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Tracing the Roots of Benga

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“You cannot sing African music in proper English.” – Fela Kuti

Now, more than 40 years later, it might be difficult to imagine that Kenyan Benga music was associated with freedom fighters in Rhodesia’s Bush War (the Chimurenga) in the late 1960s through to the late 1970s. In the fight to end white minority rule for the soul of a new Zimbabwe, the homeland of a black majority, Benga music embodied the liberation spirit. The music of D.O. (Daniel Owino) Misiani, George Ramogi, George Ojijo, Collela Mazee and Victoria Jazz is what Zimbabweans in the 70s in rural townships stamped their feet and swayed to in the hope of a new future for Zimbabwe.

How did Kenyan music that originated among the Luo spread like a wild bush fire far beyond the shores of Lake Victoria to different parts of Kenya and further to Southern Africa and the world? Who was Oluoch Kanindo and how did his name give birth to a new genre of music in Zimbabwe?

To get to the bottom of the Benga story, I went out in search of Tabu Osusa, who had just launched a much anticipated book, Shades of Benga: The Story of Popular Music in Kenya 1946-2016 at the Sippers restaurant in Nairobi’s Hurlingham area. Tabu is tall and looks in fit shape at 63. He wears a signature beret and glasses and carries himself with the fatherly disposition of a Catholic priest – until he leans forward and starts agonising over his pet peeve, Kenyan music.

Benga has a distinct African musical heritage that connects culturally and socially with diverse groups of Africans in search of “their sound”. In the villages and market centres of Western, Rift Valley and Eastern and in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Benga music is what the masses respond to with enthusiasm.

Tabu is a music producer and founder of Ketebul Music. His motivation for starting Ketebul (Luo for drumsticks) was the glaring absence of originality in the Kenyan music he sampled. To his refined ears, it sounded too American and nothing unique. For over a decade, he has discovered and produced musicians whose musical identity was rooted in indigenous cultural styles. Makadem and Winyo are some of his better known protégés. In the early 1980s, along with Samba Mapangala, he co-founded the Orchestra Virunga band, one of the biggest musical acts in East Africa for close to a decade.

Presently, he is on a mission of piecing together Kenya’s musical history, delving into the pertinent question of Kenya’s musical identity. Tabu, under his Ketebul label, has produced several documentaries on what he refers to as a “Retracing Series”. The list includes Retracing the Benga Rhythm, Retracing Kikuyu Popular Music, Retracing Kenya’s Funky Hits and Retracing Kenya’s Songs of Protest. John Sibi-Okumu narrates the series in a distinct and posh accent and sounds like a British anthropologist on a BBC history channel. Shades of Benga is Tabu’s biggest project yet, taking up to three years of commitment to put together. He launched it alongside a photo exhibition at the Alliance Française Centre in Nairobi, tracing not just the pioneers of Benga music in Kenya but all the other greats from different genres that would define Kenyan sound.

We sit on the upper floor of the refurbished Sippers bar, which is very different from the cramped drinking dungeon stuck in my memory. Sippers has a cherished reputation as an artiste hub, where forgotten heroes gather to reminisce over the good old days over a drink and intellectual banter. Some heavy hitters have played live at Sippers, folks like Ayub Ogada, Makadem, Winyo and Suzanna Owiyo.

I ask Tabu about the title. “I called it Shades of Benga, because Benga is the dominant genre of music played in Kenya but the book is not all just about Benga”.

I got a courtesy advance copy on PDF for this review. Shades of Benga is published in a coffee table format and I was amazed by how rich Kenya’s music heritage is. Stuff they do not teach you in school. Tabu has put together a musical encyclopedia of Kenya, paying tribute to all the pioneers of diverse musical genres, from the 40s straight to the present day. The book tracks Fundi Konde, Fadhili Williams, Joseph Kamaru, Kalenjin sisters, Super Mazembe, Sal Davis, Sauti Sol, Eric Wainaina, to name a few. However, for all his attempts at inclusivity, the focal point of his book, rich in detail, is Benga.

The two influential personalities in the nascent Benga scene were Mwenda Jean Bosco and Eduardo Masengo who came from Eastern Congo and introduced a finger-plucking technique. The duo greatly influenced pioneer Benga musicians such as the Ogara Boys. In this new style, the guitar was not strummed but plucked in a manner that mimicked traditional African instruments.

Benga has a distinct African musical heritage that connects culturally and socially with diverse groups of Africans in search of “their sound”. In the villages and market centres of Western, Rift Valley and Eastern and in the informal settlements of Nairobi, Benga music is what the masses respond to with enthusiasm. Men and women let loose, unrestrained to the feverish plucking of the lead guitar, to live music in the Eastlands neighbourhood of Nairobi.

Benga artistes rarely get airplay on mainstream channels as they are deemed not polished enough for urban mainstream tastes. Benga’s working class label has relegated it to vernacular radio stations. The big Benga artistes in Kenya have nearly no presence to speak of in the ranks of popular Kenyan music. For many youngsters born after 1980, Benga is the kind of music one would probably only encounter in a frantic bus park of Kisumu.

Benga came to town with the rural labour migration from Nyanza who came to Nairobi in search of the Kenyan dream. They clung to their music to find a rooting and as a kind of reality check against the influence of the new urban and foreign musical genres that were the rage in Nairobi. Benga music spoke to the issues and realities of the marginalised lower and rural classes.

Tabu believes that Kenya has done a great injustice to its musical pioneers by refusing to acknowledge their contribution to the country’s musical heritage. Thus, Shades of Benga is a reaction to this glaring gap, a 70-year musical journey and a repository of not just Kenyan music, but a journey through Kenya’s social history.

The origin of the term Benga has being a matter of great debate. The term is attributed to the Benga great D.O Misiani who claimed it was drawn from his mother’s name. Another version is linked to the Luo meaning of a word drawn from obengore, meaning to let loose. When I put the question to Tabu, he dismisses the Misiani theory. ” Most of the people we interviewed believe the word was coined from the short skirts the ladies wore during The Ogara Boys’ shows and it was John Ogara who first popularised the term.”

Tabu believes that Kenya has done a great injustice to its musical pioneers by refusing to acknowledge their contribution to the country’s musical heritage. Thus, Shades of Benga is a reaction to this glaring gap, a 70-year musical journey and a repository of not just Kenyan music, but a journey through Kenya’s social history.

The book begins in the mid-1940s in the post World War II period with the return of the soldiers in the King’s African Rifle regiment. The King’s African Rifles East African battalion fought in several campaigns for the British during the First and Second World War. Not all the men were on the warfront; some would be recruited as part of the entertainment unit that went around spreading cheer to the troops in far-flung bases. At the end of the war, they returned home with their instruments and skills, bringing back the box guitar, the single musical instrument that would change the face of music in Africa.

One of the pioneers was Fundi Konde, who became a breakout star and a sound engineer in his later years. Fundi Konde did time in Sri Lanka, India and Burma. His unit toured and performed 350 shows by the end of the war in 1945.

Tabu remembers working with an older Fundi Konde in the early 80s and holds some regret for not recognising the privilege of sitting at the feet of a master. “By then he simply struck me as an old fashioned sound engineer,” he remembers with a distinct remorse at the folly of youth.

Fundi Konde was influenced by the Afro-Cuban styles of beloro, chacha and rumba and he infused those styles into his music. The distinct tunes endure in his timeless hits, such as Tausi Ndege Wangu and Mama Sowera.

Fundi Konde came to fame in the African band formed by Peter Colmore, a British Army captain who morphed into East Africa’s foremost impressario in the 60s. The original members were Joseph Chuza Dias, Baya Toya, Ngala Karani, Charles Senkatuka and Nelson Gonzabato. Fundi Konde is credited as the first Kenyan to record using an electric guitar and is regarded as the father of modern Kenya music.

Kenyan musicians became widely recognised in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at around the same time that Congolese music was gaining popularity in Kenya. Kanindo music is a source of nostalgia for Southerners. In 70s and 80s, Kanindo style, also known as Sungura, in Zimbabwe was bigger than the popular Chimurenga style founded by the legendary Thomas Mafumo.

His contemporaries include Paul Mwachupa. He also worked with Fadhili Williams of the iconic love ballad Malaika. Tabu addresses the controversy behind the origin of Malaika in Shades of Benga. What we know of as Malaika is apparently the second version. The first version was done by Grant Charo with Fadhili Williams in the background in the Jambo Band. It was a collaboration. However, Fadhili would enjoy the spotlight after renditions by Miriam Makeba and Harry Belafonte put the single on the world map. Cover versions were performed by Boney M and Angelique Kidjo, elevating Malaika to the realm of classics.

In the 1950s, with the Fundi Konde generation ruling the roost, something seismic occurred to Kenyan music and disrupted the party.

The two influential personalities in the nascent Benga scene were Mwenda Jean Bosco and Eduardo Masengo who came from Eastern Congo and introduced a finger-plucking technique. The duo greatly influenced pioneer Benga musicians such as the Ogara Boys. In this new style, the guitar was not strummed but plucked in a manner that mimicked traditional African instruments. The melody leads, then the vocals build to a no-holds-barred instrumental climax. The beat is hypnotic and the revelers would let loose as though possessed. These pioneer musicians, drawing inspiration from traditional music, began to define a new kind of sound that was distinctly different from anything on the scene at the time.

With the uniqueness of the new beat, Benga rose from a pairing of a sharp lead percussion guitar that dominated the track. The guitar was played with urgency steadily building up to a pure climax. The Luo musicians were the first to adopt this new guitar-playing technique that involved plucking and picking single notes, falling back on how the popular traditional fiddle like Orutu and the eight stringed Nyatiti are played.

A new sound was born and the imitators of this plucking technique would be credited as the pioneers of the Benga genre. George Ramogi and George Ojijo were among Benga’s original stars as they brought Benga to the mainstream by recording with different labels in Nairobi. However, in Tabu’s view, the Ogara Boys, which included John Ogara, Ochieng Nelly and Aketch Oyosi, were the true pioneers. As Benga gained ground in Nairobi, all the migrants who had moved into the city from the rural areas naturally gravitated towards it.

Two distinct cultures emerged in Nairobi – the ethnic and the foreign. Benga retreated to the backwaters of Nairobi where it was associated with village life, poor rural folk and urban filth. Foreign music, such as funk, disco and soul, became upper class identifiers and those who wanted to belong stopped listening to local tunes.

After Kenya’s independence in 1963, Fadhili Williams and Daudi Kabaka, another big star, rose to glory as the King of the African Twist, inspired by the King of Twist, Chubby Checker. The torch of Twist would be kept burning by John Nzenze. Daudi Kabaka, with his distinct head of white hair, created many classics and struck music gold with his most famous number Helule Helule. The song went global when the British band Tremeloes from East London did a cover and hit the top 20 in the UK charts. Other covers were done by Medium Terzett from Germany, Los del Sol from Spain and Dzentlmenu through the 60s. Sadly, Daudi Kabaka did not receive royalties for his hit song. Tabu would say, deadpan, “He sold it for a song”.

Benga moved from the shores of Lake Victoria to Nairobi. The role of the session musicians on River Road was significant in its spread to different parts of Kenya. They took Benga beyond its stronghold. During this time, musicians from Tanzania, Uganda and Congo would arrive to record in Nairobi and these groups of highly talented session musicians ended becoming the regular back-up instrumentalists for the different artistes who frequented their studios in River Road. They played the beats and people laid their tracks. River Road became the Mecca of music production and from that single street Benga spread like a virus. Luo fishermen who earned a livelihood around the lakes of East Africa came with Benga music and spread it from shore to shore.

But for all its glory, Benga could not escape its class trap. In the popular mind, Benga musicians were deemed inferior because they were not formally educated, unlike the Rumba guys who were college graduates – musicians such as Jose Kokeyo, the father of the flamboyant musician Akothee and Owiti Ger whose grandchild Beldina Maliaka has emerged as a contemporary musician in Sweden. This class bubble was responsible for the proliferation of Congolese Rumba in Kenya enjoying mainstream traction that Benga musicians craved for.

The 1960s was a vibrant time in Kenyan music. Indigenous record labels rushed in to fill the vacuum left by European producers.

David Amunga, who sang along Ben Blastos Bulawayo on the memorable composition Someni Vijana, was the first African to set up a record label, the Mwangaza Music store 1965. Joseph Kamaru was to follow with City Sounds in 1968 and it was from Kamaru’s stable that Kikuyu Benga would fluff its wings.

The 1960s would also produce Benga’s first major band Shirati Jazz, formed by D. O. Misiani who hailed from northern Tanzania.

By the 70s, Benga had captured the hearts and minds of cross-border populations, from Congo to Zimbabwe. Tabu describes the 70s as the golden age of Benga.

D.O Misiani was a bonafide Benga superstar from the 70s through to the 80s, earning the title of “The King of Benga”. Misiani’s socially conscious voice resonated with the times. Shirati Jazz launched a string of hits that were East Africa’s biggest songs throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Shirati Jazz’s biggest rival was Victoria Jazz, formed in 1972 by Ochieng, Nelly Mengo and Collela Mazee.   George Ramogi and D.O. Misiani would enjoy some level of commercial success, though in Tabu’s view, John Ogara had a more versatile playing style.

The 1970s was also the period that Benga’s proudest ambassador entered the scene. He was a debonair and charismatic gentleman known as Phares Oluoch Kanindo, the Berry Gordie of Benga. Kanindo was a visionary marketer who decided to open a new Benga market in Southern Africa. Eager to establish new audiences, he organised Benga musicians into bands and started shipping Benga records to Zimbabwe, branded SP (Super Producer) Kanindo music under his AIT Records (Kenya) label. The independence war had curtailed music production in Zimbabwe. Kanindo who had a nose for opportunity set up shop and met the demand for an indigenous style that Zimbabweans related to. The music from East Africa struck a chord. Freedom fighters in the liberation struggle to free Zimbabwe from minority rule developed a fondness for the sound and today Kanindo music is associated with the birth of Zimbabwe.

Progressive Zimbabwean musicians started sampling the new sound and from this emerged stars like Moses Rwizi, Kanindo Jazz Band and Obadiah Matulana, stamping a new Southern African identity on Benga.

Benga music in Zimbabwe is known as Kanindo or Sungura music. If you switch to any YouTube channel and search for Kanindo music, you will come across a wide range of artistes, all from Zimbabwe, with Alick Macheso topping the list.

Music is a major transmitter of cultural expression. When we abandoned our music, we cut the throat of our culture, our identity and our spiritual essence. Tabu Osusa’s Shades of Benga is a worthy tribute to the forgotten pioneers of modern Kenyan music and a crucial contribution to the history of African music.

Kenyan musicians became widely recognised in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa at around the same time that Congolese music was gaining popularity in Kenya. Kanindo music is a source of nostalgia for Southerners. In 70s and 80s, Kanindo style, also known as Sungura, in Zimbabwe was bigger than the popular Chimurenga style founded by the legendary Thomas Mafumo.

While Oluoch Kanindo was busy making inroads in the South, a Kenyan of Asian descent, Arvindkumar P. Chandarana based in Kericho, created a new Benga focal point in the Rift Valley. Musicians did not have to travel all the way to Nairobi, thanks to Chandarana’s Mambo label, which was directly responsible for the spread of Benga in the Rift Valley and Western Kenya and for the emergence of Kalenjin, Kisii and Luhya Benga acts.

The decline of Benga began in the mid-80s due to a number of factors. The major record companies, such as EMI and Polygraph, left and the local producers could not match their market spend and reach. Technology was also rapidly changing as the cassette player took over from turntables and records. The new urban generation that had lost links with their rural foundations had turned West. The video cassette record introduced foreign superstars. Kenyans gradually started to gravitate towards American music and were swept away by the disco culture whose glitz was too hard to resist.

Two distinct cultures emerged in Nairobi – the ethnic and the foreign. Benga retreated to the backwaters of Nairobi where it was associated with village life, poor rural folk and urban filth. Foreign music, such as funk, disco and soul, became upper class identifiers and those who wanted to belong stopped listening to local tunes.

In the home of Benga in Western Kenya, the rise of Rumba and Ohangla styles came after Benga’s crown. Luo musicians began to perceive Benga as too ethnic and gravitated towards rumba. Tabu labeled them with a trace of disappointment as the “the Rumba crooners”. “Currently, the only guys who have remained true to Benga could include Dola Kabarry, Atomi Sifa, and Winyo who sing something I call ‘Benga Blues’.

When you listen to West African or Congolese music, you know where it is from. Where is the Kenyan sound?” The question of identity and originality keeps recurring during the course our conversation. “There is an Ethiopian music, I am sure you don’t know somone called Malatu Astatke. He used to play American jazz that he studied at Berkeley but when he returned to Ethiopia, he decided to take leave of American jazz and experimented with Ethiopian music and came up with Ethio jazz.

Benga is our beat and Tabu bemoans the young musicians who refuse to draw their inspiration from this source to create unique sounds.

Today Kenyan music is clutching at the straws for identity. Kenyan musicians have glamourised all these other styles and forgotten their own. We are everyone else but ourselves. Tabu is blunt, “We are trying to be Congolese, Americans, Nigerians. Kenyan music is the classic jack of all trades and master of none.”

Music is a major transmitter of cultural expression and when we abandoned our music, we cut the throat of our culture, our identity and our spiritual essence. Tabu Osusa’s Shades of Benga is a worthy tribute to the forgotten pioneers of modern Kenyan music and a crucial contribution to the history of African music.

The ancient said, when you lose your way, go back to where you lost your way and start again. It starts with remembering our roots. “We have to make ethnic cool again” preaches Tabu. “When we left the villages for the city, we left behind our culture, our values, our foods, our languages and our music”.

By Oyunga Pala
Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan Newspaper columnist.

Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan Newspaper columnist.

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THE KILLING FIELDS OF MATHARE: Extrajudicial executions and the grassroots group that is documenting them

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THE KILLING FIELDS OF MATHARE: Grassroots activists challenging extra-judicial executions

Kennedy “JJ” Chindi is a popular man. In the three days I spend shadowing him during his rounds as a community organiser for the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), none of our conversations are uninterrupted. While we are walking through the informal settlement, people of all ages and backgrounds come up to him just to say hello and let him know how they’re doing. In his small shared office at the centre, at least five people interrupt our conversation with greetings, requests for assistance or simply to say, “Hey JJ, I’m around”. He makes time for all of them, never too busy for a friendly word or a gentle encouragement, even for the dishevelled, unkempt man reeking of chang’aa that he stealthily tries to shield me from by standing between us.

JJ’s popularity stems from his status as one of Mathare’s longest-serving community organisers. Mathare is one of the oldest informal settlements in Kenya, predating independence, and one of the most densely populated parts of the country. Like other informal settlements in the city, it has an unfortunate history of violence – clashes between gangs are common but so is violent policing. According to MSJC, between 2013 and 2016, the police killed 800 young people in Mathare. During the 2008 post-election violence, Human Rights Watch recorded an incident in which the police rounded up 34 young men and shot them all at point blank range. Every time Kenya’s politics bubbles over, Mathare burns.

But Mathare is also a site of tremendous hope and resilience, as JJ himself proves. Over the last 30 years, he has taken up the cause of justice in the informal settlement that has become increasingly violent and unliveable for its largely youthful population. Extra-judicial killings by the police are common – between 2015 and 2016 MSJC documented at least 84 killings by the police in the settlement, down from a high of 126 the previous year, which makes Mathare the site of the highest concentration of killings in the country. These numbers were recorded before the 2017 election violence in which many more died. He believes that the only reason why the numbers are going down is because for the first time someone is really watching and counting the dead.

JJ got his nickname from the popular Nigerian footballer JJ Okocha because he owes much of his fame to the years he played football with a local team. If you’re as good as JJ was in the home of the legendary Mathare United, football can be both a path out of the settlement and a guarantee of local fame. JJ could have used his fame to do something else but he chose to use it to try and make a difference. For many years, he collaborated with other colleagues – Stephen Mwangi, Wangui Kimari, Rahma Wako and Gacheke Gachihi – and organisations like Peace Brigades International to help resolve individual cases of injustice. In 2015, the group formalised their collaboration as MSJC.

According to MSJC, between 2013 and 2016, the police killed 800 young people in Mathare. During the 2008 post-election violence, Human Rights Watch recorded an incident in which the police rounded up 34 young men and shot them all at point blank range. Every time Kenya’s politics bubbles over, Mathare burns.

“We started in Kiamako,” he says, “near the big goat slaughterhouse, where the residents are mostly people from the northern counties. They have a major issue with trafficking of underage kids from Ethiopia and early marriages. We would advocate against that and report cases to the police station and things like that.”

Mama Rahma, one of JJ’s earliest allies, is a Borana grandmother whose oldest grandchild is just about to finish high school. She says little, preferring to observe, but their friendship is apparent. Together, they helped protect innumerable victims of trafficking brought to the slaughterhouse to work jobs even locals wouldn’t touch – pointing them to safe houses and shelters in the settlement.

Earlier this year, JJ won the Public Popular Vote at the Human Rights Defender’s Award and that solidified his and the centre’s reputation as a cornerstone for human rights advocacy not just in Mathare, but across the country. When he walks through the settlement, people come up to him and congratulate him and he is visibly pleased. “After so many years of working at the grassroots it feels good to be acknowledged, especially to win the Popular Public vote,” he beams. “It means people appreciate the work that we’re doing. It gives us courage”.

MSJC has programmes on youth empowerment, arts and culture, reproductive health rights and political accountability and runs a safe space for Mathare’s children that they’re hoping to expand with a library and a well-resourced sports and arts programme. They cleared a dumping site outside their office and planted a community garden so that locals could have a place to sit as part of their “Greening Mathare” initiative.

But MSJC is best-known for its activism against extra-judicial executions by the police. “We started documenting it because people wouldn’t believe it was happening,” JJ says. From his perspective, before MSJC began publicly documenting and shaming the police for the violence, the situation was only getting worse. “The number of young men dying in Mathare was increasing so much. In a day you could get six young guys, or even ten young guys being killed by the police. And they were never caught at the scene of the crime. They were always just walking on the street or pulled out of their houses and taken to be killed.”

For JJ, shifting towards advocacy around this issue was a natural fit. He knew first-hand what it meant to be young and poor in Mathare, and because of his profile, people already brought cases to him hoping he could help. “JJ already had much of the information,” says Wangui Kimari, a graduate student and part of the core of six, who volunteers as a researcher and coordinator at the centre. “It was just a question of turning the raw information that he had into something a little more structured, especially so we could take it to officials like IPOA [the Independent Policing Oversight Authority]”. To this end, Kimari and other volunteers allowed local and international researchers working in Mathare to use the centre as a base for their work in exchange for supporting the preparation of key documents pertaining to their cases.

This exercise led to the centre’s first high profile publication called “Who is Next?” In the report, the centre presented aggregate statistics and highlighted specific narratives of extra-judicial executions in Mathare. The document made waves in Nairobi’s often detached human rights community for many good reasons. In a first for this highly fragmented and professionalised human rights advocacy space, it was a lateral collaboration between grassroots human rights defenders across the city’s informal settlements. “Even the big organisations joined us because for the first time, in 2016, one of their own, Willie Kimani, was targeted [for execution],” JJ points out. Kimani, a lawyer with the International Justice Mission (IJM), his client and their driver were kidnapped and killed while pursuing a case of blackmail against a police officer. Five policemen are currently on trial for the murders.

The centre identified at least eight police officers known in the community who were involved in repeated extra-judicial executions. The average age of those executed was 20, but the youngest was only 13 years-old. Most of those killed were executed at close range – some in the process of surrendering, like the two captured in the video that went viral.

The “Who is Next?” report was also the first time that a human rights report had a preface written in Sheng’ rather than institutional English or Kiswahili. “It was a deliberate choice,” says Kimari. “We wanted people of Mathare to read it and take ownership of it.” The report also had a notably confrontational style. Instead of attempting to appease institutions by appealing to the non-existent mechanisms that frustrates MSJC everyday, it called out these failures and pointed out the ways in which they left Mathare’s people vulnerable.

Significantly, the cover image on the report is a still from a video that went viral in which a local police officer, Rashid, well known for targeting young men accused of crimes, shoots two young men in the head while a large crowd looks on. The disturbing video triggered a polarising response where many Nairobians argued that the police were right to execute “thugs” who terrorise their neighbourhoods. For MSJC, it was a reminder of how much work needed to be done to remind Kenyans that the young men in Mathare are human beings too. They chose the photo to confront the police and the public directly for what they literally did that day and what they figuratively do on other days – look on while the state takes away Mathare’s young people.

The main findings of the report are chilling. The centre identified at least eight police officers known in the community who were involved in repeated extra-judicial executions. The average age of those executed was 20, but the youngest was only 13 years-old. Most of those killed were executed at close range – some in the process of surrendering, like the two captured in the video that went viral. The report also alleges a form of systematic cover-up – young men are killed in a handful of known locations and almost always “in possession of a home-made gun”.

As expected, there was a major response. The human rights community in Nairobi was moved into action in an unprecedented way – there has been a heightened level of collaboration and coordination on the issue since the report was launched. Many news outlets covered the launch, thus breaking the silence on extra-judicial executions in informal settlements.

“We noticed after the report was launched that Rashid kept coming around more often, asking for me by name,” says JJ. I ask if that makes him afraid. “I’m afraid a lot of the time,” he admits. He has reason to be so; Steve Mwangi, the administrative coordinator at MSJC, was arrested twice in one week and was threatened with the same fate as Willy Kimani. “When we launched the report and the policeman started hovering around here, it gave me such anxiety.” But JJ’s faith and his networks, especially the rest of the team at the centre, give him courage at times like this.

No one at MSJC is insensitive to the risks of organising against the police in such a visible way. It speaks to their dedication that all the staff members are volunteers even while Nairobi’s cost of living soars. Maria Mutaula, their social media volunteer, is unequivocal: “If I die for the work, I die for it,” she says unflinchingly. Mutaula is not a resident of Mathare – she goes to the centre every day because the other volunteers inspire her and make her hopeful that Kenya can be better than it currently is. “I love that feeling of hope,” she says.

“They love their press conferences and their meetings in hotels,” says JJ, “but when it’s a protest – when it’s time to get teargassed – we the people from the grassroots are the ones who show up.”

Nairobi’s fairly rigid class lines are held in place by the challenges of travelling from one part of the city to the other, and people like Mutaula who cross them regularly by choice are unusual. For the most part, while residents in informal settlements are increasingly organising, centres like MSJC struggle to get the attention of Nairobi’s middle-class communities and, until recently, the human rights organisations nestled in the city’s leafy suburbs. “Mainstream organisations like the big cases like Willy Kimani or Jacob Juma (a controversial businessman murdered allegedly with the connivance of state agents in May 2016),” says JJ. “But it’s hard to get them to pay attention to the small individual cases that we deal with.”

Kimari’s assessment is bleaker. “The middle class in Kenya is a useless demographic,” she notes, fully aware that she is part of that demographic. “We get unexpected allies from time to time – like the well-known constitutional lawyer who pays our rent or individual representatives of various organisations. But for the most part, the mainstream organisations are embarrassed because we are able to do work that they can’t do.” This is symbolic of a growing chasm between the formal human rights network in Kenya and the grassroots organisers that bring them the stories they need to prove their efficacy.

“They love their press conferences and their meetings in hotels,” says JJ, “but when it’s a protest – when it’s time to get teargassed – we the people from the grassroots are the ones who show up.”

JJ isn’t the only one alarmed by the widening gap between national and international human rights organisations and those in informal settlements; it is a common complaint amongst the MSJC team. Part of this gap can be attributed to geography. Nairobi is an economically segregated town and no major human rights organisation has its offices in working-class or poor neighbourhoods of the city. It takes two matatus and several minutes of walking to get from the MSJC office in Mathare to the offices of the national human rights groups in Kilimani, Kileleshwa or Karen. But part of it is also wilful decisions not to invest in networks and collaborations in places like Mathare. “What if instead of spending their money renting rooms in five-star hotels for their press conferences they sent some of that money here so we can buy water for our toilets?” wonders Kimari.

This doctrine of self-organising has also changed the power dynamics between the grassroots groups and the mainstream human rights organisations. It is building confidence in the grassroots organisers to demand different terms of engagement.

In the meantime, MSJC continues to be an inspiration, especially in other informal settlements. “It has spread, we now have the Dandora Youth Network. In Kayole, there’s the Kayole Social Justice Centre. In Kangemi, there’s one – all of these are inspired by MSJC, which showed that we at the grassroots can also form organisations that can make a difference.”

This doctrine of self-organising has also changed the power dynamics between the grassroots groups and the mainstream human rights organisations. It is building confidence in the grassroots organisers to demand different terms of engagement.

“Before, they used to use us to rubber stamp their work,” JJ says, “but now that we are more organised, they have to approach us as full partners and they are starting to take up our issues too.”

For all their successes, MSJC faces the same challenges that any other community-led group in the world faces, funding key amongst them. “Money is important,” notes Kimari, “We have to pay for utilities, buy meals for some of our volunteers and even buy water for the toilets because there’s no running water in the building.” Most of their work is funded by the research collaborations they set up with local and international researchers working in Mathare. They have long-running partnerships with organisations like Peace Brigades International and the Katiba Institute. Occasionally, they are included in projects with other organisations. But they’re still just getting by. “We need more well-wishers to help us grow,” JJ says, “to cover our overheads like administration, Internet and other things – and maybe one day to pay our volunteers a small honorarium.”

These challenges complicate the work but the team moves forward in confidence because they have the greatest asset of all – support from the community. “We deliver for them,” JJ says. “We help them organise in a way that makes sure that people see them. We solve their problems like they are our own. They know that we are part of them and that’s why when you see me walking through the streets they always stop and say hello.”

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THE PEOPLE’S COUP: The 30th January ‘swearing-in’ and its aftermath

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THE PEOPLE’S COUP: The 30th January ‘swearing-in’ and its aftermath

January 30th 2018 enters Kenya’s history books alongside September 1st 2017, the day when, for the first time, an election in the country was nullified. Many dismissed the opposition coalition NASA’s threat to swear in the principals Raila Odinga and his deputy Kalonzo Musyoka as a PR gimmick.

Yet, as the new year rolled in, the momentum for the “swearing-in” gained traction within the NASA ranks and it became apparent that the “ tunaapisha movement” had prevailed over the moderates. The new concern became the possibility of a violent clash between the security forces and opposition hardliners.

On the morning of 30th January, Nairobi had a cloud of unease hovering over it. Uhuru Park was buzzing as early as 4am and waves and waves of humanity swept into the park despite the open threat of repercussions from security authorities. Doomsayers predicted a bloodbath; it was expected that there would be violence as opposition supporters faced the state’s fire power.

The day fell on a Tuesday at the end of the frugal month of January. The usual end-of-month buoyant mood displayed by salaried workers making up for weeks of being broke was absent. I encountered no traffic as I drove to meet a business prospect in the Lavington shopping centre at about 8 in the morning. On my way into the mall, I said hello to a security guard, a familiar face, and asked him why he was not at Uhuru Park. “We don’t have the luxury of demonstrating. You will be quickly sacked and replaced here”, he answered with a trace of annoyance in his voice.

The crowd at Uhuru Park had reached proportions that appeared to rival the swearing-in ceremony of Mwai Kibaki as president in 2002. You could throw a bead in the air and it would struggle to hit the ground. But there was no way in hell that a ceremony of this nature, the first in Kenya’s history, would go down without any drama.

As my business prospect and I sat down for tea, an elderly Caucasian male walked past, chatting to the mall’s security guards with the ease of a regular and teased them, “Hurry up guys, I have to be in Uhuru Park before seats run out.” There was a mix of excitement or dread in the air, depending on what side of the political divide one stood. A ruckus interrupted our conversation. The noise of loud whistles and raised voices filtered through to where we were seated. My guest worried about his car. “I hope these guys have not started rioting. I should have parked in the basement”.

A gang of five men came into sight, walking boisterously past a line of taxis with their drivers standing alert. The undertones of aggression were not reassuring. Three military Land Cruisers had driven past James Gichuru road, pressing our anxiety buttons.

The ceremony

An hour later, I returned home to monitor the live broadcast on TV. The crowds had swelled to proportions I had never seen before. With some relief, I noted that the police were out of sight and the procession to Uhuru Park was peaceful, though the city remained edgy. I got frantic calls from my relatives in the village asking whether we were okay. As a media guy I received the recurring questions: “What do you think is going to happen? Will they kill people?” I hoped for the best as I mentally prepared for the worst.

The crowd at Uhuru Park had reached proportions that appeared to rival the swearing-in ceremony of Mwai Kibaki as president in 2002. You could throw a bead in the air and it would struggle to hit the ground. But there was no way in hell that a ceremony of this nature, the first in Kenya’s history, would go down without any drama. At around noon, the government switched off the live broadcast, starting with Citizen, Inooro and NTV and then followed by KTN, which continued to broadcast for a stretch longer before it was also rendered off-air. Kenyans switched to online streaming. The media blackout only helped in heightening tensions. At Uhuru Park, the atmosphere was electric, the sea of humanity estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands patiently waiting for the man of the moment. The “swearing-in” was running late and by 1pm none of the principals had arrived.

The casualness of the whole affair was comically deceptive. An opposition leader had just sworn himself in as “The People’s President” less than three months after the constitutionally elected President was sworn in, smack in the middle of the city in broad daylight.

Raila Odinga finally arrived to a tumultuous welcome after 2pm. His co-principals, Kalonzo Musyoka, Musalia Mudavadi and Moses Wetangula, were nowhere in sight. Mombasa Governor “Sultan” Hassan Joho, James Orengo and T.J. Kajwang were in ceremonial dress ready to administer the oath. The lawyer Miguna Miguna and businessman Jimmy Wanjigi were conspicuously defiant. At about 2.45 pm, Raila raised a green Bible and read the oath swearing himself in as “The People’s President”. The applause reverberated throughout the city. He delivered a short and hurried speech in Kiswahili, trying to explain the absence of his co-principals and then switched to English, giving an even shorter remark and closing with the solidarity slogan, “A people united can never be defeated”. The speech lasted barely 5 minutes. He then swiftly exited the platform.

A sense of flatness descended soon after, anti-climatic in some respects, because the masses gathered at Uhuru Park had hoped that the moment’s significance would be immediately tangible. The crowds dissolved peacefully within the next two hours. The self-policed gathering appeared innately alive to the fact that any type of violent behaviour would have soiled the occasion, fueling the narrative of opposition supporters’ appetite for violence and destruction. The peaceful assembly cast the police as the provocateurs.

The casualness of the whole affair was comically deceptive. An opposition leader had just sworn himself in as “The People’s President” less than three months after the constitutionally elected President was sworn in, smack in the middle of the city in broad daylight. Uhuru Park, with its heavy symbolism of a monument of liberation movements, is just a 100 metres away from the Parliament building, the seat of Kenya’s power, and less than 200m from State House, the president’s residence. The possibility of riotous masses in their hundreds of thousands storming either State House or the Parliament in Kenya’s own version of a people’s coup was not far-fetched.

The “swearing-in” ceremony, caricatured as a farce and a self-defeatist move by its critics, achieved its aim in the eyes of the proponents of secession and the People’s Republic. Kenya now had two “presidents”, each to his own, and putting Kenya in an unprecedented political stalemate.  The move was unconstitutional and even treasonable, as former Attorney General Githu Muigai had boldly stated, yet for the millions of NASA supporters it became a cathartic moment. They had scored and sent a loud and clear message that the Jubilee government was illegitimate and that their leadership was an imposition that they would not stop contesting.

Raila Odinga’s disobedience and resistance was a shot in the arm of a disenfranchised opposition that had lost complete faith in acquiring any sort of electoral justice under the present state of affairs. The growing ranks of radicals appeared to be in control of the opposition’s momentum, led from the front by economist and NASA strategist David Ndii and Miguna Miguna, the self-styled “general” of the National Resistance Movement.  On December 9th 2017, after his release from police custody,  David Ndii had stated his position clearly: “If the Jubilee administration decides to go extra-legal then there is absolutely nothing law-abiding people can do if their government goes rogue. It becomes the responsibility of citizens to see how they navigate themselves out of a situation where the state is captured by a rogue regime and that’s why we have constituted the People’s Assembly”.

The January 30th swearing-in was about common people, the hoi polloi asserting their presence in a highly visible manner. One barman at a restaurant  I frequent told me that it was no longer about Raila Odinga; he was a symbol of resistance who everyone respected, but if Raila had hesitated to swear himself in, his supporters would have installed him as their leader anyway.

Raila, lived up to his moniker, Agwambo (the unpredictable), conquering the fear of his own political death in a transcendental moment.  Courage is what the millions of supporters demanded of their leader and he stood a man apart from his co-principals who succumbed to the pressure of the moment much to the disgust of their core bases in Ukambani and Luhyaland.

The “swearing-in” reinforced Raila’s status as untouchable. The word on the street was “touch Raila and the country burns”. Raila has (not yet) suffered the fate of other opposition leaders who have dared to question the legitimacy of a sitting government in this brazen manner. The other African opposition leaders who had sworn themselves in, namely, Kizza Besiyge, Mashoud Abiola and Etienne Tshesekedi, were promptly bundled into jail. In the Kenyan political game of thrones, Raila is better in the field than out of the play, good for business so to speak. During the opposition boycott of the October 26th election, Raila’s absence on the ballot box was blamed for the low turnout in Jubilee strongholds, bringing credence to the rumours that Jubilee voters do not necessarily vote for the party but rather against Raila, the perennial bogeyman in Central Kenya.

What next?

But the question remains, what next? Soon after the ceremony at Uhuru Park, Ruaraka MP T.J. Kajwang was temporarily arrested for his role in the “swearing-in”. This was followed by the dramatic arrest, court run-around and eventual deportation of Miguna Miguna.  These actions and the consequent disregard for court orders were signs of a government flexing muscle and saving face as it confronted challenges to its legitimacy.

The January 30th swearing-in was about common people, the hoi polloi asserting their presence in a highly visible manner. One barman at a restaurant  I frequent told me that it was no longer about Raila Odinga; he was a symbol of resistance who everyone respected, but if Raila had hesitated to swear himself in, his supporters would have installed him as their leader anyway.

The several ordinary Kenyans I spoke to as I sought to guage the pulse of the nation all alluded to the fact that Kenya had crossed the red line of public cynicism about its politics. The political elites were completely divorced from the suffering of the masses. Life was hard for everyone no matter who you voted for.

This honour seems incomprehensible to the elite; it is easier to diminish protestors as thugs, militia or brainwashed and ignorant adherents of opposition politics. But the nature of any resistance movement changes when its followers are no longer afraid of death.

There was also a sense of hopelessness about changing the system through legal means because the rules were regularly flouted to cater to the interests of the political elite.  The public had decided it was pointless to talk about democracy where rules were made to be broken.

Meanwhile, Western countries who had championed democratic reforms in the past discredited themselves by taking a unified stand to remain mum on illegalities raised during the nullified election of August 8th. During press briefings, the face of the diplomatic corp, US ambassador Bob Godec, harped on about peace in place of justice, stability in place of protest and a return to normalcy, which is the euphemism for a return to the established status quo. The West lost moral credibility after the rise of Trump, Brexit and France’s failure to face up to racism within its borders.  The open bias of Western media around issues of electoral injustice has established that Kenya can no longer rely on the West for help. The fallacy of a hollow democracy for Africans where hard questions are discouraged could no longer hold.

Something else had changed. People were not afraid to die for this new ideal they believed in. According to a Standard newspaper article published on the 3rd of January, NASA supporters were planning funerals for the living as a precautionary action before any demonstration. One interviewee was quoted saying, “I do not know if it is my turn today but I beseech you my friends when I go down, do not let the ground that has fed on millions of bodies feast on mine in Lang’ata [cemetery]. Send me off with honour.”

This honour seems incomprehensible to the elite; it is easier to diminish protestors as thugs, militia or brainwashed and ignorant adherents of opposition politics. But the nature of any resistance movement changes when its followers are no longer afraid of death. The reality of the lives of millions of struggling Kenyans locked in informal settlements or in neglected villages leaves no room for fence-sitting. It matters not whether one is innocent or guilty; innocent people have been killed in their homes and children have been shot while playing on balconies. These repeated encounters with police brutality have turned many people living in the slums of Nairobi and other parts of the country into die-hard protestors.

Commentator John Lauritis wrote a piece titled “All Cops are Bad”, elaborating on how modern police institutions negate moral responsibility. He explains how the French policing model, Gendarmes, spread during the early 1800s as Napoleon Bonaparte conquered much of Europe. Modern police institutions have become a publicly-funded centralised police organised in a military hierarchy and under the control of the state. The police service was not designed to serve the public but rather to protect the political power of the ruling elite. As opposed to a community service, they have become the harsh arm of state authority. Structurally, the policing culture in Kenya that was developed in the colonial state deprives the police of moral agency and hence no cop is held responsible for individual excesses. By its very nature, the police become an agent of state impunity that is accountable to no one.

There is a sense on the ground that the only way to draw attention to the plight of the victims is to plunge Kenya into a crisis – the only language that the political elite responds to. There is an African proverb that aptly captures the mood: “If the youth are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.”

During the September 2017 demonstrations against Independent Electoral Boundary Commission (IEBC) officials, protestors in Kisumu reprimanded the police for showing restraint and demanded the use of tear gas to disperse them. Beyond the comical undertones of that stance,  protestors daring police violence has become a way of reclaiming moral authority against the police’s monopoly of violence.

Political tensions have been bubbling since the murder of IEBC ICT manager Chris Musando a week before the 8th August election. The tribally-profiled victims of state-sanctioned violence, including opposition demonstrators, have joined a long list of martyrs. There is a sense on the ground that the only way to draw attention to the plight of the victims is to plunge Kenya into a crisis – the only language that the political elite responds to. There is an African proverb that aptly captures the mood: “If the youth are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.”

The trigger, as it appears, could be the most random action that unleashes the bottled-up frustrations of millions of Kenyans who are not prepared to wait another five years for change.  The trigger of the Rwandan genocide was the shooting down of the plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6th 1994. The Berlin Wall collapsed on 9th November 1989 after the first secretary of the German Democratic Republic’s Central Committee, Gunter Schabowski, blundered in a speech that was broadcast to the world. Before the speech could be retracted, East Berliners had gathered at the wall, overwhelming the border security. The self-immolation of street hawker, Mohammed Bouazizi, after he had been harassed by the police, was the trigger that brought down President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23-year hold on the Tunisian people. Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe was brought down by a speech given by his wife “Gucci” Grace Mugabe that led to the expulsion of former Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa from the ZANU ruling party.

History is filled with pages of ordinary people negotiating their own justice; there comes a point when oppressed masses cease to be afraid of brutal state power.

Kenya crossed a tolerance threshold on January 30th 2018. The facade of democracy and unity fell apart and Kenyans have now occupied hard-line positions, well aware of the precipitating political crisis.  The crackdown on opposition leaders only adds to the narrative of a state hell-bent on providing the incentive for an inferno. The dominance of the Kikuyu and the Kalenjin in political positions engenders a victimhood complex; those who refuse to speak against the victimisation are considered to be complicit in the suffering of their fellow citizens. Oppression is the grievance that unites Kenya’s disenfranchised masses against the “two bad tribes”.

History is filled with pages of ordinary people negotiating their own justice; there comes a point when oppressed masses cease to be afraid of brutal state power.

The great unwashed are restless. The Kenya Project is rushing to a tipping point. “[When] things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” wrote the Irish poet W.B. Yeats.

In the interim, we return to our perpetual state of angst, as if living next to a haunted swamp that keeps bubbling. There is evidence that something lurks. The weather just needs to change and the soul is seized again.

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THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children 

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THE TROUBLE WITH SOUTH SUDAN: A revolution that ate its own children

The highly hyped youngest country in the world has aged so fast that it now lies on the region’s sick bed in the hope that the High-Level Revitalisation Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which convened on February 5th 2018, will salvage something from its nearly five years of civil war. “Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?” a passer-by asked in astonishment. The truth is that for historic reasons South Sudan does not fit comfortably where it situates politically, economically and diplomatically as a sovereign nation.

“History does not repeat itself”, was Marx’s repudiation of Hegel’s metaphysics: “It occurs as a tragedy, and then a farce.” The Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) successfully midwifed the (1994-2005) peace talks that led to the comprehensive peace agreement (CPA) between the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). The CPA provided the people of southern Sudan the inalienable right to self-determination. When the time for a referendum came on 9 January 2011, the people of southern Sudan voted overwhelmingly (98.3%) for independence and the Republic of South Sudan was born on 9 July 2011. That was the tragedy. Who could imagine that a country that was barely three years-old and that was emerging from twenty-one years of a devastating war of national liberation could get embroiled in another war?

The roots of the civil war locate in the internal political contradictions in the SPLM, which is linked to the failure of the SPLM leaders to address the fundamental issues of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of the people that underpinned the war of national liberation. This is reflected in the abject poverty, ignorance, illiteracy and superstition prevalent in the new nation, which submerge their consciousness and prevents them from correctly gauging their reality.

“Did South Sudan start to walk prematurely before teething and crawling like other human toddlers, or receiving sufficient and timely immunisation against the post-independence ailments that afflicted most sub-Saharan African countries?”

The reasons for South Sudan’s failure are simple: The SPLM leaders spearheaded the war of national liberation without an ideology; they never envisaged or envisioned the state and society they desired and hence lack – or could not marry – the theory and practice of liberation. Moreover, their refusal to politically educate and organise their people entrenched an ethnic-based ideology that expunged progressive thinking among the combatants and the masses of the people. The absence of democratic institutions and instruments of power resulted in the personification, rather than the institutionalisation, of the SPLM’s authority. The linkage between state power and ethnic hubris rolled into an explosive alloy driving the ethnicised power politics.

The internal SPLM contradictions were nothing more than a power struggle within its top echelon. This had been the cause of its splits and internecine fighting since the SPLA/M inception in 1983. These contradictions were not ideological but political in character, revolving around personalities rather than issues. Sometimes they permeated into ethnic and provincial domains where they became violent and susceptible to exploitation by the common enemy feeding into its proxy wars of counterinsurgency.

The death of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, the SPLM Chairman, the SPLA Commander-in- Chief, the first Vice President of the Republic of the Sudan and the President of the Government of Southern Sudan, in a tragic helicopter crash on 30 July 2005 deprived the SPLM and the people of southern Sudan of a moderate voice that could prevent the escalation of internal feuds. The new leadership of South Sudan, comprising two incompatible and uncompromising leaders, quickly sent the people of South Sudan into war. This erupted on 15 December 2013 and continues unabated except for a break following the IGAD-mediated peace agreement on resolution of the conflict in South Sudan (ARCISS) in August 2015.

What is the problem?

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon. This could not be much further from the reality. Although, the two leaders indeed are factors at the secondary and tertiary levels of the contradiction, the fundamental contradiction underpinning the war in South Sudan is the centuries’ old condition of socio-economic and cultural backwardness of its people. Failure to address that fundamental contradiction was the driver of the southern Sudan people’s struggle against the different regimes that came and went in Khartoum since Sudan’s independence in 1956, including the war of national liberation spearheaded by the SPLM/A.

The independence of South Sudan did not change the nature of the contradiction, particularly following the paradigm shift the SPLM leadership undertook from revolution to right-wing neoliberalism in the dying days of the Cold War and the superpower rivalry in the Horn of Africa. The shift transformed the SPLM leaders into an elitist class completely alienated from the masses of the people. This facilitated and accelerated the consummation of the liberal peace agreement with the Islamic fundamentalist regime in Khartoum in 2005, giving the SPLM full control of the subnational entity known as the Government of Southern Sudan (GoSS). The SPLM leaders had no programme or strategy for managing the unfamiliar ground the CPA lobbed them onto i.e. to run the government and the state.

Many people, especially the so-called international development partners, erroneously believe that the problem is a personal rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former deputy in the leadership of the SPLM and the Government of South Sudan, Dr. Riek Machar Teny-Dhurgon.

GoSS had an annual budget of between five and six billion US dollars from its share of the oil revenues. However, the SPLM, the dominant and leading political party in GoSS, did not have a programme for addressing the social and economic development of South Sudan. The political, military and burgeoning commercial/business elite that evolved in the context of the war economy plaited into a parasitic capitalist class; parasitic in that it did not command any means of production but derived its wealth consequent to its control of the state and its resources through the agency of corruption and outright theft from state coffers. Instead of providing development and social services, the members of this class dolled themselves in self-aggrandisement that they christened ‘payback time’ in a political patronage system suggesting that the war of national liberation was about nothing but rent-seeking.

The SPLM leaders jettisoned the liberation era pledge to construct a society based on freedom, justice, fraternity and prosperity for all. Thus, corruption, tribalism, nepotism, impunity, insecurity and ethnic conflicts were the characteristic features of the interim period between 9 January 2005 and 9 July 2011 and only the general and genuine desire by the people for the successful implementation of the referendum on self-determination constituted the constraint that prevented an all-out eruption of violence. The political environment was tense and gearing towards a totalitarian dictatorship as President Salva Kiir erected oppressive tools in the SPLM system, exploiting people’s patience as they waited to vote for independence.

A provision in the Interim Constitution of Southern Sudan (ICSS, 2005) stated that should the result of the referendum be in favour of independence, the ICSS would become the transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan, with amendments relevant to the changed status of South Sudan. Instead of following that provision, President Kiir ordered for the crafting of a completely new constitution that gave him excessive powers, making him an imperial president. Thus, South Sudan became independent on an undemocratic and oppressive transitional constitution in which power was concentrated in the presidency. President Kiir particularly liked the provision that he could fire his deputy, which was done specifically with the incumbent, Machar, in mind. The transitional constitution eroded all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the interim constitution. This marked the beginning of South Sudan’s political troubles.

This development coincided with the upsurge of Dinka (Jieng) ethnic nationalism, with its ideology of hegemony and domination. The Dinka is the single largest nationality in South Sudan. The formation of the Jieng Council of Elders (JCE) – representing the social, economic and political interests of the Dinka people – as a power broker around Kiir’s presidency was part of engineering a totalitarian political dispensation in the young republic. President Kiir used his executive powers in the JCE to paralyse the political functions of the SPLM, shifting power from the SPLM General-Secretariat through the office of the president (OP) to the JCE, which now evolved into a quasi-state institution.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty. The South Sudan Pound lost value against foreign currencies from 2.5 to the US dollar in 2011 to 250 in 2018. The negative social and economic indices inspired political protests, demonstrations and opposition to the regime’s oppressive policies in different parts of South Sudan. This raised the political temperatures within the top leadership of the SPLM, fuelling the power struggle between President Kiir and Vice President Machar, which reached a crisis point in July 2013 when the President dismissed his deputy.

IGAD mediation

In an extraordinary assembly of IGAD Heads of State and Government in Nairobi on 27 December 2013, the region decided to intervene to resolve the conflict in South Sudan. Unfortunately, unlike its experience of mediating the conflict between the Sudan and the SPLM, which ushered in the CPA, the region this time round shot itself in the foot. The four countries involved in the mediation (Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and the Sudan) each had their respective national economic, security and political interests in South Sudan. Uganda had the UPDF and Air Forces involved in the war on the side of Kiir’s government. Sudan had its SPLM/A–North and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) rebels operating from South Sudan with the support of Uganda. The Sudan also had its commercial interests as oil from South Sudan still transits through the Sudan to international markets.

The respective security, economic and political interests of these countries created an environment of competition among them and therefore interfered in their collective efforts to resolve the conflict. The regional mediation of the South Sudan conflict was flawed in many aspects. The negotiation modality involved many stakeholders on the principle of inclusivity when only two parties, namely the SPLM in government and the SPLM/A in the opposition, were fighting the war. The mediation advanced the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) before sealing the agreement. This introduced the issue of power sharing, which was like placing the cart before the horse. After sixteen months of intermittent negotiation, there was an Agreement on the Resolution of Crisis in South Sudan (ARCISS), which the SPLM/A (IO) and other parties signed on 17 August, and which Salva Kiir reluctantly signed on 26 August.

At the economic level, the parasitic capitalist class in control of the state and its resources allied with East Africa’s parasitic and global comprador capitalist class to extract and plunder South Sudan’s natural resources, especially oil, gold and timber. This alliance witnessed massive capital flight from South Sudan to Kenya and Uganda and via these countries to Western financial houses, leaving the country in abject poverty.

The agreement provided for power sharing between the SPLM in government (Kiir, 53%), the SPLM/A in the opposition (Machar, 33%), the SPLM political leaders or individual arrested and detained in the wake of the violence on 15 December 2013 (7%) and the other 18 registered political parties (7%). It took eight months before the parties started implementing the peace agreement. This was partly due to the government’s reluctance and intransigence and partly due to the weakness demonstrated by the mediators, the peace guarantors and the international community to bring pressure to bear on President Kiir to enable the operationalisation of ARCISS instruments. The body formed to oversee and supervise the implementation, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission (JMEC) chaired by former Botswana President Festus Mogae, proved ineffective in the face of procrastination, bullying and outright defiance by government functionaries. The transitional government of national unity (TGoNU) was formed on 29 April 2016 before the amended constitution incorporating ARCISS was promulgated, rendering it difficult to operationalise.

In addition to the difficulties President Kiir erected to frustrate TGoNU functions, a rebellion was brewing in Dr. Machar’s party. Taban Deng Gai, who was the SPLM/A (IO)’s chief negotiator, was not pleased that Riek Machar had denied him the petroleum portfolio in the TGoNU. He shifted allegiance to President Kiir in a conspiracy that triggered the fighting in the presidential palace on 8 July 2016, rekindling the war and precipitating the collapse of the TGoNU as well as the ARCISS. President Kiir later appointed Taban Deng Gai as the first vice president in lieu of Dr. Machar. This was a flagrant violation of ARCISS.

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, during a visit to Nairobi later in the month, forced the IGAD Council of Ministers to recognise the de facto new situation in South Sudan. The United States had played a pivotal role in the consummation of the CPA and in the conducting of the referendum on self-determination that eventually led to South Sudan’s independence. The region therefore could not effectively intervene to stop the deteriorating humanitarian situation caused by the escalation of the war, which now engulfed the hitherto peaceful areas in Equatoria and Western Bahr el Ghazal consequent to the emergence and proliferation of armed opposition groups. This situation continued until finally in June 2017, the JMEC Chair, Mr. Festus Mogae, finally admitted that ARCISS was fatally disabled and required revitalisation.

Revitalisation of ARCISS

The intricacy of diplomacy renders difficult the interpretation and operationalisation of certain terminologies. In the current context of South Sudan, “the revitalisation of ARCISS” is meaningless as it is not be feasible without Dr. Machar, who has been holed up in South Africa since November 2016 on the advice of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Since the 30-month ARCISS transition period is almost expiring, the IGAD mediators should have started a new peace process involving the newly formed political and armed opposition groups. However, IGAD proceeded with their plan to consult and draw an agenda for the revitalisation of ARCISS. This agenda included a meeting in December 2017 to recommit the parties to the agreement on the cessation of hostilities. The parties signed the agreement on 21 December, but it never came into force because the government started its dry season military offensive to regain the territories under the armed opposition in Equatoria and Jonglei. This caused further humanitarian crises, with people streaming into Ethiopia and Uganda to seek refuge.

The second phase of the revitalisation process commenced on 4 February 2018 and was expected to continue until 16 February. The objectives of this phase are: a) restore the permanent ceasefire; b) achieve full and inclusive implementation of ARCISS; and c) develop a revised and realistic timeline and implementation schedule towards democratic elections at the end of the transitional period.

These are unrealistic objectives. First, the government has demonstrated a complete lack of interest in sharing power with the opposition. Secondly, the mediators have failed to deploy the 4,000-strong Regional Protection Force from Rwanda and Ethiopia that would have provided security for Juba and other major towns. Thirdly, the armed opposition, the SPLM/A (IO), provides no military threat to the government because of an undeclared arms embargo imposed on it and the incarceration of its leader in South Africa. Fourthly, the transitional period that ARCISS provided ends in May 2018, which is the beginning of the rainy season in South Sudan. Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo. It would not be possible to bring them back to partake in elections in such a short time. Fifthly, assuming that the high-level revitalisation forum ends in an agreement, a new transitional period must factor in reconciliation and must enable the repatriation and resettlement of refugees.

Even if it was possible to conduct elections during the rainy season, it would be a futile exercise as there are more than four million South Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Sudan, the Central African Republic and DR Congo.

The revitalisation process is therefore a tall order in terms of the commitment of the IGAD region, the African Union and other interested parties to enforce the implementation of the resultant agreement. It would also require walking the extra diplomatic and political mile to force President Kiir and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to accept the agreement and its implementation in the letter and spirit in which the parties negotiated and agreed to it.

The entire process reeks of liberal peacemaking. The usual shortcoming of liberal peacemaking is that it leaves the regime intact. The superficial reforms it provides rarely impact the character and essence of the regime and end up recreating the conditions for renewed conflict. The 1972 Addis Ababa Agreement between the May regime of Gaafar Nimeri and the South Sudan Liberation Movement of Joseph Lagu created the conditions for the formation of the SPLM/A and the war of national liberation (1983-2005). The CPA created the conditions for the ongoing wars in the Sudan and South Sudan. Other examples exist in Mozambique, Angola and Cambodia. Therefore, whatever agreement the interested parties may come up with, the people of South Sudan should receive it with caution.

What then is the solution to the conflict in South Sudan?

A national democratic revolution

The plethora of problems afflicting the people of South Sudan are typical of when a people emerge from a war of national liberation or from colonial bondage. These problems obtained, and even continued to multiply, in South Sudan because the SPLM leaders decided to construct and maintain neocolonial relations with global comprador capitalism in order to perpetuate the system of extraction and plunder of South Sudan’s natural resources. This has left the country bankrupt and in economic meltdown while the people have been pauperised.

The essence of the war of national liberation that the SPLM spearheaded was to develop and free the national productive forces from any kind of foreign interference and domination. In this context, the SPLM hitherto counted as one of the forces of national democratic revolution in the Horn of Africa and the Middle East. However, the socio-economic and political developments in South Sudan since 2005 have demonstrated that the SPLM leaders have jettisoned the liberation pledge they made in 1983 and abandoned the path to national democratic revolution.

Until we successfully carry out a national democratic revolution for the social, economic and political development of our people, these problems will endure. We have to complete the national democratic revolution by implementing its programme in the social, economic and political spheres. We must construct a national democratic state that emancipates our people from the poverty, ignorance, political and ideological illiteracy, and superstition, which if left alone, could pop up in different forms: ethnic chauvinism and bigotry; religious, gender and racial discrimination; nepotism and favouritism; electoral fraud; political exclusion; and economic marginalisation and exploitation. These could quickly become the drivers of future conflict.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms.

Notwithstanding their political weaknesses and lack or organisation, the forces of the national democratic revolution exist in South Sudan in social groups, civil society and community-based organisations, and in the political parties and armed opposition. Some of these are actively participating in daily social and economic struggles and some may be hibernating, waiting for the opportune time. The tools for national democratic revolution range from what already exists now in the form of waging a revolutionary armed struggle, to demonstrations and processions, sit-ins and civil disobedience in towns and cities. We tried these methods successfully before in the popular uprising against the first military government of Ibrahim Abboud and Jaafar Nimeiri’s totalitarian dictatorship in Sudan.

However, while the conditions and chances for successfully carrying out a revolutionary armed struggle are getting dimmer because of internal and external factors, the masses have at their disposal the option of non-violent means of struggle to win back their basic rights and fundamental freedoms. It is imperative to complete the national democratic revolution and the construction of the national democratic state to address social and economic development, as well as the secondary contradictions inherent in the ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural multiplicities of South Sudan. This is necessary whether or not the IGAD-led revitalisation of ARCISS succeeds in forcing the parties – through diplomatic arm-twisting by development partners – to agree to a power-sharing timeline and some reforms in the system.

In conclusion, the people of South Sudan are in such a dire social, economic and humanitarian situation that there is no time to waste in sterile debates about power-sharing and reforms of a system that has become, as Dr. Garang used to say of the government in Khartoum, “too deformed to be reformed”. It is about time the patriotic democratic social and political forces pulled together to salvage the country and its people.

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