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THE BLACK SPOT: Why The Kenyan Road System Is Designed To Kill

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Two road crashes in the first two weeks of November have robbed Kenya of six lives including that of Nyeri Governor, Wahome Gakuru, and once again brought to the fore the crisis of safety on the country’s roads and highways.

As of November 8, according to statistics released by the National Transport and Safety Authority, 2,387 people had lost their lives on our roads. In its 2015 Global Status Report on Road Safety, the World Health Organisation shows Kenya’s roads are amongst the most dangerous in the world claiming an average of 29.1 lives per 100,000 people. By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000. Road crashes are among the top ten killers of Kenyans, account for between 45 and 60 percent of all admissions to surgical wards and cost the country up to 5 percent of GDP.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. While the number of registered vehicles on the roads nearly doubled between 2008 and 2012, from just over 1 million to just under 1.8 million according to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, the total number of both accidents and victims actually fell by about half says the 2015 study Analysis of Causes & Response Strategies of Road Traffic Accidents in Kenya. However, what should set off alarm bells is that despite this, the number of deaths barely budged. It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.

In the face of such appalling statistics, it is nothing short of outrageous that the NTSA considers a reduction of 4 percent in the number of pedestrians who have lost their lives on the roads as “drastic”. Though overall deaths were down by a slightly higher 5.8 percent, it speaks to the low expectations the Authority has of itself that the numbers it is celebrating do not even come close its own rather modest target of reducing traffic fatalities by 12 percent.

By comparison, Norway, which has significantly more cars on its roads had just a tenth of Kenya’s average fatalities per 100,000.

The widely trumpeted but almost always short-lived measures that have been taken by the government to address the issue over the last ten years -such the famous “Michuki rules”, the banning of night buses, enforcement of speed limits, introduction of random breathalyzer tests- have barely budged the average annual number of deaths which still hovers stubbornly around the 3000 mark. By contrast Sweden, which has the world’s safest roads managed to slash in half the number of traffic deaths between 2000 and 2014.

What are the Swedes doing right?

Unlike Kenya’s knee-jerk approach, where reactionary legal measures are quickly announced in the aftermath of a particularly horrific crash, with little research, forethought or long-term planning, and just as quickly forgotten, the Swedes have adopted a more systemic, evidence-based method. Unlike their Kenyan counterparts, the Swedish Transport Administration does not believe that deaths and injuries on roads are an inevitable cost of having a functional road network. “We simply do not accept any deaths or injuries on our roads,” says Hans Berg told The Economist in 2014. Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.

It may only make the news when crashes either involve large numbers of people or a prominent person is killed, but on average, Kenya has lost a Nissan matatu-load of people every two days for at least the last decade and a half.

This focus on building “a system for the humans” is the central pillar of Vision Zero, the radical policy that since 1997, has governed the nation’s approach to transportation. It is even written into their laws. In the same year, the Swedish Parliament passed the Road Traffic Safety Bill which declared that, “the responsibility for every death or loss of health in the road transport system rests with the person responsible for the design of that system”.

Think about that for a minute. Road accidents are not the fault of drunk or crazy drivers, of careless pedestrians or stupid cyclists. Instead, as Dinesh Mohan notes, the Swedes put the blame on “the engineers who build and maintain the road and the police department that manages traffic on that road. Not primarily on the people who use the road because it has been demonstrated that road user behaviour is conditioned by the system design and how it is managed.”

Vision Zero seeks to not just reduce, but to completely eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the roads. But it does so, not primarily on the back of enforcement of punitive legislation as is the preferred approach in Kenya. “We are going much more for engineering than enforcement,” says Belin. “If we can create a system where people are safe, why shouldn’t we? Why should we put the whole responsibility on the individual road user, when we know they will talk on their phones, they will do lots of things that we might not be happy about? So let’s try to build a more human-friendly system instead. And we have the knowledge to do that.”

Enforcement of traffic rules is an important element but rather than merely bullying road users into compliance, the Swedes are building their system around the road users. Safety is not something that is added to the road system; it is an essential component of the system itself. As one analysis of the policy puts it: “Road users are responsible for following the rules for using the system set by the designers. If the users fail to obey the rules … or they obey and injuries occur nonetheless, the system designers must take steps to avoid people being killed or seriously injured.” The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.

Matts-Åke Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the same agency in an interview with CityLab calls it a “civil rights thing”, saying that rather than trying to get people to adapt to the traffic system, the Swedes are trying to “create a system for the humans”.

In Kenya, the approach is diametrically opposite. While the NTSA acknowledges that 80 percent of road crashes are caused by human error, and blames everything from drunk drivers to jaywalking pedestrians, it rarely discusses the design of our road transport systems, the behaviour it incentivizes and how such errors are mitigated beyond arresting people and increasing fines.

Take the two crashes referenced at the beginning of this tale. Both happened at notorious “black spots”, one at Salgaa and the other at Kabati. Murang’a County Commissioner John Elung’ata says of Kabati, where the Governor died, that “motorists lose control whenever it rains”. The 14-kilometre stretch between Salgaa and Sachangwan along the Nakuru-Eldoret highway has been the scene of multiple horrific accidents involving trucks. Yet in 2015, then NTSA Chairman, Lee Kinyanjui, whose agency blamed the crashes on “ignorant drivers” could only promise that “over and above fining those freewheeling, we will be recommending an immediate revocation of their licences and this should go to all the drivers. Reckless driving on our roads will no longer be there.” In these cases, administrators seem to have either resigned themselves to the inevitability of crashes or limited their responses to punishment. There was not talk of redesigning the road to eliminate the “black spot”. Instead Kinyanjui promised to “construct lorry park with a capacity of 200 vehicles where the NTSA officers will be checking lorries”.

But one could perhaps cut Kinyanjui a little slack. While the NTSA can only advise the national government on such design changes and mostly appears to confine itself to patrolling roads to catch errant drivers or chasing down jay-walking pedestrians, STA actually owns, constructs, operates and maintains all state roads in Sweden.

Obviously, a road system is more than just the state of the road and transport authorities have to coordinate with a wide array of government agencies, non-governmental organizations and road users. That system includes all factors that have a bearing on behaviour on the road. As such, the commitment to safety cannot be simply a matter for one body, but rather a national, even cultural commitment. As Belin says, “Sweden has a long tradition of working with safety. So Vision Zero is also based on a historical context.” It is, after all, the home of Volvo. Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death. A national obsession with safety is definitely a bonus. However, even without one, Kenya can make better infrastructural decisions that would reduce the risk of injury and death.

The road system is thus built in the knowledge that people will break the rules and is structured to both minimize the opportunity for wrongdoing and to mitigate the harm that can result.

Take the Thika Superhighway, on which Governor Gakuru died, as an example. The road which rumbles through populated areas is Kenya’s most dangerous road for pedestrians. In 2014, the Senate committee on transport and infrastructure found that over 200 pedestrians had died since the road was inaugurated two years prior. Nearly 300 had been injured. That works out to about 5 people killed or injured every week. The difference between Thika Superhighway and, say, the UK’s M40 is not that Kenyans are congenitally poor drivers and law breakers and the British are not. In fact, the M40 does have its fair share of pile ups. But the reason you do not find pedestrians dashing across it and buses stopping on it is mostly that such problems have been engineered out. People don’t run across it because it is not located where they would need to. We obviously cannot physically move our Superhighway but we can ask questions about how and where our roads are built and about the systems governing the behaviour on them.

We can also ask about emergency responses, or rather, the lack of them. And about the safety of guard rails and whether there are better alternatives. Road accidents, even when they do happen, need not result in grievous injury or death. Why weren’t systems for rescuing trapped people and getting them emergency care factored into the design of the road? How can Kenya fix this? And what rules for other existing and future highways?

Perhaps nowhere would such approach be beneficial than in addressing the safety problems posed by Kenya’s public transport system. According to the WHO, in Kenya “buses and matatus are the vehicles most frequently involved in fatal crashes and passenger in these vehicles account for 38 percent of total road deaths.” Although the 2015 study found that matatus only caused about a third as many accidents as cars and utility vehicles considering that matatus make up only about 5 percent of the about 2 million vehicles on our roads, the fact that they cause around 15 percent of accidents indicates a big problem.

The study found that “Kenyan drivers cause crashes largely because of behavioural and attitudinal problems” and that these problems were more acute in drivers of Public Service Vehicles. “While matatu drivers are viewed as crooks, they regard other drivers as amateurs and always try to show them that they have superior driving skills.”

However, adopting the Swedish approach, one would not just settle for blaming the drivers, as the study, the NTSA and pretty much all of Kenya does. Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.

Kenya, on the other hand, has historically had a rather tenuous relationship with safety and a huge appetite for risk. From our politics to security to our hospitals, being Kenyan is like a constant dicing with death.

The late Donella Meadows, in Thinking in Systems – A Primer described a system as “a set of things—people, cells, molecules, or whatever—interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behavior over time,” and invited us to consider the implications of the idea that any system, to a large extent, causes its own behavior. Consider the Kenyan public transport system, which is privately owned and dominated by matatus.

Most matatu crews are not salaried. They basically have a deal with the matatu owner where they deliver an agreed sum every day and get to share what is left over. This means that their daily income is directly tied to how many people they carry and how many trips they make. At the same time, as this Africa Uncensored investigation reveals, most traffic policemen on the road are there, not to enforce the rules, but to extort bribes, matatus being a favourite target. In fact, during vetting by the National Police Service Commission last year, many traffic officers were unable to explain the source of their wealth and the many mobile transactions they seemed to be making. Given that it has been reported that most actually pay their superiors for the privilege of being deployed on the roads, it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out where they were sending the money.

The rub of this is that matatu drivers have big incentives to stop anywhere to pick up passengers and to make as many trips as possible, even when this means driving like madmen. The police, on the other hand, have little incentive to enforce the law. And given that many powerful government officials and senior police officers own matatus, there is little incentive to fix the problem.

Looked at from this perspective, it is clear that the problem is less incompetent drivers with an attitude problem, but rather the perverse system of incentives which generates the behaviour. Thus the solutions proposed, such as retraining and recertifying drivers, will have little effect. As US philosopher Robert Pirsig, wrote in his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, “if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.” Similarly, retraining drivers without changing the underlying system will resolve nothing.

Considering the ecosystem they operate in, the ridiculous and seemingly suicidal behaviour of matatu drivers seems rational, reasonable even.

Changing the system would require the NTSA to confront more powerful forces than lowly matatu crews, but is the true measure of the government’s commitment to dealing with the carnage matatu’s wreak on the road. However, it is not just where matatus are concerned that Kenya could benefit from a serious retooling. Rather than shooting from the hip when confronted with speeding or drinking drivers, the country would do well to adopt a research and evidence-based approach which looks at the problem in all its facets. For example, if, as one study found, “mandatory seat belt use laws and beer taxes may be more effective at reducing drunk driving fatalities than policies aimed at general deterrence,” should Kenya be focusing on those?

An important aspect of ensuring roads are safe is ensuring the road system caters for the needs of all its users, not just a few of them. That requires understanding how the roads are actually used. According to the World Bank’s Kenya State of the Cities Baseline Survey released in March 2014, half the labour force and three-quarters of students walk to work or to school. Another 43 percent and 19 percent respectively use matatus. Only 3 percent actually drive to work. Yet Kenyan roads treat pedestrian traffic as an afterthought and, as detailed above, the public transport system is in a shambles. This inevitably creates conflicts and, as statistics show, it is passengers and pedestrians who bear the brunt of the violence on our roads. Similarly, as the use of motorcycle-taxis, or bodaboda, has increased, so has the number of fatalities and injuries associated with them.

Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage. Well thought-out policies, including pedestrianizing the CBD, have been successfully adopted in cities like Pontevedra in Spain, which eliminated 53 percent of traffic in the city as a whole and 97 percent at its historical centre. “We inverted the pyramid,” its long serving Mayor, Miguel Lores, says, “leaving the pedestrians above, followed by bicycles and public transport, and with the private car at the bottom.” As a result, the city has not had a single traffic fatality in 6 years.

Understanding behaviour on the roads does not require condoning its unsavoury aspects. Rather, it means Kenya can get to grips with the systemic reasons such behaviour is prevalent and why it is destructive. It means, beyond demonizing road users, the NTSA and other stakeholders within and outside the government consider how they contribute to the problem, and what needs to change in order to either eliminate the incentives for that behaviour or to mitigate its effects.

Concepts such as the Dutch-inspired “shared space”, which does not privilege cars and other motorized transport but rather treats the road as a community asset for the use of all traffic, motorized or otherwise, could help reduce the carnage.

In fact, Kenyan roads are a microcosm of the colonially-inspired hierarchies at work in Kenya and the relative values they place on the time, lives as well as the fortunes of the various classes of Kenyans. At the very top is the political class and those riding on their coat tails, from government officials to the wannabe county potentates for whom nothing is allowed to get in the way of their dash to riches. The tiny middle class is next in line and at the very bottom of the pile are the poor, whose presence on the Kenyan road is barely tolerated despite their vastly superior numbers. When, periodically, their anger spills over in riots and “mass action” they can take over the streets entirely. Like the traffic police, the institutions of accountability simply serve to keep everybody in their proper place. They are there to police the citizens, to clear a path for their betters.

Eliminating traffic deaths and injuries is an achievable goal. But to do it, Kenya must change, not just its roads and its drivers, but itself. The country must revolutionize its approach to the problem and start seeing people as the reason the road system, and indeed the entire rubric of government, exists. In short, like Sweden, it must “create a system for the humans”.

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

Politics

The New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya

14 min read. In this second part of a three-part series, DALLE ABRAHAM argues that the new mega infrastructure investments fueled by LAPSSET are a continuation of the perverse state policies on Northern Kenya adopted by post-colonial governments.

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The New Frontier for Development and the Politics of Negation in Northern Kenya
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“Literary critic Tom Odhiambo regards the NFD as a metaphor of negation, a liminal space where collective ‘Kenyan’ fears and anxieties are at once deposited and from whence they emerge”- Parselelo Kantai.

It’s Marsabit late in 2013. Nomadic girls dressed in evening dresses and cultural attires do clumsy catwalks with feet unused to high heels. They strut on a makeshift runway in front of the Catholic Church hall. The occasion is a glitzy second Miss Marsabit County beauty pageant. Kenya’s foremost stand-up comedian, Walter Mongare, aka Nyambane, whose parody of the banal cadence of Kenyan officialdom has become standard comedic practice in Kenya, is the MC. (Nyambane was part of the Redykulass comedy group. In this role, he had managed to fashion a remarkable Moi parody; he could talk, walk and even look like Moi.) He cracks jokes on walking styles and tribal clichés. A curious moment passes unnoticed when he declares that “Kenya mpya iko hapa!!” The new Kenya is here.

The beauty pageant, like LAPSSET (the Lamu Port and South Sudan – Ethiopia Transport corridor) was a pitiful attempt to “open up” a closed-up region. This preposterous idea is not any different from the “metaphor of negation” that it sought to transform. To borrow from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah, Nkem Osodi’s analogy suffices: equate Northern Kenya to Eve in the Old Testament who is blamed for man’s woes in the Garden of Eden, rescue this image of a suffering Eve and redeem it in the New Testament through Mary, elevate her as the mother of God, and tuck her away in a nice corner of heaven where she is irrelevant.

How is the metaphor of negation now the glitzy developmental jewel?

A pervasive narrative defines Northern Kenya’s relationship with Southern Kenya. Northern Kenya is viewed as a land of misery, of death and of terror where Kenya’s hardships go to school – an area of darkness, this Kenyan “apocalypse” is by some ingenious design almost always shadowed by “potential”.   But when detached from this base, the narrative alters its shape and the region transforms into a treasure trove of unexplored potential and immense opportunity waiting to be exploited.

Recall that in 1965 capital concentration was to be centred around the former “White Highlands”, as articulated in Sessional Paper No. 10: African Socialism and its Application to Planning. However, today the country is making a clean 180-degree about-turn. President Uhuru Kenyatta has visited Marsabit County five different times in the past six years. Foreign envoys have warmed up greatly to Northern Kenya. Just last month, twelve European Union ambassadors were in Marsabit. This new attention and the grand nature of the new mega infrastructure developmental craze seems like “Kenya” is atoning for all its past sins. The initial excitement resulting from this new attention is, however, wearing off fast.

Positive policy steps have been taken. But Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 and The Special Districts Act of 1934 repealed 63 years later in 1997 were bad policies that had created an official attitude. In this new testament, the policy environment has changed. Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 was replaced 47 years later by Sessional Paper No. 8 of 2012, which was made by a special ministry for Northern Kenya Development, obvious in its intentions of affirmative action and “Releasing Our Full Potential”. These policy changes have been supported by Kenya’s Vision 2030, which lays out the country’s development blueprint on transforming the “special circumstances of previously marginalised communities” and “in this respect it offers a chance to turn history on its head”.

But have the negative attitudes towards the North been overcome?

The language of the old and new policies, when juxtaposed, are fundamentally different. But development plans, visions or policies can, on their own accord, turn “history on its head” and clean the stained slate of nationhood. Still, in their implementation, the North is witnessing the callous ways – informed by colonial perceptions and attitudes – in which development can exclude and alienate. Hidden in the folds of this grand development vision of LAPSSET is exploitation, oppression and dismissal of the North. The exclusionary tendencies bear the hallmarks of how history and tradition continue to define what and how things get done in Kenya.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland. How amazing, how great, this story of transformation was. But this idea of opening up the north is a cryptic code that has changed shape and form over the years. Spatial fixes as anywhere in the world are often wishful make-believes.

In an illustrative animated film shared by NEPAD, we are told that LAPSSET will encompass “international airports, resort cities, special economic zones, industrial parks, mineral exploration, and free trade areas which will generate and harness economic and business activities for the corridor”. LAPSSET, we learn from the video, is “an investor’s dream, backed by governments in the three countries and embedded in Kenya’s Vision 2030, a crucial de-risking step for investors” where “land acquisition and investments are secured not only by governments but also by the enthusiasm of the populations”. Viewed through this lens, “Kenya estimates that the core LAPSSET projects will generate and inject up to 2% to 3% of the GDP into the economy and 8% to 10% of the country’s GDP”.

The urgency of the national government in this experimental and magical “spatial fix” was a heady affair. The government introduced new projects: roads, airports, wind farms and resort cities – an investor’s paradise emerging out of the wasteland.

At the macro level, the vision was generous, and its beneficiaries were spread across Eastern Africa. For South Sudan, LAPSSET was projected to “consolidate the peace process in the country and build a sound foundation for sustainable growth”. For Ethiopia, “LAPSSET will enhance the current bold political and economic reforms in the country”. For the whole continent, LAPSSET will fulfill the African Union’s dream of “a peaceful, prosperous and fully integrated continent by 2063”.

This grand vision is replete with ambiguities, a pastiche of grand and micro intentions. At the macro level, Kenya wants to send a statement on the continent but at home LAPSSET is articulated as a plan to open up Northern Kenya as a way to tap the resources in the North. So far the conviction has made it look like the “opening up” of the hitherto “closed” Northern Kenya is a seamless and accepted undertaking. Even the old acronym, NFD, has been repurposed to reflect the new possibilities; Northern Frontier District (NFD) has become the New Frontier of Development, and its caustic version, the Northern Forgotten Districts, has effectively been forgotten.

This plan of “opening up” has come with some apprehension for people from Northern Kenya. Fear and economic anxiety are some of the markers of this ambivalence. The new impatience and anxieties in the region are discernible. The actual LAPSSET projects being implemented are coming to a place and a people who have certainly been waiting for and dreaming about development, hoping for all the new attention.

But when “development” began, it did so in lofty ways, not as the locals had conceived it. Instead of hospitals, classrooms, clinics and water points, fiber optic lines, international airports, oil pipelines, mineral licensing, huge electric pillions, wind power projects of reputable grandeur and plans for resort cities with world class golf courses and massive trains were erected.

Meanwhile, the leaders from the area are like antelopes caught in the headlights of an oncoming train. In the bulas scattered around Isiolo town, in little double-roomed wooden houses, there were talks of the place’s immense economic potential and of the coming opportunity, of employment, of land prices going up, of corporate social responsibility, of foreign scholarships, and of new investors coming. In neighboring Marsabit County, The Cradle carried a front-page splash of an artistic 3D impression of a future city envisioned for Moyale, which in Uhuru’s words, will be “the future Dubai”. The grandness and generosity of this vision can only be equated to Dubai, which has slowly become Africa’s developmental true north and the template of transformational ambitions. Dubai had turned “history on its head”.

Development for whom?

The gist of all these interventions lies in the intent. The “unpeopled wasteland” needed to be roped into the Kenyan political economy. These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs. This vision was not an organic one; it was not of the people and for the people. Its conception was not arrived at slowly and imperfectly. The plan to “open up” Northern Kenya was not preceded by years of activism and it was not an affirmative response to the cries of Northern Kenya’s leaders on marginalisation. Its origin lay elsewhere.

Kenya’s “new frontier of development” was radically unmoored from the reality of the Northern Frontier Districts. When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true. Its springboard was the depressive narrative of death, misery and terror that had seeped into the collective Kenyan psyche. While the thing that we were laughed at in Kenya was some kind of social dislocation, now we were being praised and made to feel important in a different interventionist way. The misery, the deaths, history itself can be supplanted by LAPSSET.

The tone of hope and conviction had a faint ring to the cavalier tones that created the old Northern Kenya’s dominant image of an “apocalypse”. In time the apocalypse and now the “utopia” spoke not of the place as it was; one simplified and flattened the place while the other elevated and embellished its complex socio-political and economic dynamics.

These interventions, if distilled down to their bare essentials, were asking, nay, forcing Northern Kenya to take up the duties and dynamics of a key player in the regional political economy without the necessary participation of its leaders and/or the consideration of its people’s needs.

The quixotic idea and process of transforming Northern Kenya into a developmental utopia happened with some level of internal conflict. The government and its agents tried to make these dreamy interventions important by downplaying the underlying issues. The technical nature of the project’s large ambition also further obscured any meaningful contributions from Northern Kenya’s leaders who spoke of land, employment, scholarships, corporate social responsibility and compensation. Sometimes, their voices were unanimous that there was no participation but in other instances the leaders spoke as people warming up to and fully acquiesced to the LAPSSET perks. They spoke in the inductive tone of “opportunity” of “potential”, and in those instances, pastoral nomadism as a lifestyle seemed a distant idea.

These inductive tones were forgotten and anger took its place, as was the case earlier this year at the Pastoralist Leadership Summit when the elected leaders resolved, amongst other things, to stop all land acquisition for LAPSSET until all community land is registered. They were a little too late. A gazette notice for LAPSSET’s land acquisition was already in circulation as they made their resolution.

An old anxiety

This developmental frenzy and its attendant worry reminds me of a past cautionary tale of Israelis wanting to buy the fertile soil around Mt. Marsabit. When I heard this in the early 2000s, I wondered why anyone would want to buy soil.

Then this rumour changed shape and became scarier. The Israelis would be given a 99-year lease to start farming in Northern Kenya. When we heard this, we were at once regaled and worried. Back then, I wondered how this mass resettlement will be undertaken, and kept asking myself where we shall all go.

But this story of Israelis, which could not be corroborated, was an inchoate articulation of a deeply ingrained fear in the psyche of the pastoralists in Kenya – that their land will be taken. An anxiety that was always within reach. Seen in history and in the present, from the 20,000 Maasais forcefully resettled twice from their ancestral land to pave way for colonial settlers in the early 20th century to the over 607 km² land acquired for the Lake Turkana wind power project, which sits on only 162 km² of the land acquired. From the oil blocks in Turkana, the mineral prospecting blocks across the North to the four military bases that sit on huge tracts of land in Isiolo and wildlife conservancies supported by well-funded NGOs, there was an encore of fear and anxieties that continue to give the Northerners sleepless nights.

LAPSSET amplified and gave currency to this old anxiety. The Errant Native movement that spoke of imperial demands and of deeply hatched plans was a deeper articulation of this old fear. The curious and distant anxiety of my childhood informed by rumours of Israelis was now an immediate fear. Land for LAPSSET, land for conservation, threats to rangelands, destroyed pasturelands. The ever-present anticipation of some kind of invasion was now turning depressive. This fear gave us enough reasons to believe that anyone who purported to improve or invest in our land was suspect. All this attention without giving the locals a chance to have their views heard was scarier than the promised joy of development “goodies”.

When viewed through Northern Kenya’s old image, the sound and conviction of its single-minded believers was heartening. LAPSSET, and its language of “new”, “development”, “opening up”, “opportunity”, “investors”, “markets”, and “mega infrastructure” felt like a dream come true.

LAPSSET’s initial steps and projects have revealed a wide gap between the intention and its consequences. The projects that came never compensated the communities whose land was acquired for its expansion, such as the airport in Isiolo that kicked out squatters living and farming in that area for the past 60 years. The manner in which land acquisition was being undertaken, the ugly site of extraction, the dust, the vibrations and blasts, the gaping holes in grazing lands, these consequences of development were unknown. Ridyukulass comedy turns to a question…Na hiyo ni maendeleo?  

Commitment beyond optics

Evidently, changes to whole regions like Northern Kenya come based on commitments. The problems in Northern Kenya are a result of negligence. Government interventions are almost always reactionary. Even the new capital being thrown into the region, as my friend puts it, is “superficial cosmetics” without any meaningful benefits to the people. It is called economic exploitation.

The pipeline from Lokichar drained the oil wells to the port at Lamu. The huge electric pillions traversed 400 kilometers of unelectrified lands to join the national grid at Suswa. Northern Kenya’s dissatisfactions and the only visible effort to try and reclaim and possibly reinvent the manner of the intervention has often been hijacked or met with serious rebuke. Turkana County Governor Josephat Nanok’s verbal exchange at a public function in Lodwar expressed his dissatisfaction with how the oil revenue was being manipulated. “We oppose the reduction of the [Lokichar oil] revenue percentage to be allocated to the county, which has been capped from trillions to 22 billion, and even the benefit to the community from 10% to 5% then capped to 3 billion, that’s my problem.” Nanok’s sentiments and request to Uhuru “to help us to oversee these resources and save it for the future…and if you help us do that, you will be listened to.”

The president’s reactions to Governor Nanok was illustrative of the tone that had put Northern Kenya where it had always been. “Mtu akisimama hapa aseme Uhuru ana haja na mafuta ya wengine…..ashindwe na …… shetani Mshenzi……….alafu mjinga anakuja kusema ni mimi nafanya mambo ya…..eh!   hiyo siwezi…” If someone stands up to say Uhuru has interest in other people’s oil…devil…uncouth…stupid person says I am doing…I can’t…

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya. But Nanok’s insistence for higher perks was in Uhuru’s indecorous riposte received as an atypical expectation; it went against the narrative of what the government expected from the Northerners. It was markedly different from the assurances that the government was giving to investors through LAPSSET.

More indignities are probably in the pipeline. The centre doesn’t respect these people who are now asking to be consulted. “Tuwaulize nyinyi kama nani?” is the tone of the government. This is Kenya.

Nanok’s request and the court case from the community at Sarima over the land acquisition for the Lake Turkana wind power project are demands for a certain type of visibility in Kenya. This fight for visibility is often expressed in bitter tones. The protracted legal battle is again indicative of how unrelated the projects are to people’s needs.

On the ground, the articulation on LAPSSET has taken the same tone of bitterness. What the communities in Northern Kenya want is simple recognition – that they are a people and anything to be done on their land has to be through them. It is a simple enough request; to be heard, to be listened to, to be respected and be duly compensated for any disruption in their livelihood.

Insulting a respected leader in front of his own people by calling him “shetani” “mshenzi” and “mjinga” does not foster trust in the government. Moreover, Uhuru failed to understand that Nanok’s dissatisfaction was not mere apprehension; his words drew their credence from a collective discontent in Northern Kenya.

The numerous cases presented at the National Environmental Tribunal (NET) speak of this need for participation. But the government’s attitude can be seen in the three-judge bench that recused itself from the ongoing case on the Lake Turkana land acquisition. The government is buying time but the people are patient, even as key witnesses are dying.

This agitation and the fight for land in Kenya is everywhere. The Maasai case in Laikipia, the MRC Pwani si Kenya campaigns and land agitations in the Rift Valley areas speak of a familiar Kenya. Parselelo Kantai, in his paper “In the grip of the vampire state”, says, “The Maasai campaign speaks of the State’s failure to institute a new constitutional order. It was born of a realisation that the State whether in its colonial or its postcolonial phase was not just unwilling to address the community’s grievances, but had an active interest in perpetuating them.”

Despair

I have been to forums on LAPSSET in which the overriding sentiments of the community reflect impatience, anxiety, fear and resignation. Protest against LAPSSET component projects is registered in one of these shades of despair. In a protest that had blocked road construction two years ago along the A2 road in Marsabit, an elder had spoken about how the Isiolo-Marsabit-Moyale road had destroyed water pipes and denied his village members access roads to their residences, and about the excessive dust and noise at night. The village elder had told me that they had had seven meetings with the county commissioner and the district commissioner about the matter and that they were now very tired. He said, “We shall see if the government will put all of us in the same mortar and pound us.”

This same emotion is witnessed among squatter groups kicked out of the Isiolo airport. This despair is often articulated as the loss of traditional culture or heritage. Whenever I think about this despair, the image that comes to mind is that of a Maasai moran seated on a narrow path, his head bowed, his hope and pride gone, the carcasses of his dead cows strewn across the path, cows that were shot dead by the Kenyan police for “invading” private ranches.

This shooting of livestock was for a long time legal in Kenya. Before it was repealed in 1997, the Special District Act stated that “an administrative officer, police officer or tribal police officer in charge of a party or patrol may destroy or order the destruction of any cattle seized, detained or taken in charge by that party or patrol if, in the opinion of that officer, and after exercising all reasonable diligence for the safeguarding of the cattle, it would endanger the party or patrol, or any member thereof, to attempt to retain the cattle alive.”.

Who benefits?

The vision for LAPSSET comes from a specific place and history. Unless it confronts that history without wishing to turn it on “its head”, it will always be problematic. No matter how gorgeous the stories sound and how glamorous the pictures coming out of the North are, the fact remains that the primary beneficiaries of these “developments” are the elites in Nairobi. Marsabit, while sending 310MW of clean energy to Nairobi, uses diesel-powered and rationed electricity. There are all the hallmarks of exploitative development: oil from Lokichar, wind power from Marsabit, and an airport in Isiolo for miraa and meat exports.

A retired major in Isiolo, who I have had conversations with on land, the Northern Rangeland Trust’s conservancy model, and LAPSSET gets visibly angry with the idea of “opening up” the North for investors.“Who said the investors have to come from outside? Have we been taking care of these lands for others to now come in to take over without consulting us?”

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

I have been attending almost all the meetings on environmental impact assessment studies and seen how the LAPSSET vision and strategy were unfamiliar to the residents. The worries and anxieties about LAPSSET were couched in the language of despair and sometimes came out as threats. The answers the local communities received have been elusive. Questions about benefits accruing to the communities have not been adequately addressed. No one speaks about corporate social responsibility.

This anger lies simmering just below the surface. Ideas about foreigners coming to “to play golf in our pasturelands” and of “our men becoming watchmen and cleaners in the big hotels” speak about bigger unaddressed questions. This vision of development was sold incoherently to the people.

LAPSSET is an unfair construct. Its exploitative details and tendencies is structured in such a way that the communities affected won’t benefit and their expectations won’t be met. The multinational investors who arrive in this “investors’ paradise” know this very well and are known to throw a few millions shillings to the community as diversionary measures through highly publicised corporate social responsibility projects. The inchoate articulation couched in the request for “corporate social responsibility” calls for allies. Leaders, NGOs, the media, activists, policy makers and even academics need to move with the community into a more inclusive thought process, which is necessary for the conception of development of the North, a process that recognises and respects different socio-economic lifestyles.

Organised resistance

Past political resistance in Northern Kenya has been crushed by an overbearing centre and that experience continues to mark the relationship between the North and the central government. The trauma of the Shifta wars and of the Wagalla and other massacres is within living memory.

Even so, communities, when resisting this imposed development, speak about culture and heritage. But through writing complaint letters, public protests and filing their dissatisfaction with the heavy-handed manner and the back-handed dismissal of their concerns, an environment for an organised resistance is being cultivated.

Between Prof. Lonyangapuo saying, “Never ever make decisions while swinging in your armchair while seated in Nairobi” and the village elder in Marsabit invoking mortar and pestle as metaphors of state power, something needs to be registered.

That the government is investing in such mega infrastructure without a proper buy-in from the communities is a recipe for future disaster. Those investments are easy targets for expressing dissatisfaction with the government for the economic exploitation that is being undertaken in the name of development and of opening up. The fire next time is a matter of conjecture. All the elements are slowly falling into place. A time will come when the people will be angry and willing enough to face the mortar and pestle of state violence.

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‘You’re Not Welcome Here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions to Stop Migration From Africa

8 min read. Instead of addressing the root causes if illegal migration to Europe – including the exploitation of the Global South by the Global North – EU countries are evading the problem by paying off African countries to intercept the migrants before they reach European shores.

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‘You’re not welcome here’: How Europe Is Paying Millions To Stop Migration From Africa
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It is a known fact that Europe has been struggling with a serious migrant crisis in the last ten years. What is less known is that the ghost of a tremendous accusation is hovering over the plans established by the European authorities to contain the apparently unstoppable flow of immigrants. According to some sources, the funds that have been allocated to control the migratory flows have been diverted to support paramilitary forces or other nefarious organisations involved in human trafficking.

These forces allegedly act as a buffer that prevent people from reaching Europe by all means (even the most violent ones) rather than addressing the root causes of irregular migration. The European Union (EU) authorities denied all the accusations, and even suspended some of these funds, a move that has been seen by some as an admission of guilt. Although cutting the proverbial Gordian knot and finding the truth may be impossible right now, let’s try to clarify what is happening today by providing a better overview of the current scenario.

Europe and the 2015 migrant crisis

Every year, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and refugees from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East flee complex emergencies, natural disasters, and wars. They join the already immense river of humans who try to escape poverty and desperation by immigrating to the Old Continent. The reasons for this huge flow of humans are many, ranging from the recent political turbulence following the Arab Spring, to the evolution of the many conflict theatres and the harsh consequences of climate change.

Even if a solution could be found to stop each one of these different scenarios, it would require many years before it could bring any tangible change or impact. A lot of rhetoric ensued until a huge divide split the cacophonous political debate into two entrenched factions whose opinions cannot seem to be reconciled anytime soon. For some, these people are an invaluable resource that can rejuvenate a dying continent suffering from a chronic lack of a fresh young unspecialised workforce. For others, they are just parasites who can undermine the very roots of the Christian-based European culture, endangering the entire social fabric of a society that has based its wealth upon slavery, colonialism, and the exploitation of people for centuries.

However, an indisputable problem still had to be dealt with – the number of irregular immigrants reaching Europe was way too high to be managed. With over 2 million illegal crossings detected between 2015 and 2016, it was clear that the old containment policies were desperately failing in so many ways that they held no water whatsoever. Extremist and right wing political forces took advantage of this crisis to pull the whole continent into a populist drift, with racism and segregation running rampant to fuel hate, fear, and ancient religious rivalries. For the first time in decades, the European Union (EU) was facing the risk of having to deal with a widespread social crisis that could destabilise the entire political and economic asset. A plan that could address the different root causes of these never-ending migratory flows could hardly be imagined.

But the EU authorities had to find a rapid solution. They didn’t have the time (nor the interest) to tackle the reasons why these people were desperate and poor. Rather than caring about the lives of these masses of destitute individuals who were immigrating to Europe, they decided to stop them in their tracks before they could cross the borders. To put it bluntly, desperate and poor people from Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East were still left desperate and poor – they only had to be desperate and poor somewhere else.

Turning a blind eye to the massive human crisis

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

In a nutshell, the overall plan was quite simple: the EU authorities would ask other countries to “keep the migrants away” while they turned a blind eye on the methods used to achieve this goal. In theory, they were distributing hefty amounts of money to African and Middle Eastern countries to counter “human trafficking and smuggling” by breaking their “business model” in order to “offer migrants an alternative to putting their lives at risk”. In practice, these funds often ended in the hands of unscrupulous militia forces and shady organisations that prevented the most vulnerable people from reaching the borders of the EU member states with any means necessary – including the most inhumane ones.

One of the most important steps of this plan to “contain irregular migrants” was making arrangements with Turkey and Libya to prevent refugees from reaching the Old Continent’s borders by blocking all their land or sea routes. On top of that, whenever a migrant was caught crossing the Mediterranean to the nearby Greek islands, Spain or Italy, he or she would be sent back to Turkey or Libya to be “temporarily” locked in some prison. But the scenario that originated from these pacts was less than ideal at best, and eventually forced thousands of refugees to endure months of detainment in inhumane conditions in dilapidated detention centres.

The measures taken to manage the migrant crisis have been incredibly effective, and in less than five years, the number of migrant arrivals to Europe dropped by 90 per cent, from over 2 million to just 150,000. But at what price?

Several organisations, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and the European Council on Refugees and Exiles have alreay denounced the “degrading” conditions suffered by the detainees in Libya. Men and women are raped, abused, and beaten on a daily basis; some have spent months or years locked up. People are exposed to contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis, and often die from sickness, malnourishment, or neglect while in detention. The UNHRC went so far as to determine that the conditions in some of these detention centers may even “amount to torture”.

Despite being fully aware of the inhuman conditions faced by these migrants, the EU keeps contributing to this massive process of human exploitation in many ways. The Libyan authorities have been provided with the necessary funds and resources to intercept men, women, and children at sea. Italy donated several patrol boats to the Libyan coastguard and the training required to operate them as efficiently as possible during Operation Sophia. Even the Visegrad Group countries (Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic) provided an additional 35 million euros on top of the 10 million handed over by the EU. It comes as no surprise since their borders are constantly under the pressure of the thousands of immigrants who hope to escape poverty and find a chance for a better life.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore. One may wonder whether this choice was just the result of a somewhat short-sighted strategy that only cared about reducing the death toll of people drowning in the Mediterranean sea. Maybe it is a component of a more complex (and inhumane) plan of externalising border control to Northern African countries. A strategy to keep poor people from escaping the poor countries where they live.

The Khartoum Process

Another action taken by the EU to stem the number of people reaching their coasts and borders was establishing the so-called “Khartoum Process”. Amidst the 2015 crisis, African and European leaders met in Malta during the Valletta Summit on Migration to discuss a common plan to address the problem. After the summit was over, the EU agreed to provide the African countries who accepted to help out in the crisis with an Emergency Trust Fund that was worth billions of euros. The fund was set up “to foster stability and to contribute to better migration management, including by addressing the root causes of destabilisation, forced displacement and irregular migration.”

Many projects eventually fell under the banner of the Emergency Trust Fund, such as the Operation Sophia mentioned above, as well as the less known but no less opaque Khartoum Process. Once again, this initiative consists of a series of financial incentives provided by the EU member states to African countries who can help in the fight against human trafficking and people smuggling. The only difference is that these funds are provided to prevent exploitation along the migration route between the Horn of Africa and Europe. The countries involved include Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, South, Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania.

One word – interception – has become the answer to the whole migrant crisis rather than reception. What happens to these people once they are stopped from reaching the borders of the richer First World countries doesn’t matter anymore.

Sudan, in particular, has been used as a buffer zone to exert effective extraterritorial control of the migration routes used by people who want to reach Europe from across Africa. Just like Italy did with Libya, Germany started a project to train Sudanese police officers and border guards, and an intelligence centre was founded in the capital Khartoum.

So, why did the EU announced the suspension of these projects in July, some of which were halted at least since March?

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”. The funds have been, in fact, used to deploy the infamous Rapid Support Forces (RSF) – the heirs of the brutal Janjaweed led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo. We already talked about the violence that the Janjaweed unleashed upon Sudanese civilians during the recent uprising, as well as the war crimes and genocide they committed in Darfur back in 2003. The RSF fighters found their own solution to stop migrants – they tortured them, forced them to pay bribes, and in some instances, even smuggled them (possibly if they paid enough).

So, in a nutshell, the EU paid smugglers to stop human smuggling and traffic – and they were fully aware of that. It was even noted that the RSF could divert resources “for repressive aims”. Just like in Libya and Turkey, Europe knew what was happening, but preferred to simply look the other way.

This time, some Sudanese and Eritrean rights groups accused Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, of cooperating with “regimes and militia forces that are entirely unaccountable” and are “known for systematic abuses”.

Even if the project is now suspended, and the EU maintains that the RSF forces have never been funded or equipped, the Sudanese police received training and significant financial resources (40 million euros). This is the same Sudanese police that brutally repressed the pro-democracy, anti-government demonstrators during the last months of protest. Once again, all the projects that fall under the Khartoum Process umbrella do not address any of the “root causes” of uncontrolled migration and human trafficking. Without going so far as to say these projects are a true travesty, it can’t be denied that right now they’re nothing but extraterritorial disguised control of the borders.

Not my brother’s keeper

Today, Europe is simply turning a blind eye to one of the largest humanitarian crisis of this century. But hoping that desperate people will bring their misfortune somewhere else is not just a cowardly policy, it is a downright cruel choice made by people with no traces of humanity. It is highly hypocritical for Western countries to claim that they want to address the “root causes” of the tremendous strife that brings so many people to leave their homelands. In fact, most of these “root causes” originate from the endless exploitation of lands and resources of the Global South that seemingly sustains the whole capitalist system. In fact, when over 37,000 people are being forced to flee their homes every day, it doesn’t look like the situation has improved in any way. Today, the developed countries host just 16 per cent of these refugees, while the vast majority of them are found in Turkey, Pakistan, Uganda, and Sudan.

When the Roman Empire had to deal with the massive migrations that occurred during the fourth century A.C., the Emperors simply preferred to close their borders, leaving countless displaced people to die of sickness and starvation in front of their doors. Open revolt ensued, however, when those masses of destitute people became so desperate as to kill Emperor Valen, eventually causing the fall of the entire Roman Empire.

History teaches us that everything that happened once may happen again – especially if so many people are driven up the wall for so long.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election

11 min read. The Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more about a competition between the two biggest political parties, and between two bitter rivals, Raila Odinga and William Ruto. It was also a dress rehearsal for the 2022 elections, which, if this by-election is anything to go by, promises to be highly contentious.

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The Fire Next Time: ‘Bedroom’ Politics in the Kibra By-Election
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Something startled where I thought I was safest. – Walt Whitman

My Dungeons Shook – The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

On Saturday 9, 2019, two days after the hotly contested Kibra by-election had taken place and the dust had settled, Raila Odinga, aka Baba, was in an ecstatic mood: he gathered around some of his closest associates that had helped him campaign to retain the Kibra seat by hook or crook for a toast-up at his Karen home.

The ODM party candidate had triumphed over an onslaught that had threatened to torpedo Raila’s iron-grip stranglehold over a constituency that had, over time, become synonymous with his name and political career. But it was a victory that been won with “blood”: Bernard Otieno Okoth, aka Imran, took 24,636 votes while his closest nemesis, McDonald Mariga Wanyama, an international footballer-turned-betting-billboard-face, had carted away 11,230 votes. Although there were no casualties, voters had been roughed up and beaten.

As one of ODM’s foot soldiers from Ololo (Kaloleni estate, off Jogoo Road in Makadara constituency) later confided in me, “There was no way those rural folks (referring to William Ruto’s gang of MPs, mainly from western Kenya, and their supporters) were going to storm our grounds. Hii tao ni yetu, tumekuwa na mzae tangu 90s, na tumepingana vita nyingi sana…hao watu walikuwa wanacheza na nare.” This is our turf and we’ve been with Raila ever since the 90s, and we’ve fought many bloody wars, those people were stoking a war and playing with fire.

As a diehard supporter of Raila Odinga, the stocky foot soldier, now in his late 30s (he is a former bantamweight boxer)m said he had not slept for three consecutive days: “Kibra ni bedroom ya mbuyu na wewe unaleta mbulu pale…utatembea buda.” Kibra is the old man’s bedroom and you want to desecrate it…you’ll pay for it.

He said in those three days, all the foot soldiers’ work was to screen all “foreigners” entering Kibra. This was evident to me because I had also been forewarned by my minders that I should now be extremely careful when going to Kibra for my journalistic work.

And that is all that mattered. The rest of other 22 contestants were neither here nor there, including ANC’s Eliud Owalo, a one-time Raila’s confidante who collected 5,275 votes.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate. In the 2017 presidential election, 18,000 people voted for Uhuru Kenyatta, the Jubilee Party’s presidential candidate. The Jubilee Party candidate Doreen Wasike got 12,000 votes. The 6,000 extra votes that increased Uhuru’s number to 18,000 came from the Nubian community resident in Kibra.

As Raila and his friends were sipping champagne on a sunny Saturday afternoon, Ruto was gnashing his teeth, furious to the point where he refused to meet with the buddies he had campaigned with, according to media reports. However, his chief noisemaker, the rabblerouser Dennis Itumbi, denied that his boss was in a foul mood after the by-election.

Kibra constituency, formerly part of Langata constituency, has been a hotbed of political contests ever since Raila opted to stand in the constituency in 1992, the year the country returned to multiparty politics. Two years before that, in 1990, Raila, who had been exiled in Norway, had come back to Kenya to be part of the “Young Turks” who agitated and pushed for political reforms. He had stood in what was then known as Kibera constituency in the first multiparty general election and from then on Kibera became his enclave. That is why, in the run-up to the by-election, Raila “privatised” the constituency and called it his bedroom, in a (desperate) effort to rally around his troops to vote for Imran and to affirm to his current biggest political rival, William S Ruto, that Kibra was impenetrable to the latter’s political whims.

According to IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission)’s 2017 figures, Kibra has 118,658 registered voters and 24 polling stations. In the just-concluded by-election, a paltry 41,984 people voted, constituting 35 per cent of the electorate.

That is why the Kibra by-election was not so much about the 24 contestants that took part in the race, but was more of a competition between the two biggest political parties, the ruling party Jubilee and ODM, and between Raila Odinga and William Ruto. Imran and Mariga were just pawns in a much bigger and wider plot linked to the 2022 presidential succession political chess game in which the two have staked their ambitions and claim.

Three weeks to the by-election, I met with one of Ruto’s bosom buddies who was coordinating the campaign behind the scenes. “If we wrestle the Kibra seat from the kitendawili (riddles) man, we’ll have completely changed the political map of not only Nairobi County, but of the country,” he had said to me. “We will configure national politics and consign Raila to a corner. And then relish to face him in 2022.”

The Ruto man told me that in the lead-up to 2022, their chief tactic is to draw Raila into a two-horse race, in which case, “I can assure you, we’ll pulverise the enigma [one of the monikers used to describe Raila] once and for all”.

It understandable, hence, for Ruto to have taken the defeat personally and Raila to have gloated – but for how long?

In many ways, the by-election was a curtain raiser, a preamble and a showdown of what to expect in 2022, the year Kenyans once again go to the polls to elect a new president. The violence witnessed in Kibra will be multiplied at the national level. The money that was thrown at the electorate in little Kibra will seem like cash for an afternoon picnic as the chief contestants in 2022 open their war chests to woo an even hungrier electorate, ready to settle scores and be manipulated. The shadow line-ups that we saw falling respectively behind the protagonists will be reshaped many times over before 2022.

The by-election was also about the “big boys” (Raila and Ruto) settling scores and about cementing the burial rites of the already dead NASA (National Super Alliance), the fledgling and motley coalition that brought together Raila Odinga, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula, and Musalia Mudavadi. In addition, it was about the extension of the supremacy battles being fought between the Jubilee Party wing of President Uhuru Kenyatta and its rival that is being led by his deputy – in essence, the trooping of colours between #Kieleweke group and the #Tanga Tanga brigade.

Could this by-election also have signalled the death knell of the Jubilee Party as currently constituted?

The Ken Okoth factor

The by-election was a function of several variables, including what can be referred to as the Ken Okoth factor. Okoth, who died from colon cancer at the age of 41, was the Kibra MP when he succumbed to the killer disease on July 26, 2019.

Okoth was elected in 2013 in the newly created Kibra constituency, which was hived off from the larger Langata constituency to Raila’s chagrin. (This is a public secret.) Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand. He was suave, well-spoken and a terribly likeable man.

When he became the MP, he charted an even more independent path: he decided he was not going to be anybody’s protégé. So he cultivated his political friendships across party divisions. As a man who understood the power of education (he was the recipient of a sound education from Starehe Boys’ Centre, where he was educated on a full bursary), he invested heavily in education in Kibra. A good secondary education, like he used to say, had saved him from the clutches of poverty.

Okoth built eight secondary schools in Kibra and expanded many of the primary schools to have a secondary school wing. He rightly argued that since many Kibra parents could not afford to take their children to boarding schools, he would lighten their burden by constructing local secondary schools. He also gave out lots of bursaries to parents who struggled with fees. Any pupil who got 350 points or more in his or her KCPE (Kenya Certificate of Primary Education) exam got full bursary to transition to high school.

Even though Okoth was elected on an ODM ticket, he was not Raila’s first choice. Okoth was an independent-minded politician and a popular and well-liked local boy. Home-grown and well-educated, he understood the problems of the infamous Kibera slum like the back of his hand.

Juliet Atellah, a Kibra resident from Gatwekera village in Sarang’ombe and a double maths and statistics major from the University of Nairobi can attest to this. “When Okoth become MP, he told us education was the key to success. He implored us to work hard in school as he also worked hard to ensure Kibra youth interested in education benefitted from a bursary.” It is something that Okoth continually preached till his death.

Okoth, also, through his Jubilee Party networks, tapped into the National Youth Service (NYS) resources to create some employment opportunities for the youth of Kibra. This cross-cutting political parties’ engagement would land him into trouble with ODM mandarins who accused and suspected him of cavorting with the enemy. “By opting to work with Jubilee Party functionaries, Okoth looked at the bigger picture: what mattered most, according to him, was how best to improve the quality of lives of Kibrans. If the help would come from his presumed ‘political antagonists’ so be it,” said a friend of the late MP.

He relegated the work of managing the bursaries through the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) to his brother Imran. Little wonder then that his brother clinched the ODM ticket, but not without loud grievances. According to my sources within the ODM party, Peter Orero (popularly known as mwalimu), the Principal of Dagoretti High School, and also the former principal of Upper Hill High School, had won the ticket, but to stem the fallout that was going to befall the party as it faced its greatest onslaught from Ruto, a man who was staking his all to capture the seat, Raila opted to hand the ticket to the former CDF manager.

Disgruntled followers

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s. The people of Kibra know their politics well. This is courtesy of Raila Odinga, who for a long time championed the political struggle for equity and social justice in the country. As their MP, Raila encouraged Kibra voters to fight for their rights and to demand no less than his rightful representation.

But the burden of the “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru Kenyatta had reared its ugly head and it was evident that Raila struggled when campaigning in his former constituency. “With the handshake, Raila commercialised the struggle,” said a politician who has known him since the multiparty struggles of the 90s. “The handshake had confused his base, angering many and disillusioning a great deal of people who had stood with him all the way. Until, the death of Okoth, Raila had not stepped in Kibra to explain the handshake. Instead, when he shook Uhuru’s hand, he headed to Kondele in Kisumu to appease his other equally fanatical base, 300 kilometres away.”

The politician said that Kibra people have yet to enjoy the handshake’s dividends. “Many of the youths who were shot at by police when defending Raila were from Kibra, yet the handshake projects have all been taken to Kisumu. Although the Kibra electorate is still fanatically loyal to Raila, they were also passing a subtle message to him – it about time you re-evaluated your politics with us.”

Kibra constituency residents are some of the most politically “woke” electorate that this country has ever produced. Their political consciousness is high and battle-hardened from their brutal fights with the Kanu regime in the 1990s.

Hence, it was not lost to keen observers that for the first time since Raila began campaigning in Kibra in 1992, he had been forced to solicit for votes beyond Kamukunji in Sarang’ombe ward. “For the first time,” said a resident of Sarang’ombe, “Raila had been forced to campaign in Bukhungu in Makina, Laini Saba, and Joseph Kange’the in Woodley.” As the area MP, Raila would campaign only in Kamukunji grounds and with that he would seal his victory and close that chapter. The rest of the voters would fall in place.

Sarang’ombe ward has the largest number of voters, largely comprising Luos and Luhyas. The Luos are concentrated in Kisumu Ndogo village, while the Luhyas are to be found in Soweto and Bombolulu villages. There are about 6,000 registered Luhya voters in both the villages, while there could be about 20,000 Luos in Kisumu Ndogo. The other large concentrations of Luhyas are located in Lindi and Makina. Hence the reason why Raila went to campaign in Makina. He also campaigned in Woodley on Joseph Kange’the Road, because it has a large population of Kikuyu voters.

New alliances and 2022 politics

If campaigning on “virgin” territory was not too much of a stretch, Raila had to enlist the support of seven governors: Alfred Mutua of Machakos, Ann Mumbi Kamotho (previously known as Ann Waiguru) of Kirinyaga, Charity Ngilu of Kitui, Kivutha Kibwana of Makueni, James Ongwae of Kisii, John Nyagarama of Nyamira and Wycliffe Oparanya of Kakamega. “Ruto with his loads of money was piling pressure on Raila and he wasn’t going to take any chances,” explained one of Raila’s associates.

So, on October 30, 2019, nominated MP Maina Kamanda, Kigumo MP, Ruth Mwaniki and David Murathe (President Uhuru Kenyatta’s hatchet man) met with Raila to ostensibly pledge the Kikuyu electorate’s and President Uhuru’s support for the ODM candidate Bernard Otieno Okoth aka Imran. At the meeting, Mwaniki hinted that McDonald Mariga Wanyama, the Jubilee Party candidate, had been forced on the party leadership and President Uhuru: “I don’t know why some leaders [referring to Deputy President William Ruto] in Jubilee dragged Mariga into the race.”

In the spirit of the handshake, Kamanda said he would rally the Kikuyu voter to throw his lot with Imran: “When you see me here, know that President Uhuru Kenyatta is here.”

On the previous day, the former Starehe MP had told the Kikuyus in Kibra, “On November 7, please come out in large numbers to vote for Imran. Imran’s victory will be a big win for the unity of this country.” He was referring to the now mercurial political handshake that President Uhuru and Raila cemented on March 9, 2018. The handshake between the two bitterest rivals gave birth to the Building the Bridges Initiative (BBI). The acronym has been baptised many things, the latest one being Beba Baba Ikulu. Take Raila to State House.

On that same day (October 30), Raila had separately met with Kikuyu and Kisii opinion shapers from Kibra at his office in Upper Hill, before descending to Kibra again in the evening, three days after he had held a rally there on October 27, a Sunday. This same day, as Raila met with the respective community leaders, he confided in a mutual friend who he had lunch with at Nairobi Club that Ruto was breathing down his neck, and giving him a run for his money in his erstwhile constituency that he had represented for a quarter of a century.

During the time that Raila stood in Kibra, the Luhya community had also stood with him. They voted for him to the last man, “but when Okoth died, the Luhya nationalists in Kibra and elsewhere thought ‘it was their time to eat’”, a Luhya politician who stood as a senator in western Kenya said. “The Luhya felt the time was ripe to get paid for standing with Raila all these years since 1992.” The politician reminded me that even when Michael Wamalwa died in August, 2004, the Luhyas remained strong supporters of Raila.

Feeding on this Luhya nationalism, Ruto and his band of Luhya MPs from western Kenya landed in Kibra, and hoped to hype this reigning scepticism to maximum effect. So when Bernard Shinali, the MP for Ikolomani, was caught by the hawk-eyed ODM foot soldiers dishing out money to potential voters in Kisumu Ndogo three days before voting day, he, like the former Kakamega Senator, Bonny Khalwale, wanted to prove to their boss Ruto that they were ready to deliver the Kibra Luhya vote to him. The other Luhya MP from western who would be deployed to Kibra was Benjamin Washiali of Mumias and Didmus Barasa MP of Kimilili.

In all probability the Kibra by-election offered Kenyans a trailer of how the 2022 presidential elections will be and how they will will be fought. Will that election be a contest between Raila and Ruto? If the parading of the troops from both sides is anything to go by, the sneak preview of the troops’ formation promises many shifting alliances.

Wavinya Ndeti, the former MP for Kathiani and a governor candidate for Machakos County in 2017 on a Wiper Democratic Movement (WPM) ticket – but nonetheless aligned to Raila – allegedly moaned loudly, after seeing Mutua in Kibra. Had Raila dumped her by inviting the Machakos governor into his “bedroom?” Kalonzo Musyoka, one of the four NASA co-principals is mum, but when he said he would be supporting the Ford Kenya candidate Ramadhan Butichi, he invited opprobrium from ODM mandarins. My friends in ODM hinted to me that Kivutha is the man to checkmate Kalonzo. What about Musalia Mudavadi, the other NASA co-principal principal? Is Oparanya being propped up to replace him?

The fact that President Uhuru Kenyatta has not made any comment on the by-election, and has not appeared anywhere near Kibra to campaign for the Jubilee Party candidate speaks volumes about whether indeed Mariga was a Jubilee Party candidate, I told a close associate of the deputy president that Ruto and Mariga had camped at State House for two days to get the president’s audience. It was only on the second day that Ruto showcased Mariga to the president, who fitted Mariga’s football head with a Jubilee cap. “That is all true,” agreed the associate, “but the president is a grown up, how do you force anything onto a grown up?”

What is clear, however, is that as 2022 fast approaches, the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s “political bedroom”. Now, as pundits, political analysts, and the media try to explain what this political drama will mean for the future of Kenya’s politics, the central question that Kenyans need to ask is what role they will play in shaping a prosperous future.

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