Connect with us

Politics

THE SONKONIZATION OF NAIROBI: How Mike Sonko Is Reshaping City Politics

Published

on

Sonko shine
Download PDFPrint Article

On June 2, 2010, the then Speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende declared the Makadara seat in Nairobi vacant. The MP, the late Dick Wathika had lost the seat after a successful petition by Rueben Ndolo, a former holder of the seat (2002—2007). The by election was slated for September 20, 2010.

Three weeks to the by election, I had an interview with Wathika — popularly known as Mwas, his mtaa (estate) nickname — at a posh Nairobi hotel. He was in his element: exuding an unusual confidence. He boasted to me how he was going to wallop yet again his opponent Ndolo, who was contesting on an ODM ticket.

Finding him vain, I reminded him the fight was no longer between him and his known adversary, but was now going to be a three-pronged battle, which in my view, needed a different tact and strategy. A third contestant had entered the fray and his name was Gideon Mbuvi Kioko alias Mike Sonko.

“Wewe Dauti ni nini sasa…kwani umesahau kule tumetoka?” (You Dauti what’s up with you? You’ve forgotten where we’ve come from?), he chided me. “Huyo ni nani unaniambia stori yake. Ndolo ndiye opponent wangu. na nitam KO.” (Who’s that you telling me about? My opponent is Ndolo and I’ll knock him out). Wathika, in his heydays, just like Ndolo was an amateur boxer, the only difference being Ndolo had taken his boxing a notch higher and fought as a professional.

Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

Mwas could afford to get up close and personal with me, because I had known him since childhood. We had grown up together in Maringo estate. In 1991, after former President Daniel arap Moi had repealed the infamous Section 2(a) of the old constitution, multi-party politics had returned to the fold.

The following year, Wathika joined politics through the Ford Asili party which had split from Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), the first opposition party formed after the political liberalization. Kenneth Matiba formed Ford Asili, while the then doyen of opposition politics Jaramogi Oginga Odinga formed Ford Kenya.

As luck would have it, Mwas was a boy wa mtaa (local boy), all the electorate; young and old who had desired change voted for him and he run away with the popular vote. Wathika was elected as the Maringo ward councillor — defeating the KANU incumbent, Kiura Kirandu — hands down.

Wathika had had a great run as a politician from 1992, when as a 19-year-old elected rookie, he become one of the youngest minted multiparty party era politicians. In between 1992—2010, he had served three terms as a councillor, a mayor for two years and an MP for two and half years, including a stint as Assistant Minister for a year and four months. But his streak of luck would suddenly end with the arrival of Sonko.

Sonko, shot to political prominence, when he was first elected to parliament as Makadara MP on September 20, 2010. To the utter surprise of Wathika and Ndolo, Sonko, then 35 years old and running on a Narc Kenya ticket, caused a major upset by polling 19,535 votes against his closest rival, Ndolo’s 16,613.

Wathika, the incumbent pooled a poor third. “I must admit I did not see the defeat coming…I had had it too easy,” he was later to tell me when we again met in December 2010.

The entry of Sonko into the abrasive city politics immediately did two things: He sent Wathika packing — first to an emotional declaration of quitting politics altogether, and after he had recollected himself, into exile in Mukurweini constituency in Nyeri County. Sonko also confined Ndolo to ODM party politics. Within two and a half years, Sonko was transformed from a political neophyte to a juggernaut.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS.

By March 2013, he was so confident he had outgrown his parliamentary seat, he threw his force into contesting the newly created senator seat. He won the Nairobi senator seat by the biggest number of votes cast for any senator or governor countrywide. Running against his closest competitor Margaret Wanjiru, he polled 808,705 votes against the burly priestess’ 525,822 votes.

In Nairobi County, Sonko proved to all and sundry he was the king of politics. Running on The National Alliance (TNA) party, he polled even more votes than either his party boss, Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who got 659,490 votes, or he latter’s rival, Raila Amolo Odinga, who received 691,156 votes. It was evident that Sonko had stomped the city politics like no other and, any politician who ignored him could only do so at their own peril.

Who is Sonko and how is it that today he is the most talked about politician, only after President Uhuru Kenyatta and the leader of Opposition Raila Odinga?

Sonko appeared on the Nairobi scene in the early 2000s just like in the movies: with a bang. One day, Nairobian woke up to the sleekest No. 58 matatus operating on the Buru Buru Phase V, IV and III estates’ route. Sonko had invested in a fleet of matatus that came to be known as nganya — a super pimped matatu — a superlative of manyanga, which is an ordinary pimped matatu.

His crew staff did not disappoint: His drivers and conductors were the whippiest lads you could find anywhere in the matatu transport industry. They were funky and wore the latest fashions. Equipped with the latest hi-fi music systems complete with woofers, Sonko’s matatus could be heard a kilometre away.

The naming of his matatus completed the picture and in a somewhat subtle way, told Sonko’s own shady story. They bore names such as — BROWN SUGAR, CONVICT, FERRARI, LAKERS and ROUGH CUTS. His matatus were so hip, trendy Buru Buru schoolkids would not board any other matatus.

Sonko’s investment in the matatu industry has been surrounded with a lot of mystery and allegations of money laundering. He entered the industry with a great deal of razzmatazz, buying many matatus at one go and for a while, the quiet talk among his fellow matatu owners was that the source of his wealth was the illegal drug trade.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders.

Indeed, the late Minister of Interior Security, Prof George Saitoti in December 2010, named him in Parliament as one of the country’s drug lords. Talking to one of his close buddies recently, he reiterated that Sonko has never been taken to court over that mention or the allegations that were swirling before and even after. “To the best of my knowledge, the mention by the late Saitoti about Sonko involvement in drugs, has remained just that: a mere mention, nothing, more…nothing less,” he said.

The source of Sonko’s wealth though has never been fully publicly explained. Years before, then known as Gidion Mbuvi Kioko, he was a middle man selling parcels of lands in the Coast region, where he had grown up.

Many a time, it is alleged, he would take off with all the money after a land sale. In 1997, he was accused of having falsified documents relating to land belonging to Eliud Mahihu, the former all-powerful Coast Provincial Commissioner during Mzee Kenyatta’s era.

Two years after he was arrested and taken to Shimo-la-Tewa Prison, it is said he smuggled in cash in a briefcase into the prison, which his acolytes had passed onto the prison warders. They, in turn, are said to have facilitated his escape after he was taken to Coast General Hospital feigning a range of ailments — from epilepsy, HIV/AIDS to Typhoid. Later, in mitigation, Sonko was to argue that he had run away from jail to attend his mother’s funeral.

Just a few years later, Sonko was hanging around then Wab Hotel, at the Buru Buru shopping centre, clad in denim jeans and a T-Shirt, chatting away the boys. His matatus then employed an upward of 50 youth.

In January 2003, after the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC), an alliance dislodged the ruling KANU from its 24-year-old stranglehold of power, President Mwai Kibaki appointed the late John Michuki as the Minister of Transport. Michuki was used to getting his way — from his days as a colonial administrator in the 1950s, when he was a district officer in Nanyuki, up to even when he entered politics. The “Michuki rules” which he initiated immediately he assumed the transport docket and which quickly resonated with the people, remained a diktat, until Sonko went to court in 2006. Sonko won his case because, as the High Court reminded the Transport Ministry, without official publication in the Kenya Gazette, the rules were just that: Michuki “personal rules”. It was only after the court case that the rules were now formally gazetted.

One of Michuki’s more infamous edicts was that of barring matatus from entering the central business district of Nairobi. It was a clearly selfish decree because of the conflict of interest that arose from an exception to the rule, allowing in vehicles belonging to the City Hoppa matatu company in which the Minister had invested heavily.

Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

Sonko, whose matatus were affected by this unlawful rule, went to court. To the surprise of many, he won the case after a protracted battle. His matatus were allowed back into the city centre, along with a select few from other owners. The judicial victory improved Sonko’s standing among his employees and followers, who viewed him as their “Mr fix it”.

But more significantly, it, catapulted him to the chairmanship of the then amorphous and now defunct Eastlands Matatu Operators Association. The position gave Sonko influence and power commanding then close to 8000 matatus.

From being the darling of the youth, he became the darling of the masses. The passengers who used to be dropped off at the dusty Muthurwa, and who would then have to trek to the city centre — there were no boda bodas at the time — could not thank him enough. It was just a matter of time before he moved to the next level. When the Makadara constituency election was nullified by the High Court in April 2010, an opportunity availed itself and Sonko seized the moment and ran with it.

After becoming MP, Sonko sought to endear himself to his constituents. He would engage the City Council to get his constituents exempted from paying parking fees within Makadara constituency. The court injunction was only temporary but he had made his point: he would always be ready to fight for his people. For a while, he also made it tenuous for slum lords to arbitrarily evict tenants. He would go to court on behalf of the tenants and file a case.

On Sunday March 19, 2017 on national TV, Sonko ranted against Peter Kenneth, then one of his more formidable opponents for the Jubilee Party ticket for the Nairobi gubernatorial contest. From the onset, it was evident in the interview Sonko pulled no punches and held no prisoners when describing Kenneth. His apparent contempt for the former presidential candidate was palpable.

The 51-year-old Kenneth would later quit Jubilee Party, after losing the nomination battle to Sonko, to run as an independent candidate. He came off as a sore loser who had expected his path to the nomination to be smoothened for him. And therein lay his Achilles Heels: entitlement. Listening to him explaining his tribulations, Kenneth inadvertently casts himself as a “choice candidate” who was owed and had been let down by the Jubilee Party cabal at the Pangani headquarters.

But more than giving the implicit impression that he was the favoured son, Kenneth has been unable to shake off the label of being a “political project” or a front for other interests. First, he was a project of the “Murang’a Mafia”. Now, he is viewed as a “Governor Evans Kidero project”. It cannot get worse.

Yet, the project tag is not the only label he is struggling with. When Sonko first taunted him as a foreigner and a Johnny-come-lately to city politics, Kenneth laughed it off and made light of the remark by pointing out that even when he represented Gatanga constituency, he slept in Nairobi.

The bad news for Kenneth is that this refuses to go away. “Peter Kenneth is a foreigner to Nairobi politics”, says a Nairobi lady restaurateur known as Wa Carol. “Where has he been for four years?” the restaurateur, who herself voted for Sonko during the nominations, muses loudly. His goose was cooked the day he announced he was running in Nairobi, she says.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County

“After PK first announced his bid in January, Maina Kamanda afterwards came over and addressed us Kikuyu business people in Nairobi and told us: ‘we need someone to protect our property and the man to do precisely that is Peter Kenneth’. I thought Kamanda was kidding me. I do not own any property in Nairobi”, says the lady who is in her late 40s.

It is the same reaction that my friend, Elvis Kinyanjui, who has been a street vendor in the CBD for the last three decades, had: “Kamanda is talking of protecting property — whose property?”

The Peter Kenneth who ran for presidency in 2013 is radically different from the man seeking to be the governor of the capital city. In 2013, he projected himself as a de-tribalised, smooth and urbane Kenyan — the poster child of cosmopolitanism with refined features. Barely four years later, he agreed to be repackaged as a Kikuyu sheriff coming to the city with a mission to rescue a propertied class ostensibly under siege.

Pitted against a man — Sonko — who has carved himself a niche as the spokesman for the city’s underclass and defender of their trodden rights, Kenneth’s apparent aloofness and association with the moneyed class casts him as removed from the everyday struggles of the city dweller.

In the nominations that he has bitterly disputed, Kenneth was walloped by Sonko, 138,185 votes to 62,504. Could Sonko have wrestled the power and glory from the Murang’a business elite’s grip on Nairobi, thereby redefining the politics of Nairobi?

Nairobi city politics have always been under the grip of Kikuyu business and political elites save for two major periods — between 1969 to 1970 and 1983 to 1992. In 1969, Isaac Lugonzo took over from Charles Rubia and in 1983, former President Moi disbanded the City Council when Nathan Kahara was mayor to form several commissions till the return of multiparty politics in 1991.

From way back in the 1960s, when the first Minister of Trade and Commerce was Dr Gikonyo Kiano, who like Rubia, the city mayor, hailed from then Murang’a District, the city’s business allocations and licenses tended to favour the Kikuyus from Murang’a. That is why, it not a coincidence that many of the city business godowns in the industrial area are owned by Murang’a tycoons. That is also why many of the buildings in downtown Nairobi, especially on River Road and Kirinyaga Road, are owned by the famous Rwathia group, which has its origin is in Rwathia in Murang’a.

Similarly, many of the small traders — from hawkers to street vendors— are Kikuyus from Murang’a many of whom are today settled in Starehe constituency. It is equally not a coincidence that Maina Kamanda, another Murang’a supremo, started his political career at Ngara West Ward (one of the wards that make Starehe constituency), eventually running for the parliamentary seat. The ward, and indeed the entire Starehe constituency, is populated majorly by Kikuyus from Murang’a.

“The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided.

After the re-introduction of multiparty politics, the position of the mayor may have been whittled down, but still, Kikuyu political mandarins controlled the mayoral seat, if not directly, then indirectly. Between 1992, after the first multiparty elections and 2002, the mayors were all Kikuyus. From Steve “Magic” Mwangi, John King’ori, Sammy Mbugua, John Ndirangu to Dick Waweru, whose second term ended in 2002.

The only other time a non-Kikuyu was boss at City Hall was between 2003—2004 when Joe Aketch, a nominated councilor, was mayor. Aketch owed his mayoral seat to Kamanda. The vicious infighting between the Kikuyu councillors at City Hall that ensued after the Narc victory, forced Kamanda, the newly elected Starehe MP, to throw his weight behind Aketch’s candidacy.

Geoffrey Majiwa, then the Baba Dogo ward councillor was the Nairobi mayor after President Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga formed the grand coalition government in 2008. George Aladwa served between 2010—2012, after he took over from Majiwa, who had to step aside after he was allegedly implicated in a cemetery land corruption scam. Following the 2013 election, which rung in new constitutional arrangements, especially devolution, Evans Kidero, a Luo, defeated his Kikuyu rivals to clinch the Governorship.

Still, of the 15 mayors Nairobi had between 1963 and 2012, only 4 were non-Kikuyu. Many Kikuyus have therefore come to regard Nairobi city as an extension of Kiambu County due to its proximity, notwithstanding the fact that Kiambu Kikuyus appear to have ceded control of the city businesses to their cousins from Murang’a. In March 2017, a Jubilee Party parliamentary candidate from Roysambu was interviewed on Inooro TV. When asked who should be the governor of Nairobi, his answer was curt. “A Kikuyu of course”. “Why?” posed the interviewer. “We Kikuyus are the owners of the city”.

This reasoning among the Kikuyus is buttressed by the notion that many of the city businesses and investments’ operations are run by Kikuyus. Also, because of the proximity of Kiambu and to a large extent Murang’a Counties, coupled with the fact that the first post-independent government of Mzee Kenyatta encouraged many Kikuyus to come to Nairobi, Kikuyus have always been numerically superior. According to some reports, one in three Nairobians is a Kikuyu.

Since Sonko declared his intention to run for the governor’s seat, a section of the city’s business community has become uneasy and wary of his burgeoning grassroots support across the city electorate. Towards the end of last year, Kikuyu businessmen in the city met and proposed a “sober and mature” person to run for the seat, in the hope of unseating governor Evans Kidero. “We had to act and come up with a name, in view of Jubilee Party’s apparent lack of a saleable candidate,” said one businessman who was privy to the meeting.

That is when they proposed Peter Kenneth. There is no gainsaying the fact the bulk of the most influential Kikuyu businessmen in Nairobi hail from the greater Murang’a County. Before, the carving out of additional districts from the original Murang’a largely by President Daniel Moi, Murang’a District began just after Thika town extending all way to the border of Karatina town, which is in Nyeri District. The urban and thoroughly cosmopolitan Kenneth is from Kirwara sub-location in Murang’a.

When the businessmen argued that they did not know where Sonko came from and what business he does, they were subtly saying he is not one of them. It did not matter that he is a Jubilee Party loyalist. “The thought of Sonko running the affairs of the biggest economy outside the national government at the City Hall is just frightening”, the earlier quoted businessman confided. To calm the Murang’a Mafia fears and sooth their egos, Sonko has picked a mid-career corporate professional, Polycarp Igathe, who hails from Murang’a County as his deputy.

I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Sonko’s mocking of academic papers during his high pitched monologues to Citizen TV host Mohamed Hussein — never mind he has himself rushed to get them — is a testament to how these credentials have come to mean nothing insofar as the governor’s seat is concerned. Dr Evans Kidero with his “excellent” academic papers and “management experience” and presumed “track record” has ensured that these qualifications will not be anything to brag about when canvassing for the governor seat’s votes.

Kidero’s rival was Ferdinand Waititu, a former MP of the larger Embakasi constituency. Waititu started off as a councillor for Njiru ward, which was then part of the constituency. He also deputized mayor Wathika. Waititu is always remembered for his “unparliamentary” behaviour of throwing stones and boxing his constituents.

Yet, in uncanny twist of fate, he outmanoeuvered his competitors to clinch the TNA party ticket. One of the more formidable candidates in the Nairobi governor seat elections in 2013 was one, Jimnah Mbaru who ran on the defunct Alliance Party of Kenya (APK) after he failed to secure the TNA nomination. He performed dismally, coming a distant third.

Like Kenneth today, Mbaru had always been dogged by claims of being elitist and not “a man of the people”, since the first time he entered electoral politics in 1992, when he first ran for a parliamentary seat. Waititu’s chief campaigners in 2013 rode on that narrative to besmirch Jimnah. He was painted by Waititu as a man who would not soil his (well pressed) suits to get into the mud to help the people.

A cursory glance at Sonko’s city support base today quickly reveals a demographic stratum that comprises voters who care nothing about academic qualifications and management experience. Disenchanted with Kidero’s apparent lack of vision for the city — Nairobians were hoping for a makeover and an invigorated capital city — this voter bloc has all but dismissed these “elite” qualifications.

Four months ago, I conducted a reality check in Mathare constituency, one of Sonko’s electoral bastions. Mathare is made up of six wards. In Huruma, the “area boys” told me Sonko was their guy. No doubt. Speaking to me in that lyrical Sheng only spoken in the toughest of the city ghettos, the young men spotting crew cuts dismissed Kenneth as an “impostor”. “Huyo mlami alikuwa wapi hizo siku zote?” Where was the white man all these time? “Kenneth ni candidate wa mababi”. Kenneth is the city’s bourgeoisie choice.

Of course, Mathare is not Sonko’s only voter catchment area. The entire Eastlands area — including the Central Business District — is considered to be his political playground. From the City Stadium roundabout, the area sandwiched between Jogoo Road and Lusaka Road is populated with Sonko’s presumed loyal supporters. This area straddles basically four constituencies: Makadara, Starehe and Embakasi South and Embakasi West.

In Makadara constituency, Sonko’s support is to be found in the larger Buru Buru, Ofafa Jericho and Jericho Lumumba, Maringo, Mbotela and Hamza estates. Add to these estates, Mukuru kwa Njenga slum. In Starehe constituency, Sonko’s biggest support base is in the Mukuru kwa Rueben sprawling slum which is adjacent to the other Mukuru and other scattered slums in the Industrial area. In Embakasi South constituency, his most ardent supporters are in the heavily populated Pipeline area. In Embakasi West, his supporters are to be found in Umoja I and II, Mowlem and Kariobangi South.

Separate from the Jogoo Road/Lusaka Road axis, Sonko also commands great support in the area between Juja Road and Heshima Road, which runs through Bahati and Jerusalem estates. This area mainly encompasses Kamukunji and Embakasi North constituencies. In Kamukunji constituency, his greatest support resides in Biafra, Majengo — popularly known as Kije — and Shauri Moyo estates. Majengo, one of the city’s oldest and most densely populated slums, is heavily Islamized and Swahilised — cultural traditions that Sonko easily identifies with and vice versa.

In Embakasi North, the sprawling Dandora areas I, II, III, IV and V, including Gitare Marigu ghetto are Sonko’s forte. Away from Eastlands, Sonko can also call support in Dagoretti South, a peri-urban and semi-rural constituency.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Sonko’s penetration of these urban poor areas was facilitated by his supposedly philanthropic outfit; the Sonko Rescue Team, which would supply the one golden commodity that is scarce to many Nairobians, rich and poor — water. For many of these people, they did not need to see Sonko physically: The SRT vehicles would announce the presence of the unseen Sonko.

Invariably, Sonko’s supporters will not be voting for him because he is in Jubilee — his core constituency is to be found across the ethnic divide and would vote for him wherever he would take them. It is that simple. Nobody cares to remember that Sonko is a Mkamba from Mua Hills in Machakos County.

My street vendor friends — many of them Kikuyus and who ply their trade in the CBD, have told me they are rooting for Sonko. They believe he will be kinder to them. “Sonko ni mtu anaelewa works ya vijana.” (Sonko is a man who understands the struggles of the youth). “Yeye hukuja kutucheki na ametupromise ata deal na mabigi wa hii tao.” (He comes by to say hello, and has promised, he will deal with the city’s bigwigs).

Sonko won the street vendors’ favour, when he confronted the city askaris, who consistently and persistently harassed the vendors. Sonko had been consistently vocal about the violence at least since 2014, and in January 2016, three notorious city askaris, who have since been charged with a spate of murders involving street vendors, were arrested days after he threatened to resign.

Sonko has promised to put the city askaris firmly in their place, should he win. “Sonko alitushow atanyorosha hao makanjo.” (Sonko told us he will straighten up the city askaris — if he becomes the governor).

Typically, nearly all the boda boda riders who operate in the CBD are Sonko’s supporters. Like their counterparts, the street vendors, they regularly fall afoul of the archaic city by-laws, and hence are a perpetual target of harassment by city askaris seeking to extort bribes; oftentimes violently.

Sam Ochieng who is an Advertising Executive, says he will vote for Sonko. “Sonko animates politics in a way no other Kenyan politician does.” My restaurateur friend, Wa Carol, told me she will cast her vote for Sonko, because she believes he is a man of action and will be accessible. “Kidero is a total flop. All he did was to increasingly levy taxies on small enterprises without offering any services. Look at my restaurant’s backstreet: piles and piles of garbage…and every month we are required to pay service charge.”

Away from Sonko’s presumed multicultural support base, his ethnic city support is also as good as assured. It is not for nothing that Mukuru kwa Reuben and part of the Mukuru kwa Njenga slums are solidly behind Sonko: in the city politics’ parlance, they are Kamba ghettos. So is Biafra in Kamukunji, Mbotela in Makadara and Pipeline in Embakasi South.

According to Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) latest figures on the total registered voters, out of the city’s 2.3 million registered voters, 450,000 are Kambas, the second-largest voting block after the Kikuyus. With his entry into the governor’s race, Sonko has complicated the ethnic arithmetic for Evans Kidero/Jonathan Mueke ticket. The retention of Mueke as a running mate was essentially to tap and harvest this Kamba vote.

Three weeks ago, Johnstone Muthama, one of NASA’s fundraisers and campaigners called for a meeting at City Stadium, where every eligible Kamba voter had an automatic invitation. On the agenda: how to marshall Kamba support for Kidero/Mueke NASA ticket. Regardless, Hannah Mutiso from Buru Buru, told me her vote for the governor is for Sonko and so did Mbula from Pipeline in Embakasi South.

If the Kamba vote will prove to be problematic to Kidero, the Luhya vote may also not be automatic. A City County Luhya employee, who requested anonymity, confided in me that not all Luhyas will vote for Kidero. “We have not forgotten how he caused so much grief for our people when he was the boss at Mumias Sugar Factory.” Kidero has been variously accused of mismanaging and misappropriating the company’s finances, a charge that has yet to be proven in the courts, but which has refused to go away and sticks out of Kidero’s lapel like a rotten flower.

Sonko’s works of charity — though driven more by his need to shore up his votes rather than real philanthropy — in places like Kosovo, another of Mathare’s wards, are seen as actos of noblesse oblige in one of the riskiest slums in Nairobi. There, I was informed that Sonko oftentimes sneaks in at night to catch up with wazito — the gangland (heavy weight) leaders, who also boasted of having Sonko’s direct contacts.

Some of the philanthropic activities that Sonko continues to dazzle Nairobians with include paying school fees for some needy students and providing a free ambulance service. As MP, he claimed to have regularly purchased a geometrical set for every pupil in his constituency who sat for the Kenya School of Primary Education (KCPE) examination.

In six short years, Nairobi politics has seen Sonko capture the aspirations of the hoi polloi sequestered in the dangerous, horrid city ghettos, where in the true Hobbesian fashion, “life is short, nasty and brutish”. If his criminal record is supposed to stick out as a sore thumb, the contrary is true. The record, which he does not shy away from, has proved to be a magnet to the youth — who form the strength of his fundamental support.

To the macho ghetto youth, the fact that Sonko spent time in prison, means he is a “made man”. “Sonko ni mtu alikuwa piri…na saa hii yuko wapi?” (Sonko was in prison…now look where he is).

Cutting the figure of a flashy, flamboyant, jewelry-clad gung-ho, Robin Hood type of a Mafia don, Sonko popularised the street slang name — sonko — connoting a man of limitless wealth. Adored by the millennial and generation Z, whose every day dream is to be a sonko, like the real Mike Sonko, they are expected to come out and vote for him en masse.

Sonko who converses in the “rebel language” of the slum-trodden youth, has impressed on them that you do not need an education to live it up. In the process, he has “sonkonised” the politics of Nairobi.

Avatar
By

Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

Published

on

A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
Download PDFPrint Article

Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

Continue Reading

Politics

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

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

Published

on

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

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.

Continue Reading

Politics

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.

Published

on

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

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.

Continue Reading

Trending