Connect with us

Politics

Kenya’s Secession Non-Debate and the Shape of Things to Come

Published

on

Operation Cessation
Download PDFPrint Article

Time is an important part of indigenous conflict management processes. The Meru Njuri Ncheke, for example, would often send the disputing parties away, sometimes repeatedly, in order to force them to further review their case. This encouraged the parties to eventually sort out their problems by themselves, thus sparing the elders of the need to take sides in the argument.

When the issues at stake do not go away and the passage of time fail to dissipate the grounds for dispute, then we are forced to concede that there is some substance to the complaint. This indeed is the case in the recurring issue of secession, which keeps resurfacing in Africa, a continent that boasts the lion’s share of the sixty active secession movements worldwide.

The number of secessionist movements in Africa is on the rise, even if many appear to lack substance or are difficult to accurately classify. Historically, the movements have included destructive and unsuccessful gambits, such as the unilateral declarations of independence by Biafra in Nigeria and Katanga in the Congo. Then there are the opportunistic political movements that benefitted from conditions, like those that allowed Eritrea and Somaliland to demand autonomy due to crises overtaking Ethiopia and Somalia, and minor but potentially disruptive subnationalists like FLEC – the partisans of Cabinda independence who had faded from view before launching an attack on the Togolese national team en route to the World Cup in 2010.

There are two versions of Ndii’s argument: the first one, which appeared in his Saturday Nation column on March 16, 2016, argued that Kenyans needed to consider “divorce” as an alternative to living in a failed marriage. His second foray into this nebulous zone shifted the focus of the narrative from secession to self-determination in the aftermath of the controversial August 8th national elections.

Some of these movements are still active but off the radar, like Polisario, which for decades has waged a freedom campaign against the former Spanish Sahara. Others are long-gestating insurgencies that have been waiting in the wings, like the multinational movement for Tuareg self-determination that rapidly moved to carve out the state of Azawad in northern Mali following the collapse of Muammar Gadaffi’s government in Libya. Many have waxed and waned over time, like the Casamance dissidents in Senegal, the Rif nationalists of Morocco, whose campaign dates back to the 1920s, and the Bakassi freedom fighters of northern Cameroon. Others are predicated on dynastic traditions, like the Kingdom of Lunda-Tchokwe and Lozi revivalists. Some are the gambits of plucky contrarians, like the diminutive Bubi community behind the Movement for the Emancipation of Bioko Island in oil-rich Equatorial Guinea.

Such variegated secessionist phenomena may highlight separatist forces embedded within Africa’s political landscape, but they are hardly limited to the African continent. Longstanding aspirations for self-rule elsewhere have opted for the kind of legal/constitutional pathways adopted by movements in Catalonia, Quebec, and Scotland. Even in an integrated and stable polity like the United States, relatively minor developments, like the election of a polarising president and a local resource boom generated by the shale oil bonanza, have reactivated separatist conversations in California and Texas.

The idea of secession is not going away, and the universality of the concept provides the backdrop for David Ndii’s recent arguments that have activated a new secession debate in Kenya. There are two versions of Ndii’s argument: the first one, which appeared in his Saturday Nation column on March 16, 2016, argued that Kenyans needed to consider “divorce” as an alternative to living in a failed marriage. His second foray into this nebulous zone shifted the focus of the narrative from secession to self-determination in the aftermath of the controversial August 8th national elections.

The latter polemic, broadcast through the economist’s provocative NTV interview two weeks after the polls, ignited a Twitterstorm that spawned hashtags (like #democracyorsecession and #LetsTalkSecession), which attracted a steady stream of supporting comments with the usual dissenting or disparaging remarks.

Ndii noted that the discourse on separation is a normal contribution to an ongoing conversation, observing that, “we sanitise our political debates but people speak about these things in their vernaculars all the time.” The post-election violence of 2008 was one manifestation of such conversations, and the issues run deeper than the opposition’s present disenchantment with electoral politics.

A petition directed at the African Union was launched around the same time. The petition got a modicum of traction initially, although it remains far short of its target of 1.5 million signatories. Not surprisingly, the chatter has subsided since the nullification of the presidential polls by the Supreme Court.

In his 2016 article arguing the case for “divorce”, Professor Ndii cited literature that explains nationhood as a social construct based on a shared sense of “connectedness”. While the institutions created by a state sustain governments, nationhood is ultimately a function of the sense of being connected to the myriad other individuals who will never know or meet each other. This acceptance of membership in a wider polity is the essence of Benedict Anderson’s oft-cited treatise on imagined communities.

Ndii contests the reality of this cognitive connectivity in Kenya, and invokes the eminent historian Bethwel Ogot, who declared that the “Kenya Project” was dead. This is one way to look at it, especially when many states are facing a similar failure of imagination.

The political undead and the zombie state

Ndii’s unhappy marriage essay in the Saturday Nation for the most part presented a positive vision for the viability of the country’s individual units. For example, a revitalised Coast with its unifying Kiswahili language, long history, and shared way of life could survive by using its resources to diversify using its Indian Ocean trade links. The ten Mount Kenya counties could become the region’s Switzerland, which although landlocked, is still Europe’s most prosperous nation.

On a less positive note, Ndii observed that other regions, like Nyanza and Northeastern, have sacrificed and suffered for Kenya’s nationhood without getting much in return: “if the Luo Nation channeled its considerable human capital and political energy to the development of Luoland, it will without doubt be an enviable nation and economic powerhouse in no time.”

These are credible scenarios, at least for the sake of counterfactual arguments about self-determination. In the NTV interview, Ndii noted that the discourse on separation is a normal contribution to an ongoing conversation, observing that, “we sanitise our political debates but people speak about these things in their vernaculars all the time.” The post-election violence of 2008 was one manifestation of such conversations, and the issues run deeper than the opposition’s present disenchantment with electoral politics.

In theory, the unhappy marriage and failure of imagination driving Ndii’s narrative reduces millions of those Kenyans who are disillusioned by the outcomes of the past three elections or whose regions were deliberately neglected by the 1965 Sessional Paper No. 10 to politically undead citizens living in a zombie state. This imagined variation on the anti-nation may not figure in Benedict Anderson’s definition of national communities based on a “deep horizontal comradeship,” but it is a logical extension of the concept. The idea of nationhood may be abstract but the ramifications on the ground are concrete.

In most disaffected areas, governments actively suppress secessionists and defectors, while in some regions the large tracts of near-stateless territory and weak state administration deem the issue moot. In other areas, including large swathes of the Horn of Africa, transactional arrangements between state actors and factions on the periphery now provide an alternative to the use of force.

This is why Mwalimu Julius Nyerere recognised the importance of grounding his newly independent Tanzanian government in a strong ideological commitment to nationhood while forging a unitary Tanzanian identity. Ndii documents how in Kenya the post-independence governments of the day have faced multiple opportunities to put the nation on the same footing but in each instance instead chose to reinforce the entrenched status quo.

Comparative perspectives on the contours of the African State

Identity politics is commonly perceived to be the common culprit bedeviling the problems of governance in Kenya and many other African countries. Negative ethnicity is exacerbated by three other basic constraints inhibiting state consolidation: the size of countries; the location of borders; and the internal composition of a country’s different communities.

Although many analyses focus on the latter two factors, the issue of size is an interesting variable insofar as it largely dilutes horizontal connectivity by increasing the tendency to strengthen the centre. As the political scientist Ian Spears noted in a 2004 article on the secession debate, “many early European states were not so different from African ones in terms of ethnic and linguistic diversity,” qualifying the observation by noting that African countries are on average more than twice the size of European nations – Western Europe can fit into the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola is larger than the six eastern European nations whose political transformations ended the Cold War.

The influence of size is compounded in large territories that have poor infrastructure. A viable nation-state is in theory more likely to emerge out of diverse but geographically circumscribed collectives than it is by forcefully unifying relatively homogeneous populations scattered over a large territory. The nation-state took off in Europe in part because population densities were high and economies did not have to contend with the spatial and environmental barriers, the climatic vagaries, and the poor infrastructure that foster the physical and psychological isolation that still characterises many African regions.

Even so, the map of Europe has been in a near-constant state of flux since the fall of Rome. The Treaty of Westphalia laid the foundations of the modern state system in in 1648. For the next three hundred years, the continent’s aristocrats, generals, and charismatic ethnic champions engaged in a succession of often overlapping inter-state wars that established the political template for modern Europe.

During the mid-19th century, a new phase powered by demographic surplus and economic expansion was underway. The Industrial Revolution fueled the 19th century consolidation of territories under Russia, the Austrian-Hungary Empire and greater Prussia by absorbing polities on their eastern periphery. Circumscribed Western European states like Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom extended their hegemony by establishing overseas colonies.

The competition among the crown heads of Europe that generated the modern map of Africa culminated in World War I. The “war to end of all wars” went a long way towards establishing today’s European borders, including settling many of the disputed boundaries in the Balkan region formerly ruled by the Ottoman Empire. World War II initiated a similar sorting out for most of the protagonists’ overseas possessions.

It is an evolutionary truism that every kingdom, sultanate, empire, and state started small. In most regions, exchange relations and demographic pressures prompted neighbouring polities to link up and form larger unions, either through conquest or by coming together in order to resist the same. Sometimes they ended up where they started. The city of Venice controlled an Italy-sized state before Italy came into existence only to end up as a mid-sized municipality. Tiny Lithuania was a large country that briefly swallowed Poland. Pate dominated the East African littoral from Mogadishu to Kilwa but today it is a small village of 2,000 people living in 18th century stone houses.

The United States of America followed a pathway similar to the free-scale networks reconfiguring our current world through social media and other non-digital linkages. Just as free-scale networks begin small and grow exponentially, the nation began as a cluster of socio-culturally similar units and grew by integrating a diversity of human immigrants and mainly larger territorial units as they reached a certain threshold of internal governance capacity.

The pursuit of Jefferson’s Manifest Destiny allowed the nation to achieve a workable balance of centralisation and local autonomy, albeit it also entailed the reduction of indigenous Americans and other racial categories to the status of quasi-citizens along the way. That battle for equality is still being fought.

Historical scholarship, including the seminal contributions of Professor Ogot, indicate that precolonial Kenya’s complex mix of fuzzy-edged communities were more connected through trade, intermarriage, resource sharing agreements, risk-spreading mechanisms and cultural syntheses during the late 19th century than they are now. Colonialism replaced the rapidly evolving developments on the ground with a new kind of regional political economy based on class, race and power concentrated in the State.

These complicated historical trajectories contrast with the case of sub-Saharan Africa, where low population densities and group mobility inhibited the emergence of states in many areas of the continent. External intervention replaced the accelerating processes of local state formation and reconfigured the continent’s national units according to the logic of imperial expansion.

Political independence initiated the movement towards self-determination, but the consensus endorsing the policy of preserving colonial boundaries preempted the process. The policy reflected two lines of thought. The first was predicated on the developmental aspirations of independence movements; almost everyone agreed that the new governments were better off investing their energies and resources in developing their nations rather than in negotiating the inherently contentious issue of sorting out the problems of their artificial boundaries.

The second derived from the pan-African predilections of the new leaders like Kwame Nkrumah, who saw the Organization of African Unity as the first step towards a United States of Africa. The eruption of internal conspiracies/insurgencies and military coups extinguished this vision before the 1960s decade had run its course; a pattern of patrimonial governance, corruption and cross-border insurgencies prevailed in its place.

In practice, the preservation of borders principle also included direct interference in a country’s internal affairs. It still occurred, but most of the mischief involved indirect methods. Neighbouring governments often supported the various insurgents, secessionists and rebels across their borders, not because they subscribed to the principle of self-determination, but to sustain what one scholar has termed the politics of reciprocal destabilisation.

The remarkable fact of the matter is that despite decades of such stratagems in the presence of endemic frictions, revolts and militarisation of ethnic militias, the continent’s map remained intact until Eritrea separated from Ethiopia in 1993 and when, after a protracted struggle, South Sudan became independent in 2011. (Somaliland declared itself independent and reverted to its pre-unification status following the collapse of the Somali state in 1991, but is still not recognised internationally.) The general resistance these precedents encountered does not diminish the fact they have not uncorked the bottled-up forces of secession across the continent.

The independence of South Sudan raised the number of independent countries from 92 after World War II to 195. The number of independent breakaway nations will continue to grow as both constitutional and violent processes of redefining international borders run their course. We can expect that the forces contributing to this will eventually give rise to a number of new nations in Africa as well. These expectations do not square up with the fact that by international standards, the relatively small alterations in Africa’s political borders are an anomaly.

Several explanations account for the current state of affairs. The African Union and the international club of nation-states are rigid proponents of the cartographic status quo, as unrecognised Somaliland can attest to. In most disaffected areas, governments actively suppress secessionists and defectors, while in some regions the large tracts of near-stateless territory and weak state administration deem the issue moot. In other areas, including large swathes of the Horn of Africa, transactional arrangements between state actors and factions on the periphery now provide an alternative to the use of force.

Despite the logic of scholarly analyses, a country’s size, borders and internal diversity may not be the independent drivers of discord we have long assumed they are. Rather, most movements reflect a situation-specific mix of common internal factors, including social exclusion, concentrations of mineral wealth, the dominance of ethnic cartels, alienation of land and natural resources, institutional failure, chronic human rights abuses and generations of unresolved communal grievances.

These issues, not colonial borders, make it difficult to dismiss the likelihood that the map of Africa will look different in the not too distant future. The number of active secessionist movements, opportunistic external sponsors operating behind the scenes and the formation of bodies like the Organization of Emerging African Nations and the Federation of Free States of Africa are proof that the secession narrative in Africa is not going away.

On their websites, most members of these organisations state that they are committed to pursuing self-determination by peaceful means. None of the violent insurgencies in Africa in the last twenty years, including the rebellions in Darfur, were fought to advance a separatist agenda. Hopefully, Africa will not need a hundred years of internecine wars to sort out the self-determination problem. But don’t expect to see the Free State of Kasai lining up to play against the Republic of the Caprivi Strip in the African Cup of Nations any time soon.

Deconstructing the secession narrative in Kenya

Historical scholarship, including the seminal contributions of Professor Ogot, indicate that precolonial Kenya’s complex mix of fuzzy-edged communities were more connected through trade, intermarriage, resource sharing agreements, risk-spreading mechanisms and cultural syntheses during the late 19th century than they are now. Colonialism replaced the rapidly evolving developments on the ground with a new kind of regional political economy based on class, race and power concentrated in the State. Ownership replaced the institutionalised culture of rights and reciprocity. At the same time, arrangements were being made to redistribute settler-owned land to a carefully calibrated set of elites and yeomen. Meanwhile, peasant farmers and communities on the coast, Maasailand and northern Kenya were incorporated into the new order without their consent.

Analyses of the post-colonial order, including David Ndii’s critique of Kenya’s unhappy marriage, have consistently suffered obfuscation by those who deploy the language of economic nationalism to divert attention from the real questions, like why economic inequality in Kenya continues to increase, who decides that the country’s constitutionally recognised historical injustices are no longer an issue, and how to cope with the political amnesia that, as Ndii inferred during his NTV interview, returns whenever the excesses of the ruling elite are challenged.

The rulers of independent Kenya extended the contradictions of independence and ownership of the State to the periphery; the natives became restless and some fought back, but then new cracks began opening up closer to the centres of power.

The idea of secession in Kenya was floated by Rift Valley hardliners in the Moi government during the transition to multiparty politics. It resurfaced after the Mombasa Republican Council (MRC) kicked off the debate in the coastal region of Kenya in 2010. The MRC’s strategy focused on pursuing self-determination through legal advocacy. They were scapegoated by the Provincial Administration for a series of relatively minor incidents of violence, and were consistently demonised in the press. Even though their leadership council has intentionally eschewed violent methods and repeatedly issued statements denying the charges levelled against them, including the violent Tana Delta attacks of 2012, many Kenyans still assume they are a militant organisation.

Although the historical arguments supporting their “Pwani si Kenya,” (Coast is not Kenya) campaign came to define public perceptions of the MRC, in my discussions with their leadership and rank and file members, the repeated declaration “Tumechoka na ahadi” (We are tired of promises) was the more prominent mantra cited to justify their social movement. The discourse they instigated among marginalised minorities likewise focused more on the same “unfulfilled promises” of the post-colonial political order than the notion that it is time to actively pursue the separatist alternative.

In a review of the legal options facing the Mombasa Republican Council, Okiya Umtata Okoiti reviewed the substance of the relevant constitutional articles (255, 256, 257) and concluded that the MRC, or other similarly inclined organisations, “cannot secede unilaterally without the consent of, or negotiation with, the remaining Kenyan State.” Based on historical evidence, any unilateral assertion of independence, he observed, is tantamount to a declaration of war.

While legal pathways for self-determination do technically exist, they require near impossible conditions, ranging from gaining the consent of 24 county assemblies to passing a constitutional amendment in Parliament that must be ratified by a national referendum. The Constitution does, by the same measure, guarantee avenues for the free and open discussion of secession and other issues of national sovereignty. On this score, David Ndii is correct to state that it is healthy to conduct the debate in the open.

But while secession remains a controversial subject in Kenya and most other African countries, it is toxic for many of the elites at the apex of the post-independence food chain. When the MRC tried to discuss their agenda in public, they were attacked and harassed by the security forces. After the Supreme Court lifted the ban that erroneously grouped the MRC with real armed groups like the Mungiki, the Provincial Administration used the police and lower courts to crack down on its members with renewed vigour.

The MRC affair did not end violently, as NTV anchor Larry Madowo noted in his interview with Ndii. Although the leadership is bogged down fighting their court cases and things have moved on, the movement succeeded in many ways: their campaign stimulated coastals to reimagine their future, and the wake-up call resonated across and beyond the region. Even coastals who did not agree with the call for secession opined that the MRC was the “best thing to happen on the coast since independence”.

The idea of self-rule can be seductive and its advocates typically indulge in unrealistic expectations. Supporters of the Republic of Mthwakazi (i.e. Matabeleland), for example, claim “she will be a leading torch bearer in all democratic practices that will be adored by other nations.” Post-secession realities in this region offer some decidedly different cautionary lessons. Eritrea descended into a police state, the economy stagnated, and five thousand Eritreans are fleeing abroad every month. The brutal new civil war that erupted in South Sudan suggests that the regional autonomy guaranteed by the 1972 Addis Ababa Accords was in hindsight the better solution. The long national discussions preceding the restoration of the nation-state in Somaliland, in contrast, represents a useful model for bottom-up governance and the integration of marginalised minorities—with the caveat that the country narrowly averted its own clan-driven conflagration following the unilateral declaration of independence.

The sum of these perspectives help explain why our Oxford-educated economist couched his polemic in abstract terms like connectivity, imagined communities and learned opinions on the state of the “Kenya Project”. His arguments were analytically robust, sober and addressed deep-seated fissures in the body politic; the responses from the other side tended to be rude, ad hominem and shallow in comparison.

Analyses of the post-colonial order, including David Ndii’s critique of Kenya’s unhappy marriage, have consistently suffered obfuscation by those who deploy the language of economic nationalism to divert attention from the real questions, like why economic inequality in Kenya continues to increase, who decides that the country’s constitutionally recognised historical injustices are no longer an issue, and how to cope with the political amnesia that, as Ndii inferred during his NTV interview, returns whenever the excesses of the ruling elite are challenged.

Secession is only one of the options available when a nation’s disenchanted citizens choose to opt out. At the moment, the discussion is for the most part academic, conjectural and more about methods forcing improvements in governance than actual separation. This can change quickly if one day a number of Kenya’s less connected communities decide to act at the same time.

Time will tell if the contested process of structural reform and devolution will deliver the outcomes that will put these questions to rest. The clock is ticking.

Avatar
By

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

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

Politics

Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?

The economic hardship aggravated by COVID-19 and the mistreatment of Kenyans in China have re-opened old wounds among the Kikuyu, who are now questioning whether Uhuru Kenyatta was really the right choice for president.

Published

on

Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?
Download PDFPrint Article

Last week, my friend Njuguna called to tell me he wanted us to meet. I went to their home in Gitaru, not too far from the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and 15 km from the Nairobi city centre. The family was going to have a Skype call with their kid sister, who is now marooned in Wuhan city in Hubei Province, central China.

Six years ago, after Nyambura finished her high school studies, the family put together their resources to send her to China to study medicine, something she had always dreamed of doing. Last December, she graduated from university as a physician and even found a temporary job at a local hospital. Last November, she told her eldest brother Njuguna that she wanted to gain some experience and earn some money before coming home.

Then the coronavirus explosion happened and her life was turned topsy-turvy.

Nyambura told her family that COVID-19 was possibly detected in mid-November in Wuhan, but when it could not be kept under wraps for too long by the Chinese authorities – as they figured out how to control and manage it – the authorities were forced to report the first infection cases after Christmas 2019.

Now, talking to her family from some street corner in Wuhan city, Nyambura was sobbing on Skype, beseeching her family to save her life and not abandon her. On seeing her home and family, she broke down and wept uncontrollably. She thought of how she would have been safe and sound at home among her family, among people she would feel secure with, in her country, where she would mingle and walk freely without fear of being beaten, insulted and harassed for being a foreigner.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar. She was now living on the streets; a fully trained doctor, homeless, penniless, and cowering under the brutalities of a racist regime that her government was scared of confronting.

“The unkempt kids that live and scrounge on the streets of Nairobi are 100 times better than me here in Wuhan,” said a tearful Nyambura. “They are scrounging at home in the full knowledge that nobody will beat them, they scrounge among their people and even though the street boys and girls can be rogue, the people can never disown them, or even beat them recklessly, no one would ever allow that.” In China, said Nyambura, the blacks were being treated like stray cats.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar.

Describing the current situation in China, Nyambura said the country had become a nightmare for Africans, for Kenyans, for anybody with black pigmentation. But she could not believe the extent to which the Kenyan government feared the Chinese, the extent to which the Kenyan government was ready to abandon and disown its people. “At least the Nigerian embassy has registered its displeasure with the Chinese authorities, stood with its people and asked the Nigerian representatives to collect the names of all the Nigerians in Wuhan for safe evacuation. Right now to be a Kenyan in Wuhan, or indeed elsewhere in China, is akin to abandonment, to statelessness, to be entirely on your own, to have been sacrificed,” said the physician.

“Why is Sarah Serem [the Kenyan ambassador to China] lying? Why?” sobbed Nyambura to her family. “She’s been telling you that the people who have been thrown of their houses, who are being kicked around and beaten up and button-holed are illegal migrants, Kenyans who supposedly are without papers…these are outright lies. Am I illegal in China? Am I not in the streets? Don’t I have all the papers? Why is she lying to Kenyans?”

But assuming the Kenyans in China are indeed illegally here, posed Nyambura, “doesn’t an ‘illegal’ Kenyan have rights? Doesn’t she have a life worthy of being protected? Doesn’t she require representation from her government? A Kenyan in a foreign country, whether illegal or legal is a Kenyan. Civilized and thinking governments first don’t stop to ask whether their people stuck in some foreign country are illegal or legal. They move in to evacuate and protect them…they can later on, if it’s really necessary, deal with the issues of how and why they went to that county in the first place after they are finally home safe.”

Diplomats are people who are employed by their respective governments to officially lie on their behalf. “But what [Ambassador] Macharia Kamau [the Principal Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry] and Serem are doing is denying our existence, calling us all manner of names, pandering to Chinese authorities’ whims. It is the worst thing a government can do to its people,” said a crying Nyambura. “To think that we have a responsible government…to believe that the government cared for its people…we’ve all along been cheated and fooled…it’s been a con-game through and through,” trailed off the physician.

The family asked her why the Chinese authorities suddenly found it fit to openly discriminate and harass the Africans. “You know when coronavirus first manifested itself, for some unexplained reason, it did not affect and infect Africans, or more correctly, black people, in China. As the Chinese were getting ravaged by the deadly disease, black people went about their business, unperturbed, apparently, oblivious of the malaise. It, therefore, seems to me, to their chagrin, the Chinese were really irked by this state of affairs. They thought, ‘Why is it that we the Chinese (who believe they are superior to the black race) are dying off, yet these blacks seems to be immune?’ they wondered.”

After the conversation, which lasted something like 45 minutes, Nyambura’s family was distraught, fraught with fear and foreboding. As is wont with many families, they bent their heads and fervently prayed for their sister and imploring the Lord God to “ring her life with the mighty blood of Jesus”.

***

The Njuguna family not only voted for Uhuru Kenyatta three times, it vigorously campaigned for him and the Jubilee Party. I know this because Njuguna and I have known each other for quite some time now. But thinking about the predicament of his youngest sister thousands of kilometres away has made him question his choices. “What kind of government do we have?” (He was not asking me, he was thinking aloud.) “What does Macharia mean when he says hiring a plane is not like hiring a matatu? When Serem disowns Kenyans in China. What’s going on in her head?”

In 2017, we had many arguments and conversations regarding that year’s presidential elections on August 8. I was sceptical about Uhuru’s re-election and he was cocksure that his fortunes, and that of his family, would rise. “How?” I kept on asking him. His response: “The Chinese are building a highway outside our village. It’s going to change our fortunes.”

Two years into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term, the project has not only stalled, but Njuguna does not want to hear anything to do with Uhuru or the Chinese.

When the Chinese started constructing the section on Gitaru, there was a huge uproar among Gitaru villagers. The villagers accused the Chinese of not employing any of their kith and kin. “The Chinese were doing everything, including the simplest of tasks, like dredging the tunnels, driving the trucks and even using the theodolite,” Njuguna recalled. “The local people went to complain to the local administration and the Chinese were asked to be considerate.”

“Do you know why the road has stopped?” asked Njuguna. “It is because Uhuru’s government has delayed paying the property owners their dues to allow the Chinese contractor to expand the road by building drainage that needs to build first. The people are so angry they don’t want to hear about Uhuru and his Jubilee Party government.”

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

I asked him whether he had been bewitched during the 2013 and 2017 elections. He said yes. “How else can I explain my total conviction in Uhuru’s presidency without wanting to brook any contrary opinion? My sister being stuck in China is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We are through with Uhuru…”

Even I was taken aback by his brazen candour. “The Kenyatta family has been the millstone around the Kikuyu’s necks. Do you know why our people are loiterers around the country? Do you know why our people are impoverished? Because the Kenyatta family grabbed all the prime lands in the ancestral Kikuyuland. I’ve told you about our pieces of land in Naivasha and Nakuru? He has now given a Danish company huge tracts of land in Naivasha to build a beer factory,” he complained.

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

“I’m done with Uhuru… I’m really done with him. I regret why I voted for him, why I campaigned for him… it is a mistake I hope never to repeat again,” grumbled Njuguna. “Uhuru can find money for musicians, find money for politicians, dead and alive, but he cannot find money to evacuate Kenyans suffering in a faraway country for no fault of theirs. Once again, for the umpteenth time, President Uhuru has thrown the Kikuyus under the bus,” growled Njuguna.

In the lead-up to the 2017 presidential elections, Njuguna and I had had many heated discussions on who Kenyans should elect as president. That time he told me, “Uhuru ni gaitu ga guicirira…mukuigwa uguo…” Uhuru is ours by birth and blood…you can lump it if you don’t like it.

***

“Iguthua ndogoria, itikinyagira nyeki,” said my friend, a matatu driver to me. Translated metaphorically, it means a limping shepherd leads his flock astray. Literally it means, a leader who lacks foresight cannot lead his people to greener pastures. Essentially, he becomes a burden to his people.

My friend was in a mood to speak his mind “in these times of coronavirus, where our world has been thrown into utter confusion”. He was taking his matatu to the garage for service in Kawangware, so he asked me if I could I accompany him.

“If I didn’t take care of this matatu, regularly making sure it’s well-serviced, it’s clean, that generally it is in a good condition, would I really feed my family? Would I claim to be a right thinking human being who cares about the welfare of his people? I wouldn’t, because it would keep on breaking down, and I would lose face with my loyal customers and my business would be wobbly. That is what Uhuru’s leadership has become. I will tell you this, many Kikuyus voted for him believing that he would lead us to greener pastures, that he would care for our interests, that he would not let us suffer, that he would remember he is where he is because of the sacrifices of the people, many of them strugglers and poor.

“But look what happened? Kikuyus hitched their wagon on a fading horse, a wild horse that didn’t, in the first place, know where it was headed and how it was heading wherever it was heading. Yet we Kikuyus couldn’t stop to ask these important questions because we were consumed by ethnic jingoism. We were all in a tribally induced trance…now we’re all paying for it. I’ve thought about these things: cooked up presidential elections, tribal voting, about Uhuru, politicians, why people are suffering, and now coronavirus and I can tell you we’re living in apocalyptic times.

“I’ve listened to Uhuru in his addresses to the nation – the man lost the plot a long time ago. He is so disconnected from the people, I wonder whether he truly listens to himself. But I’m told these people [politicians] never stop playing games with us, the electorate. ‘My fellow Kenyans’…when did we become his fellow Kenyans? Do you know there are Kenyans who are starving, because they don’t have food to feed their children?”

My matatu driver friend said that in some parts of Kiambu County, where he grew up and still lives, he knows of families that have been rendered jobless. Even with their meagre incomes, at least they could afford to buy food. “Now that meagre pay is not forthcoming. How do you expect these people to survive? Still, the president talks of ‘my fellow Kenyans’. No muhaka ticiria uhoro wa muturire witu wa hau kabere.” We must seriously think of how lives will be in the future.

“For me, I already have”, said the driver. “I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never again participate in electoral politics. What’s the point? Uhuru and his band of politicians can spend millions of shillings cheating our mothers with branded lesos [kitenge-like wrapping cloth, popular with women], caps and T-Shirts, yet he cannot find money to buy the same women masks. In his first address to the nation during these coronavirus times, the president said he had allocated so many millions to money paid to old people. That money is in the government portals – just like the stadia were built in the portals. I can tell you, the last time that money was paid to the retirees was way back, six months ago.

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

Coronavirus, said the matatu driver, had exposed President Uhuru’s administration: “It doesn’t know what it’s doing. Every time Uhuru takes to the podium to address the nation, he repeats the same things that he said the last time, hence, the speeches have become boring and repetitive. Or regurgitates what Muthai Kagwe [the Cabinet Secretary for Health] has been saying. It’s threats, warnings and blaming the youth, the poor and those who cannot afford to self-distance, quarantine, and even self-isolate, because for them it is a matter of life and death.”

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

My friend said the president had relegated everything concerning coronavirus to Mutahi. “Where is his leadership? It is missing, because I cannot see it. It looks like his spin doctors have told him to be occasionally holding press conferences to be seen to be on top of things. So he has become a talking head, talking to himself. Meanwhile, Mutahi’s major preoccupation in his numerously press conferences is to constantly frighten us with numbers, issue threats and condemn the poor and the less privileged.”

If there is one thing coronavirus ought to teach us, said my friend, is that we Kenyans need to think long and hard about the future of the country: “What do we want for ourselves? What kind of leaders do we desire? How do we right the political wrongs we’ve made? Talking specifically to my fellow Kikuyus: How do we unchain ourselves from the Kenyatta family servitude? This will be critical if the Kikuyu people in the coming years hope to be part of the struggle to liberate the country from the shackles of predatory politics.”

Continue Reading

Trending