I visited Kawangware, the sprawling ghetto on the outskirts of Nairobi city, days after it had quieted down from a “political showdown” – a euphemism for brutal ethnic fighting- following the October 26 repeat election.
The air was sombre. There was an uncanny feeling that this was not your normal, bustlingly busy Kawangware. The people moved in rhythmic motions, melancholy and solemnly. It was as if they were mourning. And they were. A day after the repeat presidential election that was ignored by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who had successfully petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s win in the August 8, 2017 general elections, a massacre had occurred.
Kawangware 56 has been a melting cauldron of ethnic tensions for the last three months. After the August election, problems started brewing in the area. “The antagonism between Jubilee Party supporters and the Opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) had been palpable even during the tense campaign period,” Philip, who lives in Stage Two, one of the neighborhoods within Kawangware 56, told me.
A day after the repeat presidential election that was ignored by Raila Odinga, the opposition leader who had successfully petitioned President Uhuru Kenyatta’s win in the August 8, 2017 general elections, a massacre had occurred.
“When the Supreme Court of Kenya (SCOK) annulled Uhuru’s victory there were wild celebrations in Kawangware 56,” he added. “Businesses owned by Kikuyus – of all of them – did not open at all, especially on the main Macharia Road. The boda boda (motorcycle) riders largely Luhyas, Luos and Kisiis spent the whole day riding up and down the road, shouting, yelling and taunting the Kikuyus, who were too scared to venture out or conduct their day-to-day retail businesses.”
On October 10, Raila, who had polled second to Uhuru Kenyatta with 6,762,224 votes against Uhuru’s, 8,203,290 votes in August, had pulled out of the fresh presidential election ordered by the court, citing a recalcitrant Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) that had refused to reform.
Up until the fresh election date, both sides of the political divide had been exchanging ethnically loaded expletives and invectives. By October, the taunting had reached its apogee: Kikuyus, who had overwhelmingly voted for Uhuru were daring the Luhyas, Luos and Kisiis – many of them supporters of Raila – not to vote.
“There is not one trigger that led up to the violence that eventually erupted on October 27, but a culmination of piled up anger and animosity,” said Philip. “Matters came to a head on the eve of October 26, when hoards of NASA supporters, moved around in Kawangware 56 – which largely consists of Congo, Gatini and Stage Two areas – and vowed to chop of any finger, the following day, if found with the pink ink,” referring to the indelible ink applied to the fingers of voters during elections to prevent electoral fraud.
One of the big Kawangware 56 business moguls, who runs Waiyaki Supermarket, located on the ground floor of a multi-storeyed building in Congo area facing Gitanga Road, is said to have been one of the people who mobilized the dreaded Mungiki.
On the election day itself, businesses did not open, but that did not prevent them from being looted and vandalized by NASA allied gangs who were roaming in Kawangware 56, ostensibly hunting for those who had voted.
The following day, likewise, Kikuyu youth were also on the prowl, hunting for those who had not voted. A witness, Josphar Ochwaya, told an AFP journalist that “a group of people started attacking people questioning them why they had not voted.”
“Harassment, destruction, looting of business premises was the order of the day on election day in Kawangware 56,” said Philip. “That is the day Mwireri Supermarket on Macharia Road was broken into and looted. The other supermarket PBK Supermarket was well secured so they did not break into it.” Although PBK was not looted, it remains closed as I write. Many people did not vote, Philip said, because they were afraid of the NASA gangs.
“There was no voting at Hope Centre on Macharia Road, Kabiru Primary and Kabiru Health Centre. Although there was heavy presence of the police and GSU (a paramilitary outfit), still that did not guarantee complete safety for voters, so many kept off.” Alarmed by the escalating tensions, which spilled to the following day, Kikuyu business people mobilized Kikuyu youth to protect their property.
One of the big Kawangware 56 business moguls, who runs Waiyaki Supermarket, located on the ground floor of a multi-storeyed building in Congo area facing Gitanga Road, is said to have been one of the people who mobilized the dreaded Mungiki.
It is not clear how many people were actually killed that night. The government and local media reports claim only 10 people were killed, but the residents I spoke to say the number could easily reach 100.
Mungiki, a Kikuyu youth movement started in 1987 in Nyahururu town environs, later spread to urban towns of especially Nairobi and Nakuru, where there are large Kikuyu populations. The youth settled in the slums, where they quickly and successfully built extortion rings, the first target naturally being their own Kikuyu people. In no time, they came to be feared for their macabre killings, which were a way of sending coded messages to business concerns that refused to pay blackmail money.
As time wore on in the 1990s and 2000s, the group expanded its extortion businesses – from offering security services to running and managing matatu businesses. At the same time, it mutated into a militia for hire to wealthy businessmen and politicians. In Kawangware, less than 15km west of Nairobi’s city centre, the Mungiki became famous for terrorizing landlords. Later, the same landlords were to rely on Mungiki in dealing with difficult tenants, majority of whom were non-Kikuyus. The landlords had found a symbiotic way of co-existing with the dreaded youth group.
Philip says that “the youth assembled outside [the Waiyaki Supermarket] at around 5.00pm, I saw them. Charged and chanting, they were ready to shed blood. In the heat of the moment, they killed two NASA supporters,” though the local press reported three deaths.
Following this, for seven hours, from about 8pm to 2.30am on Friday October 27, with the Mungiki on one side and Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth on the other, a fierce battle was fought into the dead of the night. At the end of the clash – according to several Kawangware 56 residents and a landlord in the area, many bodies lay dead.
It is not clear how many people were actually killed that night. The government and local media reports claim only 10 people were killed, but the residents I spoke to say the number could easily reach 100.
Many of these deaths, they say, have been concealed. “Families that lost their kith and kin have been mum about their loss. They are not talking about them – it is as if they have been sworn to silence,” said a source who did not want his identity revealed for security reasons. But more significantly, according to the source, “all of the youths killed on Macharia Road [where much of the fighting took place] were picked up by the police that night, put on their trucks, which drove away with them,” said the source. This may explain the disparity in casualty figures.
Most of Raila’s supporters had heeded his call and stayed away from the polls and word was going round that Luhya and Kisii youth were chopping off fingers of anyone who had the pink ink on his finger. Njogu had supposedly dared the Bunge youth to cut his finger if “they were men enough”.
Kawangware is basically divided into two areas: Kawangware 46 and Kawangware 56. The numbers are city bus routes that the defunct Kenyan Bus Service (KBS) came up with in the 1980s when it was still providing public transport services across the city. The route numbers were adopted by matatus and outlived the collapse of KBS.
Kawangware 56 borders Kangemi and the wealthy Lavington suburb across Gitanga Road. Kangemi – a slum settlement – is in many ways just like Kawangware: it is a Kikuyu indigenous area, now majorly occupied by the Luhya community. It is also host to Mungiki youth, who today engage in turf wars and gang battles with the Luhya youth.
The most popular myth of the origin of the name Kawangware is the one that refers to a Kikuyu man named Ngware, who is believed to have opened the first shop in the area in the early sixties. Kikuyu shoppers would say they have gone to Ngware’s shop or “Ka – wa – Ngware”. Another myth suggests the place got its name Ngware, because it was the place of the “guinea bird” (Ngware in Kikuyu language). Yet another claim is that Kawangware is a corruption of the Maasai name, Ewa Engare, or the place of floods.
Be that as it may, Kawangware was a traditional weekly market place which in colonial times was part of the original Kiambu district and under paramount chief Kinyanjui wa Gathirimu, the chief of Riruta area. From 1904 to 1959 African farming and land ownership was confined to native reserves. During this period, land in Kawangware and the neighbouring area of Satellite was made available for African freehold ownership. In the run up to and following independence in 1963, partly as a result of the area being exempted from taxes and from strict building and planning regulations, the area witnessed a huge influx of immigrants coming from other parts of the country in search of a good city life and cheap accommodation. Thus by 1964, when it was swallowed as part of Dagoretti District within the city boundaries, the largely Kikuyu population had swelled to include Kisii, Luo, Luhya, Nubians and Maasai. A 1979 study found that following sustained immigration from Busia district, Luhyas by then made up 20 percent of the population.
“The Mungiki had no inkling that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth already expected that they could be attacked any time and had prepared for battle,” said Karanja.
Both Kawangware 46 and 56 are densely populated, but it is Kawangware 56 that is the hotbed of cross-cultural ethnic politics, because it is today largely populated by non-Kikuyu communities from western Kenya: the Luhyas and Kisiis. Official figures regarding the current ethnic composition of Kawangware are hard to come by. According to the 2009 Kenya Population and Housing Census, the population was 133,286 -that has doubtless grown in the 8 years since- but offered no account of the ethnic breakdown. “Nine out 10 people who live in Kawangware 56 is either a Luhya or from the Kisii community,” estimates a Kikuyu landlord, who has been renting his houses to the Luhyas from the mid-1990s.
Stage Two is where Kawangware 56 Bunge la Mwananchi (people’s parliament) meet every evening. Established in the early 1990s, Bunge la Mwananchi is a grassroots movement that provides social space for debates and discussion on social, political and economic issues by ordinary Kenyans. During the campaign period for the August 8, elections, the Kawangware chapter met even more regularly: early in the mornings before everyone started on his day’s business and in the evenings to exchange notes on the day’s politics. Bunge la Mwananchi in Kawangware 56 comprises largely Luhyas and Kisiis.
At about 10.30am, On October 26, a middle-aged Kikuyu businessman known as Njogu, who ran the Zebra Bar and Restaurant Club on Macharia Road, opposite Stage Two, and who had just voted, was said to have come to the meeting place and waved his small finger with the ink mark. “I have just voted: what are you gonna do?” he is said to have taunted the assembled youth.
All that violence could not have taken place without the unseen hands of the politicians across the political divide. The galvanization of the respective militia gangs was the work of local politicians.
Most of Raila’s supporters had heeded his call and stayed away from the polls and word was going round that Luhya and Kisii youth were chopping off fingers of anyone who had the pink ink on his finger. Njogu had supposedly dared the Bunge youth to cut his finger if “they were men enough”. They knew him very well, the club owner and took this as a direct affront.
Njogu went away, but not before warning the youth and reminding them that they were foreigners and could be sent packing any time. Not long afterwards, the bunge was adjourned and the youths left Stage Two.
To the NASA brigade, the deaths of their kinsmen the next morning, was an ominous sign of what was to come and, unbeknownst to the Kikuyus, they alerted their brethren in Kangemi and in the Kibera slum .
At about 4.30pm, around 400 Mungiki youth started moving down in a column from Waithaka wielding pangas and clubs in broad daylight heading towards Kawangware 56 along Naivasha Road. Little did they know that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth lay in wait. “The Mungiki had no inkling that the Luhya, Luo and Kisii youth already expected that they could be attacked any time and had prepared for battle,” said Karanja.
Meanwhile, Mungiki had also summoned reinforcements from their Kangemi fraternity. Kawangware 56 and Kangemi are connected by Mau Mau Bridge – a low level stone bridge with metal guard rails on both sides that crosses a stream meandering through Kangemi. “On Friday evening, I counted about 300 Mungiki youth rolling down to Mau Mau Bridge, carrying pangas, sticks and clubs singing Kikuyu songs,” said a source who spoke to me in strict confidence and who asked me to hide his name. “I was able to count them because they passed just outside my house.”
Karanja told me Mau Mau Bridge, which is strong and wide enough for motor vehicles to pass, has seen many a gang battle between the Mungiki and the Luhya youth. “Whoever controls the bridge carries the day”, said Karanja, who has aptly nicknamed the bridge “ground zero.”
“In all of my 20 years at the market, business has never been this bad,” confessed Kabuda, a seasoned vegetable seller.
Once the Mungiki youth from Kangemi had crossed the bridge, their would-be targets emerged and sealed it off trapping them. From the Mau Mau Bridge, which is on a valley, the road climbs up to connect with Macharia Road, which links up with Naivasha Road. It is therefore a corridor that runs about 1.5kms. Left only with the escape route at the mouth of Macharia Road, the Mungiki had been out-manoeuvred and were out-numbered. They would soon be overpowered and overwhelmed,
Some sought refuge at Zebra Bar. It was a deadly mistake as the club was surrounded, locked and set ablaze with them still inside. The rest of the Mungiki youth, pursued by the panga wielding Luhya and Kisii, ran up the road and attempted to hide at the rental houses and shops located at the junction of Macharia Road and Naivasha Road. It became another death trap. The compound was also razed, the fire engulfing retail shops butcheries, M-Pesa agent kiosks and residential houses.
“In a conventional battle, the Kikuyus are no match for the Luhyas and Kisiis” Karanja told me. “The Mungiki youth thought they would stalk their enemies but instead walked into a trap.” What saved the Mungiki youth from further annihilation were the police and the paramilitary, who came to their rescue. However, even the police were no match for the combined force of the well-armed and prepared gang.
“10 policemen were caught in the ensuing battle and died,” an intelligence officer based at Central Police Station told me. “Six died on the spot on Macharia Road.” Many, he added, were maimed and driven by ambulance vehicles that came to pick the wounded officers that night. They are being treated at Defence Forces Memorial Hospital, a military hospital on Mbagathi Way that is reputed to be one of the best equipped referral hospitals in the country.
All that violence could not have taken place without the unseen hands of the politicians across the political divide. The galvanization of the respective militia gangs was the work of local politicians. One name on the lips of many, including the Kawangware 56 residents, is that of rambunctious area MP, Simba Arati, of the Orange Democratic Party (ODM), an affiliate of NASA coalition.
Jubilee politicians have accused Arati of being an instigator of the violence, which he has denied, claiming in court papers that he had been hospitalized at the time and only heard of the fighting through social media. The MP has successfully applied to the high court for anticipatory bail, which prevents the police arresting him.
Many in Kawangware are not buying it. “Simba Arati is the one who orchestrated all the chaos,” said a Kikuyu landlord from Gatina. “After Arati was elected the MP, he began inciting both the Luhya and Kisiis to engage in acts of violence.” Arati, an ethnic Kisii, is distrusted by the Kikuyu landlords and business class, who accuse him of fomenting trouble, in the ultimate hope of ejecting Kikuyus from Kawangware 56.
“Before Arati was elected MP, there was peace and harmony in Kawangware 56,” said the landlord. “He is the source and inciter of the violence. He has been telling his people they cannot remain tenants forever. They must secure their space. What does that mean?” posed the landlord. “Already we have been outnumbered by these foreigners. That is why they are able to elect one of their own in our homeland.”
The landlord said there is vacant government land in Kawangware 56, “and I suspect Arati is ‘mark timing’ for that land, so that he can settle his people there as he plans on how he is going to overrun the rest of us Kikuyus.” The landlord was genuinely concerned that if the government machinery does not come to their aid, there was a real danger of ultimately being overpowered by the Luhyas and Kisiis, who he kept referring to as “foreigners.”
Arati knows Kawangware 56 like the black of his hand. He was first elected as the area MP in 2013. Considered a frontline foot soldier in the ODM party ranks, he first entered competitive politics at the tender age of 22, when in 2003, he was made a nominated councilor by ODM. Five years later, he become an elected councilor. He is therefore a household name in Kawangware 56 and is reputed to have his own gang of loyal youth, who he can mobilize in the twinkling of an eye.
“The truth of the matter,” said Karanja, “is that today’s Kawangware is totally different from the Kawangware of two decades ago. The population dynamics of the area have altered who drives the local economy.” In short, what Karanja was saying to me was, without the non-Kikuyu communities, the Kawangware economy was dead.
The Mungiki youth are alleged to have been bankrolled by Jubilee politicians and three names were mentioned by those I spoke to: Kiambu governor Ferdinand Waititu, the former MP for Dagoretti South, Dennis Waweru and Gatundu South MP, Moses Kuria.
Tuesdays and Fridays are the busiest days in Kawangware, because they happen to be market days. Residents of the wealthy suburbs of Hurlingham, Kileleshwa, Lavington and Valley Arcade drive to the market in swanky SUVs on Saturday mornings to buy fresh farm produce.
Ten days after the battle on Macharia Road, I went to the Kawangware Market, which is located in the 46 area. I had gone to see Kabuda aka Mwaniki. It was on a Monday afternoon. Short and stocky, Kabuda, is one of the better known faces at the market. Self-effacing, he was his jolly self nonetheless. My mission to the market had been to see for myself how badly the rising ethnic tensions had affected the flow of business at the market.
“In all of my 20 years at the market, business has never been this bad,” confessed Kabuda, a seasoned vegetable seller. “Since that black Friday, market business has been just going down and down.” In this era of smart phones and the explosion of social media, information travels at the speed of light. By the morning of the Saturday October 28, information had reached Kabuda’s suppliers that Kawangware was now a no-go zone.
“My suppliers from Molo, Njabini, north and south Kinangop were already calling me asking about what was happening in Kawangware,” said Kabuda. “The burning of the club and the houses had scared them off.” Kawangware Market receives fresh farm produce – from bananas and beetroot, to cabbages and carrots, to pears and potatoes. Medium sized trucks are driven all the way from Kinangop, Kirinyaga, Molo, Njabini and Nyahururu to Kawangware Market.
Kabuda specializes in selling fresh cabbages direct from the farms in Njabini in Nyandarua County. “When business was at its peak, I would order cabbages in three Mitsubishi FH Canter trucks each carrying 3.0 tonnes, which would be delivered by Thursday night.” By Monday evening, his suppliers would again make the 100km journey to Kawangware Market to restock Kabuda’s stall.
“My customers are both retail and wholesale,” said Kabuda. And because of his huge consignment – 9.0 tonnes worth of cabbages need hours to offload- his goods would arrive on the eve of each market day. On the Monday afternoon I went to interview Kabuda, he was, as usual, expecting arrival of his goods. So we took tea and buttered bread, as we bantered away on the vicissitudes of Kenyan politics.
“Political violence and instability are destructive to business. On the Saturday morning following the fight, itonga cia Lavington itiokire thoko (the Lavington rich kept off the market),” pointed out Kabuda. “I made huge losses, because weekends are very busy for me – as they are indeed for the entire market.” He added that since the night of the violence, no supplier had been willing to risk taking his truck to the Kawangware Market.
Kabuda told me the violence had escalated an already bad situation to a worse one. “Already business at the market had been severely affected after the September ruling, which overruled the President Uhuru’s win.” The hazy political uncertainty, he said, had created an atmosphere of fear for his many customers, both retail and wholesale. Kawangware, like many of Nairobi’s 200 informal settlements, according to a 2012 study by the African Population and Health Research Centre, is a crucible of the intense ethnic passions, ignitable at the slightest provocation, that have come to pervade our political landscape.
Kabuda, said no one was willing to tempt fate. “This state of affairs has badly affected business at the market, which depends on the movement of goods and people. If goods and people keep off, there will be no market to talk about.” At about 5p.m., a 2.5 tonne Canter truck entered the market – it was the only truck that I had seen in all the time I sat chatting with Kabuda. His perishable cabbages had been delivered.
“Look, I can only now manage to order for half a Canter truck. I am splitting up the goods and costs with a friend – that is how bad business has become.” From the 9 tonnes that he would quickly sell in two days, Kabuda now was only moving 1.2 tonnes in a whole week. “If by Friday – the next market day – I will have offloaded all these cabbages, I will indeed be very lucky,” he surmised.
Kawangware Market is one of the economic mainstays of the area. The others are hardware supermarkets, real estate and transport logistics (spawned by a booming construction industry) and the matatu industry. “The truth of the matter,” said Karanja, “is that today’s Kawangware is totally different from the Kawangware of two decades ago. The population dynamics of the area have altered who drives the local economy.”
In short, what Karanja was saying to me was, without the non-Kikuyu communities, the Kawangware economy was dead. “What Kabuda did not tell you is that many of his customers – retail or otherwise – are the Luhya and Kisii, who today constitute three-quarters of the total population of the entire Kawangware combined,” said Karanja.
“With the talk of boycotting certain products very much in the air,” he said, referring to the call by the NASA coalition for consumers to stop buying products by companies it accuses of helping Jubilee rig the elections, “it does not take a genius to know the Luhyas and Kisiis could be keeping away from the Kawangware Market.”
Kawangware has two markets: the main Kawangware Market and the much smaller and less well known Soko Mjinga Market which is in the heart of Kawangware 56. “Soko Mjinga Market is the market for the real ghetto dwellers of Gatina, Stage Two and Congo areas,” said Karanja. “Here, the real kadogo informal economy is at play: with just about two hundred shillings, one can buy ¼ kg of sugar, ¼ kg of unrefined cooking oil, kerosene, tea leaves complete with a ½ packet of homogenized milk.”
Mbuthe cursed the prevailing political climate and hoped the boycott proposed by the opposition leader Raila Odinga on certain goods and products would not translate into NASA supporters boycotting any business run by a Kikuyu.
Karanja’s assertion that Kawangware’s economy rested on the goodwill of non-Kikuyu communities was supported by Jackson Mwangi, the owner of a well-established hardware shop on Naivasha Road. A stockist of cement, metal, timber and varied construction materials, Mwangi candidly told me: “Majority of my clients are Luhyas and Kisiis. Let nobody cheat you: without them, many of the hardware businesses in Kawangware would cease to exist.”
For the last two months, Mwangi said, his business had faced hard times. “It has been the political uncertainties occasioned by the Supreme Court of Kenya judgement and now the violence that rocked Kawangware 56.” The businessman told me if the political uncertainty persisted and the random ethnic flare-ups were not checked, the business which he has built for well over 15 years would be in big trouble.
“I will tell you this: I used to deposit Sh500,000 every Friday at my bank. Today, I am barely making it to Sh100,000. I have six employees. If this situation continues, I will have to let them go. I am not in a good place.” Mwangi said that he used to enjoy credit facilities from Co-operative Bank, his bank for many years. “But you know what? I went there the other day, and the manager told me they had stopped the privilege forthwith. Nobody is taking chances.”
“My suppliers are now demanding cash. Before, they would provide me with the materials and would give me up to 90 days grace period to pay up. They trusted me, because I would honour the pledge, as I was moving the goods. With the bank covering my back, I was not worried. I could always run to my bank manager in case of a shortfall. Well, that is no more for now,” he says.
Mwangi pointed out that there was not much construction going in Kawangware anyway. “I would know, because many of my customers who have been putting up [housing] estates have suspended their work. They are no longer coming to me for materials. Nobody wants to invest in an area that might explode at any time.”
For Stephen Mbuthe, setting up a computer college business in Kawangware 56 has been a learning curve. “When I first came here five or years ago, I did not have a clue who would constitute my students,” said Mbuthe. We were standing outside the rented premises where his college is located. “Reke gikwire, Gikuyu gitithomaga. (Let me tell you, Kikuyus are not interested in acquiring additional skills). Why am I telling you this? For all the time I have ran this college, my students have been Luhyas and Kisiis. They are eager to first acquire new knowledge which will help them find jobs afterwards.”
The converse is true of Kikuyus: “They are interested first in acquiring money, then if it is a must they have to acquire some computer skill, that is when they will come here for short courses. But even those ones, I can count on the fingers of my two hands for all the time I have operated the college.” Bottom line: the ethnic confrontations between the Kikuyus and Luhyas/Kisiis were hurting his business.
I had gone to see him on a week day. “Look, the class is empty, my students have stopped coming, and their teachers are just lazing about.” Mbuthe cursed the prevailing political climate and hoped the boycott proposed by the opposition leader Raila Odinga on certain goods and products would not translate into NASA supporters boycotting any business run by a Kikuyu.
Like Mbuthe, David Ruraya, a landlord, who has lived half of his life in Kawangware 56, was a worried man when I went to meet him to Stage Two. He lives 500 metres on the right of Stage Two, as one approaches from Macharia Road. “All my tenants are Luhyas,” said Ruraya. He did not tell me how many they were, but he made the point that fellow landlords also hosted Luhya tenants. “We have been outnumbered by 10 – 1. If they choose not to pay rent, there is practically nothing we can do.”
Truly fortunes had changed. Barely a decade ago, no Kawangware 56 landlord would have imagined his tenants would hold him at ransom. The landlords’ association lays down the law and if tenants proved to be difficult, the Mungiki youth – at a small fee – were there to enforce it. “Let me be honest with you: the Mungiki today are not a match for the Luhya youth,” Ruraya said to me matter-of-factly. The Friday battle on Macharia Road had removed any lingering doubt about the efficacy of Mungiki’s terror tactics.
“The Luhya gangs are better organized, they are united and constantly hang together,” noted Ruraya. “Anake aitu nimanyuire muno, matingehota mbara. (Our (Kikuyu) youth have taken to reckless drinking, they can no longer fight).” Karanja had also told me that a big part of the reason why the Mungiki had been routed by the Luhya youth was many of them were inebriated. “The Mungiki incurred heavy casualties because they staggered away instead of running for dear life.”
“Let me be honest with you: the Mungiki today are not a match for the Luhya youth,” Ruraya said to me matter-of-factly. The Friday battle on Macharia Road had removed any lingering doubt about the efficacy of Mungiki’s terror tactics.
Ruraya reminded me that Kawangware was Kikuyu ancestral land, “so we the Kikuyus own the land, but the Luhyas and Kisiis have taken over our houses.” The houses in question are semi-permanent, oftentimes two-roomed affairs, with corrugated iron sheet roofs and cemented floors. “My tenants have yet to refuse to pay. I hope we don’t go there, so I am having to deal with them softly, softly,” said Ruraya.
Although in his hearts of hearts Ruraya holds his tenants the Luhyas in utter contempt, he needs them now more than they need him. If they were to vacate his houses or refuse to pay, he would suffer gravely. He told me he was hoping for peaceful co-existence. The dream of chasing away the Luhyas and Kisiis from Kawangware was just that: a dream.
That is what Micah, a mechanic from the Kisii community told me about his Kikuyu landlord. Micah who has ran a successful motor garage in Kawangware 56 for close to two decades now, said that on the day of the battle, his landlord had secured his garage and the other businesses on the property and ensured that they were protected from any malicious attacks.
I asked him how his garage was doing. “Business had slumped,” he owned up. He was reluctant to discuss anything remotely touching on politics, but with some prodding he told me his business had seen better days. “Just two months ago, if you came here like today, I would not have had the time to spare and to talk to you even for a minute. That is how busy I was. Look around now – the garage is empty.”
He pointed to a gearbox which, he said, was what was left of a Nissan matatu that was set alight just across the road. The owner, a fellow Kisii, had entrusted it to him for safekeeping. When I wanted to know who had burned the matatu, Micah moved me aside and whispered into my ear – “Mungiki.” Nearly all the Kawangware 56 matatus – big and small – are owned by the Kisiis. But while they own the matatus, the Mungiki control the termini. Hence, there has been a never-ending tussle between the matatu proprietors and Mungiki youth over the control and management of the route. Micah was of the view Mungiki burned the matatu to spite the Kisiis. The mechanic told me the Kisiis were very angry and hinted they could be plotting revenge.
“The settling of the Luhyas, and later, Kisiis in Kawangware in the last 30 years or so, has affected the work ethic and labour dynamics of the indigenous Kikuyu people,” observed Karanja. “Today, the Luhyas and Kisiis make up the reservoir of labour that is today employed in the posh suburbs of Hurlingham, Kileleshwa, Lavington, Loresho, Mountain View, Westlands and Valley Arcade.” These rich neighbourhoods are within a 5km radius of both Kawangware 46 and 56.
“The Luhyas and Kisiis are employed as domestic workers – baby sitters, cooks, gardeners, house helps, laundry women and security men – in these areas. Unlike the Kikuyus, they have accepted lowly and menial jobs and walk to their respective work stations. Overtime, with their collective meagre wages, these people, who are derided and looked down by the Kikuyus, have helped expand and grow Kawangware’s economy in a mighty way,” explained Karanja.
“I am afraid to say this – and I wish I could be proven wrong – but I strongly believe there is a looming ethnic conflagration that, if not checked in good time, will consume parts of Nairobi County.”
“Kawangware would still be like your typical Kikuyu rural settlement had it not been for the advent of the Luhyas and Kisiis. They have spawned a local economy that cuts across real estate, provision of goods and service and, provided a ready wage labour market that is not afraid of manual work. All the mechanics, metal welders, panel beaters and spray painters in Kawangware are Luo, Luhya and Kisiis.” In Kawangware, the Luos are mainly concentrated in the adjacent Kabiria and Riruta areas.
“Because the Kikuyus have this notion that they are the owners of Kawangware, the male youth especially have largely spurned wage labour, preferring instead, to idle around as they wait for business opportunities to avail themselves. Meantime, they spend their time drinking poison and engaging in nefarious activities such as joining the Mungiki,” said Karanja.
The Luhya and Kisiis of Kawangware 56 have sworn they are not going anywhere. “We are not afraid of the Mungiki, we are ready for them – any time, any day,” said one Kisii youngster from Gatina which is a predominantly Kisii neighbourhood.
On October 31, when Cabinet Secretary for Education, who is also the acting CS for Internal Security, Fred Matiang’i, went to Gatina Primary School to inspect preparations for the next day’s start of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) examinations, he was confronted by a band of marauding Kisii youth, who pelted his motorcade with stones forcing him to flee.
“Kawangware is a microcosm of the future ethnic warfare that is going to be fought on the dusty roads of the Nairobi’s murky and sordid slums,” Karanja reminded me once more. “The armageddon that was witnessed on that fateful Friday in Kawangware 56 is a powerful signal sent across the other ghettoes that Mungiki should not scare anyone. I am afraid to say this – and I wish I could be proven wrong – but I strongly believe there is a looming ethnic conflagration that, if not checked in good time, will consume parts of Nairobi County.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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