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Kikuyus Will Wear Kaptula and Other Short(s) Stories

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On September 1, 2017, the day the Supreme Court of Kenya nullified the 8 August elections, I was riding in a city-bound minibus matatu on Nairobi’s Waiyaki Way. I sat in front with the driver. The passenger seated next to me must have received a text message on his mobile phone because he began howling at the driver to tune in to the radio. The matatu was blasting hip-hop reggae at the time. It was a few minutes after 11.00am. What followed can only be best captured by a tragic-comedy playwright.

“The general election of August 2017 was not conducted in accordance with the constitution and the applicable law, rendering the declared results invalid, null and void. A declaration is hereby issued that the third respondent was not validly elected and declared as the president-elect and that the declaration is null and void,” pronounced Chief Justice David Maraga on Citizen Radio.

My fellow passenger, on hearing the words “invalid, null and void”, wailed loudly in agony, like someone who had been pricked by some sharp object, and called to his God – “Ngai” – so loudly that the driver was startled.

“Now see what these western people have done to us (one riu uria andu a ruguru matwika),” he harangued in the Kikuyu language. Shattered and stuttering, he spoke in staccato, unable to string his words together coherently. When his phone rang, he answered, “I am not in a frame of mind to talk right now……”

What followed was the incoherent muttering of someone possessed with schizophrenia. He cursed Maraga. He cursed the Kisii people collectively and insinuated how Maraga and his Kisii community were foolish and idiots. As if momentarily posing for introspection, he blamed the Jubilee Party political barons for allowing a non-Kikuyu to ascend to the Chief Justice’s position.

See what they have done to us

“Now see what these western people have done to us” (one riu uria andu a ruguru matwika), he harangued in the Kikuyu language. Shattered and stuttering, he spoke in staccato, unable to string his words together coherently. When his phone rang, he answered, “I am not in a frame of mind to talk right now……”

Since then, that matatu incident has variously manifested and replicated itself in different settings among the Kikuyus – individually and collectively. It is as if the Supreme Court ruling damaged their ethnic group’s psyche, causing a schizophrenic attack that cannot be explained rationally.

Days later, a friend confessed to me: “So this is how these people felt in 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled in our (Jubilee’s) favour?” It was a rhetorical question. “I was so angry, so affected on the day Maraga said Uhuru had not won, it looked like my world had gone on a tailspin.” Emotional and irrational, this friend even admitted to me that if he had his way, he would kill the Chief Justice.

“For how long will Raila disturb our peace?” is a refrain that has been gaining momentum in Kikuyu gatherings – in homesteads, churches, social functions and some select exclusive clubs in Nairobi – since the Supreme Court ruling.

The first ever Presidential Election Petition case No. 5 was taken to the inaugural Supreme Court of Kenya in March 2013 by the Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD), the opposition coalition led by Raila Amolo Odinga. It sought to overturn the election victory of the Jubilee coalition led by Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, who today is the fourth president of Kenya.

The Supreme Court judges, led then by the president of the court, Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, in arriving at their verdict, said: “In summary, the evidence in our opinion, does not disclose any profound irregularity in the management of the electoral process, nor does it gravely impeach the mode of participation in the electoral process by any of the candidates who offered himself or herself before the voting public.”

That Supreme Court judgment, read by Mutunga in under ten minutes (Kenyans, who had been waiting for days with bated breath for the judgment, were asked to read the entire judgement online) cast a shadow of devastation and disquiet among the opposition’s core supporters. Yet they took it in their stride, even as they were chided by the Jubilee coalition brigade to “accept and move one”. As much as they were hurt, they did not go into a frenzy of “political madness”, threatening to kill Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, and condemning and deriding his Kamba ethnic community.

Since September 1, 2017, I have numerously and repeatedly heard presumably reasonable and well brought-up Kikuyus propounding sickening theories about how some communities “need to be taught a lesson”, how David Maraga should not presume he is so important as to think “he cannot be taken out”. Such careless talk has been taking place among Kikuyu folks in social functions and places, including birthday parties, funeral services and restaurants.

To the consternation of even the most hardcore Kikuyus, the man claimed that if Raila ever became president, all Kikuyu men would be forced to wear kaptula – colonial-type khaki shorts that used to be worn by the regular police until early 1970s and which today are still worn by prisoners.

Maraga has been denounced and renounced in equal measure. The Kisii people – including all the communities that live in the western sphere of Kenya, mainly the Luos and Luhyas – have been collectively lampooned and considered to be “not too clever people” (ti andu oge). Ultra-Kikuyu sub-nationalists have been advocating for the murder of the Chief Justice and the leader of the opposition, Raila Odinga, as the “final solution” to this unceasing menace.

“For how long will Raila disturb our peace?” is a refrain that has been gaining momentum in Kikuyu gatherings – in homesteads, churches, social functions and some select exclusive clubs in Nairobi – since the Supreme Court ruling.

Fuelled by the MP for Gatundu South, Moses Kuria (jamba ya ruriri, or the brave warrior of the Kikuyu nation), who is on record for publicly and unapologetically advocating for the assassination of Raila, the Kikuyu people are now being primed, after being conditioned and socialised over time, that Raila encapsulates all their political problems, and that they would be better off and safer if he were to be taken out.

Let me illustrate this schizophrenic delusion that seems to have attacked a section of the Kikuyu community with a few anecdotes. Three weeks ago, I attended a birthday party in one of the gated, leafy and posh suburbs of Nairobi. After the people had settled down to whet their appetite, and later in the evening as they engaged in social drinking, the conversation naturally and ordinarily turned to politics.

As the conversation gathered more heat (as opposed to more light), one of the guests propounded a theory on why Kenyans (many Kikuyus conflate Kikuyu sub-nationalism with national patriotism and vice versa) should never vote for Raila Odinga. To the consternation of even the most hardcore Kikuyus, the man claimed that if Raila ever became president, all Kikuyu men would be forced to wear kaptula – colonial-type khaki shorts that used to be worn by the regular police until early 1970s and which today are still worn by prisoners. As ridiculous as his pronouncements were, he defended them fervently and vigorously. It was blatantly clear he was not bluffing.

“But as a Kikuyu I cannot vote for that Luo. As Kikuyus, we are called to vote for one of our own. It doesn’t matter if he is a drunkard, a thief or just plain inept. He is ours. That is who God has given us.”

Taken to task to explain where his weird theory emanated from, he reminded all and sundry that sometime in 2003, Raila had purportedly said that if he ever become the president, Kikuyu men would be hauled to Kamiti Prison. His interpretation of Raila’s warning (which yet to be proven): All Kikuyu men will be wearing shorts as long as Raila is the head of state.

This loose, flippant talk might have been treated as a sick joke, one which would have elicited awkward laughter, but it wasn’t. It was taken seriously by the crowd. The tragedy was that the middle-aged man spreading this falsehood was once the finance director of a blue chip company.

Ordained by God

Days after the Supreme Court overturned Uhuru’s win, my close friend’s mother – a respected leader of the Mothers’ Union of the Anglican Church of the Mt. Kenya region – called him and told him that she had an urgent thing she wanted to discuss with him. When they met, the mother went straight to the point: “John you must sack that housegirl of yours from western Kenya (the housegirl is from Kakamega County). You cannot continue keeping her. Do you know these people well? I will get you a housegirl from Murang’a.”

“Were it not for the fact that she is my beloved mother”, John told me afterwards, “I would have tongue-lashed her.” He told me that his mother had told him that “since these western people have no respect for us (how could they have overruled our win?) we should not have mercy on them.” His mother, a born-again Christian and well-educated in Kenya and the USA, did not find any contradiction in her counsel to her son, and if she did, she was not going to lose sleep over it.

Yet, it is my lawyer friend Nguru who encapsulates the irrational mood of the Kikuyu people that has pervaded their space post-September 1, 2017. “Yes the government of Uhuru and William Ruto has been corrupt, incompetent and messed up,” he told me two weeks after the Supreme Court ruling. “But as a Kikuyu I cannot vote for that Luo. As Kikuyus, we are called to vote for one of our own. It doesn’t matter if he is a drunkard, a thief or just plain inept. He is ours. That is who God has given us.”

A litigation lawyer of long standing, he argued that “where we have reached now, it matters not whether Uhuru won or lost, whether the Supreme Court’s decision is right or wrong. We must defend uthamaki (kingly leadership ship) by all means and by any means necessary. We must cast our lot with one of our own – and that is not a point for discussion or rationalisation.”

It was lunchtime and as a strict Catholic, he was headed to the Holy Family Cathedral in central Nairobi for the lunch-hour intercessional prayer to the Holy Mary Mother of God.

“The Kikuyu people are living in post-truth times,” says a Kikuyu elder associated with the Kenya Church group – an amorphous grouping of evangelical Christians that came together in the late 1990s. “Kikuyu professionals do not want to deal with justice issues, it is unpalatable” said the elder who did not want his name disclosed. “It is the elephant in the living room.”

To demand and sue for justice is to agitate for chaos, is to upset the status quo; justice has been criminalised to mean “destruction of property”.

As tragic as it is, said the elder, it is the church that has been fanning this fight against pursuing justice and truth. “Justice and truth have a way of being disruptive,” he said. “And the Kikuyu business and political elites have sworn that they must hold onto state power come what may.” The professional leadership coach and speaker told me that many Kikuyu evangelical pastors have aligned themselves to the Jubilee coalition and have been bribed to propagate pro-Jubilee messages of peace and stability. Anything outside of that boxed message is anathema to the preservation of Jubilee’s agenda of hoarding power. To demand and sue for justice is to agitate for chaos, is to upset the status quo; justice has been criminalised to mean “destruction of property”.

“The Kikuyu evangelical/Pentecostal pastors and new churches’ proprietors are involved in religious enterprise. They are in it for self-aggrandisement but also with a specific agenda: push Jubilee Coalition’s message of preaching that the president of the country is God ordained.”

A week after the Supreme Court’s unprecedented decision, pastor wa Ngunjiri, who preaches on Sunday mornings at Kameme FM, a Kikuyu vernacular station, took the trouble to explain in biblical terms why President Uhuru Kenyatta was cantankerous and furious in the afternoon of September 1, 2017. “When the ruler of the nation is agitated and seemingly untoward in his behaviour, there is a powerful message that God is relaying to the nation,” said the lady pastor, whose three-hour programme is listened to religiously by hoards of Kikuyus.

“God is asking us Kenyans to rally around the ruler, because it is not every day that a ruler is annoyed and unsettled,” cried the pastor on the airwaves. “The almighty God has already ordained a leader for us and that leader is Uhuru Muigai wa Kenyatta. It is the duty and obligation of every Kikuyu voter to come out and cast his or her vote for him, because we Kikuyus believe in and serve a living God.”

The mainstream established churches are no better, said my Kikuyu elder friend. The National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK) used to be a powerful Christian platform that kept former President Daniel arap Moi in check in the 1990s as the country grappled with a decade of reestablishing multiparty politics. “But today, it is a pale shadow of its former self.”

NCCK is mainly composed of five denominations – the Anglicans, the Methodists, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA), Quakers (otherwise known as the Friends Church) and the Salvation Army. When the Secretary-General is speaking, he is presumably speaking on behalf of the five churches, a consensus that is normally agreed upon in its General Assembly.

“Yet, from a cursory glance of the press conferences that NCCK has held in the recent past, it is evident that Peter Karanja, an Anglican, is not really speaking on behalf of the five churches,” said my friend. “I can tell you without a doubt, the Quakers, the Salvation Army and a section of the Anglican church have been suing for justice and truth, and this is what leaders within NCCK have been fighting for every time the Christian body seeks to talk truth to power.”

But the PCEA, Methodist and another section of the Anglican church will hear none of that message. “Peter Karanja has been put on a tight leash – he can only speak of maintaining peace and the need for NCCK to respect the laws of the land and the government of the day. If he ever attempts to go outside of that script, he will be kicked out by the more powerful Kikuyu wing of the Protestant church body.”

The church in Kenya has never pretended that it is not ethnically aligned in its mission and vision. The PCEA and Methodist churches are regarded as Kikuyu and Meru churches. And rightly so, because a majority of its adherents and top leadership are Kikuyu and Meru.

The PCEA leadership openly threw its weight behind the President Mwai Kibaki government (2003–2012) and during the 2007-2008 post-election violence; some of its top leadership was allegedly even adversely mentioned as having abetted “retaliation violence” in sections of the expansive Rift Valley region. Although the Methodist church is not as “loud” as the PCEA, it also backed to the hilt the government of Kibaki, as it is currently backing the Uhuru-led Jubilee coalition government.

A PCEA church elder who attends the church’s Kirk Session in Kajiado County unabashedly said to me, “When it comes to supporting Uhuru, it is not about Christianity but about our political survival: we swore under oath to protect subsequent Kikuyu leadership after Mzee Kenyatta exited the scene.”

The Anglican church, on the hand, is a melting crucible of followers scattered across the country, much like the Catholic church. Hence, while the PCEA and Methodist churches are mainly concentrated in the Mount Kenya region and in the Rift Valley Kikuyu diaspora, Quakers and Salvation Army followers are mainly found in the western part of Kenya, specifically among the Luhya people of Bungoma, Kakamega and Vihiga counties. It therefore goes without saying that some leaders within the NCCK fraternity have been pushing for justice and truth for the simple reason that they hail from opposition areas that have been voting for Raila Odinga since 2007.

The financially and numerically powerful and stronger Kikuyu wing of the NCCK has not made the work of the religious organisation any easier. It has been unrelenting in its dogged determination to marshall support for the Jubilee coalition. A PCEA church elder who attends the church’s Kirk Session in Kajiado County unabashedly said to me, “When it comes to supporting Uhuru, it is not about Christianity but about our political survival: we swore under oath to protect subsequent Kikuyu leadership after Mzee Kenyatta exited the scene.”

Siege mentality

Obsessed with retaining state power at all and any cost, Kikuyu political barons have been bombarding the Kikuyu rank and file with messages of imminent annihilation if they do not band together to rescue the Uhuru presidency. The net result of this brainwashing is that it no longer matters how Uhuru wins the election – so long as he makes it to the helm. The peasant and urban poor Kikuyu are daily being socialised to look inward and to internalise ethno-centric values that inadvertently create a siege mentality. This mentality is then exploited by the political barons who can effectively use it to prey on their own people.

“The Kikuyu siege mentality, which is deliberately being created within their psyche, is preventing them from understanding the rest of the country’s anger about political injustices,” says Eric Wafukho, a leadership and management consultant. “So, with this apparent shielding of the average Kikuyu from the real political and societal problems ailing the country, the ordinary Kikuyu is made to live in a make-believe world, a world he thinks he controls, knows and understands.”

This statement rang true when my friend from Kangemi – a sprawling slum seven kilometres west of Nairobi city centre, who I had interviewed a month before the August 8 general elections, called me, a couple of days after Supreme Court ruling.

“We cannot allow these people to lord it over us and it does not matter that they now have enlisted the help of the Supreme Court – we will defend our leader by whatever means, because that is the only way we can ensure our survival,” said Thiong’o. “Uhuru has many faults and weaknesses, but we must overlook these shortcomings if we are to survive and are not finished by these western people.” To anchor his argument, he quoted a Kikuyu proverb: Iri Gikuyu, itire ukavi, which loosely translates to “As long as leadership is in Gikuyu hands, that is all that matters.”

The Kikuyu “business community” that was unleashed a few weeks ago in the Nairobi city centre and that was captured sporting dreadlocks are Mungiki members from Kayole – a densely and expansively populated ghetto located in the southeast of Nairobi.

I asked Thiong’o what he thought of the “Kikuyu business community” rolling into the central business district to ostensibly defend “Kikuyu property”. His answer was curt and to the point: “That is the way to go. We Kikuyus must defend our property.” Although my friend is nowhere near belonging to the Kikuyu propertied class, he, like many of the Kikuyu ghetto dwellers, have been unwittingly recruited to defend and fight for the class interests of his Kikuyu ethnic elites.

The Kikuyu business community is an euphemism for the notorious Mungiki youth group that cannibalised and preyed on its very own people in the late 1990s and the early part of the 2000s. When the youth group, which in the Kikuyu language means a multitude, descended from its base in the Kikuyu diaspora of the Rift Valley to seek refuge in Nairobi, it settled in the city’s slums, including Kangemi.

I can vividly recall Thiong’o being so terrified of his very own dreadlocked “brothers” who would show up at his house in the evenings to demand “protection” and “security” money. When the former internal security minister John Michuki cracked the whip on the group, he hailed Michuki as godsend. That was a decade or so ago. Today he does not find it a contradiction that the same group that used to send cold shivers down his spine is being resuscitated to surreptitiously defend a predatory Kikuyu elite leadership.

The Kikuyu “business community” that was unleashed a few weeks ago in the Nairobi city centre and that was captured sporting dreadlocks are Mungiki members from Kayole – a densely and expansively populated ghetto located in the southeast of Nairobi. Many of the privileged Mungiki members run the minibus matatus known as Forward Sacco matatus. Their adherents are transported into the city conurbation by these matatus with the sole mission of countering NASA youth mass action demonstrators. Hired expressly by the Jubilee coalition mandarins (this docket is being handled by Moses Kuria), they have been telling all who care to listen: “We the Kikuyus will rule this country, whether you like it or not.”

Enter the Kalenjin

As the Kikuyus are rolled out in the streets of Nairobi and Kiambu counties to defend their stake in the Jubilee coalition government, the Kalenjins have been waging their battle on a different and separate plane. Impeccable sources within Deputy President William Ruto’s camp believe that they are the people in control of the government, “more so now after the temporary Supreme Court setback,” said a Ruto confidante, who has worked in the deputy president’s office since 2013.

The claim that the Deputy President is actually the one running the Jubilee government is one I have heard since Uhuru and Ruto joined hands and formed a coalition government in 2013. As early as mid-2014, core staff in his office believed that Ruto was in control and has been running the show ever since.

The sharpest NASA critics that have been unleashed by Jubilee, particularly after the Supreme Court’s verdict, have been the Senator for Elgeyo Marakwet, Kipchumba Murkomen and the MP for Garissa, Aden Duale. It is not by coincidence that the two are some of Deputy President Ruto’s closest and most loyal foot soldiers. “That tells you just how many stakes Ruto has in the Jubilee Party and the government.”

The claim that the Deputy President is actually the one running the Jubilee government is one I have heard since Uhuru and Ruto joined hands and formed a coalition government in 2013. As early as mid-2014, core staff in his office believed that Ruto was in control and has been running the show ever since.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Kalenjin elite close to the powers-that-be have become even more fundamentally wedded to the belief that without Ruto, Uhuru is a sleeping duck. Among themselves, the Kalenjin elite, in their city hideouts, gossip about Uhuru and his rumoured drinking binges. Ruto, the Kalenjins point out, is a masterful tactician who is just waiting for the appropriate time to unleash his full potential.

A recent incident the Kalenjin elite like reminiscing about is the Mark Too funeral. Too was former President Moi’s trusted acolyte. When he died in December, 2016, many of the who’s who among the Kalenjin business and political class attended his burial on January 10, 2017.

My Kalenjin friends were later to tell me that Ruto, who attended the funeral with President Uhuru, belittled President Uhuru in the Nandi dialect. He ostensibly told the gathered crowd that he was the one in charge of the government and that the Kalenjin nation should stay firmly behind him. The talk of Ruto being in charge has been recurrent among the Kalenjin elite circles for a while now, so much so that they consider Ruto as the de facto president.

To many Kalenjins, the 2017 presidency is a forgone conclusion. “We are already looking ahead to 2022 and nothing will stop us.” Once Uhuru Kenyatta settles down for his final term, Ruto will supposedly roll out his best laid plans, not once, but numerous times, my Kalenjin friends tell me. Ruto, they say, has never deluded himself that the Kikuyus love him. “If the Kikuyus think they can outsmart our man, they are in for a rude shock. We will show them why we have been running the government even when their man has been at State House.”

Extremist Kalenjins like to think that Ruto will rule for 20 years – four years shy of President Moi’s rule, which lasted from 1978 till 2002. “Ruto will have ruled ten years of President Uhuru’s term (2013–2022) and then commence to rule his own two terms (2022–2032). Together with Moi, they will have ruled Kenya the longest time – individually and collectively.” This would be a political record that they are absolutely convinced will never be repeated.

Invariably, for the majority of the Kalenjin people, “the Supreme Court ruling is just a small irritating hiccup that once it is dealt with – and we are confident Ruto is going to fix the mess – Kenyans will have to contend with a long Kalenjin reign.”

By Dauti Kahura
Mr Kahura is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya

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Politics

The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. But the contrast between the two countries remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

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Magufuli’s Legacy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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In 2015 John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s accidental President. Colourful and charismatic, Magufuli charmed the masses during his five years in office. He demanded results and pulled off successes that were elevated to the status of minor miracles. He channeled his inner Julius Nyerere to revive Tanzania’s distinctive internal self-reliance-based identity.

The state was back, and the state was Magufuli. He used his campaign against the mabepari class to grandstand on a regular basis, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the former chemist with an opportunity to elevate his anti-imperialist credentials. His controversial stance won him approval across the region: several of my colleagues remarked that “Magufuli is the only African President to speak truth to the pandemic”.

Then his government ministers began getting sick. Magufuli disappeared from public view. After two weeks of rumour and speculation, Tanzania’s Vice President announced his passing due to a chronic heart condition. Corona or coronary? Magufuli’s outsized sending off soon overtook conjecture about the cause of his death.

It began with the usual laudatory speeches by his fellow African heads of state. The dead president then set off on a grand tour that took him across the country by land, sea, and air. The wananchi paid homage by throwing their clothes on the road in front of the motorcade escorting the casket. People lining the road chanted, “jeshi, jeshi!”

The lionisation of the dead president was a fascinating trope, amplified by the mellifluous High Swahili commentary accompanying the televised coverage of the Magufuli hegira. My wife had become a Samia Suluhu Hassan fan. She insisted that the TV remain tuned to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation channel.

The stature of Tanzania’s domestic Shujaa grew over the course of the week. Like the mythical wrestler Anteus, who grew stronger when he touched the ground, Hayati Rais appeared to be drawing new power from the landscape as the conquering hero’s body made the long journey from Zanzibar to Chato, his lakeside home.

By day three of the roadshow, Tanzania’s state media was praising the departed leader, as Jabali ya Africa, “the rock who stood up to the West”. But Twitter was providing an interesting counter-narrative; for Tanzania’s online opposition, the “Jabali” was “Jiwe”, the “stone” who terrorised his critics and pummeled the political opposition. Day four brought the claim by a Chama Cha Mapinduzi party sycophant that the Magufuli show was attracting an audience larger than that of the last two World Cups.

I was looking forward to seeing Chato, the village that during Magufuli’s tenure had been transformed along the lines of Houphouët-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite home in the Congo. I was not able to catch the end of the journey because of a close friend’s funeral. But I did witness the dead president’s final apotheosis, which led me to pause on my way out the door: “With due respect to our respective religions”, one of the TBC commentators was remarking, “it should be recognized that President Magufuli was a Nabii.”

The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President.

Nabii is the Swahili term for prophet. The proof of his prophethood (unabii wake), the commentors went on to explain, lay in the fact that President Magufuli was the only world leader God sent to warn us that the pandemic is a crisis manufactured by the global elite to extend the hegemony of Big Pharma and other agents of the international capitalist order.

The real news for some of us was Vice President Samia Sulubu Hassan’s swearing in as the Republic’s sixth Head of State. Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was further enhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community. My wife, who is from Lamu and has never seen anyone of her background in a position of power, declared, “Samia is my president.”

It is hard to envision a similar sequence occurring in Kenya, or for that matter in any other country in the Horn of Africa.

Dog eat dog versus man eat nothing

“No contrast, no information”, my field linguistics professor used to tell us. The large number of African states and the interesting dyads they form makes for a lot of information. Nigeria and Ghana, Mozambique and Angola, Egypt and Sudan, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are examples that come to mind. But the Kenya-Tanzania contrast remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. They are linked by centuries of interaction on the coastal strip and a common history that gave rise to Swahili as the region’s lingua franca. Together they host the world’s most famous concentration of wildlife. Artificially divided into two countries by European powers, the modern nations created by imperial intervention were shaped by the same colonial model. Both gained independence under leaders inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was furtherenhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community.

Tanzania’s more uniform geography supported the intricately networked small-scale societal adaptations documented in Kjekjus’s classic study, Ecology Control and Environmental Management in East Africa. Kenya’s physical environment conditioned the country’s more complex ethno-economic composition diversity; late precolonial era migrations contributed to Kenya’s more variegated population of Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking communities.

Where the harshness of the German occupation in Tanzania inoculated the population with a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, many Kenyan communities welcomed the Pax Britannica, in part due to the disruptions of the decade preceding it. Efforts to force peasants to cultivate cotton for export in Tanzania triggered the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905, and the movement rapidly spread across southern and parts of central Tanganyika until its brutal suppression.

The commercial economy introduced by Kenya’s colonial rulers created new opportunities and avenues for accumulation. The first stirrings of anti-colonial opposition only emerged after World War II. The ethnic base of the Mau Mau insurgency contrasted with the nationalist focus of Tanzania’s liberation politics. The new countries nevertheless came into existence driven by a common vision of the future and its possibilities.

It was a time of idealism and political experimentation. Shared orientations propelled Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to form the East African Community soon after independence. The union represented a practical first step towards Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa—before political liberation gave way to an era of competing ideologies, superpower patronage, and military coups. Much of the ideological superstructure of that period ended up either dissipating gradually or collapsing for reasons that have been rigorously documented.

Technically, both Kenya and Tanzania subscribed to the third path option championed by the non-aligned movement, but their economies were moving on diverging paths. The East African Community foundered, undermined by economic differentials fueled by Kenya’s colonial economic legacy and Tanzania’s Fabian socialism. The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

The clash between Jomo Kenyatta’s conservatism and Julius Nyerere’s idealism highlighted their contrasting political ideologies and the external support they attracted. In 1975 the submerged tensions between the two countries surfaced in an exchange of words between Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Attorney General, Charles Njonjo. Nyerere referred to Kenya as a “dog eat dog” society; Njonjo retorted by describing Tanzania as a “man eat nothing economy”.

The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

There is a simpler explanation. Where Kenya retained the hierarchical Anglo-colonial template after independence, Tanzania adopted the more integrative Swahili model of nation-building. As Jomo Kenyatta once told his fellow East African presidents after Milton Obote adopted the socialist Common Man’s Charter in Uganda, “I cannot experiment with [the] lives of my people.”

Donor-mandated structural adjustment policies of the 1990s brought the countries’ economies into closer alignment. But the different trajectories pursued by Kenya and Tanzania continued to reflect their contrasting developmental strategies, and the delicate balance of competition and cooperation defining the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Convergence revisited

Kenya and Tanzania’s ideological differentials are sufficient but not necessary explanations of the two nations’ post-independence divergence.

Crawford Young’s seminal work published in 1981, Ideology and Development in Africa, confirmed as much for the two decades following independence. Young concluded that the strong ideological groundings informing Africa’s capitalist, socialist, mixed, and Afro-Marxist economic models, although important, did not significantly influence their performance. This is consistent with historical studies that show how countries within a geographical region tend to converge over time.

This trajectory appears to hold for the comparison examined here. Tanzania has recorded impressive economic growth under the neoliberal policy regime. Although Kenya is still East Africa’s strongest economy with an annual GDP of US$37 billion versus Tanzania’s US$28 billion, Tanzania’s per capita GDP is now only US$200 less than Kenya’s (US$1,600 vs. US$1,400). Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Tanzania was catching up to Kenya in the Transparency International annual corruption rankings until Tanzania’s position improved slightly after Magufuli took office. His anti-corruption campaign saw hundreds of civil servants lose their jobs, but only a few cases of prosecution. The offensive targeting international investors and domestic business interests took up the slack. The state charged international investors and domestic businessmen in court for underpaying taxes and other violations.

Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining company that has helped make gold the country’s leading export commodity, received a notice claiming it owed US$190 billion in fines and unpaid taxes. Many of these cases resulted in negotiated settlements and revisions in the terms of their contracts. Barrick ended up settling by paying US$300 million and increasing the government’s stake in their operations to 50 per cent.

Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Both of these campaigns, and Magufuli’s rejection of China’s debt diplomacy and IMF loans, enhanced the President’s reputation as the “Bulldozer”, but did little to effect the structural changes needed. Tundu Lissu, the head of Tanzania’s main opposition party, reported that many of the settlements were actually shakedowns initiated by the President’s CCM faction. Such behind the scenes venality accounts for Magufuli’s silencing of Tanzania’s media and the intensified persecution of the opposition during last year’s national elections.

Sources on the ground report a more complicated picture than the pumped-up legacy conveyed by state media. Although Tanzania joined the ranks of lower middle-income societies in 2020, the improved household income generated by the pro-market policies enacted by Magufuli’s predecessors is being eroded by the rising cost of living, while demographic growth is increasing pressure on the country’s land and natural resources.

Presidential activism failed to arrest the downward drift of conditions across Tanzania’s rural areas. Magufuli’s opposition to international capital limited smallholder access to the contract-farming arrangements that have enabled Kenya’s small-scale producers’ participation in global supply chains. While the benefits of contract farming are contested in academic circles, participation in out-grower schemes has led to improvement in producer terms in a number of cases, and improved access to inputs while diversifying livelihood options for many rural households.

The revival of the East African Community in 2010 was boosting both countries’ commodity exports to each other until tit-for-tat border disputes contributed to a drop to pre-2010 levels. Bilateral trade is a sub-set of the policy frame promoting regional integration, which has in turn triggered a scramble to upgrade the infrastructure facilitating trans-national linkages. This brings us to the governments’ penchant for mega-projects like Kenya’s grandiose Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project (LAPSSET) and Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT).

LAPSSET came to be viewed as a cash cow for Kenya’s state-based cartels before it stalled due to the withdrawal of once enthusiastic international investors. Analysis of the SAGCOT corridor indicates it has generated mainly just-for-show benefits while facilitating the entrance of large-scale agribusiness actors at the expense of local smallholder communities. Both countries are beneficiaries of economically dysfunctional Chinese railroads, contrasting monuments to that country’s contribution to regional linkages over the years.

Even in the presence of more comprehensive analyses of the two countries’ development, it is difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Kenya and Tanzania models. They are more connected — Kenya-based companies are the second largest source of foreign investment in Tanzania — than at independence, yet seem even farther apart now with respect to their political sensibilities.

Local folk models provide more succinct perceptions of the differences. Talk to Kenyans and they will characterise Tanzanians as laid back, loquacious, and xenophobic; talk to Tanzanians and they will tell you their neighbors are arrogant, aggressive, and hopelessly tribal. But if you pursue the conversation further, most will show that they understand their neighbours better than formal analyses like the one above convey. Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

Political theatre and executive revisionism

Is Magufuli’s hyper-nationalism at odds with Kenya’s constitutionally mandated federalism? In reality, each of these shifts from the previous status quo have been manipulated to reinforce the two states’ tradition of top-down governance. Both governments face an ongoing crisis of constitutionalism, and both have resorted to elaborate exercises of political theatre to camouflage their respective political elites’ strategies to remain at the top of the food chain.

Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative began with the handshake marking the reconciliation between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, then morphed into a comprehensive gambit to revise the nation’s new constitutional order. Two years later the government released an eloquently worded BBI task force report that was long on promises to fix long-festering problems, but short on how they would be implemented.

Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

The provisions to double the seats in the senate, create 80 new parliamentary constituencies, and create positions for a prime minister and four deputy presidents are hard to justify for a country that already expends 48 per cent of its budget on state salaries. Unlike his father, Uhuru Kenyatta is not averse to experimentation. But the circus orchestrated by the BBI’s political beneficiaries has worked to redirect attention away from such inconvenient details.

Since the handshake the Kenyan public has been subjected to an unrelenting procession of media publicity, traveling pep rallies, and tactics used to herd reluctant politicians into the BBI corral. The campaign has been an amped up version of the Moi playbook, featuring theatrics reminiscent of the anti-Nyayo charade the former President used to outmaneuver his opponents during his early days in office.

The rapid deterioration of Magufuli’s health clearly caught his CCM faction by surprise. The media coverage of the President’s elevation from politician to prophet contrasted with the opaque treatment of his last two weeks on earth — or was it actually one week, as the intelligence that he actually passed away on the 10th of March claimed?

The Nabii failed to prophesise his departure from the stage. The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President, who receded into the background after her eloquent speech at the funeral. In the meantime, critics were pointing out how the new government’s key appointments violated the process mandated in Tanzania’s constitution.

These games, however cynical, are part of a larger contest being waged across the larger Horn of Africa region, pitting executive power at the centre against distributed governance. Museveni’s Uganda presidency has dynastic ambitions, Rwanda is a developmental dictatorship, and Farmajo wants to restore the same kind of centralised state in Somalia that led to its collapse in 1991. Ahmed Abiy’s ugly war in Tigray is linked to his ambition to reverse the devolution established by the 1994 constitution that declared all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.

The strategies to bolster control at the centre that we are witnessing in Kenya and Tanzania may be benign by comparison, but the actions taken to muzzle the press and critics of government policies, along with political impunity, and institutionalised corruption, are not. They differ from the efforts to recentralise the state elsewhere by degree, not in kind.

Reimagining the African state?

The trend is part of a wider global pattern. Since 2017 opposition to heavy-handed governments and their policies has erupted across the world, occurring mainly in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states. These surging protests correlate with the reversal of gains in democratisation, respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy across the world.

Liberalisation catalysed a universal movement towards self-determination and the deconcentration of political power. Twenty years ago, scholars were even predicting the end of the nation-state as we know it. In recent years the state has fought back with a vengeance. Recent African developments, for example, reflect the influence of the surveillance state in China that is now challenging the democratic values guiding the post-1945 world order.

There was near-universal belief in the monolithic state at independence, and in the assumption that Africa’s leaders would use its power for the benefit of their populations. By the end of the 1960s these beliefs and assumptions were in tatters. African nations’ largely trial-and-error efforts to balance the nation-building equation since that time still represent the prerogative to adapt the state to the continent’s unique initial conditions.

The unique combination of scholarship, deep historical inquiry, and political imagination that flourished during the post-independence period, at least in theory, remains a useful resource for navigating Africa’s developmental future. The reforms of the post-1989 period come over as dismal and devoid of spirit in comparison, incapable of generating the creativity and passion inspired by the ideas that preceded them.

Tanzania was one of the continent’s leading exemplars of that era’s critical thinking. To his credit, John Pombe Magufuli fought to establish an equitable relationship with international capital while his counterparts in Kenya were drinking the foreign debt Kool-Aid. Theory is useful but trial and error empiricism is the best teacher. We hope that President Samia Suluhu Hassan will use the information generated by the two countries’ contrasting experience to negotiate an adaptive middle path without too much fanfare.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation
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Kariuki* hustled his way through Nairobi as a personal trainer, masseur and occasionally sold sportswear. Then COVID-19 happened. His income stream went down to zero. He got tired of begging friends and former clients for 500 bob here, a thousand bob there, decided to sell off what he could and went back to his parent’s farm in the country’s central region. This young, handsome, muscle-in-all-the-right-places, rangi ya chocolate, ambitious gay man, needed to live, and for that, he needed to eat. Nairobi had stopped feeding him. He was one of the many LGBTIQ individuals who found themselves going back to homes that had either forced them out or that they had fled.

Kariuki had left home soon after university and since then visits to shags were to his grandmother with whom he had a strong relationship. But it was not home. To be accepted back he had to renounce his gay ways, which he did. Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold. His parents gave him an acre of land and promised him another five if he stayed on the straight and narrow. Every pun is intended.

Kariuki started poultry farming, and he was surprised at how well he took to it; he started seeing a future for himself back on the land. Unbeknown to his parents, Kariuki is still actively living his gay life. He acknowledges that if going back into the closet and being on the “down-low” was what he needed to do keep hunger at bay and get him back his inheritance, so be it. I now had a gay friend who was a poultry farmer.

You see, I had resigned myself to believing that agriculture wasn’t really for us. Us being queer people, and I bet I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many queer individuals don’t see a future for themselves in agriculture. It is not within reach of our imagination. Young queer folk find security, freedom, opportunity, visibility and invisibility in urban settings. Plus, there is also greater access to health services that target LGBTIQ people and, more than anything, there is access to our community. Agriculture, the mainstay of our Kenyan economy, isn’t within our rainbow reality. Yet, it can be.

Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold.

Kariuki was “lucky” that he could go back home, and that there was farmland that he could access.  Plus, he was “not so obviously gay”. But what if how you present yourself in public doesn’t fit in the box that family or society wants you in? Are you still able to easily access services without fear of discrimination? Are you able to access land or even food without having to look over your shoulder?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned Kenya and the world. A friend of mine opted to move back to her rural area when the initial restrictions were announced. The reason for this migration was that she was unsure she’d be able to provide food for her children in a town that she had no affiliation to, where she had no kin she could turn to in case she was too broke to buy food or if there were any food shortages.

The song Mzee Kasema Rudi Mashambani by Equator Sounds came out during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency and was a rallying call for Kenyans to go back to tilling the land. Many years later, this land, which is such an emotive and sensitive subject in Kenya, is not equitably accessible to Kenyans. And if you have come out publicly as queer, then access to this land becomes even more complicated if you want it. Turudi wapi, kama tumefukuzwa? 

Wanja Mugongo has always loved farming. Her mother, who was the principal’s secretary at a Nyeri college, seeded that love for the soil.  Mugongo’s mother was allowed to farm on the college land, and this supplemented her meagre earnings. She supplied the college with maize, potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Mama Wanja banked on land and therefore invested in it whenever she could. Wanja inherited this astute perspective, and despite the many years spent in LGBTIQ activism, she never forgot that she had green fingers and never lost her love for the soil.

“Farming was my place of joy, and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I was out of employment. I didn’t want to retire and then farm for a living; I wanted to retire and farm for pleasure,” she states.

Mugongo was fortunate that she did not have to go to bank for a loan, that the land was hers. As I researched this article, I came across a number of LGBTIQ farmers who have accessed family land only because they have buried their sexuality.

Apollo* is married with children and lives in Bondo, Siaya County. He is an activist and farmer. The activist side of his life is only known to those who need to know. Apollo recognises that he would have been disinherited had he gone public about his sexuality. He informs me of a young man who has kicked off the family land after the family discovered he was gay. This young man was fortunate that a relative was kind enough to give him a small patch on which to build a house for himself, but he was denied his right to the family land.  Apollo is grateful that he was spared such an ordeal.

“You know, for some of us, this is the life we have chosen for ourselves and it is how things are done here for many of us. Things would have been very different for us,” says Apollo. “Very different” in this case probably means poor, landless, ostracised and maybe banished.

Wichlum Beach on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria is home to the Light Youth Group (LYG). The group works with members of the LGBTIQ community in that area. It has 15 members, but within its sphere of operation, it reaches close to 300 Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Many bisexual and gay individuals are also affiliated to the group.

Economic empowerment is one of LYG’s thematic areas, and being in a rural setting, the group is using agriculture and fishing to improve the economic status of its members. . The group is trying to lease three acres of land for farming activities; they were evicted from the land on which they were carrying out their activities when the owner discovered that LYG was a queer organisation. Once beaten twice shy, so this time round, LYG has come out clean with the prospective landlady who, fortunately, is not prejudiced against the community. Accessing capital to pay for the new piece of land is the next hurdle they need to overcome.  Expectations are high, but patience is needed.

Each member of the group is allocated a 50m by 60m plot of land on which to grow horticultural produce — sukuma wiki (collard greens), cabbages, onions, watermelons, etc. — which is sold to the surrounding community. By selling to the community, the group hopes to build bridges and expects that the local residents will see them as active members of the society. The project’s beneficiaries are drawn from both within and outside the Wichlum area; many have been disowned by their families because of their sexuality. The project offers an opportunity to a marginalised group of people who would otherwise have no access to land nor means to some form of livelihood.

Odhiambo* says he became a farmer by accident and has been farming in Ukwala, Siaya County, for the last three years on family land that he inherited after his mother passed away.  He says he is lucky as he and his siblings have a “your life is your business” approach to life and so Odhiambo, who is in his early 40s, doesn’t have to justify his unmarried status. His neighbours have tried to pressure him into settling down, but he informs me that he has warned them against meddling in his business.

“If my late mother didn’t pressurise me into getting married, who are they?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ve managed to build a life for myself here, and my business should be the least of their concern.”

American civil rights activist, the late Dr Martin Luther King III, states, “Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.” Unfortunately, many individuals have to keep their sexual orientation private just to access their birthright. But we as a nation should strive to ensure that one’s tribe, gender, sexual orientation, politics or faith is not an impediment to accessing the fruits of this land. It is a right enshrined in our Constitution that we as queer Kenyans should demand.

The country’s agricultural sector is the backbone of the economy, contributing approximately 33 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and employing more than 40 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of the rural population. By shutting out queer individuals from the farms, fields, lakes, rivers and the sea, we deny the country more food, income, taxes, producers, employers and investors.

In 2020, the Mombasa-based LBGTIQ group, PEMA Kenya, gave over 100 of its members who live in various neighbourhoods within and around the city, training in poultry farming to enhance food security and provide them with skills to earn an income. Such schemes, if successful, could be a way of better integrating queer folk into their communities and creating safe and queer-friendly spaces in which to live. Another group in Kitengela has opted to go back to the soil to produce healthy food for its members living with HIV/AIDS. This approach to ensuring food security and nutrition for vulnerable groups is innovative, practical and has impact.

“Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”

Urban farming should be supported as it could be a source of livelihood for the many young people who find themselves in the big cities and towns. And although access to land in urban areas comes at a premium or with terms and conditions that are difficult to comply with, urban gardening does not require vast amounts of space. Sack gardens can produce leafy greens like sukuma wiki, spinach, and traditional vegetables on as little as one square metre. There are lessons to be learnt from organisations like PEMA and what they are doing in building a pool of queer poultry farmers in urban areas. Their members can reap the benefits of both worlds — access to urban energies and to their chosen family, and the advantages of being food producers.

“Farming is not a get-rich-quick way of making money. If you have money pressures, it is hard to get into farming,” cautions Mugongo. “If you don’t know the soil, you will need time to understand the soil and its ways. You need time and money. Are queer people even considered bankable?”

Access to credit or capital is a huge deterrent for many queer individuals who would like to go into business or agriculture. Emerging Marginalized Communities (EMAC-Kenya) has established a system for its members that gets around the credit and capital hurdle. The organisation has set up a poultry farming facility and a greenhouse on the grounds of their offices, roughly the size of three-quarters of a football pitch. This pilot agri-business project supports seven queer men and two commercial sex workers who buy the produce on credit, for resale to consumers. EMAC-Kenya recoups its funds by deducting a specific amount when a member buys new stock from them. The organisation’s director informed me that the long-term goal is to create agri-businesses that can offer employment opportunities for other queer individuals; learning of this vision warmed my heart.

Bringing agriculture within reach of the imagination of queer youth might help prevent them from adopting precarious ways of earning a living. The queer community needs to be brought into the agricultural conversation and ways need to be found to support minority groups to earn a living within this sector that the country relies so heavily on.

There need to be discussions on how to make the sector more diverse, inclusive and innovative. Being a farmer, animal breeder, fisherman, rancher should be seen as a career option and not as a Plan D, to be adopted after all else has failed. Mugongo notes that the agricultural sector needs to be drastically transformed, and perceptions on agriculture need to change to make the sector attractive and within reach of the imagination of all youth, not just queer youth.

Unfortunately, there are those within the LGBTIQ community who dropped out of school or completed high school with poor grades. They have few employable skills, and when they do have them, the sectors in which they can work safely and freely are limited. The hustle is real, very real for them. The hospitality sector, entertainment, retail, personal care and grooming — the sectors in which many queer individuals have found work — have been severely impacted by the pandemic. If you don’t work, you can’t afford to eat, and many have been struggling to eat.

The one key attribute we must first remember about queer Kenyans is that we are Kenyans too. The fight for queer rights in the country is about giving us the same access as other Kenyans to the constitutional rights that are promised to us all as citizens of this land. This land that we prize so much that we have even killed one another over, that we go to whatever lengths to acquire, that feeds us all. This our soil doesn’t know our tribe, gender, faith, sexual orientation or class; all it knows is that it is meant to produce and feed.

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation. There are opportunities galore that we haven’t even begun to explore, and it is time to rejig and rethink a sector that feeds all Kenyans, for there is plenty to be found within our borders.

*Names have been changed.

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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