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I Accuse the Press: Why the Kenyan Media Must ‘Get With the Programme’

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Drowning fourth estate
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Charles Onyango-Obbo is an astute media practitioner with loads of experience. For many years, he has been writing three weekly columns, one in Kenya’s Daily Nation, another one in Uganda’s Daily Monitor, and one in the regional newspaper The East African.

Onyango-Obbo has also held various editorial management positions at both the Nation and the Monitor. So when he writes, especially on issues to do with the media, he writes from a position of authority. His piece, on the move by the Kenyan government to move all their advertising to a single portal managed by Government Advertising Agency (GAA) – in effect denying the media revenue from government advertisements – is hugely instructive. Onyango-Obbo believes that the media should stop wringing their hands and crying red murder, and instead use this as an opportunity for growth and innovation.

However, Mutuma Mathiu, a top editor at the Nation Media Group, took a moral stance against the move by the Kenyan government, equating it to publishing in the Soviet era publication Pravda.

One thing both pieces missed was how the media found itself in the present predicament in the first place.

Binge growth and failure of imagination 

Until recently, the four biggest media houses in Kenya – the Nation Media Group (NMG), the Standard Group Limited, Royal Media Services, and the Radio Africa Group – witnessed exponential growth, which blinded them to the shifting media reality of technological growth and demography.

Further, the media also failed in its role in holding the authorities to account. As a result, the media has been stuck in a time warp, which has inevitably led to a sense of misplaced entitlement, and also their alienation from the citizens.

In the early 1990s, the Standard newspaper, the oldest newspaper in the country, saw the future in broadcast, and so acquired the Kenya Television Network (KTN), the first non-pay, privately owned TV-station in Africa. The newspaper’s close alliance with the state, especially during the Daniel arap Moi era, ensured steady government advertising revenue. (President Moi owned shares in the Standard Group.)

KTN, which was initially a bold step forward, got locked into an imaginary internecine cat-and-mouse fight with the Nation Media Group’s NTV station over who had the best programing, which resulted in the poaching of individual journalists and producers – a carryover of print turf wars into broadcast. This allowed Royal Media’s Citizen TV to beat them both. KTN has since been playing catch-up with Citizen TV.

As a result, and also considering they had good programming, KTN became a runaway success. However, this masked the lack of creativity at the Standard newspaper. Therefore, the Standard continuously lagged behind the Nation, the region’s largest media enterprise, in revenue and growth.

Further, KTN, which was initially a bold step forward, got locked into an imaginary internecine cat-and-mouse fight with the Nation Media Group’s NTV station over who had the best programing, which resulted in the poaching of individual journalists and producers – a carryover of print turf wars into broadcast. This allowed Royal Media’s Citizen TV to beat them both. KTN has since been playing catch-up with Citizen TV.

Application of the wrong models

While the Nation newspaper overtook the Standard in terms of market leadership and growth, the Nation’s broadcasting division struggled from the outset. Its original sin was convergence, and the application of the print model to broadcast.

Nation assumed their print model could be transferred to the broadcast medium; so confident were they in their model that they initially gave air slots to their senior print journalists.

Just as the Standard hid under KTN’s success to cover up their deficiency in print, the Nation also hid under print’s success, and ignored the broadcast division’s inadequacies, including its staid programming.

Last year, the Nation Media Group’s management finally pulled the plug, and opted for an all-digital broadcast unit. Too little, too late.

If they were guilty of applying the newspaper model to broadcast, Patrick Quarcoo, Radio Africa’s proprietor, was similarly guilty of applying the radio model to the Star newspaper, which has largely been a failure. The Star has been bleeding dry radio revenue.

Had Quarcoo stayed in radio, where both Kiss TV and Classic FM have been incredibly successful, he would have been crowned the “King of Radio”. With all the new county/community radio stations coming up, he would also be controlling a substantive radio advertising market.

If the Nation Media Group and Radio Africa applied the wrong model for the right medium, S.K. Macharia, the owner of Royal Media, after the initial mistake of trying his hand in print, decided to stick with what he knows best – broadcast. The result has been phenomenal growth of both his radio and TV stable.

Demography and technology are destiny  

The median age in Kenya is 19 years and 80% of the country’s population is below the age of 35. Mobile phone penetration in Kenya was 88% in 2016. Facebook has approximately 5 million (and growing) active users in Kenya, while Twitter had slightly over 1.5 million. These few statistics are incredibly sobering for the media of the future.

As a means of engaging younger audiences, all the big four media houses have news apps. However, none are regularly updated, have good user experience, or have locally customised stories. Instead, they tend to carry old and international stories rather than national/local ones. Most of the people in the age-bracket to whom the apps would have appealed already get their international stories online, especially on social media platforms, since most of them are glocal and worldly.

The median age in Kenya is 19 years and 80% of the country’s population is below the age of 35. Mobile phone penetration in Kenya was 88% in 2016. Facebook has approximately 5 million (and growing) active users in Kenya, while Twitter had slightly over 1.5 million. These few statistics are incredibly sobering for the media of the future.

The failure to creatively engage younger audiences has left the media with a huge revenue loss, for which media managers have no answer. This has revealed the media’s incapacity to serve the changing tastes and media usage of the younger generation.

Younger audiences are not the only segment neglected by the media; women have also been ignored. On any day, most of the panelists on radio and TV are likely to be men. The only time women are included is when the panel discusses the role of women. A survey of newspaper columns in the main newspapers also reveals that the number of female columnists is disproportionately lower than that of men. This tokenism, despite the presence of qualified women in various fields, has seen many make a conscious effort to ignore the media.

The struggle against technological disruption is not limited to the Kenyan media. The New York Times, in its first report on how to be innovative in the face of breathless disruption of traditional media, which was released in 2014, stated: “Our core mission remains producing the world’s best journalism. But with the endless upheaval in technology, reader habits and the entire business model, The Times needs to pursue smart new strategies for growing our audience”.

In a subsequent report, the Times observed: “In the third quarter of 2016, our digital subscriptions grew at the fastest pace since the launch of the pay model in 2011 — and growth then exceeded that pace during the fourth quarter, in a post-election surge. We now have more than 1.5 million digital-only subscriptions, up from one million a year ago and from zero only six years ago. We also have more than one million print subscriptions, and our readers are receiving a product better than it has ever been, with rich new standalone sections.”

One would be hard-pressed to read any account of Kenya’s media in being forthright about their reflection on the state of the media.

Multimedia deep-dive storytelling

One way of addressing the deep apathy among the youth towards the media is through multi-media storytelling. The UK’s Guardian newspaper and the Economist, both well respected publications, offer a best practice in new ways of telling stories. The Guardian is a centre-left publication while the Economist espouses economic liberalism that includes free trade, globalisation, and freedom of movement. Yet both publications, despite suffering the natural readership decline of hardcopy, have a solid online and subscription base. They have blazed the trail of innovation, especially on digital platforms. The Guardian provides a raft of products: the Long Read that is also produced as a podcast; and multi-media productions, including short documentaries and videos. All these products are available on the website, but also on the app.

Similarly, the Economist has an army of digital, graphic and data visualizations, especially for their long reads. It also has a slew of podcasts on technology, business, finance, etc. Unlike the Guardian, the Economist has limited the number of articles that one can access for free per week; if one wants more, one needs to subscribe.

Nothing illustrates the death of serious journalism than Jeff Koinange. His show on KTN, Jeff Koinange Live, was a circus. His clowning on national TV with a fire extinguisher was a sad example of how low a once renowned journalist – who had even been a correspondent for CNN and who many looked up to as a role model – could sink. The line between serious TV journalism and fantasy became hard to discern.

In Kenya, so far, only the Daily Nation engages in data journalism through its Newsplex. This long form immersive journalism rather than the he-said-she-said variety is the future of journalism. This form moves away from the traditional “5Ws and H” to the “so what?” that is central to fulfilling audience’s needs.

Dereliction of duty

The Kenyan media played a sometimes not fully acknowledged critical role in the expansion of democratic space in Kenya in the late 1980s and early 1990s during Moi’s repressive era. The media, against multiple odds, continuously exposed human rights violations and the massive corruption of the Moi administration. By setting the agenda for an open, pluralistic and transparent administration, as opposed to the centralised version Moi advocated for, the media reflected the aspirations of many Kenyans.

For this, the Kenyan media paid a steep price. Nothing exemplifies this more than the People Daily, against whom the recently deceased once powerful minister, Nicholas Biwott, won multi-million-shilling libel cases. The People Daily never recovered financially from those dubiously awarded costs.

After Moi’s Kanu party was defeated in the 2002 elections, the media was keen to quickly cash in on the role they had played in expanding the democratic space. But because they were not keen to kill the goose that lays the golden egg – the advertiser, which included the government – they lost sight of their principal role. The broadcast media, especially, moved away from hiring serious journalists and instead put on air men and women, some with fake accents, who behaved more like actors or comedians, rather than journalists, to increase ratings.

Nothing illustrates the death of serious journalism than Jeff Koinange. His show on KTN, Jeff Koinange Live, was a circus. His clowning on national TV with a fire extinguisher was a sad example of how low a once renowned journalist – who had even been a correspondent for CNN and who many looked up to as a role model – could sink. The line between serious TV journalism and fantasy became hard to discern. When Jeff was off the air, the air waves were filled with third-rate Mexican soap operas.

Morning radio shows are a mixture of soft porn, where even the former Harambee Star Coach, Jacob “Ghost” Mulei, has a morning show with others where he has turned into a marriage counsellor of sorts. Mid-morning radio shows are pretty much driven by the Top 100 music formatting.

In Kenya today it is not uncommon to hear someone, even a trained journalist, remark nonchalantly, “You know, I don’t read the newspapers.” For some, it is even considered a badge of honour to say, “I don’t watch TV.” While these sentiments are anecdotal, they speak volumes about a larger problem.

This inevitably has led to many having little regard for the media. In Kenya today it is not uncommon to hear someone, even a trained journalist, remark nonchalantly, “You know, I don’t read the newspapers.” For some, it is even considered a badge of honour to say, “I don’t watch TV”. While these sentiments are anecdotal, they speak volumes about a larger problem. There was a time when watching the 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. news was a must in many households. Even if your family did not have a TV set, you would head to the neighbour’s house to catch the news. Buying a newspaper was seen as a status symbol and a sign that one follows current affairs. That golden age of the media is gone.

Newspapers are for wrapping meat

In December 2013, President Uhuru Kenyatta said newspapers were only good for wrapping meat because they publish false news. Some journalists took umbrage at this statement, but few, if any, cared. It was a kind of poetic justice and a commentary on the state of journalism and media in Kenya. The media’s standing has plummeted thus far to the point that a president can nonchalantly dismiss the media without attendant costs. For the media, the lack of distinct response from the public regarding the president’s statement should be instructive. Once the mainstream media relinquished its critical agenda-setting credentials, they stopped speaking for Wanjiku.

On 17 July this year, Kenyans expected to watch televised presidential running mate debates. But the politicians from the major political parties did not show up, except Eliud Muthiora Kariara, a former banker-turned-running mate and independent presidential candidate Japhet Kavinga Kaluyu. If the media had any doubt about their status with politicians, this episode served up another reminder that, in an election year, politicians can ignore the media, and expect to bear no costs politically.

Instead of seeing the failure to show up as politicians’ abdication of their duty, all the media could see was the money they lost in preparation for the debates. It was bizarre watching visibly irritated media talking heads expressing anger at losing the money they would have made, since that was not the primary reason for the debates in the first place.

This gap has been filled by individual bloggers, like Owaahh, whose treatment of the Imperial Bank explosion was incredible, way better than any business pages, and the disparate collection of individual citizen “journalists” called Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT). This irreverent group of individuals have sometimes broken stories and pushed agendas mainstream media are either afraid of or not interested in pursuing. One such story is the maize scandal, which the mainstream media was slow to warm up to. #KOT “sleuths” asked the hard questions regarding the origin of the maize after searching the ship’s online manifest, something the mainstream could have done.

With the explosion of Fake News, which is mostly generated and transmitted through social media, a robust and credible mainstream media has never been more needed.

While individual bloggers and conscious citizens on social media platforms have done an admirable job, they cannot be a substitute for a functioning mainstream media. With the explosion of Fake News, which is mostly generated and transmitted through social media, a robust and credible mainstream media has never been more needed. During the political party’s primaries, photoshopped newspapers claiming that Dr. Paul Otuoma had left the ODM party to join Jubilee started circulating in Busia town. These stories were wildly shared on social media platforms. People had to turn to mainstream media to find out if they were true.

With the elections just days away, the media have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves. If they don’t use this opportunity, their relevance will decline further, if not completely.

By Abdullahi Boru Halakhe

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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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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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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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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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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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