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

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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 In 1991, after former President Daniel arap Moi had repealed the infamous Section 2(a) of the old constitution, multi-party politics had returned to the fold.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.

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

BBI: A Ploy to Subvert Democracy through Deception

13 min read. AKOKO AKECH explains why the BBI is a revisionist project and a mock test of a political formula that has sabotaged Kenya’s democracy since independence.

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BBI: A Ploy to Subvert Democracy through Deception
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After several weeks of speculative fake versions of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) taskforce’s report, the real report was launched on Wednesday, 27 November 2019 at the Bomas of Kenya in Nairobi. The document turned out to be woolly. What is most apparent are the short-term political intentions of its authors.

At first glance, the BBI report appears to contain everything. It outlines what is wrong with Kenya today and calls for an urgent response. But a closer look at what it says reveals a chilling distrust of democracy. It is an attempt to sabotage democracy – a desire to return to a mythical old order of unquestioned authority and obsequious citizenry. This is most telling in the recommendation to take away from the residents of the city of Nairobi the right to be ruled by a governor of their choice, ostensibly because of the city’s special status as the capital and as a diplomatic hub.

However, the BBI report’s rhetoric ignores the problem at the core of Kenya’s politics that precipitated “the handshake” between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga in the first place. Its rhetoric on electoral competition masks the identity of the political formula and its nefarious mechanisms and protests that since 2007 have produced successive governments with huge political legitimacy deficits and which have left a lot destruction in their wake. By referring to the heart-rending rising cases of femicide, terrorism, divisive elections, the crises within the family, indiscipline, and runaway corruption, the BBI report paints a picture of a once great nation now beleaguered and in decline.

Moreover, the report not only partly attributes Kenya’s woes to the adoption of Western democratic models, but also seeks to reverse them. Whenever rights and responsibilities are mentioned in the report, responsibilities take precedence over rights. The BBI report laments that Kenya has become “a responsibility-light and rights-heavy society”. The authors’ obsession with the word responsibility points to the BBI’s tentative political programme of action: rolling back a human rights-conscious society, curtailing human rights talk, and setting the public against non-governmental and civil society organisations – ostensibly the conduits of such rights ideas and talks.

The BBI is a revisionist project on many fronts. It outlines an ambitious plan that ostensibly seeks to take history to the heart of government. It appeals to Kenyans to look back, and embrace their past – history with a capital H as it were, ostensibly in the name of a desirable “official and inclusive national history of every community and stretching back a thousand years” that includes the creation of an Office of the Historian resident in the National Archive” and a return to “an egalitarian pre-colonial African past” (assuming there ever was one).

The report not only partly attributes Kenya’s woes to the adoption of Western democratic models, but also seeks to reverse them. Whenever rights and responsibilities are mentioned in the report, responsibilities take precedence over rights.

BBI neither critically engages with Kenya’s problematic historiography or politics, particularly presidential election politics that necessitated its formation in the first place. The BBI report seems to invoke history, just as it does the moral panic over current social problems besetting Kenya – a perfect cover for an ambitious multi-pronged short-term and long-term political project that mainly includes changing the structure of the executive arm of the government to suit a new political coalition. This political rhetoric lays the ground for conservative social reforms, the kind of reforms that could promote authoritarianism in the long term.

The Uthamaki crisis

Simply put, Kenya is not in the kind of crisis the BBI report portrays. Arguably, Kenya’s current constitution and social institutions can address or redress most of these problems. The crisis lies in Uthamaki – the ideology of the Gikuyu elite that led to three out of four Kenyan governments dominated mainly by the same Gikuyu elite. It’s mainly a crisis of how Uhtamaki can reproduce itself after Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic record and of how to avert the possibility of having a president who is hostile to the elite’s interests.

Arguably, it’s a crisis which has no ready or credible response. It’s the Uthamakists who are caught in several crises: they have no credible patriarchy-compliant succession plan that can guarantee their selfish interests after Uhuru Kenyatta’s second and last term. Moreover, they no longer have a legitimating myth or ideology that can justify Uhuru Kenyatta’s leading role in defining his own succession, especially after his dismal economic performance that has brought on a revolt against Uthamakists in his core constituency.

The Gikuyu elite who control state power have walked out of the “kumi kumi” deal, short-changed the Kalenjin elite, and are searching for a new partner and a new coalition deal, as well as new legitimating myths for the next government through the BBI process.

What’s more, there is hardly sufficient time or resources to groom a formidable candidate who can mollify a disenchanted political base and steer the succession to Uthamakists’ advantage. The government is broke. And Uthamakists are caught between the possibility of a dreaded William Ruto presidency or a reconstituted executive that could guarantee them representation, and give them more time to groom a suitable successor to Uhuru.

It wouldn’t be a crisis if the presidency wasn’t so consequential and if the incumbent trusted the uncertainties of a truly democratic process. But the Uthamakists don’t trust a credible, free and fair election nor do they respect the outcome, as we have witnessed in recent elections.

Electoral coups

Since 2007, the Uthamakists have found a working formula for seizing and keeping state power. It works, but only perfectly well when an Uthamakist is in power and has a strong preferred “home-grown” male candidate. It’s the formula for the execution of an electoral coup d’état, perhaps Mwai Kibaki’s most enduring legacy.

Arguably, the Johann Kriegler Commission did not identify electoral coups nor did it offer sufficient remedy against them. Instead, the Kriegler reforms and the other security sector reforms were a mixed bag of harvest for Kenya’s electoral coup d’état makers. The Kriegler Commission’s report mainly sought to diffuse the claims and counterclaims of the winner of the disputed 2007 presidential election. It did so by claiming, contestably, that both sides stole the election, making it impossible to determine who won. But it dexterously avoided the question of how Mwai Kibaki ascended to power despite the 2007 presidential electoral contest being so muddled that one could not tell who the winner or loser of the election was.

The Kriegler commissioners kicked the can down the road. They recommended a raft of reforms on how to secure the integrity of future elections, especially reconstituting the electoral management body, and using technology and procedures for voting, vote-counting and tallying. It gave Kenyans a promissory note.

Since 2007, the Uthamakists have found a working formula for seizing and keeping state power…It’s the formula for the execution of an electoral coup d’état, perhaps Mwai Kibaki’s most enduring legacy.

Poignantly, the Kreigler Commission failed to locate the Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK)’s fiasco at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) within the country’s history of the executive aiding the stealing of elections. The 2007 election-rigging was writ large on a national platform under the glare of the international media. It was switch-off-the–lights-swap-the-ballot-boxes, declare the government’s preferred candidate the winner, and order police officers to beat up anyone who objects.

The success of the strategy rests on a deceptively simple logic: it is easier for a Returning Officer to declare an executive’s preferred candidate the winner than it is to undo such a declaration – whether valid or not – through an election petition or a popular protest. Judges can be leaned on, intimidated or bribed to uphold such a victory. Not even a courageous Supreme Court bench like Justice Maraga’s has changed this logic.

In recent times, this formula has had a patriarchal ethno-chauvinist Gikuyu presidential candidate as the core or as the constant, plus or minus one, two or three substitutable ethnic-other elite. If, however, the disgruntled elite left out of the incumbent’s winning formula or coalition forms a formidable coalition and unexpectedly wins the presidential election, you can still roll back their victory via the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) and the control and abuse of security forces. Then, with their backs to the wall, you can press the “losers” to accept half of the Executive’s loaf of bread.

Better still, you can launch a sleek media and academic campaign on a self-fulfilling prophecy of the incumbent’s developmental record or development portal or the invincibility of the demographic strength of the incumbent’s coalition. With the electoral body under your armpit and the multi-agency security forces at your beck and call, you can take the whole loaf of the executive bread after driving the opposition up the judicial cul-de-sac, with a nod from Western powers, the real custodians of Kenya’s state power who fear losing out to the Chinese on lucrative infrastructure projects and trade opportunities.

And presto, you are back as the status quo, standing tall atop the debris of broken institutions of liberal democracy, broken limbs, rapes, destroyed properties, and fresh graves after a general election, and ready for yet another round of this “democratic” three ring circus: the formation of a new coalition; an electoral theft; and a formal or informal power-sharing agreement. It works, but leaves the victor with a huge legitimacy deficit, especially when he reneges on the promise of nusu mkate or the commitment to hand over the whole loaf of bread midstream.

The kumi kumi promise

A case in point is the Jubilee government’s crisis of legitimacy. The legitimating myth, which held the Jubilee’s core patriarchal, ethno-chauvinistic Gikuyu-Kalenjin elite pact and their respective constituencies, is in tatters. It was the myth of the “tyranny of numbers” and the promise of decades of an alternately Kikuyu/Kalenjin mainly male elite dominance over the rest of Kenyans. This is now a mirage, especially for William Ruto’s disbanded United Republican Party faction of the Jubilee government.

“We reluctantly but robustly supported the Uhuruto deal after political propagandists fabricated 07/08 PEV investigations. Some victims were depicted as villains. We justifiably sympathised, defended our own. That’s after quiet efforts by some of us to get a Raila-Uhuru alliance failed,” said Kabando wa Kadando in a thread of tweets, which suggests that William Ruto no longer fits as a variable in the next Mt. Kenya elite’s wining political formula.

“William Ruto, it seems, is very cunning and ambitious, while the Prince slept on the job,” says Kabando wa Kabando. “Ruto controlled both houses of Parliament and the executive. Anyone wanting a fix went to see Ruto. Even governors in trouble with the Senate! He fixed all. We still don’t know why Uhuru let it happen. Everyone knows ‘Annex’ became ‘Extortion Palace’. Well-oiled Sky Team ruled.”

The Gikuyu elite who control state power have walked out of the “kumi kumi” deal, short-changed the Kalenjin elite, and are searching for a new partner and a new coalition deal, as well as new legitimating myths for the next government through the BBI process. They’ve reneged on the “kumi kumi” promise – the promise of a ten-year William Ruto rule following Uhuru Kenyatta’s two five-year presidential terms in office. The Kalenjin are seemingly out of the incumbent’s equation, and William Ruto’s presidential prospect is increasingly looks dim.

Disastrous economic performance

However, substituting Raila Odinga for William Ruto in the incumbent’s victory formula would have been easy but for Uhuru Kenyatta’s disastrous economic performance, the inflexible constitutional provision of the executive, and the burden of history, especially the legacy of Gatundu oaths and the unethical campaigns of the recently closely-fought presidential elections.

Before the Jubilee government took Kenya into the deep suffocating waters of debt through reckless borrowing of commercial loans heavily padded with bribes, and drove out SMEs out of business, Uhuru was sold as the filthy rich presidential candidate who will invariably will run a clean government because he doesn’t need money. Unlike his mentor Daniel arap Moi, and like his predecessors Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki, he was the archetypical Gikuyu with a magical economic touch who would make everyone prosperous.

But, after six years in power, the economy is listing and a revolt is brewing. He’s no longer the “People’s Prince” among those impoverished by the Jubilee government’s reckless economic choices and unprecedented levels of corruption. The economic downturn has left the president mostly with the coercive instruments of state power with which to intimidate the disgruntled pesky “Tanga Tanga” opponents who are stirring the Central Kenya revolt, and with little fiscal room for a persuasive response to the economic woes fueling the rebellion. This has given his Tanga Tanga critics wide room to chart their own destiny without the Prince and driven the Uthamakists into the arms of a previous implacable foe for help: the much demonised Raila Odinga and his ODM party.

Raila: A hard sell  

But Raila Odinga has never been an easy sell among the Gikuyu. He was briefly a njamba nene among the Gikuyu after playing a decisive role in Mwai Kibaki’s victory in 2002. However, in the intervening period between 2003 and 2017, during which Raila Odinga ran for the presidency three times, he has been demonised and characterised as the ultimate enemy of the Gikuyu bourgeoisie, peasants and working class.

As Kabando wa Kabando says, “Central Kenya’s fear of Raila is real. Like Boers feared Mandela. We must courageously crash unjustified phobia. Raila is feared because our grandparents were oathed that Jaramogi was bad. In 2002 Raila was ‘our’ hero. 2005-8 Ruto was ‘our’ enemy. We shall, for Kenya, embrace Raila.”

Before the Jubilee government took Kenya into the deep suffocating waters of debt through reckless borrowing of commercial loans heavily padded with bribes, and drove out SMEs out of business, Uhuru was sold as the filthy rich presidential candidate who will invariably will run a clean government because he doesn’t need money.

Raila Odinga and the ODM party may be a hard sell in Central Kenya, but he can be trusted to do the heavy lifting of reforming the executive. He’s been a champion of the parliamentary system of government for long, which is also, as the late John Michuki pointed out, the Uthamakist default position on executive reforms when one of their own is not in State House or, in this instance, when prospects of losing state power looms. And a new political coalition of Uthamaki and the ODM party also provides a ready-made self-fulfilling prophecy or narrative of an electoral victory that a compromised IEBC can deliver.

The BBI brief is to seek to legitimate a previously unthinkable Uthamaki- compliant presidential succession plan, and it does this through historical revisionism. If Uthamaki’s core constituency is shaky, and William Ruto has to be replaced with Raila Odinga because Ruto now poses a greater threat to the Gikuyu bourgeoisie than Raila Odinga, but excites a significant cross-section of Gikuyu petit bourgeoisie, the peasants and the working class, then Uhuru must look for a new legitimating story, especially one that conveniently leaves out Ruto, and brings back Raila into the Uthamakist winning political formula.

Or, better still, a new legitimating myth is being created – one that simultaneously leaves Ruto out while portraying him as the originator of the Jubilee government’s economic sins. This gives the impression of casting out the “kusema, kutenga na ku-tender” tenderpreneur tendencies within the Jubilee government while laying claim to the “pedigree” that Ruto lacks.

A mythical past

The BBI’s first communiqué and report spins a mythical Kenyan past, an exclusive patriotic patrimony of the scions of Kenya’s founding fathers. Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga are the sons of the Republic of Kenya’s first president and vice president, respectively. The BBI seems to have rediscovered the unfulfilled dreams and promises of Kenya’s independence, and has answered the oracle’s call to complete the so-called Kenya’s founding fathers’ independence journey.

In its first March 9, 2018 communiqué, which caught many by surprise, the BBI was billed as the rediscovery of the unfulfilled promises and ideals of Kenya’s Independence. It also conjured a mythical historical past and assigned Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga a larger-than-life leading role in shaping Kenya’s destiny.

A new legitimating myth is being created – one that simultaneously leaves Ruto out while portraying him as the originator of the Jubilee government’s economic sins.

The communiqué claimed that “Kenya has constantly sought to live up to its promise and dreams its founding mothers and fathers had for us,” as if there was ever a common political vision shared by all.

What triumphed after “Independence,” especially after 1965, wasn’t what the KANU coalition fought for and promised at independence; it was what Oginga Oginda would fight against for the rest of his life with little success – Jomo Kenyatta’s ethno-centric authoritarian one-party state system.

The communiqué also gives Kenya a mythical history. It talks about a mythical pre-colonial “Kenya” that was peaceful and conflict-free, and later despoiled by colonialism, which the founding mothers and fathers fought and defeated with the promise of creating a united nation.

These are the myths that legitimize the Uhuru-Raila partnership’s exclusive claim to shepherding the Uhuru succession politics. The BBI did not seek to make amends for the sins of the founding fathers, as the congratulatory speeches at the Bomas of Kenya during the launch of the BBI report demonstrated.

The jubilant mood at Bomas of Kenya was almost spoilt by Senator Kipchumba Murkomen, who is neither a Masinde Muliro reincarnate nor a Junet Mohammed or a Tom Mboya reincarnate by any stretch of imagination. Murkomen’s plea for fair representation of both supporting and opposing sides, and his belligerent call for minorities’ voices to be heard was a complaint that reminded one of KADU’s plea to respect dissenting voices – a cardinal democratic value that KADU (more than KANU) stood for and championed briefly.

The founding fathers’ myth might bridge the political chasm between the Uthamakist and the much-demonised Raila Odinga’s political constituencies, and perhaps bury the Gikuyu bourgeoisie’s fear of a Raila Odinga leadership. But a victory by any means necessary against a Ruto-led coalition of the disgruntled would make Uhuru’s opinion of Raila Odinga quoted in the Washington Post after NASA’s boycott of the repeat 2017 elections ring true: “There is sadness in the decision of my opponent. He fought for decades to make Kenya a multiparty democracy. His opposition to one-party rule and his devotion to winning democracy for Kenya cannot be questioned.”

The desire by the Deep State to steady Uhuru Kenyatta’s succession ship, and guide it through the William Ruto-stirred rough and turbulent political waters by balancing Raila’s political ambitions against Ruto’s hasn’t put wind behind Raila’s sails. But it has assigned to Raila a critical role in Uthamaki’s rebirth project, much to the chagrin of some of Uhuru’s die-hard supporters who have been brought up on a steady diet of “Uthamaki ni witu, thamaki ni ciao”.

The BBI’s Bomas show was a ploy. It was a mock test of a political formula that sabotages Kenya’s democracy, always with the same predictable tragic results every five-year electoral cycle. Though billed as historic, it was in reality the Deep State’s preview of the coming John Michuki “liver-juggling” show.

A new supporting cast

The BBI report inspires little confidence, but serves as a reminder that Kenya is stuck in a deep political rut – held hostage by a cabal of ethno-chauvinists who have perfected the art of subverting democracy and political deception by introducing a new supporting cast of enemies-turned-allies.

That Raila Odinga is aiding and abetting such political calculations (which have repeatedly cost him the presidency) is tragic. It’s a capitulation to the evils of seizing and controlling state power; not a triumph of patriotism over self-interest.

Kenya might be playing Russian roulette in the next presidential election, not with Raila Odinga’s single bullet, but with a half-loaded revolver, particularly if we go back to the Supreme Court to preserve what millions of Kenyans can’t effectively and collectively resist. If Kenya is stuck only with patriarchal options and craves a home-grown solution, then it has to polish up KADU’s plinths instead of mythologising the patrimony of the KANU founding father’s dream and promise.

The evils that KADU stalwarts such Ronald Ngala and Masinde Muliro warned us against have metastasised in Kenya’s body politic. But at least KADU got the diagnosis right: ethnic dominance in the commanding heights of state bureaucracy by one or two ethnic groups is injurious to the interests of those they exclude. KADU’s prescriptions for the cure – a federal system of government, equitable development, a Bill of Rights, and a multiparty system of government – came close to what Kenyans have been earnestly debating since 1992.

The desire by the Deep State to steady Uhuru Kenyatta’s succession ship, and guide it through the William Ruto-stirred rough and turbulent political waters by balancing Raila’s political ambitions against Ruto’s hasn’t put wind behind Raila’s sails. But it has assigned to Raila a critical role in Uthamaki’s rebirth project…

It seems the powers that be have turned the evils KADU warned us against into an advantageous political formula. Perhaps the key question one would ask the incumbent and his Western supporters is: Is it ethical to continually stage an electoral coup d’état under the guise of a presidential electoral competition? How many more such coups can Kenya survive?

Kenya’s political problem is not competition as such but rather the lack of ethical competition and the violence it engenders on both sides of any political divide – from the party primaries of various political parties and electoral positions to the presidential election. It’s the current electoral system that lends itself to the electoral coups plots.

Until the Kenyans who benefit from minority rule and electoral coups give up their advantages or those who oppose illegitimate minority rule mount a resistance, BBI-like proposals will always be made. Unfortunately, the deadly recasting of who is the new or not-so-new ethnic enemy or ally of the ethnic-chauvinistic minorities who control state power will not yield democratic ideals. This is the tragedy of “Uhuru”.

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France in Africa: Never Can Say Adieu

9 min read. KALUNDI SERUMAGA explores France’s paternalistic and exploitative colonial pact with some West African countries, and explains why those who resist this arrangement are quickly silenced.

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France in Africa: Never Can Say Adieu
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Despite apparently going as quickly as it came up, the recent disagreement between the African Union (AU) and one of its employees created a few interesting insights into the current state of Official Pan-Africanism, and also allowed an opportunity for reflection.

In summary, one Dr. Aneka Chihombori-Quao took to the fringes of radical African American media to begin denouncing the state of economic relations between France and the various West African countries descended from France’s colonial empire. Her point was that an essentially colonial (by which she meant paternalistic and exploitative) relationship between France and Africa continues to exist. This, she contends, is a matter that the African Union, Africans and Africa’s well-wishers should all be concerned about, and be fighting against.

The medical doctor-turned-diplomat, and long-term resident of the United States previously, was to make a series of strongly-worded attacks on France. All this coincided with the announcement that the AU was to terminate her services as ambassador.

“Fourteen African countries are obliged by France through a colonial pact”, said Dr. Chihombori, “to put 85 per cent of their foreign reserve into France’s central bank under the French minister of finance’s control.” She continued:

“…… if you look deeper, of the roughly 68 coups that have happened in Africa, 61 per cent have taken place in so-called Francophone countries. In other words, any African leader wanting to take his country out from under the economic control of France was subject to be overthrown by a French-engineered coup…A case in point: Togo’s first democratic leader was assassinated by Etienne Gnassingbe, an ex-French Foreign Legionnaire army sergeant who allegedly received a bounty of $612 million. Similar things can be said of coups or political instability in Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and the Central African Republic.”

(Some of her statements have tested the bounds of credibility, especially in the financial figures she gave.)

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

On its part, the AU defended itself not by answering the charges, but rather by challenging the credibility of the one making the accusation.

Describing Dr. Chihombori as running a “misleading campaign” in an October 15th statement, Ebba Kalondo, the AU Commission chair’s spokesperson, explained that Dr. Chihombori’s tour of duty had simply ended, and that a string of irregularities were uncovered in the normal review undertaken at the end of such a cycle. She stated that the ambassador had initiated a whole series of projects and activities without the knowledge or authority of her employer.

These attacks then formed the basis of her criticism of the AU as an institution for failing, in her view, to end this robbery. Her insinuation was that the real reason for her sacking was because of criticising a powerful European country to which the AU was somehow beholden.

In so doing, the accusation goes, Dr. Chihombori utilised the African Union logo and official address so as to present these activities as official ones, and went on to appoint people to these tasks, as well as to solicit for funds from the private sector to support them. Fraud, basically. The implication, it appears, is that these broadsides against France served as a diversion.

But this is not really the problem: everything that the AU has said about their former employee can be true, without everything that the employee said about France-Africa relations being untrue.

It is indeed a fact that the French government maintains an undue beneficial influence on fiscal matters among its former West African colonies. This is an arrangement that began in all cases well before independence, and has continued long after it.

It is also a fact that Official Africa, including the collectivity of the African Union, benefits from European Union and French aid largesse.

Furthermore, there is ample historical evidence of France’s penchant for ripping off whole nations of black people.

From slavery to colonialism to post-colonialism

After the enslaved Africans in the French Caribbean island colony of Haiti rebelled in 1791 by killing most of the slave plantation managers and defeating the resident French forces, the revolutionary government of France sent reinforcements at the request of the absentee slave plantation owners. These forces – Napoleonic, no less – were also defeated, and the formerly enslaved of Haiti declared themselves an independent republic in 1804.

In 1825, a decade after the end of Napoleon, twelve French warships armed, it is said, with 528 cannons, sailed to Haiti and delivered a demand: France was willing to finally recognise the new independent republic on condition that Haiti committed to paying France 150 million French francs in gold for the “loss of property” incurred during the rebellion. What’s more, this was to be borrowed from French banks. Haiti, faced with the prospect of a naval blockade, accepted.

This “debt” was kept in force until the final payment was made in 1947. That is a period of 122 years. To complete it, Haiti had to take an additional loan from the United States. As a result, Haiti remains one of the poorest countries in the world.

France continues to offer what I shall term “intervention services” aimed at resolving security problems in the various countries with which it has historical linkages to the tune of $665 million a year.

However, the line between friendly assistance, and imperial overlordship is quite blurred.

Following a helicopter collision that caused the death of thirteen French soldiers in a November 26 combat operation against jihadis in northern Mali, France’s President Emmanuel Macron announced that he was summoning the heads of Mali, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, Niger, and Chad to a December 16 Paris meeting to explain themselves. (France has a heavy military presence in the Sahel, ostensibly to combat terrorism.)

“I can’t, nor do I want French soldiers on the ground while there is anti-French sentiment that is sometimes held by the leaders of some of the African countries,” declared Macron at a press conference during a NATO summit in London early this month.

“The leaders of five West African nations…should come to France on December 16 to provide clarifications,” he added, more than a little imperiously.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded. France is, after all, the EU’s third, and the world’s seventh largest economy.

With the revolts taking place against power globally, it is worth reflecting on how France, already dealing with twelve months of Yellow Vest rioters protesting the general fall in the standard of living, would then cope if it were dropped any lower.

Indeed, there are already rumblings afoot regarding what should be the future of that financial relationship.

The challenge of the imperfect messenger

But the problem may be the challenge of the “imperfect messenger”. The challenge, rooted perhaps in the Christian foundations of Western-built discourse, is the expectation that those who offer us redemption must first be above all blemish themselves.

The New African magazine and has been beating the drum on French trickery in Africa for at least two decades.

One hears a lot of things. For example, that Francophone countries are only allowed to access 10 to 15 percent of their own money held in the France Reserve Bank at any given time, and that any requests for more are charged at punitive rates, with the Bank having the discretion to deny the request.

Furthermore, that this power extends to French government officials sitting on the boards of more than a few West African central banks as representatives of France, and having veto powers.

Normally, revelations, such as the ones made by Dr. Chihombori, could promote a wider discussion of what effect a wholesale African rejection of Franco-African economic arrangements would have on the domestic French economy, and the wider European Union economy in which it is embedded.

What Dr. Chihombori has done is perhaps what the writer Parselelo Kantai has described to me as the “privatisation of Pan-Africanism”. She would not be the first African person we have seen in our long history to take it upon herself to appear to speak for the whole race, and to establish organisations supposedly to advance this project.

The historical record of this is murky and riven with division and polarising interpretations. The principal and most famous of these, of course, is the story of the grandfather of Pan-Africanism himself, Mzee Marcus Garvey.

Looking at the bare facts, there is much to cast doubt on Garvey’s credentials as a leader. He had already been labelled as a charlatan by some other black activists in the period before he rode to global prominence between the two great European wars.

By the time his political career was over, he had been successfully sued for criminal libel by a fellow activist, and had been sued by numerous journalists for non-payment for their contributions to his newspaper. He had been married twice, after what can only be described as a chaotic short-lived first marriage, and somewhat messy divorce. He had overseen the failure of a number of business ventures seeded by money from his followers, and served a prison term for financial fraud before being immediately deported from the United States after the sentence was commuted.

The key point is this: If Official Africa will not step into the breach and actually do something effective about these long-running problems, then nobody should be surprised to see the rise of self-appointed lions. And therefore, nobody should be surprised that among those lions there may well be a good portion of chancers who have sensed an opportunity. Neither Dr, Chihombori nor Marcus Garvey are necessarily either.

What we need to note is the fact that that most well-known Africanist movements aimed at liberating black people, and whose legacy lives on today in a variety of ways, were not founded by a native African institution, nor an Africa-based political party, nor an African country; they were started by a person of African descent who did not speak a word of any African language, and who would reach the end of his life having never set foot on African soil.

This is in no way an attempted defence of Dr Chihombori and her actions. Nor is it an attempt to understand her initiatives. I am certainly not attempting to place her alongside Marcus Garvey. I am, however, making the point that when it comes to the politics of other wider Pan-African struggles, all will be condemned, be they prophets or phonies.

As things stand, the AU approach could be accused of being an attempt to reduce the whole incident to a matter of mere human resources management.

And even within that context, no explanation was offered as to why any such irregularities were not picked up earlier by Dr. Chihombori’s superiors, nor how a person of such alleged dubious character came to be in the AU’s employ at such an important deployment in the first place.

Instead the statement ended on an ominous note: “The African Union Commission reserves the right to take any legal action, if necessary, against any use and/or misuse of its name, logo and resources by any unauthorised individuals or entities.”

Whether that is a cover-up or a blind spot is a matter that only further discussions can bring out.

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world. Unlike Asia, where amidst the poverty, there are large economic classes of more or less indigenous wealthy people, and unlike South America, where, despite the weight of exploitative American capital and a large domestic class often descended from long-term European settlers, the ordinary people have sustained generations of resistance and are even now are in the midst of several uprisings. In contrast, Africans on the continent remain dispossessed, and even the rich are not rich. As for the diaspora, they remain the targets of an institutionalised racism, whose underlying workings are only being fully exposed by a new generation of activists and researchers.

Other questions arise.

The AU does have policies committed to a vision for relationships with and between the various African communities long domiciled in countries outside Africa, and, in particular, relationships with the First Diaspora comprising the descendants of those Africans taken from this continent during the various stages of Western and Eastern enslavements.

Had there ever been any discussion on the implementation of those policies between Dr. Chihombori and the AU before she subsequently allegedly embarked upon her unauthorised initiatives? Does the AU see any merit in and of itself in initiatives of the type begun by Dr. Chihombori Quao in the USA? Does the AU have its own plans, or even existing practical programmes, for such initiatives? If not, why not?

The fact remains that not just Africa as a continent but the people of African descent everywhere remain the most precarious on the planet in terms of the conditions faced by the continent’s people wherever they are interfacing with the modern world.

Does the AU have a view on the justness, or otherwise, of the existing financial relations between France and some of her former colonies?

Perhaps these are not matters discussed in the course of a sacking. However, they should be of interest with us. I did put these questions, and more to the AU communications office, using the provided official address. I had not received a response by the time of submitting this article.

Even before Macron’s Napoleonic reaction to the French soldiers’ deaths (one the worst losses of life in France’s military in decades) Bloomberg news agency had reported an announcement of intent by the West African Monetary Union, which is the mechanism created to maintain the currency unit binding former French colonies to France (while France, ironically, has no independent currency of her own anymore), to make a significant adjustment to the arrangement.

Benin’s President Patrice Talon announced that the Africans had “unanimously” agreed to repatriate some their cash reserves from the French treasury.

This is no longer a private matter between them.

In January this year, one Luigi Di Maio, a member of Italy’s populist Five Star movement, had already dragged the issue into an internal European Union quarrel over EU fiscal policy that he was having with Emmanuel Macron’s France. “First [he] lectures us, then continues to finance public debt with the money which he exploits [from] Africa,” said the Italian.

Macron was furious. And it seems he has remained so ever since.

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Moving On or Business as Usual? Contemplating a Post-Museveni Uganda

9 min read. Is the West’s renewed interest in promoting human rights in Uganda a genuine attempt at bringing about democracy and eliminating corruption, or is it based on the commercial interests of a superpower intent on reducing China’s influence in Africa?

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The Western media is taking notice of growing agitation for regime change in Uganda at a level comparable to the 1980s when Yoweri Museveni was referred to as a “a young handsome guerilla” on ITV News and featured in a British documentary filmed in the Luwero Triangle. Even as the then President Milton Obote was denying the existence of a rebel threat in Uganda, British journalist William Pike was interviewing Museveni in the bush. Pike later became a mobiliser for international support for the National Resistance Army (NRA) between 1984 and 1986.

In the past two years, the international mainstream media have regularly covered the phenomenon that is the People Power movement. With the help of social media, the movement’s leader, Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine, has been noted as a leader of the future by two influential Western publications and has won multiple leadership awards on the African continent. As result, the failings of the 33-year-old National Resistance Movement (NRM) government have been under the global spotlight.

In his latest interview with Al Jazeera, Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and investors to deal with Uganda and not with President Museveni. As the 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, foreign debt is coming to the fore in Uganda’s political discourse. Where human rights abuse once dominated, managerial failures in government and poor budget outcomes are gaining increasing attention. A series of events in 2018 and 2019 highlighted the impact of debt distress and managerial incompetence on service delivery.

Corruption and incompetence are no longer simply a drag on development but are bringing public institutions to a standstill. Special audits of thirteen out of fourteen regional referral hospitals show persistent drug stock-outs, understaffing and crumbling infrastructure. (The ICU at Jinja Hospital was shut down due to lack of batteries.).

In his latest interview with Al Jazeera, Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and investors to deal with Uganda and not with President Museveni. As the 2021 presidential and parliamentary elections draw near, foreign debt is coming to the fore in Uganda’s political discourse.

Yet the health sector was unable to spend Shs.171 billion ($46,367,125.02) allocated to wages and construction and had to return the funds to the Treasury. Shs150 billion ($40,520,625.00) of that was external funding. Reasons given point to institutional failures, and inability to organise recruitment and procurement in time (Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit, 2019).

In the education sector, the Makerere University strike was a reaction to the government’s inability to cover operational costs, and to the university increasingly relying on fees paid by private students. Ten years ago it was estimated that Shs.600 billion ($162,191,100.00) a year was lost through government procurement fraud alone. Professor Nuwagaba, a Makerere University lecturer and author of the study, estimated that the amount lost was enough to cover all of Makerere University’s student fees for two years.

The latest statistics from the primary education sector show the rate of literacy and numeracy fell from 39 per cent to 33 per cent. With a primary school drop-out rate of 60 per cent, this means that most of those who do not complete primary school education are insufficiently literate or numerate to go on to existing skills training institutions. Loans for skills training and higher education worth $100 million expired, with just a little over 50 per cent utilised and the rest returned to source. An application for a new $45 million has been tabled in Parliament.

Global climate right for change

The global climate is right for political change. By Executive Order 13818 (2017) the Trump administration declared global corruption and human rights violations “a national emergency” with respect to serious human rights abuses and corruption globally, which constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States. The Magnitsky Act has since been invoked against senior army personnel while the former Inspector General of Police has been publicly designated under Section 7031(c) of the FY 2019 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act for human rights abuses.

Elsewhere in Africa, five Congolese officials of the DRC’s electoral commission and one from the Constitutional Court had visa restrictions placed on them and were publicly designated for electoral fraud. Together with military officials, they have also been identified as having undermined democracy by violating Congolese citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly, and freedom of expression.

Other publicly designated officials include Kenya’s former Attorney General Amos Wako, Cameroon’s Inspector General of the Cameroonian Gendarmerie, Colonel Jean Claude Ango, Malawi’s former Minister of Home Affairs, and current Special Advisor on Parliamentary Affairs, Uladi Basikolo Mussa due to involvement in significant corruption (a charge that Wako has denied). Exiled former president of the Gambia, Yahya Jammeh is also designated in an undated notice.

Since October 2019, Tanzania’s opposition politician Tundu Lissu and the Justice for All South Sudanese movement have retained a Canadian firm in the area of human rights abuses. Amsterdam & Partners offered its services to the embattled Bobi Wine after the torture the state subjected him to in 2018.

During their press conference, Robert Amsterdam denounced Uganda’s history of political violence and the use of $500 million worth (his figure) of US weaponry in carrying out that violence, saying the West cannot ignore it any longer.

The question is how closely multinational commercial interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the political movements, parties and individuals they now support.

The language of the Executive Order implies that to be actionable, the violations must be a threat to American global interests. By implication, if those interests can be secured by means other than sanctioning human rights violators, then violators need not be sanctioned. Yet in order to end impunity African opposition politicians and activists are clamouring for sanctions on serving officials like foreign minister Sam Kutesa cited in the Patrick Ho bribery case.

In an interview with Aly Khan Satchu in October 2018, Amsterdam described his firm’s work as “litigation in global markets” around both political and commercial matters. He portrayed foreign investor and domestic governance issues as being intertwined.

The question is how closely multinational commercial interests are aligned with the long-term interests of the political movements, parties and individuals they now support.

Amsterdam described the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as predatory lending and neo-colonial, a choice of phrase that would appeal to post-colonial Africa and Asia. He said that the initiative had “prohibited the growth of representative democracy…and given some autocrats a new lease on life.” [Amsterdam video @9:48] Explaining that China uses its surpluses from exporting manufactured goods to “colonise” the rest of the world. Amsterdam warned that “the debt trap is very real”.

He mentioned Hambantota, the port that Sri Lanka lost to China as a result of a debt default in 2018. In the same year, the Auditor General revealed that Uganda too has contracted loan agreements with China that surrender sovereign immunity over territory in the event of default.

The phrase “predatory lending” had been used earlier by the sixteen U.S. congressmen who wrote to the Secretaries of State and the Treasury in August 2018, demanding action to disrupt what they described as China’s bid to dominate the global economy. What is of concern to the Congressmen is that 23 out of 68 BRI countries are said to be at risk of debt distress. Defaulting BRI countries are expected to seek IMF bail-outs, meaning a portion of America’s investment in the IMF (the largest shareholding) would be transferred to China.

The portrayal of Uganda’s governance deficits and Western foreign political and commercial interests as organically related issues is not convincing. The exit plan being signaled for President Museveni is less about human rights abuses about which the world has known for over 30 years and more in aid of preserving existing power and trade relations between Uganda and the United States.

In his latest interview (Al Jazeera, November 2019) Kyagulanyi appealed to the international community and international investors, in particular, to hold the Ugandan administration accountable for human rights abuses and corruption. He urged them not to focus only on business relations but to be united with Uganda by values such as “democracy, respect for human rights…zero tolerance of corruption”. Ugandan activists are aware of the debt-trap and welcome sanctions.

However, in his interview with Sachu, Amsterdam seemed to be suggesting that perpetrators be given a Get Out of Jail card. Apart from floating the idea of an easy exit for Museveni, he stated that sanctions would only “hand over” countries to China (because Chinese foreign policy does not enforce its anti-foreign bribery laws). He gave Myanmar as an example. Sanctioned for the Rohingya genocide, Myanmar allegedly fell profoundly under Chinese influence.

He is again at odds with African activists when he advises his clients to avoid the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by denominating their foreign contracts in currencies other than dollars to avoid the New York-based SWIFT money transfer system. Corruption, some of the proceeds of which pass through the SWIFT system, costs the African continent billions of dollars a year. The US Department of Justice recovered $30 million from Vice President Teodorín Obiang in 2014. France recovered (and confiscated) $35 million from him in 2017.

Uganda’s corruption circles are at least as big as Equatorial Guinea’s. There are over 100 ministries and statutory agencies and many more presidential appointees. Museveni himself is rumoured to have stashed away $5 billion in illicit earnings. This figure is difficult to confirm but following the recent ‘#fishrot’ disclosures in which the Namibian Minister of Justice is filmed soliciting a bribe of $200,000 in return for allocating fishing rights to an Icelandic firm, Samherji, it is possible that during Museveni’s thirty years at the helm – when he oversaw the country’s privatisation programme – he amassed a lot of wealth.

An easy exit for Museveni in the interests of a “smooth transition” could jeopardise the hoped for recovery of stolen funds. Robert Mugabe estate includes $10 million in cash, not an insignificant amount in a country where child delivery in hospitals is done by candlelight and a unit of blood costs $120.00, the equivalent of a doctors’ monthly salary or just over two month’s pay for a teacher.

Service delivery default or debt default?

More divergences of interest can be expected post-Museveni. A key issue for Ugandans in the inevitable transition will be the status of Uganda’s foreign debt. By 2021 debt servicing will have risen to at least 65 per cent of revenue (Auditor General 2018).

In the event that the NRM regime is dislodged in the 2021 elections, expectations for more and better service delivery will be high as they were in post-apartheid South Africa. South Africa elected to pay the apartheid debt and as a result, twenty years later, 40 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Access to social housing, electricity, running water and other services in the quantities and to the standards promised during the anti-apartheid struggle is still limited for at least half the population.

An easy exit also implies the inheritance of unsustainable debt, whether or not contracted in return for bribes, and regardless of whether it was put to developmental use or stolen. Without a debt audit carried out by an independent body, the repudiation of illegal, illegitimate and odious debt, and the recovery of misappropriated funds, the new government will not be able to meet service delivery expectations without taking on yet more debt. Service delivery will be the casualty. Zimbabwe cleared its debt to the IMF circa 2016. However latest statistics show undernourishment in Zimbabwe is 51.3%, up from 50.9% in 2016 when the IMF debt was cleared.

Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe discovered that it was unable to get new IMF financing without clearing the $5 billion owed to the African Development Bank and World Bank, and without securing financing commitments from development partners to whom money is owed.

Uganda’s corruption circles are at least as big as Equatorial Guinea’s. There are over 100 cabinet ministers and many more presidential appointees, in addition to Museveni, who is rumoured to have stashed away $5 billion in illicit earnings.

The legal status of the Museveni debt, and therefore the obligation to repay it, has been challenged by Dr Kizza Besigye on the grounds that it is odious – contracted at a time when the government was waging war against the people of Uganda. There is ample legal precedent for repudiation of odious debt.

To the extent that payment of the Museveni debt would force the State to continue to default on its obligation to meet the basic needs of its citizens, it is illegitimate. As in Zimbabwe, undernourishment in Uganda has been rising for over a decade. Infant and maternal mortality remain high.

Legally, if the Museveni debt can be shown to be odious or that it was contracted with the lenders’ knowledge or expectation that the government lacked the capacity to manage or repay it and was in any case inclined to steal it (as with the Mozambique tuna bonds), a case can be made for repudiation.

There are several examples of debt being successfully repudiated. In 2007 Norway established the precedent for repudiating debt which is neither illegitimate nor odious on the grounds that “repayment may be subject to broader considerations of the equities of the debtor-creditor relationship” (UNCTAD).

The legal status of the Museveni debt, and therefore the obligation to repay it, has been challenged by Dr Kizza Besigye on the grounds that it is odious – contracted at a time when the government was waging war against the people of Uganda.

The Tsarist debt owed by Russia was significantly reduced after payment demands were repudiated. The German and Prussian debt used to colonise Poland was repudiated in 1919. Commercial loans made by the Royal Bank of Canada to fallen dictator Tinoco were repudiated by Costa Rica. Germany repudiated Austrian debt in 1938, and the Franco–Italian Conciliation Commission ruled that Italy was exempt from debt incurred during war waged by a previous regime (1947). (Source: The Concept of Odious Debt in International Law, UNCTAD.)

Debt mismanagement continues in Uganda. The long-awaited health insurance scheme – the National Minimum Healthcare Package (NMHCP) – was tabled in Parliament in August 2019. The maternal health component of it will be financed under the World Bank’s Health Systems Strengthening Project through a loan of $130 million even though $45 million was wasted when the first attempt to design the NMHCP scheme in 2003 came to nothing. The World Bank’s evaluation stated the reasons stemmed from failures within the World Bank itself, including unrealistic design timetables, lack of a monitoring and evaluation (M&E) framework, and little appreciation of the political economy of the reform programme.

There are tens of projects such as these dating back to the initial Economic Recovery Programme of 1987 for which loans were contracted, commissions were paid, disbursements often not completed, some money stolen and outputs only partially delivered, if at all.

The recovery of public funds lost in this way provides ample scope for alliances between opposition groupings across Africa. It remains to be seen whether Ugandans will be able to leverage the West’s new-found willingness to put the well-being of her citizens on the table and negotiate agreements that will prioritise service delivery over investor interests after Museveni’s departure. The pressure on them to do the opposite will be massive.

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