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CITIZEN OR SUBJECT? The struggle between Kenya’s better self and its corrupted version

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In his op-ed for the Washington Post, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta expressed “every confidence that the impasse in Kenya would be resolved by the new vote.” Which is strange given that the current impasse is precisely about the new vote, the fresh election ordered by the Supreme Court after it annulled the August presidential election in which Kenyatta had been declared the winner.

As Kenyatta stated, that historic decision by the Supreme Court came as a shock to everyone – just not for the reasons he espouses. It wasn’t because international observers had hastily declared the polls free and fair (and equally hastily tried to walk that back following the nullification). Anyone who followed the publicly televised proceedings would have been treated to the spectacle of the country’s electoral body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, disowning the results it had streamed on TV screens during the tallying of the votes. If the president had read the full Supreme Court majority judgment, he would have heard tales of differing forms used to declare the outcome (“If they were forgeries, who introduced them into the system? If they were genuine, why were they different from the others?” asked the judges) and of the IEBC defying the court’s order to have its servers audited and acting as though the constitution and election law didn’t exist.

That sufficient grounds existed to question the veracity of the results announced by the IEBC is not seriously contested. The real reason for the surprise at the reversal was that no one expected that the power of Kenya’s “owners” would be seriously questioned.

Kenya ina wenyewe or Kenya has its owners – the wenyenchi – is a common refrain throughout the country. What it refers to is the fact that the country is set up to work for very few individuals at the very top. This is a legacy of the country’s colonial past, and the fact that President Kenyatta’s predecessors, including his father, Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, failed to reform the colonial state they inherited from the British.

That sufficient grounds existed to question the veracity of the results announced by the IEBC is not seriously contested. The real reason for the surprise at the reversal was that no one expected that the power of Kenya’s “owners” would be seriously questioned.

Yet the struggles to change that state were at the core of the independence struggle, and those debates were not just carried out in London, where Kenya’s independence constitution was negotiated; even the Mau Mau created a Parliament in the bush and debated the shape a free country should take. It is not, as President Kenyatta asserted on the eve of the new vote on 26 October, that “our forefathers fought and died for the right of the African to vote” in a political and economic system defined by the colonialists.

Sadly, these efforts were all betrayed. In 1992, the current Attorney-General, Githu Muigai, described how this betrayal came about:

“The colonial order had been one monolithic edifice of power that did not rely on any set of rules for legitimisation. When the independence constitution was put into place it was completely at variance with the authoritarian administrative structures that were still kept in place by the entire corpus of public law. Part of the initial amendments therefore involved an attempt – albeit misguided – to harmonise the operations of a democratic constitution with an undemocratic and authoritarian administrative structure. Unhappily instead of the latter being amended to fit the former, the former was altered to fit the latter with the result that the constitution was effectively downgraded.”

In effect, the colonial state, and its logic of extracting resources from the many to enrich a few wenyenchi – the political elite that replaced the British colonials at the apex of Kenya’s political arrangement – prevailed. The renewed push for a new constitution in the 1990s, which culminated in the promulgation of the 2010 document, was another attempt to reconfigure the state. However, like its independence counterpart, the current constitution continues to face opposition from Kenya’s “owners” who were content to allow a semblance of democracy as long as it did not fundamentally challenge their place at the top. Democracy was never meant to be real, but the September 1 annulment of the presidential election changed all that.

“I did not agree with that decision. But I accepted it,” wrote Kenyatta. He was being disingenuous. The decision shook him – and his fellow “owners” – to the core. What followed was an emotional and frenzied attack on the courts led by the president himself. He branded the judges “wakora” or bandits and said that the judgment was a “judicial coup” that he promised to “revisit”. Soon his supporters, led by David Murathe, the Vice-Chairperson of his Jubilee Party, were openly extolling the virtues of dictatorship.

In the meantime, the president did not just “immediately return to campaigning, taking the case for a renewal of my mandate to the people of Kenya once again”, as he claimed. In Parliament, his allies were busy changing electoral laws to essentially make it impossible for another presidential election to ever be annulled and to regularise the illegal acts of the IEBC. Even more worrying, this fit into a wider trend where democratic rights and freedoms were being progressively curtailed.

A report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch claims that up to 67 people in opposition strongholds may have been killed by the police in the period following the August 8 election. Avenues for popular political participation – from the media to civil society to street protests – are being closed. As Kavuwa Musyoka describes this state of affiars in Julia Steers’ article on police killings in Nairobi’s informal settlements, “It is democracy for the have-its. The have-nots do not have democracy. In the slums, democracy is not ours.”

The insistence on holding this election thus had little to do with, as Kenyatta suggested, resolving the political impasse. Neither was the election about Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, whose “devotion to … democracy” can be questioned given his past willingness to align with despots and defend kleptocrats when it suited him. It was rather about putting down the democratic revolt that the Supreme Court threatened in September and ensuring that the owners stay in charge.

Even judges may not feel safe. Following an attack on her bodyguard, the Deputy Chief Justice Philomena Mwilu was unable to attend the scheduled hearing on the eve of the election of an urgent case at the Supreme Court seeking to have the 26 October election postponed, a possibility that Kenyatta had flatly rejected. Her absence, along with that of four other judges (two so far without explanation and another claiming she couldn’t get a flight to Nairobi), meant the case could not be heard as the two available justices could not constitute a quorum.

It was in this context that the fresh election was being held. It was not entirely true, as the president asserted, that the international community had “declared support for the upcoming election”. Prior to the election, Western diplomats warned that “inflammatory rhetoric and attacks on the election commission made it more difficult to hold a legitimate poll”. Before that, the IEBC Chairman Wafula Chebukati had declared that all his efforts to reform the commission had been frustrated and that he could not guarantee a free fair and credible poll. However, by the time he was announcing the election results on Monday this week, his tone had changed considerably. He declared that having received assurances of security and restraint from the police and the president, he had changed his mind about the IEBC’s ability to carry out a free and fair election.

Around the world, elections do little to resolve political problems. From Afghanistan to Egypt and even in established democracies like the US and the UK, they tend to polarise public opinion rather than bring people together. The insistence on holding this election thus had little to do with, as Kenyatta suggested, resolving the political impasse. Neither was the election about Kenyatta’s main rival, Raila Odinga, whose “devotion to … democracy” can be questioned given his past willingness to align with despots and defend kleptocrats when it suited him. It was rather about putting down the democratic revolt that the Supreme Court threatened in September and ensuring that the owners stay in charge.

The gambit appears to have backfired. With Odinga refusing to participate in the election and calling for a boycott, Kenyatta’s win was a foregone conclusion. However, the legitimacy of his victory was pegged on the voter turnout, which explains the shenanigans the IEBC has gone to seemingly massage the figures. Once again, as happened in August, the IEBC is running away from the data generated by its own voter identification and results transmission kits – known as KIEMS (Kenya Integrated Election Management System) kits – which were meant to periodically give turnout figures throughout the day as voting happened. Aside from convoluted explanations for why it wouldn’t be releasing the data from KIEMS, the elections body has also offered differing numbers, with Chebukati at one point offering what he would later call a “best estimate” of 48 per cent voter turnout, before paring that back to just over 6.5 million voters, or 33% with 91% of constituencies reporting. The lower figure tallies with media reports of depressed turnout throughout voting day, including in Kenyatta’s strongholds.

A high turnout would have seen Kenyatta claim some measure of popular endorsement for his efforts to roll back the constitutional order. The opposite indicates serious misgivings about how the election was conducted even in his electoral backyard. Along with a poll showing most Kenyans, including half of those in Kenyatta’s strongholds, approved of the decision to annul the August election, this suggests that across the political divide, Kenyans prefer credible processes to fixed outcomes. And even though he claims vindication, the low turnout was not so much an endorsement of Odinga but rather a repudiation of the wenyenchi’s schemes to frustrate the constitution.

A high turnout would have seen Kenyatta claim some measure of popular endorsement for his efforts to roll back the constitutional order. The opposite indicates serious misgivings about how the election was conducted even in his electoral backyard. Along with a poll showing most Kenyans, including half of those in Kenyatta’s strongholds, approved of the decision to annul the August election, this suggests that across the political divide, Kenyans prefer credible processes to fixed outcomes. And even though he claims vindication, the low turnout was not so much an endorsement of Odinga but rather a repudiation of the wenyenchi’s schemes to frustrate the constitution.

So where does Kenya go from here? Kenyatta has said he is now willing to talk to Raila Odinga, though no one is sure what about. However, Kenyans should be wary of leaving the country’s future to the two leaders. Kenya’s political factions have historically not been interested in free and fair polls, but rather in retaining their ability to manipulate results while denying the same to their opponents.

Similarly, the issues that need to be addressed must go beyond the narrow political interests in carrying out a more legitimate election. Kenya’s historical experience with politicians negotiating electoral reform teaches that politicians are not fundamentally interested in the people’s right to choose their leaders, but in the politicians’ ability to hold onto power. The inevitable horse-trading leads to minimal reforms and shortchanging of the electorate.

A good example of this was the effort to reform the IEBC last year where, off the bat, the politicians agreed they would not change the constitution to give the Supreme Court more time to comprehensively deal with legal challenges to the outcome of the presidential election, currently limited to 14 days. This despite the fact that following the 2013 challenge to Kenyatta’s election, the then Chief Justice, Willy Mutunga, had said that the court needed more time. The court ended up throwing the meat out of Odinga’s case citing limited time, and declared the 2013 election free and fair. More worryingly, another Supreme Court judge would later admit that the court might have come to a different conclusion if it had been given more time.

Similarly, in the run-up to the 1997 polls, and following huge pressure for reform driven by civil society, parliamentary politicians ganged up to steal activists’ thunder by agreeing to a set of minimum reforms that not only did away with many of the critical demands but which were also never entrenched in law. A decade later, President Mwai Kibaki’s repudiation of the “gentleman’s agreement” that had allowed opposition politicians a say in the appointment of electoral commissioners fatally undermined the credibility of the 2007 elections and set the stage for the violence that followed, which killed over 1,300 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

Kenya cannot afford to leave its politics to the whims of its politicians. Any talks should be conducted within the context of a wider national dialogue that involves a wider cross-section of society, including representatives of civil society, workers as well as religious and business leaders. Similarly, the issues to be addressed must go beyond the narrow interests of political parties. The agenda must include the people’s “irreducible minimums”: comprehensive audit and reform of the electoral system; constitutional changes to shore up the independence of the judiciary and other constitutional bodies; reform of the police; compliance with all the provisions of the constitution, including the requirement that no gender should have more than two-thirds representation in any appointive or electoral bodies; and implementation of the report of the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission, which has been gathering dust in Parliament for the last three years, so that Kenya can finally begin the hard work of righting the wrongs of the past.

Kenya cannot afford to leave its politics to the whims of its politicians. Any talks should be conducted within the context of a wider national dialogue that involves a wider cross-section of society, including representatives of civil society, workers as well as religious and business leaders.

Inadvertently, President Kenyatta has provided Kenyans an opportunity to consolidate their nation’s future and begin to develop a genuine democracy – one that works for all its people and not just a few. It is an opportunity that must not be wasted.

However, dangers remain. The ruling elite will not easily give up its privileged position, which is undergirded by the state. The colonial regime was not legitimised by popular will but by a combination of brute force, co-option of ethnic elites and dividing the people along ethnic lines. The continuing brutal crackdown on protests and the use of tribal militia in tit-for-tat attacks shows that the country’s owners’ appetite for both state-sponsored and privately contracted violence is undimmed. Further, the many defections of opposition politicians, as well as the fanning of ethnic animosity, show that these owners have not lost their capacity to co-opt and to practise the politics of divide and rule.

The reform of the state is by no means inevitable; it will be forcefully resisted. “Kenya’s internal conflict is instead between its better self, the liberal, open, law-abiding country so often apparent, and a more retrograde, corrupted version” writes Andreas Katsouris, a Canadian political consultant who was working on Odinga’s August campaign before he was abducted and deported by Kenyan authorities. It is now a struggle in which the Kenyan people have clearly shown which side they are on.

By Patrick Gathara
Mr Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

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Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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