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ENTER CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA; PUBLIC ASKS, KABILA GANI?

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The ‘psychographics’ experts who swung the US elections will have a hard time solving Kenya’s tribal arithmetic

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CA on African Elections
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Cambridge Analytica gained notoriety for its role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign last November. After Trump’s surprise victory, analysts began honing in on the previously obscure firm as the hidden factor in the US polls. CA was credited with identifying and responding to important trends that the Trump machine exploited to capture key Electoral College votes in swing states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

Their parent company, the SCL Group, which calls itself a “global election management agency,” cut their teeth by running military disinformation campaigns out of a base in Djakarta that resembles the operations centre set from the James Bond film, Goldeneye. SCL claims to have influenced the outcome of the Brexit vote by “supercharging” the Leave campaign’s voter turnout. More specifically, they identified communities harbouring anti-immigration sentiments and ran inflammatory ads depicting a future Great Britain overrun by foreigners.

Since that time their brilliant computer scientist and ultra-conservative American billionaire owner, Robert Mercer, has merged the companies and moved their operations to the US to avoid the more stringent legal conditions in the UK and the European Union.

For CA, the era of demographic-based marketing is over. Their more specialised approach instead focuses on individual “psychographics” over demographics. Their big data sets include 5,000 data points for each American consumer

Cambridge Analytica is now reportedly in Kenya working for the Jubilee Party campaign, and the implications go beyond whether their methods can tip the balance in a country like Kenya.

WHAT IS CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA?

According to the controversial company’s spokesman, “We are a data analytics company. Many organisations out there want to serve as the database of record for their clients. We aim to be the layer on top of that, which provides our clients with actionable insights —essentially acting as the brain behind the decision-making process. At our core, we are a data and behavioural science company. Simply put, we help organisations figure out who to talk to and what to say to them.”

For CA, the era of demographic-based marketing is over. Their more specialised approach instead focuses on individual “psychographics” over demographics. Their big data sets include 5,000 data points for each American consumer, and this cache informed the company’s emotionally charged messages and images via advertising, direct mail, robocalls, and in-person canvass scripts delivered during the final three months before the US polls.

They varied dramatically depending on the voter, the issues, and diverse external factors like the condition of the local economy. A voter motivated by issues of immigration, for example, received a different variation on the Trump message than a gun-loving voter from the same demographic.

Their predictive analytics toolbox synthesises three core approaches: data science and analytics, digital marketing based on “persuasion,” and polling research. As a CA spokesman reported, “For the Trump campaign, we served as the data agency of record, but our role quickly evolved as the cycle progressed. Having a large amount of control and input allowed us to be extremely efficient and reactive. Our approach allows our clients to more efficiently spend their resources and better persuade and mobilise their advocates.”

The key word in the statement above is “persuade.” Persuasive technologies, the beating heart of the social media revolution, are why you click the Like button on Facebook and check the number of followers you have on Twitter. They also feed into the big data mantra: “We know what you want before you want it.”

Moi had his bag of tricks, but the fixers behind the 2007 poll employed real magicians who could conjure votes out of thin air and transfer them to computer printouts that were treated as official results. It was done so brazenly it could only be intended to provoke

KENYA’S CONTROVERSIAL 21ST CENTURY ELECTIONS

The 2002 election was relatively conventional by most standards; the peaceful transition to the Kibaki presidency validated this view. Prior to this the conduct of national elections appeared to be on a positive trajectory. But since 2007, the exercise has ended with controversy and acrimony.

Moi had his bag of tricks, but the fixers behind the 2007 poll employed real magicians who could conjure votes out of thin air and transfer them to computer printouts that were treated as official results. It was done so brazenly it could only be intended to provoke, a gambit devised by faceless schemers to legitimise the sitting government’s prerogative to restore law and order, and by doing so remain in power while lawyers argued over the count in court. But the bush fire intensified and spun out of control, requiring the formation of a coalition government to quench the flames.

While the catharsis of violence made Kenyans swear “never again,” it did not purge the sins of the political class. Parliament’s rejection of a local tribunal to sort out the mess and the invitation to turn the problem over to the International Criminal Court also backfired, or so it would appear. Come 2012, the Kenyatta-Ruto coalition employed British spin-doctors to craft a racially emotive narrative that turned the ICC trials and accompanying media circus to their advantage.

The press bought into the amani badala ya haki (peace instead of justice) meme, a blatant oxymoron coined to minimise another outbreak of 2007-style post-electoral violence. The national elections proceeded with the now familiar mix of skulduggery and double entendre aided by the tendering controversies perpetuated by the guardians of the process, the Internal Elections and Borders Commission.

The Ipsos Synovate polls of mid-January showed Raila Odinga with 46 per cent support to Uhuru Kenyatta’s 40 per cent, but the gap closed to within one to two percentage points in most polls by mid-February. A year earlier, the Raila Odinga-led ODM’s lead over the Uhuruto coalition ranged between 12 and 20 percentage points. Jubilee’s Uhuruto claimed a narrow 800,000 vote victory in March.

The disputed results ended up being arbitrated in Kenya’s new Supreme Court. The opposition lost out once again, arguably due to the methodical dismembering of the ODM case by the Jubilee team’s counsel, Fred Ngatia, whose pinpoint rapier thrusts shredded much of the opposition lawyers’ evidence.

Amani badali ya haki prevailed. Perhaps more importantly, it imparted a measure of legitimacy to the outcome. Despite the High Court’s ruling, a number of anomalies fuelled the counter-narrative explaining how the usual suspects rigged the endgame. The IEBC and their tendering antics featured prominently. Unlike their British partners in the Chickengate scandal who went to jail, the Kenyan IEBC commissioners were “retired” with a generous benefits package.

CAMBRIDGE ANALYTICA WAS ALREADY ON THE SCENE IN 2013

A succession of developments had helped the Jubilee campaign close what began as unbridgeable gap during the long run-up to the March 4 elections. As it turns out, Cambridge Analytica was already on the scene in 2013. Their political research project, based on a sample of 47,000 voters, pointed to young voters as an underutilised asset that could be highly influential if mobilised. CA tells us their communications and strategy team devised an online social media campaign that generated an active online following.

Now it’s polling season again, and because institutional uncertainty remains part of the equation, we should expect the unexpected

We have seen similar momentum shifts before and since. But in Kenya, the question, “How did they win?” is now as important as “Did they win?” Did CA’s contribution in 2013 lay down a marker for future electoral strategies, or did the narrative crafted by the BPL consultants make the critical difference?

Now it’s polling season again, and because institutional uncertainty remains part of the equation, we should expect the unexpected. The fact that Jubilee has employed Cambridge Analytica again extends the uncertainty to the role of data mining and political algorithms.

ETHNIC ARITHMETIC VERSUS ADVANCED ANALYTICS

Up to this point, Kenya’s political system has shared more in common with Stalin’s “who counts the votes” principle than the “those who can best influence choices” techno-nerd data-tweaker school.

The import of the CA contribution to the 2013 campaign is debatable. Everyone knew the youth demographic was a critical factor, and the major parties and savvy politicians were already using social media to expand the influence of their campaigns. The New York Times challenged the impact of their input; other analysts also contest the firm’s claims to be the critical influencer behind the Brexit and Trump victories. Others see their “secret sauce” as manipulative, unethical, and a threat to participatory democracy.

But we assume CA will bring some useful intelligence and expertise to the allocation and deployment of resources to the task. This does not mean CA psychographics and other methods of voter targeting will significantly alter the outcome of the August 8 polls.

Even though CA is no doubt accessing all the social media data available, their cache of Kenyan data is not necessarily representative of the 19 million voters, and probably does not reach the 5,000 North American data point threshold. It is doubtful the data in Kenya’s noisier political arena impart the same level of clarity used to fine-tune electoral messages in the US. What we do know is that they are smart, and may well understand this far better than those of us trying to look in from the inside.

If their genius is being invested in social media, the evidence has yet to show on the radar. The Jubilee Facebook page with its 237,000 followers is not setting the world on fire, nor is its 46,000-follower Twitter feed. Uhuru Kenyatta in contrast, has some 3 million followers on Facebook and some 2.2 million on Twitter, while William Ruto has just over 980,000 on Facebook but 1.26 million on Twitter. Raila Odinga, meanwhile, has about 870,000 followers on Facebook and another 1.13 million Twitter fans at this moment in time.

The Jubilee Facebook page with its 237,000 followers is not setting the world on fire, nor is its 46,000-follower Twitter feed. Uhuru Kenyatta in contrast, has some 3 million followers on Facebook and some 2.2 million on Twitter, while William Ruto has just over 980,000 on Facebook but 1.26 million on Twitter.

In the end, the only numbers that will matter are the ones tallied after the smoke and rhetoric clears in August. There are other firms with comparable expertise that could provide the same services to the opposition if CA really confers an advantage in the political marketplace — like Palantir Technologies (named after Saruman’s seeing stone in the Lord of the Rings), a company started by Peter Thiel (another big Trumperian) with a $2 million boost from the CIA’s venture capital arm, Q-Tel.

Kenyan elections are still a different kind of political animal that inhabits a weaker, if evolving, institutional habitat. At the onset of the campaign cycle, I proposed a disaggregated research and metric-based approach similar to CA’s three-pronged methods to a colleague running for a high office; he liked the idea but said, “The problem is 65 per cent of our people are irrational.”

Many of these voters are not so much irrational as prone to be incentivised by material inducements, fake news, and peer pressure than by appeals to personal values. But how many? Low-tech methods like helicopters, the gigantic billboard figures now straddling the country’s roadsides like the ancient kings of Gondor, and even confetti cannons, trump hi-tech wizardry all the time (no pun intended). Against this background, the contracting of Cambridge Analytica may even appear to be an extravagant if not foolish waste of funds, although we should also be cautious in light of Dator’s second law stating “Any useful idea about the future should appear to be ridiculous.”

Ethnic identity and other prime drivers of voting behaviour tend to reduce the number of swing voters on the national level. But this may be changing, and 15 per cent of them currently fall into the latter category according to polls — a relatively large figure compared with the thin margins separating presidential candidates in the last election. All of these reasons suggest we should not dismiss the power of persuasion built into data-based political algorithms.

We may see a surge of propaganda and emotionally provocative messaging during the last three weeks of the campaigns. But the more serious implications of Cambridge Analytica’s local presence transcend questions about their impact on Kenya’s national elections.

WHAT DO KENYANS REALLY WANT?

CA claims they are “politically agnostic” but they are actually quite the opposite. This and other claims by their CEO, Alexander Nix, demonstrate that they are slick dissemblers but not very good liars. Their website boasts of the campaigns they have assisted and prominently showcase the names of Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and John Bolton alongside Trump. Robert Mercer, a key member of the ultra-conservative Koch brothers network and the single-largest Trump campaign donor, is their major investor.

The accumulation of mistrust and cynicism over the past two electoral cycles imbues the current iteration of electioneering with a large measure of angst and trepidation. If a clean and transparent outcome dissolves this negative legacy, everyone wins

Steve Bannon, who used to sit on the CA board, benefited from the enabling contribution of Mercer to set up Breitbart News, the reigning avatar of alt-right causes. Mercer and Bannon are at the forefront of the movement waging an asymmetric info war on the mainstream media and most other progressive causes they consider to be too liberal. Jane Mayer and Carole Cadwalladr and others have documented how these individuals and their colleagues are using money and power to reconfigure the online news ecosystem and leverage their toxic influence to undermine participatory politics and critical issues like climate change.

Nix also said the company participated in the 2016 US election to use the experience as a pivot for applying their decision-influencing brainware to the commercial sector and product branding. This rings true in contrast because the ultimate goal of Bob Mercer and the other elites populating the Koch Brothers network is to manipulate ideology and political culture to serve their material interests — both in Western political arenas and beyond.

It follows that CA does not need to deliver votes as much as create the perception they can produce results. The murky quality of Kenyan elections makes this a win-win proposition, while Kenya provides an ideal entry point into the larger region. Embedding themselves with ruling elites presents a pivot for exploiting emergent commercial opportunities. It will also provide the cover for rolling-out civilian psyops operations and misinformation in the service of private sector investors and foreign powers with an eye on the region’s resources and its growing numbers of persuadable youth.

In its May post on CA’s presence in Kenya, Africa Confidential reported, “The spectre of a highly secretive data mining company using such techniques is raising serious concern among Kenyan activists,” and added that this is occurring in a climate where the wounds of the 2007 post-electoral violence have not fully healed.

Most Kenyan voters want a fair and peaceful election that will validate the legitimacy of the winning party and candidates, even if they are not the ones of their preference. The accumulation of mistrust and cynicism over the past two electoral cycles imbues the current iteration of electioneering with a large measure of angst and trepidation. If a clean and transparent outcome dissolves this negative legacy, everyone wins.

Be warned, these people are not the Artur brothers; their machinations should be a concern for everyone, not just activists

Jubilee’s CA baggage is problematic from this perspective. If they win, the latter’s presence casts a local shadow, however small, on the legitimacy of their victory. Regardless of the outcome, it links them with the white supremacist Breitbart faction of the Trump political machine and like-minded operatives like Nigel Farage. This could backfire in any number of ways based on what we know about this network’s modus operandi and other potentially more perilous unknowns lurking in the future.

THE ROLE OF BIG DATA APPLICATIONS IN THE DEVELOPING WORLD

Be warned, these people are not the Artur brothers; their machinations should be a concern for everyone, not just activists.

These perhaps speculative considerations bring us to the larger question of the role of fast-moving technological and big data applications in the developing world, including the examples highlighted here. Advocates of persuasive technologies working out of Stanford University argue that applications used to influence consumer behaviour and voter choices can also be applied to promote peace and harmony. They even claim persuasive technologies can be deployed to establish an enduring state of world peace over the next several decades.

Kenya is not a technological backwater when it comes to innovations in this domain. Kenya launched the planet’s first mobile money service, and boasts other contributions to the IT domain like the globally deployed Ushahidi crisis mapping tool. One does not need a real palantir to see that the planet needs more Ory Okollohs and fewer Bob Mercers if we are going to transit beyond the polarising influences and social conflict engendered by the current phase of electoral cyber wars.

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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