while Tanzania was tasked to find the balance from private sources. Rothschild, one of the world’s largest financial advisory groups, was hired as a contract advisor, and it was hinted that a consortium of private financiers was being assembled. No such consortium emerged, and there has been no more talk of private finance. [14] In February 2016, Minister of Finance Philip Mpango “set the record straight,” declaring that “Tanzania cannot afford financing the SGR project using our own funds.”[15]

Why did Tanzania decide that it too wanted to go SGR when the experts warned that it was not a good idea? In a 2009 study, Canadian Pacific Consulting Services concluded that the benefit of replacing metre gauge by standard gauge in East Africa would be ‘marginal.’

Consequently, the contract with the Chinese was cancelled over alleged irregularities in the tendering process. Seeking alternative finance, President Magufuli unsuccessfully approached South African President Jacob Zuma for a loan from the BRICS bank, and the World Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim for an IDA credit.[16] Turkish President Recep Erdogan was also lobbied during an official visit.

In April this year, Magufuli settled for a Phase 1 SGR from Dar to Morogoro (194km) costing Tsh1 trillion ($450 million), to be financed out of the country’s development budget. The contract was awarded to a Portuguese-Turkish consortium, said to have been the only bidder.[17] Phase 2 should see the line extended from Morogoro to Dodoma (263km), for an additional Tsh1.5 trillion ($675 million).

Why did Tanzania decide that it too wanted to go SGR when the experts warned that it was not a good idea? In a 2009 study, Canadian Pacific Consulting Services concluded that the benefit of replacing metre gauge by standard gauge in East Africa would be “marginal.” The conversion of the rail backbone to standard gauge was considered “cost prohibitive” using “even the most optimistic” traffic and income projections. [18] In a 2013 study, the World Bank concluded that rehabilitating existing lines was the most promising option, with a cost of $0.18 million per km compared with $3.25 million per km for standard gauge, or 18 times more.[19] But earlier feasibility studies claimed the SGR was viable. For example, in 2003, the African Development Fund financed a feasibility study for a standard gauge line from Isaka in Tanzania to Kigali and Bujumbura (1,435km) that declared the project feasible and “attractive to private investors.” This and subsequent detailed engineering proposals costing millions of dollars were based on the assumption that the new line would be built from Dar to Isaka (953km)![20]

Like Kenya, Tanzania has a poorly performing railway linking Dar to the rest of the country.[21] In November 2016, Prof Makame Mbarawa, Minister of Works Transport and Communications, told a transport sector meeting of officials and donors that the government planned to both rehabilitate the existing Central Line and start the construction of the SGR. On June 2, Reli Assets Holding Company Ltd (Rahco), issued tender documents to rehabilitate the existing railway from Dar es Salaam to Kilosa, a distance of 283km, using funds from the World Bank’s $300m Tanzania Intermodal Rail Development Project (TIRP). Launched in 2014, TIRP has had a hard time getting off the ground. It appears that while Rahco was negotiating the rehabilitation project with the World Bank, discussions were also going on with the Chinese for an SGR loan. While rehabilitating the Central Line makes sense, and is long overdue, doing this and launching the SGR concurrently makes no sense at all.[22]

While rehabilitating Tanzania’s Central Line makes sense, and is long overdue, doing this and launching the SGR concurrently makes no sense at all

Tanzania aspires to replace Kenya as the largest economy in the region, and this rivalry spills over into reciprocal trade restrictions and disagreement over the Economic Partnership Agreement with the European Union that hinder rather than promote regional integration. Inter-regional trade is said to be declining.[23] It is to be hoped that the two countries will not get involved in a wasteful beggar-thy-neighbour competition over who can build the swankiest SGR to capture the modest business in the region, especially freight, including that of their landlocked neighbours.

EAC: CO-OPERATION OR COMPETITION?

The completion of the Mombasa-Nairobi section of the SGR does not guarantee that the remainder of the Kenyan portion to Kisumu and then on to the Ugandan border will be financed, let alone the Ugandan and Rwandan sections. Though China’s Exim Bank has financed the major part of the construction to date, it appears reluctant to advance further credit without guarantees that Uganda is committed to the project.[24] Both Rwanda and Uganda are weighing up the pros and cons of the Kenyan and Tanzanian SGR options.

The early promoters of the SGR sold the project as a major step towards East African integration and economic development, including stimulating mineral exports from the EAC, DRC and elsewhere. But the above discussion suggests that, far from constituting a co-ordinated strategy to promote EAC economic integration, the two SGRs in progress are competing for much of the modest cross-border freight business. Dar and Mombasa ports compete for transit traffic. When Dar announced in 2016 that it planned to impose VAT on goods in transit, importers switched to Mombasa.[25] Realising its mistake, the Tanzanian government removed the VAT, and now hopes to attract business back from Mombasa, helped with a $150 million loan from China to upgrade the port’s handling capacity.[26]

The completion of the Mombasa-Nairobi section of the SGR does not guarantee that the remainder of the Kenyan portion to Kisumu and then on to the Ugandan border will be financed

Two-thirds of the cargo arriving in Dar port stays in Tanzania, most of the rest heads for DRC, Zambia, Burundi and Rwanda. Most Mombasa cargo stops at Nairobi, as already pointed out. Thus, given the modest volume of freight destined for landlocked countries, the justification for an EAC-wide SGR cannot be based on facilitating cross-border trade, or its likely increase in volume in the foreseeable future. SGR apologists simply ignore the economics of the huge investments required to capture such little business. If one SGR is less than obviously viable, then two can only be disastrous.

KEEP ON TRUCKING?

One key element rarely discussed in all this is the robustness of road transport throughout the region. Since trade liberalisation, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have built up impressive fleets of trucks carrying both fuel and containers, and road haulage has largely replaced rail, reflecting the dynamism of the private trucking sector compared with the inefficiently managed and undercapitalised state railways. Pro-road policies have been lobbied for by business associations with the support of ruling elites, themselves involved in trucking. Passengers have also migrated to privately owned buses.

The question from an EAC transport policy perspective is how state-owned railways can claw back enough trade from the trucking industry to become profitable without state subsidies, the use of force, or additional taxes. In an age where commercial activities are overpoweringly undertaken by the private sector, the move to SGR looks suspiciously like an attempt to replace relatively efficient, competitive private enterprises by state-owned monopolies. Already, importers are getting ready to resist any attempts by the GOK to force traffic onto the SGR.[27] According to one commentator on Tanzania’s proposed SGR, President Magufuli will “have to deal with the truck cartels… that have succeeded for over 40 years in keeping the government out of railway construction and maintenance.”[28] Though perhaps an exaggeration, the concern is real for all three EAC giants. Arguably more important, aid agencies have poured billions of dollars into road construction and upgrading throughout the region, much of the work undertaken by Chinese contractors.

Since trade liberalisation, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya have built up impressive fleets of trucks carrying both fuel and containers, and road haulage has largely replaced rail, reflecting the dynamism of the private trucking sector

To plan implementable Community-wide infrastructure initiatives for the EAC rather than ad hoc bits and pieces would require an empowered EAC Secretariat with both technical competence and a delegated political mandate. SGR initiatives to date reveal that neither condition holds.[29] In March 2017, Fred Mbidde, the chair of the East African Legislative Assembly’s Committee on Communication, Trade and Investments, complained of “minimal collaboration between the regional projects.”[30] So we can expect more of the same: Dar competing with Kenya for transit trade and economic dominance, while the landlocked countries blow hot and cold on which rival to support, if any.

Politics trumps economics, as is often the case

Our presidential ruling elites are not driven to endorse major investment decisions involving private or state capital on the basis of techno-economic arguments. Their decisions are driven by short-term political considerations. When people like Kiriro wa Ngugi,[31] David Ndii[32] and John Githongo[33] blow large holes in the claims of the SGR apologists on technical, fiscal/financial and governance/corruption grounds, they are met with threats, not evidence-based counter-arguments. “No one and nothing will stop us from building the railway…” stormed Deputy President William Ruto in response to critics.[34]

For the most part, our ruling elites think short-term. Long-term concessional finance for large capital investments is attractive because the current incumbents will be retired by the time the bill arrives for the reckless projects they are committing us to today

For the most part, our ruling elites think short-term. Long-term concessional finance for large capital investments is attractive because the current incumbents will be retired by the time the bill arrives for the reckless projects they are committing us to today.[35] This helps explain why mobilising state power behind the SGR may even appear to undermine the elite’s own business interests in trucking. As long as politics is in control, elites and their supporters are confident that their trucking interests will not be threatened.

WHITE ELEPHANTS IN A CHINA SHOP?

As part of its One Belt One Road initiative, China is busy funding infrastructure, including railways, across Asia, worth up to a trillion dollars. East Africa’s SGRs are perhaps the end of the One Belt line. Beyond this, China is building long-haul and urban railway systems in 35 African countries.[36] Is China overreaching itself? The strict conditions placed on further loans for the Kenya-Uganda line suggest that China is becoming increasingly circumspect in its lending practices, worried perhaps that borrowers will start defaulting on their loans. For Africa, this wouldn’t be the first time. The Africa-wide debt crisis at the end of the last century was the result of decades of borrowing from the World Bank, IMF and other official sources, much of it on uneconomic and unsustainable projects. The debts currently piling up through soft loans from China and other sources are potentially fuelling a second debt crisis that will in turn trigger another round of debt relief. But the Chinese terms for a bail-out are unlikely to be as generous as those of the donors at the end of the last century.[37] Tying debt rescheduling to commodity exports to China, including food, is one imaginable scenario should defaults become an issue.

East Africa’s enthusiasm for the SGR solution to infrastructural constraints, for which China ultimately bears responsibility, is not going to significantly improve the region’s overall transport system or competitiveness, and at tremendous cost

Without an efficient “intermodal’” transport system in place in the region – including ports, roads, and railways – economic dynamism is seriously compromised. East Africa’s enthusiasm for the SGR solution to infrastructural constraints, for which China ultimately bears responsibility, is not going to significantly improve the region’s overall transport system or competitiveness, and at tremendous cost.

The challenge is how to temper politically motivated, short-term decision-making with a strong dose of economic and financial rationality. In this respect, for the moment, the EAC, and most of its external supporters, are failing badly.

By Boyce Sarokin
Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Kenyan Cabinet Secretary for Transport and Infrastructure James Macharia quoted ahead of the opening of the SGR from Mombasa to Nairobi. See: Xinhua 2017. “Kenyans upbeat ahead of new railway launch,” Guardian, 31 May.

[2] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-40171095.

[3] Allan Olingo 2017. “Through Beijing, East Africa is upgrading its roads, railway and ports,” The EastAfrican, May 20. Different sources give different cost estimates.

[4] ‘Freight traffic operations are much more dependent on price and service delivery (predictability of time of arrival at the destination) than on actual speed between stations. The extra speed capabilities of SGR therefore provide limited advantage over a metre gauge operation.’ Africon Ltd 2011. “The East African Trade and Transport Facilitation Project, Part II: Transport Strategy,” East African Trade and Transport Facilitation Project, EAC, November, page 61. The estimated cost (EARMP 2009) of upgrading the entire EAC railway network to SGR was between $13 billion and $29 billion.

[5] See Kiriro wa Ngugi at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgbARMS1pyY.

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hMUP_XMi434. The first commercial train, George Stephenson’s Rocket (1824), ran on what was to become the US standard gauge. http://www.custom-qr-codes.net/history-steam-locomotive.html

[7] Rail costs need to be 15-20% lower than trucks to compete. Unlike trains, trucks provide door to door services on demand.

[8] http://www.railjournal.com/index.php/freight/rail-freight-traffic-increases-in-kenya.html?channel=000.

At its peak in 1973, the railway transported 4.4 million tonnes.

[9] http://www.businessdailyafrica.com/news/Kenya-to-review-RVR-termination-notice/539546-3884948-xjptjf/index.html.

[10] The concession gave RVR a 25-year monopoly of railway services.

[11] Claims to the contrary by the GOK notwithstanding. See: Allan Olingo 2017. “Kenya to maintain sections of metre gauge rail linking old stations with SGR,” The EastAfrican, June 10.

[12] Florence Mugarula 2017. ‘Far reaching socio-economic benefits of SGR’, Business Standard, 18 April.

[13] Samuel Kamndaya 2015. ‘Sh60tr needed for mega projects’, Citizen, 3 September.

[14] Brian Cooksey 2016. ‘Railway rivalry in the East African Community’, GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 5, Issue 4. July/August 2016 http://search.ecdpm.org/?q=*&fld_posttype=GREAT+insights+magazine&fld_author=Brian+Cooksey

[15] Christopher Majaliwa 2016. ‘High costs stymie standard gauge plan’, Daily News, 6 February.

[16] http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/business/Tanzania-struggles-to-finance-SGR/2560-3935412-rggugq/index.html

[17] Athuman Mtulya 2017. ‘Issue sovereign bond to fund railway project, govt advised’, Citizen, 30 April.

[18] CPCS 2009 ‘East Africa Railways Master Plan Study’, East African Community Secretariat.

[19] World Bank 2013. ‘The Economics of Rail , Gauge in the East African Community, Africa Transport Unit, August.

[20] Craig Mathieson 2016. ‘The political economy of regional integration in Africa: the East African Community’, ECDPM, January, http://ecdpm.org/peria/eac.

[21] Managed separately, the Chinese-built and heavily indebted TAZARA railway from Dar to Zambia uses the 3ft 6in Cape Gauge. Jointly owned and managed by Tanzania and Zambia, TAZARA had accumulated debts of USD787m in 2016, blamed on ‘weaknesses in management’. See: Jaston Binala 2016. ‘Plans underway to revamp Tazara railway’, East African, 14 May.

[22] To prepare the way for the SGR, many legal commercial structures and over 250 houses in Dar es Salaam worth billions of shillings have been summarily demolished without warning or compensation. See Hellen Nachilongo 2017. ‘Tears, heartbreak as houses near railway line demolished’, Citizen, 12 March; Mwassa Jingi 2017. ‘Why the latest demolitions in Dar were illegal’, Citizen on Sunday, 19 March.

[23] James Anyanzwa 2017. ‘EA states looking outward for trading patners as local ties sour’, East African, 1 July.

[24] Frederic Musisi 2017. ‘Tanzania Starts Construction of Railway Line Link to Uganda’, Monitor, 16 April

[25] Abduel Elinaza 2016. ‘Dar Port in massive transit cargo traffic volume slump’, Daily News, 3 April.

[26] https://eblnews.com/…/china-inks-multimillion-dollar-deal-expand-dar-es-salaam-port

[27] ‘Cargo transportation should be based on what the importer wants, not what the government wants.’ See: Njiraini Muchira 2017. ‘Mandatory SGR use causes unease among importers’, East African, 11 March.

[28] Attilio Tagalile 2015. Blessing and hatred from Chinese aid’, Guardian, 13 December.

[29] Craig Mathieson 2016, op. cit.

[30] Zephania Ubwani 2017. ‘EA states faulted on railway project’, Citizen, 11 March.

[31] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IgbARMS1pyY; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rk4lJKgB4RU.

[32] https://www.kenya-today.com/politics/david-ndii-jubilee-spent-sh4-5b-19th-century-old-school-chinese-locomotives.

[33] https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2000218960/eurobond-sgr-heists-to-finance-2017-election-campaigns-claims-githongo.

[34] Quoted in Cooksey op. cit. In Tanzania, neither civil society nor the media has challenged SGR decision-making.

[35] ‘The loan … from EXIM Bank of China comprised of a concessional loan of USD 1.6 billion and a commercial loan of USD 1.63 billion. The concessional loan is for 20 years and has a grace period of 7 years and an interest rate of 2% per annum while the commercial loan is for 10 years and grace period of 5 years…’ http://bankelele.co.ke/2017/05/funding-the-sgr.html.

[36] According to SMARTRAIL WORLD: ‘the most crucial factor in the developing African rail industry is … the influence of China, who despite warnings on their own domestic economy, are continuing to invest huge sums in the continent.’ See: Smartrail World 2016. ‘Special report: How five major African rail projects are supported by China’, 10 November. https://www.smartrailworld.com/five-major-african-projects-supported-by-china.

[37] That is, prepare and implement Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers, underwritten with more aid.

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Mr Sarokin is an independent researcher based in Arusha, Tanzania.

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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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