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Constitutionalism for Convenience: How Kenyan Presidents Have Subverted the Supreme Law

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CONSTITUTIONALISM FOR CONVENIENCE: How Kenyan Presidents Have Subverted The Supreme Law
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During a transition into a new presidential tenure such as Kenya is going through at this point in 2017, it is expected that people – certainly government and governance scholars – will review the outgoing tenure so as to highlight the needs of the incoming tenure. If such reviews become a habit, then the next logical step is to review the comparative performances of presidents and/or presidencies over the years, with a view to assessing aspirants for suitability.

The mutations to the independence gave much power to the Executive relative to the Legislature and Judiciary: all public servants were employed “during the pleasure of the President”, which bred extensive impunity in the upper echelons of the Executive. That the reformist 2010 Constitution, designed to put paid to such potential Executive excess, has failed to do so reflects, inter alia, the depths to which the roots of impunity had sunk during the initial 47 years of independence.[1] That impunity is alive and well in and around the presidency, is elaborately manifest even in the persisting illegalities and irregularities surrounding the transition to a new presidential tenure. This is an indicator of the nature of disposition to constitutionalism.

The global literature illustrates varied approaches to evaluating presidents and/or presidencies, such as through the analyses of speech content, performance of the economy, and opinion poll ratings, amongst others. These listed approaches are more amenable to the evaluation of developed country contexts where such data is habitually gathered; but this is not the case for developing country contexts, such as Kenya. For the latter countries, presidential speeches are based on opportunistic political expediency rather than on the individual’s beliefs; economies are disproportionately driven by exogenous rather than endogenous factors; and opinion polls are excessively subjective. However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country. Given the respective contexts within which Kenya’s independence and 2010 constitutions were made, it is reasonable to expect greater fidelity to the latter which arguably carries greater legitimacy.

However, a useful yardstick with which to compare president or presidencies is fidelity to the constitution of the day, which is supposed to be the social contract with the citizens of the country.

The making of Kenya’s independence constitution was chaperoned by the British, with delegates from the colony abiding by the tradition of attending talks at Lancaster House in London. Despite the British government’s declared ‘wind of change’ sweeping in independence for its colonies, its kith in Kenya, the White settlers, briefly contemplated a ‘unilateral declaration of independence’, which would have perpetuated the relative voiceless-ness of the majority African population.[2] But the Africans at the constitutional talks did not also speak with one voice: the self-serving settlers had successfully heightened the fears of the Africans from the smaller ethnic groups under the Kenya African Democratic Union (KADU) party, of domination by those from the two largest groups, the Kikuyu and Luo, who were grouped in the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party. Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain. In contrast, the making of the 2010 Constitution was a ‘people-driven’ comprehensive review process commenced in 1999, with a large number of delegates, 629 in total, attending the National Constitutional Conference at the Bomas of Kenya venue.

A dominant feature of Kenya’s 27 constitutional changes between 1963 and 2008 was the centralization of power in the Executive, specifically on the President. Founding Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta – hereafter Kenyatta I – begun the cannibalization of the independence constitution as early as 1964, when he declared himself the President of the Republic of Kenya. The other 1964 changes also watered down the independence of regional governments, which were consequently killed in the next year. The 1966 changes ushered in dictatorship, amalgamating the Senate and National Assembly,[3] derogating rights and freedoms while also introducing detention without trial. Furthermore, 1966 saw the constitutional stifling of the Kenya People’s Union (KPU) opposition party launched in 1965 and gave the President power to hire and fire all in the public service, while 1968 saw the abolition of independent candidates and provided for the President to be elected through a General Election, as opposed to election by the National Assembly, which made him politically independent of the latter. By 1969, the President had acquired the right to appoint the Electoral Commission of Kenya; but the need to rationalize these multiple amendments led to ‘rebasing’ the constitution on that year. Among the last of Kenyatta’s 15-odd amendments would be one to allow him to pardon ex-Kapenguria detainee, Paul Ngei, and allow him to return to politics after he was convicted of an electoral offence.

Thus, broadly speaking, the independence constitution was the product of compromise among four delegations, rather than one between a united African front and the colonizer, Britain.

Among the more outstanding constitutional amendments of successor president Daniel Moi (1978-2002), was the infamous Article 2A of 1982, transforming the country into a de jure – by law – single party state that made KANU the Baba na Mama of all Kenyans. Another outstanding amendment was the 1991 repeal of the same Article 2A, which returned the country to multipartyism.[4] In between, 1986 witnessed the mischievous removal of security of tenure for the Attorney General and the Auditor and Controller General (CAG), and the increase of parliamentary constituencies to 188. Torture was allowed in 1987, while security of tenure for constitutional offices was removed in 1988. Security of tenure returned in 1990 amidst pressure for the opening up of democratic space for Kenyans; and in 1991 constituencies increased to 210.

While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists. The treatment of suspects, with several prosecutors and magistrates acting as the system’s hatchet men, was in violation of the well-known and internationally accepted rights of people in such circumstances. And of course, there were several assassinations, among the better known ones being Pio Gama Pinto, Tom Mboya, J.M.Kariuki and Robert Ouko. The era saw many unexplained accidents, disappearances and extra-judicial killings. Additionally, individuals were ‘dealt with’ through various other means, such as a vocal Assistant Minister being imprisoned for violating foreign exchange regulations by inadvertently keeping some loose change after foreign trips.

The independence development blueprint, Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 on African Socialism, had provided that scarce investment resources would be focused on “areas of greatest absorptive capacity”, with surpluses being redistributed to the lower absorption parts of the country.[5] Growth occurred in fits and starts,[6] but there was little redistribution to the low absorption regions and communities previously overlooked by colonialism.[7] Instead, there was expropriation through harambee fund-raising for social sector investments even as the government extensively biased budget resource allocations. Thus, for example, public health care resources went disproportionately to the parts of the country that had a harambee capacity to build health facilities, rather than to those parts that had comparatively greater disease burdens, such as the malaria endemic regions. The net effect of such inequitable resource allocation have been the inequalities in health status, such as are reflected in the child mortality rates of Figure 1.[8]

Figure 1: Under-5 Mortality Rates by background characteristics, 2014

Under-5 Mortality Rates by background characteristics, 2014

Source: KDHS, 2014

The illustration above of disregard for comparative development needs was given further impetus by both regimes’ resort to parochialism – and indeed, nepotism – in key public appointments. Notwithstanding public employment being “during the pleasure of the President”, it is difficult to imagine that any tenant of State House believed that the national interest was best served through excessively parochial public appointments. Table 1 shows that belonging to the president’s ethnic group was significant for the distribution of cabinet positions, with ethnic shares fluctuating markedly depending on the president’s ethnicity. And beyond merely having a cabinet position, ethnicity also determined which lucrative dockets went to whom. Such exalted positions enabled the illegal but unpunished diversion of Parliament-sanctioned development resources away from areas perceived hostile to the government to ‘politically-correct’ areas. The context also enabled self-aggrandisement with impunity since such individuals’ closeness to the president protected against prosecution.[9] In any case, the annual CAG reports that would highlight such criminal misconduct would be several years behind schedule, complicating remedial action.[10]

Table 2: Ethnic shares of Kenyan cabinet positions and population (%)

Ethnic group Kenyatta (Kikuyu) Moi (Kalenjin) Kibaki (Kikuyu) Share of population
1966 1978 1979 2001 2003 2005 2011 2009
Kikuyu 28.6 28.6 30 4 16 18.1 19.5 17
Luhya 9.5 4.8 11 14 16 21.2 17.1 14
Luo 14.3 14.3 11 7 16 3.1 12.2 12
Kalenjin 4.8 4.8 11 17 7 6.1 9.8 13
Total 21 21 26 28 25 33 42

 

The ad hoc reviews of the constitution led to internal contradictions; but weak fidelity to the letter of the document also opened up further opportunities for impunity. For example, the dividing line between KANU and the Executive increasingly became blurred over policy-making and implementation; and the context increasingly dictated the agendas of the Judiciary and Parliament. As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious. These contradictions led to extensive demands for a comprehensive review of the constitution in the run-up to the 1997 general elections. The brutal response of the government was most vividly captured in the police invasion of the inner sanctum of the All Saints Cathedral into which they lobbed tear gas against demonstrators. The stand-off was eventually resolved through the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group (IPPG) process, which was able to extract modest reforms from the government, such as the inclusion of opposition in nominating members of the electoral commission hitherto appointed exclusively by the President.[11] While Moi retained power at the election, the seed of change had been sown;[12] sustained internal and external pressure for a comprehensive constitutional review led to the Bomas of Kenya conference launched in 2003.[13]

While these constitutional gymnastics suggested regimes that were keen to be on the right side of the ‘mother law’, there was extensive repression in other realms, such as the 1980s onslaught against real or imagined Mwakenya and Pambana activists.

The shenanigans around the constitution review process are well documented: suffice it to say that it took 10 years of back and forth, and critically, over 1,300-odd deaths and half-a-million internal displacements during the 2007/08 post-election violence, to focus the government on the delivery of a new constitution.

IPPG had not convinced Moi of the need for comprehensive change; so he had set about co-opting perceived ethnic chiefs into KANU to diffuse the growing clamour for an end to Nyayoism. In a perverse way, that Moi strategy probably made a major contribution to liberating Kenya from his clutches, even if his empire would later strike back. Moi’s strategy culminated in the Kasarani Stadium conference at which he declared a comparative political nonentity, Uhuru Kenyatta, to be his heir.[14] That action sparked a revolt that passed through various political outfits to coalesce in the exceedingly ethnically broad-based and popular National Alliance Rainbow Coalition (NARC) party. This was the party that brought Kibaki to the presidency in 2003, with a promise of a new constitution in 100 days.

Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I. Of the ‘new constitution within a 100 days’, a leading Kibaki ally would declare that there had been nothing wrong with the existing constitution, and that changes to it had only been desired as a means of getting rid of Moi. The growing indiscretions of the Kibaki faction in NARC meant that the party soon imploded,[15] even as that faction set about manipulating the Bomas Draft Constitution to perpetuate the status quo. These divisions set the stage for the 2005 national referendum defeat of Kibaki’s preferred version of the proposed constitution, which in turn set Kenya on the road to the disputed 2007 presidential elections, and the violence the followed in its wake.[16]

As reflected in the 1988 queue voting – mlolongo – exercise, democratic electioneering lost meaning: in instances, the shortest queue of supporters would be declared victorious.

Notwithstanding the unprecedented horror surrounding it, the 2007-08 post-election violence had a silver lining: its resolution by the Kofi Anna-led African Union’s Panel of Eminent Personalities led to, amongst other things, the institution of Agenda Item 4 of 2008 – the basis of long term governance reforms in the country.[17] A newly independent African country’s primary ambition must surely be the transformation of the state (constitution), boundaries and peoples into a nation-state. One might try to explain Kenyatta I’s failures in this respect on his old age and his being overwhelmed by the very idea of ‘independence’ (self-rule); and Moi’s failure on his narrow world view that limited exposure to ideas, such as nation-hood. But neither explanation could hold for the much younger, more educated, and indeed cosmopolitan Kibaki’s failure to realise the dreams of the NARC revolution. And Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.

So ineffectual was Kibaki that he largely seemed to have slept through the International Criminal Court (ICC) indictments of Kenyans adjudged to have had the greatest responsibility for the 2007/08 post-election violence.[18] But Kibaki did have reason to let sleeping dogs lie, even as Moreno Ocampo muddled his way through the early ICC processes: the National Intelligence Service’s (NIS) evidence to the Waki Commission was that Kibaki’s National Security Council (NSC) had been regularly briefed on people arming themselves for violence after the elections. If NSI’s evidence was true – and nobody denied it – then the NSC chair should have been first on the plane to ICC: he knew of impending violence, and failed to contain the threat despite having both the constitutional obligation and the means with which to do so.

Yet if the promised NARC revolution had got rid of Moi and his preferred heir, Kenyans would soon realise that Moi-ism – the disregard for constitutional, policy and legal frameworks – had merely acquired a new face; and there were hints of a reinvention of the autocracy of Kenyatta I.

Among the distinguishing acts of the Kibaki presidency was his rampant creation of unconstitutional administrative districts. In 1997, Kibaki’s Democratic Party had won a High Court action against President Moi for creating some 30-odd “unconstitutional districts”, which the judge did not dissolve because it was the eve of a general election premised on those very districts. Yet during his presidency, right up to the 2010 promulgation of the new constitution, Kibaki created over 200 new, similarly unconstitutional districts,[19] which the new Constitution duly abolished by transforming the constitutional 47 into counties.

Among Agenda 4’s objectives was the time-bound promulgation of a new constitution, which Kibaki hardly campaigned for ahead of the national referendum on it. That the Constitution (2010) is transformative is indisputable: while Chapter 1 of the 2008 version of the independence constitution says nothing about the people of Kenya before launching into the greatness of the President, Article 1 of Constitution (2010) conditions the presidency on the will of the people in declaring as follows:

“(1) All sovereign power belongs to the people of Kenya and shall be exercised only in accordance with this Constitution5)

(2) The people may exercise their sovereign power either directly or through their democratically elected representatives.”

Having declared as such, the Constitution (2010) further takes power away from the President in three important respects: (i) it underscores the separation of powers between the Executive, Judiciary and Legislature (Article 1(3)); (ii) instead of all public servants being employed “during the pleasure of the President”, key public offices are filled through people-driven processes as well as protected against external interference (Articles 160, 228, 229, and Chapter 13, etc); and (iii) it creates the national and county levels of government which “are distinct and inter-dependent and shall conduct their mutual relations on the basis of consultation and cooperation (Articles 6 and 189).”

Kibaki’s failure to grasp the remedial opportunity provided by Agenda 4 underscored his lack of fortitude and his ethnic insularity. A president offered great opportunities proved entirely ineffectual.

A further driver of impunity and parochialism under the independence constitution had been the central control of government resources began by Kenyatta I’s 1964 constitutional amendments that took service delivery and revenue generation functions away from the regions. However, the Constitution (2010) proved true to the principles of effective fiscal decentralization: its Fourth Schedule divided functions between the National and County Governments; and Chapter 12 on Public Finance ensures that money (resources) follows the Fourth Schedule’s division of labour.

As noted above, the Kibaki regime was not overly pleased with the governance changes occasioned by the new constitution,[20] especially devolution which would take “at least 15 percent of national revenue” out of Treasury’s control (Articles 203 (2), 207 (1) and 209).[21] This displeasure was most graphically illustrated in the stand-off over the draft Public Finance Management Bill, between devolution’s then mother ministry, Local Government, and the Finance ministry. While Treasury insisted on retaining control of monies devolved by Parliament to county governments, the Local Government prevailed with its position aligned to the recommendations of the Task Force on Devolved Government[22] and the spirit of the Constitution, that Treasury must not touch such monies. Additionally, and critically for effective transition to devolution, the Kibaki government delayed the establishment and adequate resourcing of the Transition Authority, the statutory midwife of the process. This meant that devolution was launched in April 2013, before the Authority could complete many of the preparatory measures envisaged by the Task Force on devolution, and reflected in the Authority’s founding statute.[23]

These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it!

Kibaki’s 2013 succession was a somewhat messy affair. His regime had a perception that a Kikuyu could not – or at least should not ­– succeed him; and so it searched for an ‘acceptable’ non-Kikuyu to oppose Raila Odinga and subsequently manage the ICC burden favourably, with Finance minister Kenyatta, arguably the strongest Kikuyu presidential candidate, indicted there for the 2007/08 post-election violence. Meanwhile, Kalonzo Musyoka’s 2008 backing of Kibaki had enabled the latter to form a government despite a numerically stronger opposition; and Musyoka had reason to expect the favour to be returned. Elsewhere, Kenyatta considered a candidacy for fellow Deputy Prime Minister and former Vice President, Musalia Mudavadi, who had the additional advantage of family ties to former president Moi. In the event, Kenyatta abandoned Mudavadi, declaring “the devil” to have caused him to even think of that option, broke loose of Kibaki handlers, and joined forces with fellow ICC suspect, William Ruto, to milk their tribulations for political gain. These developments pushed Musyoka into an alliance with Odinga.

However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters.

These goings-on confirm Kenyatta’s place among his predecessors’ ‘constitutionalism for convenience’: if it hampers, ditch it! For example, while the full implementation of the Constitution (2010) is viewed as a plausible instrument against corruption, Kenyatta has wished for the independence constitution’s imperial presidency.[24] Secondly, Kenyatta is among the Kiambu-ians who came to terms with ‘the snake crossing the River Chania’ into Nyeri,[25] but cannot countenance the snake leaving the ‘House of Mumbi’, an underlying issue in the post-2007 election agenda.[26] Additionally, after losing the 2002 presidential election, Kenyatta had become the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament, and eventual chair of the KANU party; but he would lead the party into Kibaki’s Party of National Unity coalition in the run up to the 2007 election, and eventually abandon it for his own presidential run with an eye on ensuring a House of Mumbi victory in the 2013 elections. The Supreme Court upheld Kenyatta’s victory in that election; but the court’s decision was derided by numerous legal scholars.[27]

While Kibaki seemed ambivalent during the 2010 debates on the Proposed Constitution, Kenyatta publicly supported it. However, as Finance Minister, his attitude towards the document was evident in his disregard of it over the management of devolved funds. Additional events further illustrate Kenyatta’s less than complete support for the constitution he swore to defend, such as his predilection is well known for grandiose, resource-consuming projects that have pushed the national debt burden beyond the East African Community sustainability levels. Such infrastructure priorities have paid scant attention to Chapter 4 of the Constitution’s guarantee of the right to food, clothing and shelter.

Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism.

However, a summary of Kenyatta’s attitude to constitutionalism is best illustrated by his conduct during the 2017 presidential elections. Even as he laments constitutional obstacles to fighting corruption, Kenyatta consistently used state resources to curry favour among individual politicians and voters. Public servants and other resources were deployed to the regions to curry favour for his Jubilee party. The regime has also been notorious for its persistent arm-twisting of constitutional commissions and independent offices, most notably the Auditor General and the Controller of Budget. Disdain for the independence of such institutions was most vividly illustrated in Kenyatta’s recurrent outbursts against the Supreme Court which had nullified the August 8 elections for being fraught with “illegalities and irregularities”. Yet two of the judges Kenyatta dismissed as wakora – crooks – had upheld his 2013 election despite big questions and all would uphold his victory in the October 26 repeat election. In spite of their recruitment on constitutionally determined merit, Kenyatta would ask the same judges rhetorically: “Who even elected you?”, and would promise to ‘revisit’ and ‘fix the court ‘problem’.[28] Since then, the law has been changed to complicate the nullification of a presidential election.

Conclusions

This note has presented a broad-brush review of the relationships between Kenya’s four presidents to date and their regimes, and the constitution. The broad finding is that all the presidents have not been sticklers for the either the letter or spirit of the constitution, applying it when convenient, and amending it or even violating it when the need has arisen. Kenyatta I’s apologists might point to the context of his tenure – an autocrat in euphoria over the new independence status; and Moi’s apologists will emphasize his restricted world view. It is however, difficult to go beyond ethnic insularity find explanations for Kibaki’s failure to embed constitutionalism more deeply in governance and his misadventure which led to many lost and wasted lives and livelihoods, is an indictment he will never escape. Kenyatta II is an extension of the Kibaki heritage in many respects, having been an alleged hatchet man in the horrors of 2007/08. Yet, it is Kenyatta II’s failure to fully implement the transformative Constitution (2010) that stands him out as a great enemy of constitutionalism. Based on these experiences, the outlook for Kenyan constitutionalism looks bleak.

 

References

 

Bigsten, Arne (1977), Regional Inequality in Kenya. Nairobi, Kenya: Institute for Development Studies, University of Nairobi

Kanyinga K, Okello D. Tension and Reversals in Democratic Transitions: The Kenya 2007 General Elections. Nairobi: Society for International Development and Institute for Development Studies (IDS), University of Nairobi; 2010.

Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014), The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2014. Nairobi, KNBS. Available at https://dhsprogram.com/pubs/pdf/fr308/fr308.pdf  

Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008), On the Brink of the Precipice: A Human Rights Account of Kenya’s Post‐2007 Election Violence. Nairobi: KNCHR. Available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/08/pev-report-as-adopted-by-the-commission-for-release-on-7-august-20081.pdf

Kipkorir, Benjamin (2016), Descent from Cherang’any Hills: Memoirs of a Reluctant Academic. Moran (E.A.) Publishers Ltd.

Kivuva, Joshua M. (2011), Restructuring the Kenyan State. Constitution Working Paper Series No.1. Nairobi: Society for International Development.

Ministry of Local Government (2012), Interim Report of the Task Force on Devolved Government: A report on the implementation of Devolved Government in Kenya. Nairobi: Local Government.

Murunga, Godwin and Sharack Nasong’o (Eds.) (2013), Kenya: the struggle for democracy. London: Zed Books

Mutua, Makau (2008), Kenya’s Quest for Democracy: Taming Leviathan (Challenge and Change in African Politics). Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

URAIA Trust and IRI (2012), The Citizen Handbook: Empowering citizens through civic education. Nairobi: URAIA/IRI. At http://www.juakatiba.com/public/publication/eccbc87e4b5ce2fe28308fd9f2a7baf3.pdf

 

 

[1] That impunity persists despite the structural opportunities to fight it is also a reflection of the hopelessness of a majority of the Kenyan people, as illustrated in the rest of this note.

[2] This was precisely what the European settlers in Rhodesia did in 1965, leading to minority rule opposed by guerilla warfare in that country until formal independence was negotiated in 1980.

[3] While the constitution had provided for a multi-party state in a bi-cameral parliamentary system, the opposition KADU party was ‘encouraged’ to dissolve itself by “crossing the floor”, transforming Kenya into a de facto single party state, even if in law t remained a multi-party state

[4] After the 1969 banning of ex-Vice president Oginga Odinga’s KPU party, and the detention without trial of all its leadership, the country became a de facto single party dictatorship.

[5] The ‘higher absorption’ parts of the country were the former White Highlands of central Kenya and the spine of the Rift Valley, settled by European settler farmers, in which the colonial government had used ‘native’ tax revenues, such as is reported by Kipkorir (2016), to build development-facilitating infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and telecommunications.

[6] For example, allowing African small scale farmers to grow cash crops at independence boosted national economic growth into the late 1960s, but the oil crises of 1974 and 1979 dampened performance.

[7] See Bigsten (1977).

[8] Kenya National Bureau of Statistics et al. (2014).

[9] A local government minister, for example, used Nairobi City Council equipment to grade a road to his Kajiado home in preparation for his son’s wedding.

[10] Into the early 1990s, these annual reports were 7 years behind schedule, meaning the responsible officer had likely transferred, retired, or indeed, died.

[11] See Murunga and Nasongo (2013).

[12] Even Mwai Kibaki who a decade earlier had declared that removing Moi and KANU from was like trying to cut down a mugumo tree using a razor blade, ventured to contest the presidency.

[13] See URAIA/IRI (2012: 15-18).

[14] This choice overlooked Raila Odinga and former minister Katana Ngala, and former vice presidents George Saitoti, Kalonzo Musyoka and Musalia Mudavadi.

[15] The Kibaki faction for instance rubbished a Memorandum of Understanding that provided for equal shares of the cabinet with the Odinga faction of the party.

[16] The 2007 presidential election circumstances are documented in the Kriegler Report, available at https://kenyastockholm.files.wordpress.com/2008/09/the_kriegler_report.pdf. The post-election violence is explored in the Waki Report, available at http://kenyalaw.org/Downloads/Reports/Commission_of_Inquiry_into_Post_Election_Violence.pdf. For an academic approach to the issues, see Kanyinga and Okello (2011).

[17] The Agendas were as follows: 1–Immediate action to stop the violence and restore fundamental rights and liberties; 2–Immediate measures to address the humanitarian crisis, and promote healing and reconciliation; 3–How to overcome the political crisis; and 4–Addressing long-term issues, including undertaking constitutional, legal and institutional reforms; land reform; tackling poverty and inequality as well as combating regional development imbalances; tackling unemployment, particularly among the youth; consolidating national cohesion and unity; and addressing transparency, accountability and impunity. For details, go to https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Background-Note.pdf

[18] An interesting analysis is available in Kenyan National Commission on Human Rights (2008).

[19] The manner of their creation was so ad hoc, leading to deeply contested boundaries and headquarters.

[20] Key individuals in his regime had campaigned against the Proposed Constitution, and only changed positions when it became evident the ‘Yes’ camp would carry the August 2010 national referendum.

[21] The Constitution ring-fences at least 15% of national revenue for county governments. In reality, however, the share has been nearly 40% of the revenue.

[22] See Ministry of Local Government (2012).

[23] Transition Authority (2016) is an elaborate end term report. Sun, August 20th 2017.At

[24] See Njeri Rugene and Patrick Langat, President Kenyatta defends tenure, seeks second term. Daily Nation, Tuesday March 21, 2017.

[25] Kenyatta I’s Kiambu people provided the ‘home guards’ who fought against the Mau Mau largely from the Kikuyu lands across the River Chania. The Kiambu position was therefore that the presidency (and its motorcade [snake]) should never cross into the other lands.

[26] See for example, Paragraph 545 in Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (2008).

[27] For example, see Nzau Musau, Why Decision 2013 was ridiculed, torn apart by scholars. Standard Digital, Sun, 20th August 2017. At https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/article/2001251923/why-decision-2013-was-ridiculed-torn-apart-by-scholars

[28] Aljazeera, Uhuru Kenyatta to court: “We shall reisit this”. 2nd September 2017. At http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/09/uhuru-kenyatta-court-revisit-170902130212736.html

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Othieno Nyanjom is a lecturer, researcher and an international development consultant based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance

Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.

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Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
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The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.

Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.

I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.

Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges

Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.

Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.

While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.

The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.

Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.

In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.

Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.

After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.

Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.

Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.

Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.

Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.

Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.

The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.

Enablers and drivers of development

The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.

From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.

The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.

The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.

Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.

As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.

The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.

Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.

The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.

Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.

The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.

In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.

Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.

This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.

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Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.

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The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.

Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”

However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.

As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.

Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:

Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”

It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:

Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.

Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.

In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.

Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:

Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.

However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.

Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.

Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.

While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.

This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.

This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.

In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.

This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.

But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”

These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.

“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”

Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.

It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.

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The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid

Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.

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The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.

Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.

In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).

In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.

Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.

These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.

Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.

Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’

Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’ 

When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.

One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.

Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.

From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.

Why money is never free

‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.

Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.

All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.

Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.

All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?

Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.

By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.

Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid

‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.

As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.

Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.

How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.

By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.


Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.

Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.

 

 

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