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BLACK FRIDAY: Behind The Battle for Kawangware

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BLACK FRIDAY: Behind The Battle for Kawangware
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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.”

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Politics

The Extraordinary Journey of J. P. Magufuli and Comparative Perspectives of Dog-Eat-Man Regimes

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. But the contrast between the two countries remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

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Magufuli’s Legacy: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
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In 2015 John Pombe Magufuli became Tanzania’s accidental President. Colourful and charismatic, Magufuli charmed the masses during his five years in office. He demanded results and pulled off successes that were elevated to the status of minor miracles. He channeled his inner Julius Nyerere to revive Tanzania’s distinctive internal self-reliance-based identity.

The state was back, and the state was Magufuli. He used his campaign against the mabepari class to grandstand on a regular basis, and the coronavirus pandemic provided the former chemist with an opportunity to elevate his anti-imperialist credentials. His controversial stance won him approval across the region: several of my colleagues remarked that “Magufuli is the only African President to speak truth to the pandemic”.

Then his government ministers began getting sick. Magufuli disappeared from public view. After two weeks of rumour and speculation, Tanzania’s Vice President announced his passing due to a chronic heart condition. Corona or coronary? Magufuli’s outsized sending off soon overtook conjecture about the cause of his death.

It began with the usual laudatory speeches by his fellow African heads of state. The dead president then set off on a grand tour that took him across the country by land, sea, and air. The wananchi paid homage by throwing their clothes on the road in front of the motorcade escorting the casket. People lining the road chanted, “jeshi, jeshi!”

The lionisation of the dead president was a fascinating trope, amplified by the mellifluous High Swahili commentary accompanying the televised coverage of the Magufuli hegira. My wife had become a Samia Suluhu Hassan fan. She insisted that the TV remain tuned to the Tanzania Broadcasting Corporation channel.

The stature of Tanzania’s domestic Shujaa grew over the course of the week. Like the mythical wrestler Anteus, who grew stronger when he touched the ground, Hayati Rais appeared to be drawing new power from the landscape as the conquering hero’s body made the long journey from Zanzibar to Chato, his lakeside home.

By day three of the roadshow, Tanzania’s state media was praising the departed leader, as Jabali ya Africa, “the rock who stood up to the West”. But Twitter was providing an interesting counter-narrative; for Tanzania’s online opposition, the “Jabali” was “Jiwe”, the “stone” who terrorised his critics and pummeled the political opposition. Day four brought the claim by a Chama Cha Mapinduzi party sycophant that the Magufuli show was attracting an audience larger than that of the last two World Cups.

I was looking forward to seeing Chato, the village that during Magufuli’s tenure had been transformed along the lines of Houphouët-Boigny’s Yamoussoukro birthplace in Côte d’Ivoire, and Mobutu Sese Seko’s Gbadolite home in the Congo. I was not able to catch the end of the journey because of a close friend’s funeral. But I did witness the dead president’s final apotheosis, which led me to pause on my way out the door: “With due respect to our respective religions”, one of the TBC commentators was remarking, “it should be recognized that President Magufuli was a Nabii.”

The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President.

Nabii is the Swahili term for prophet. The proof of his prophethood (unabii wake), the commentors went on to explain, lay in the fact that President Magufuli was the only world leader God sent to warn us that the pandemic is a crisis manufactured by the global elite to extend the hegemony of Big Pharma and other agents of the international capitalist order.

The real news for some of us was Vice President Samia Sulubu Hassan’s swearing in as the Republic’s sixth Head of State. Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was further enhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community. My wife, who is from Lamu and has never seen anyone of her background in a position of power, declared, “Samia is my president.”

It is hard to envision a similar sequence occurring in Kenya, or for that matter in any other country in the Horn of Africa.

Dog eat dog versus man eat nothing

“No contrast, no information”, my field linguistics professor used to tell us. The large number of African states and the interesting dyads they form makes for a lot of information. Nigeria and Ghana, Mozambique and Angola, Egypt and Sudan, Guinea and Sierra Leone, are examples that come to mind. But the Kenya-Tanzania contrast remains among the most intriguing examples of post-independence Africa’s political comparison.

Tanzania and Kenya represent two of the continent’s more closely matched territories. They are linked by centuries of interaction on the coastal strip and a common history that gave rise to Swahili as the region’s lingua franca. Together they host the world’s most famous concentration of wildlife. Artificially divided into two countries by European powers, the modern nations created by imperial intervention were shaped by the same colonial model. Both gained independence under leaders inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism.

Tanzania’s record of relatively seamless political succession was furtherenhanced by her status as a female Muslim from a minority community.

Tanzania’s more uniform geography supported the intricately networked small-scale societal adaptations documented in Kjekjus’s classic study, Ecology Control and Environmental Management in East Africa. Kenya’s physical environment conditioned the country’s more complex ethno-economic composition diversity; late precolonial era migrations contributed to Kenya’s more variegated population of Bantu-, Nilotic-, and Cushitic-speaking communities.

Where the harshness of the German occupation in Tanzania inoculated the population with a healthy dose of anti-colonial consciousness, many Kenyan communities welcomed the Pax Britannica, in part due to the disruptions of the decade preceding it. Efforts to force peasants to cultivate cotton for export in Tanzania triggered the Maji Maji rebellion in 1905, and the movement rapidly spread across southern and parts of central Tanganyika until its brutal suppression.

The commercial economy introduced by Kenya’s colonial rulers created new opportunities and avenues for accumulation. The first stirrings of anti-colonial opposition only emerged after World War II. The ethnic base of the Mau Mau insurgency contrasted with the nationalist focus of Tanzania’s liberation politics. The new countries nevertheless came into existence driven by a common vision of the future and its possibilities.

It was a time of idealism and political experimentation. Shared orientations propelled Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to form the East African Community soon after independence. The union represented a practical first step towards Kwame Nkrumah’s vision of a United States of Africa—before political liberation gave way to an era of competing ideologies, superpower patronage, and military coups. Much of the ideological superstructure of that period ended up either dissipating gradually or collapsing for reasons that have been rigorously documented.

Technically, both Kenya and Tanzania subscribed to the third path option championed by the non-aligned movement, but their economies were moving on diverging paths. The East African Community foundered, undermined by economic differentials fueled by Kenya’s colonial economic legacy and Tanzania’s Fabian socialism. The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

The clash between Jomo Kenyatta’s conservatism and Julius Nyerere’s idealism highlighted their contrasting political ideologies and the external support they attracted. In 1975 the submerged tensions between the two countries surfaced in an exchange of words between Tanzania’s President Julius Nyerere and Kenya’s Attorney General, Charles Njonjo. Nyerere referred to Kenya as a “dog eat dog” society; Njonjo retorted by describing Tanzania as a “man eat nothing economy”.

The ideological bifurcation saw Kenya and Tanzania become proxies for the struggle between the world’s capitalist and socialist systems.

There is a simpler explanation. Where Kenya retained the hierarchical Anglo-colonial template after independence, Tanzania adopted the more integrative Swahili model of nation-building. As Jomo Kenyatta once told his fellow East African presidents after Milton Obote adopted the socialist Common Man’s Charter in Uganda, “I cannot experiment with [the] lives of my people.”

Donor-mandated structural adjustment policies of the 1990s brought the countries’ economies into closer alignment. But the different trajectories pursued by Kenya and Tanzania continued to reflect their contrasting developmental strategies, and the delicate balance of competition and cooperation defining the two countries’ bilateral relations.

Convergence revisited

Kenya and Tanzania’s ideological differentials are sufficient but not necessary explanations of the two nations’ post-independence divergence.

Crawford Young’s seminal work published in 1981, Ideology and Development in Africa, confirmed as much for the two decades following independence. Young concluded that the strong ideological groundings informing Africa’s capitalist, socialist, mixed, and Afro-Marxist economic models, although important, did not significantly influence their performance. This is consistent with historical studies that show how countries within a geographical region tend to converge over time.

This trajectory appears to hold for the comparison examined here. Tanzania has recorded impressive economic growth under the neoliberal policy regime. Although Kenya is still East Africa’s strongest economy with an annual GDP of US$37 billion versus Tanzania’s US$28 billion, Tanzania’s per capita GDP is now only US$200 less than Kenya’s (US$1,600 vs. US$1,400). Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Tanzania was catching up to Kenya in the Transparency International annual corruption rankings until Tanzania’s position improved slightly after Magufuli took office. His anti-corruption campaign saw hundreds of civil servants lose their jobs, but only a few cases of prosecution. The offensive targeting international investors and domestic business interests took up the slack. The state charged international investors and domestic businessmen in court for underpaying taxes and other violations.

Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining company that has helped make gold the country’s leading export commodity, received a notice claiming it owed US$190 billion in fines and unpaid taxes. Many of these cases resulted in negotiated settlements and revisions in the terms of their contracts. Barrick ended up settling by paying US$300 million and increasing the government’s stake in their operations to 50 per cent.

Some 50 per cent of Kenya’s population is below the poverty line in contrast to 33 per cent in Tanzania, which also performs better in several categories of social development.

Both of these campaigns, and Magufuli’s rejection of China’s debt diplomacy and IMF loans, enhanced the President’s reputation as the “Bulldozer”, but did little to effect the structural changes needed. Tundu Lissu, the head of Tanzania’s main opposition party, reported that many of the settlements were actually shakedowns initiated by the President’s CCM faction. Such behind the scenes venality accounts for Magufuli’s silencing of Tanzania’s media and the intensified persecution of the opposition during last year’s national elections.

Sources on the ground report a more complicated picture than the pumped-up legacy conveyed by state media. Although Tanzania joined the ranks of lower middle-income societies in 2020, the improved household income generated by the pro-market policies enacted by Magufuli’s predecessors is being eroded by the rising cost of living, while demographic growth is increasing pressure on the country’s land and natural resources.

Presidential activism failed to arrest the downward drift of conditions across Tanzania’s rural areas. Magufuli’s opposition to international capital limited smallholder access to the contract-farming arrangements that have enabled Kenya’s small-scale producers’ participation in global supply chains. While the benefits of contract farming are contested in academic circles, participation in out-grower schemes has led to improvement in producer terms in a number of cases, and improved access to inputs while diversifying livelihood options for many rural households.

The revival of the East African Community in 2010 was boosting both countries’ commodity exports to each other until tit-for-tat border disputes contributed to a drop to pre-2010 levels. Bilateral trade is a sub-set of the policy frame promoting regional integration, which has in turn triggered a scramble to upgrade the infrastructure facilitating trans-national linkages. This brings us to the governments’ penchant for mega-projects like Kenya’s grandiose Lamu Port-South Sudan-Ethiopia-Transport corridor project (LAPSSET) and Tanzania’s Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor (SAGCOT).

LAPSSET came to be viewed as a cash cow for Kenya’s state-based cartels before it stalled due to the withdrawal of once enthusiastic international investors. Analysis of the SAGCOT corridor indicates it has generated mainly just-for-show benefits while facilitating the entrance of large-scale agribusiness actors at the expense of local smallholder communities. Both countries are beneficiaries of economically dysfunctional Chinese railroads, contrasting monuments to that country’s contribution to regional linkages over the years.

Even in the presence of more comprehensive analyses of the two countries’ development, it is difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions about the efficacy of the Kenya and Tanzania models. They are more connected — Kenya-based companies are the second largest source of foreign investment in Tanzania — than at independence, yet seem even farther apart now with respect to their political sensibilities.

Local folk models provide more succinct perceptions of the differences. Talk to Kenyans and they will characterise Tanzanians as laid back, loquacious, and xenophobic; talk to Tanzanians and they will tell you their neighbors are arrogant, aggressive, and hopelessly tribal. But if you pursue the conversation further, most will show that they understand their neighbours better than formal analyses like the one above convey. Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

Political theatre and executive revisionism

Is Magufuli’s hyper-nationalism at odds with Kenya’s constitutionally mandated federalism? In reality, each of these shifts from the previous status quo have been manipulated to reinforce the two states’ tradition of top-down governance. Both governments face an ongoing crisis of constitutionalism, and both have resorted to elaborate exercises of political theatre to camouflage their respective political elites’ strategies to remain at the top of the food chain.

Kenya’s Building Bridges Initiative began with the handshake marking the reconciliation between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, then morphed into a comprehensive gambit to revise the nation’s new constitutional order. Two years later the government released an eloquently worded BBI task force report that was long on promises to fix long-festering problems, but short on how they would be implemented.

Informants on each side of the border will probably concede that their governments have become dog-eat-man regimes.

The provisions to double the seats in the senate, create 80 new parliamentary constituencies, and create positions for a prime minister and four deputy presidents are hard to justify for a country that already expends 48 per cent of its budget on state salaries. Unlike his father, Uhuru Kenyatta is not averse to experimentation. But the circus orchestrated by the BBI’s political beneficiaries has worked to redirect attention away from such inconvenient details.

Since the handshake the Kenyan public has been subjected to an unrelenting procession of media publicity, traveling pep rallies, and tactics used to herd reluctant politicians into the BBI corral. The campaign has been an amped up version of the Moi playbook, featuring theatrics reminiscent of the anti-Nyayo charade the former President used to outmaneuver his opponents during his early days in office.

The rapid deterioration of Magufuli’s health clearly caught his CCM faction by surprise. The media coverage of the President’s elevation from politician to prophet contrasted with the opaque treatment of his last two weeks on earth — or was it actually one week, as the intelligence that he actually passed away on the 10th of March claimed?

The Nabii failed to prophesise his departure from the stage. The roadshow that followed was a skillfully executed event that provided the Bulldozer’s inner circle with the breathing room needed to ring-fence the new President, who receded into the background after her eloquent speech at the funeral. In the meantime, critics were pointing out how the new government’s key appointments violated the process mandated in Tanzania’s constitution.

These games, however cynical, are part of a larger contest being waged across the larger Horn of Africa region, pitting executive power at the centre against distributed governance. Museveni’s Uganda presidency has dynastic ambitions, Rwanda is a developmental dictatorship, and Farmajo wants to restore the same kind of centralised state in Somalia that led to its collapse in 1991. Ahmed Abiy’s ugly war in Tigray is linked to his ambition to reverse the devolution established by the 1994 constitution that declared all sovereign power resides in the Nations, Nationalities and Peoples of Ethiopia.

The strategies to bolster control at the centre that we are witnessing in Kenya and Tanzania may be benign by comparison, but the actions taken to muzzle the press and critics of government policies, along with political impunity, and institutionalised corruption, are not. They differ from the efforts to recentralise the state elsewhere by degree, not in kind.

Reimagining the African state?

The trend is part of a wider global pattern. Since 2017 opposition to heavy-handed governments and their policies has erupted across the world, occurring mainly in authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning states. These surging protests correlate with the reversal of gains in democratisation, respect for human rights, and increased local autonomy across the world.

Liberalisation catalysed a universal movement towards self-determination and the deconcentration of political power. Twenty years ago, scholars were even predicting the end of the nation-state as we know it. In recent years the state has fought back with a vengeance. Recent African developments, for example, reflect the influence of the surveillance state in China that is now challenging the democratic values guiding the post-1945 world order.

There was near-universal belief in the monolithic state at independence, and in the assumption that Africa’s leaders would use its power for the benefit of their populations. By the end of the 1960s these beliefs and assumptions were in tatters. African nations’ largely trial-and-error efforts to balance the nation-building equation since that time still represent the prerogative to adapt the state to the continent’s unique initial conditions.

The unique combination of scholarship, deep historical inquiry, and political imagination that flourished during the post-independence period, at least in theory, remains a useful resource for navigating Africa’s developmental future. The reforms of the post-1989 period come over as dismal and devoid of spirit in comparison, incapable of generating the creativity and passion inspired by the ideas that preceded them.

Tanzania was one of the continent’s leading exemplars of that era’s critical thinking. To his credit, John Pombe Magufuli fought to establish an equitable relationship with international capital while his counterparts in Kenya were drinking the foreign debt Kool-Aid. Theory is useful but trial and error empiricism is the best teacher. We hope that President Samia Suluhu Hassan will use the information generated by the two countries’ contrasting experience to negotiate an adaptive middle path without too much fanfare.

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Politics

It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation.

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It Is Time for the Agro-Queer Conversation
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Kariuki* hustled his way through Nairobi as a personal trainer, masseur and occasionally sold sportswear. Then COVID-19 happened. His income stream went down to zero. He got tired of begging friends and former clients for 500 bob here, a thousand bob there, decided to sell off what he could and went back to his parent’s farm in the country’s central region. This young, handsome, muscle-in-all-the-right-places, rangi ya chocolate, ambitious gay man, needed to live, and for that, he needed to eat. Nairobi had stopped feeding him. He was one of the many LGBTIQ individuals who found themselves going back to homes that had either forced them out or that they had fled.

Kariuki had left home soon after university and since then visits to shags were to his grandmother with whom he had a strong relationship. But it was not home. To be accepted back he had to renounce his gay ways, which he did. Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold. His parents gave him an acre of land and promised him another five if he stayed on the straight and narrow. Every pun is intended.

Kariuki started poultry farming, and he was surprised at how well he took to it; he started seeing a future for himself back on the land. Unbeknown to his parents, Kariuki is still actively living his gay life. He acknowledges that if going back into the closet and being on the “down-low” was what he needed to do keep hunger at bay and get him back his inheritance, so be it. I now had a gay friend who was a poultry farmer.

You see, I had resigned myself to believing that agriculture wasn’t really for us. Us being queer people, and I bet I’m not alone in thinking like this. Many queer individuals don’t see a future for themselves in agriculture. It is not within reach of our imagination. Young queer folk find security, freedom, opportunity, visibility and invisibility in urban settings. Plus, there is also greater access to health services that target LGBTIQ people and, more than anything, there is access to our community. Agriculture, the mainstay of our Kenyan economy, isn’t within our rainbow reality. Yet, it can be.

Kariuki was put through a traditional cleansing ceremony to chase the gay away, after which the “prodigal” was welcomed back to the fold.

Kariuki was “lucky” that he could go back home, and that there was farmland that he could access.  Plus, he was “not so obviously gay”. But what if how you present yourself in public doesn’t fit in the box that family or society wants you in? Are you still able to easily access services without fear of discrimination? Are you able to access land or even food without having to look over your shoulder?

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has upturned Kenya and the world. A friend of mine opted to move back to her rural area when the initial restrictions were announced. The reason for this migration was that she was unsure she’d be able to provide food for her children in a town that she had no affiliation to, where she had no kin she could turn to in case she was too broke to buy food or if there were any food shortages.

The song Mzee Kasema Rudi Mashambani by Equator Sounds came out during Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency and was a rallying call for Kenyans to go back to tilling the land. Many years later, this land, which is such an emotive and sensitive subject in Kenya, is not equitably accessible to Kenyans. And if you have come out publicly as queer, then access to this land becomes even more complicated if you want it. Turudi wapi, kama tumefukuzwa? 

Wanja Mugongo has always loved farming. Her mother, who was the principal’s secretary at a Nyeri college, seeded that love for the soil.  Mugongo’s mother was allowed to farm on the college land, and this supplemented her meagre earnings. She supplied the college with maize, potatoes, carrots and cabbages. Mama Wanja banked on land and therefore invested in it whenever she could. Wanja inherited this astute perspective, and despite the many years spent in LGBTIQ activism, she never forgot that she had green fingers and never lost her love for the soil.

“Farming was my place of joy, and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I was out of employment. I didn’t want to retire and then farm for a living; I wanted to retire and farm for pleasure,” she states.

Mugongo was fortunate that she did not have to go to bank for a loan, that the land was hers. As I researched this article, I came across a number of LGBTIQ farmers who have accessed family land only because they have buried their sexuality.

Apollo* is married with children and lives in Bondo, Siaya County. He is an activist and farmer. The activist side of his life is only known to those who need to know. Apollo recognises that he would have been disinherited had he gone public about his sexuality. He informs me of a young man who has kicked off the family land after the family discovered he was gay. This young man was fortunate that a relative was kind enough to give him a small patch on which to build a house for himself, but he was denied his right to the family land.  Apollo is grateful that he was spared such an ordeal.

“You know, for some of us, this is the life we have chosen for ourselves and it is how things are done here for many of us. Things would have been very different for us,” says Apollo. “Very different” in this case probably means poor, landless, ostracised and maybe banished.

Wichlum Beach on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria is home to the Light Youth Group (LYG). The group works with members of the LGBTIQ community in that area. It has 15 members, but within its sphere of operation, it reaches close to 300 Men who have Sex with Men (MSM). Many bisexual and gay individuals are also affiliated to the group.

Economic empowerment is one of LYG’s thematic areas, and being in a rural setting, the group is using agriculture and fishing to improve the economic status of its members. . The group is trying to lease three acres of land for farming activities; they were evicted from the land on which they were carrying out their activities when the owner discovered that LYG was a queer organisation. Once beaten twice shy, so this time round, LYG has come out clean with the prospective landlady who, fortunately, is not prejudiced against the community. Accessing capital to pay for the new piece of land is the next hurdle they need to overcome.  Expectations are high, but patience is needed.

Each member of the group is allocated a 50m by 60m plot of land on which to grow horticultural produce — sukuma wiki (collard greens), cabbages, onions, watermelons, etc. — which is sold to the surrounding community. By selling to the community, the group hopes to build bridges and expects that the local residents will see them as active members of the society. The project’s beneficiaries are drawn from both within and outside the Wichlum area; many have been disowned by their families because of their sexuality. The project offers an opportunity to a marginalised group of people who would otherwise have no access to land nor means to some form of livelihood.

Odhiambo* says he became a farmer by accident and has been farming in Ukwala, Siaya County, for the last three years on family land that he inherited after his mother passed away.  He says he is lucky as he and his siblings have a “your life is your business” approach to life and so Odhiambo, who is in his early 40s, doesn’t have to justify his unmarried status. His neighbours have tried to pressure him into settling down, but he informs me that he has warned them against meddling in his business.

“If my late mother didn’t pressurise me into getting married, who are they?” he asks rhetorically. “I’ve managed to build a life for myself here, and my business should be the least of their concern.”

American civil rights activist, the late Dr Martin Luther King III, states, “Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.” Unfortunately, many individuals have to keep their sexual orientation private just to access their birthright. But we as a nation should strive to ensure that one’s tribe, gender, sexual orientation, politics or faith is not an impediment to accessing the fruits of this land. It is a right enshrined in our Constitution that we as queer Kenyans should demand.

The country’s agricultural sector is the backbone of the economy, contributing approximately 33 per cent of Kenya’s GDP and employing more than 40 per cent of the total population and 70 per cent of the rural population. By shutting out queer individuals from the farms, fields, lakes, rivers and the sea, we deny the country more food, income, taxes, producers, employers and investors.

In 2020, the Mombasa-based LBGTIQ group, PEMA Kenya, gave over 100 of its members who live in various neighbourhoods within and around the city, training in poultry farming to enhance food security and provide them with skills to earn an income. Such schemes, if successful, could be a way of better integrating queer folk into their communities and creating safe and queer-friendly spaces in which to live. Another group in Kitengela has opted to go back to the soil to produce healthy food for its members living with HIV/AIDS. This approach to ensuring food security and nutrition for vulnerable groups is innovative, practical and has impact.

“Because no matter who we are or where we come from, we’re all entitled to the basic human rights of clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and healthy land to call home.”

Urban farming should be supported as it could be a source of livelihood for the many young people who find themselves in the big cities and towns. And although access to land in urban areas comes at a premium or with terms and conditions that are difficult to comply with, urban gardening does not require vast amounts of space. Sack gardens can produce leafy greens like sukuma wiki, spinach, and traditional vegetables on as little as one square metre. There are lessons to be learnt from organisations like PEMA and what they are doing in building a pool of queer poultry farmers in urban areas. Their members can reap the benefits of both worlds — access to urban energies and to their chosen family, and the advantages of being food producers.

“Farming is not a get-rich-quick way of making money. If you have money pressures, it is hard to get into farming,” cautions Mugongo. “If you don’t know the soil, you will need time to understand the soil and its ways. You need time and money. Are queer people even considered bankable?”

Access to credit or capital is a huge deterrent for many queer individuals who would like to go into business or agriculture. Emerging Marginalized Communities (EMAC-Kenya) has established a system for its members that gets around the credit and capital hurdle. The organisation has set up a poultry farming facility and a greenhouse on the grounds of their offices, roughly the size of three-quarters of a football pitch. This pilot agri-business project supports seven queer men and two commercial sex workers who buy the produce on credit, for resale to consumers. EMAC-Kenya recoups its funds by deducting a specific amount when a member buys new stock from them. The organisation’s director informed me that the long-term goal is to create agri-businesses that can offer employment opportunities for other queer individuals; learning of this vision warmed my heart.

Bringing agriculture within reach of the imagination of queer youth might help prevent them from adopting precarious ways of earning a living. The queer community needs to be brought into the agricultural conversation and ways need to be found to support minority groups to earn a living within this sector that the country relies so heavily on.

There need to be discussions on how to make the sector more diverse, inclusive and innovative. Being a farmer, animal breeder, fisherman, rancher should be seen as a career option and not as a Plan D, to be adopted after all else has failed. Mugongo notes that the agricultural sector needs to be drastically transformed, and perceptions on agriculture need to change to make the sector attractive and within reach of the imagination of all youth, not just queer youth.

Unfortunately, there are those within the LGBTIQ community who dropped out of school or completed high school with poor grades. They have few employable skills, and when they do have them, the sectors in which they can work safely and freely are limited. The hustle is real, very real for them. The hospitality sector, entertainment, retail, personal care and grooming — the sectors in which many queer individuals have found work — have been severely impacted by the pandemic. If you don’t work, you can’t afford to eat, and many have been struggling to eat.

The one key attribute we must first remember about queer Kenyans is that we are Kenyans too. The fight for queer rights in the country is about giving us the same access as other Kenyans to the constitutional rights that are promised to us all as citizens of this land. This land that we prize so much that we have even killed one another over, that we go to whatever lengths to acquire, that feeds us all. This our soil doesn’t know our tribe, gender, faith, sexual orientation or class; all it knows is that it is meant to produce and feed.

It is time to start queering agriculture, and it is time to make sure that no one, be they queer or even differently-abled, is left out of this conversation. There are opportunities galore that we haven’t even begun to explore, and it is time to rejig and rethink a sector that feeds all Kenyans, for there is plenty to be found within our borders.

*Names have been changed.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever

In 2007, tea pluckers on a Unilever plantation were brutally attacked in the midst of ethnical violence triggered by a contested presidential election. As the company failed to protect them despite clear warning signs of impending violence, the victims are now taking it to court to demand reparations

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Blood on the Tea Leaves: Kenyan Workers Demand Reparations From Unilever
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At least four men armed with machetes and clubs broke into Anne Johnson’s home. They forced her husband and 11-year-old son into the bedroom and kept Anne and her teenage daughters in a separate room. To this day, she doesn’t know for certain if the men who raped her, her husband, and her daughters were her coworkers.  “They spoke the local language,”  Anne testified, but  “they blindfolded us so we could not see who they were.”

By 2007, when the attack took place, Anne and her husband, Makori (their names are pseudonyms to protect the family from retaliation), had lived and worked for more than a decade on a Kenyan tea plantation owned by Unilever, the London-based household-goods giant known for such brands as Lipton Tea, Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Magnum ice cream. In December of that year, hundreds of men from the neighboring town of Kericho would beat, maim, rape, and butcher the plantation’s residents during a week of terror.

The attackers killed at least 11 plantation residents, including Makori, whom they raped and fatally wounded in front of his son, and one of the Johnsons’ daughters. They looted and burned thousands of homes and injured and sexually assaulted an unknown number of people, who were targeted because of their ethnic identity and presumed political affiliation.

A contested presidential election triggered the violence. The candidate favored by Kericho’s local population—and openly backed by many Unilever managers—lost to the politician perceived to have support from minority tribes. The massacre was not confined to the plantation or to Kericho. More than 1,300 people died in post election violence across Kenya.

Unilever said the attacks on its plantation were unexpected and that it therefore should not be held liable. But witnesses and former Unilever managers say the company’s own staff incited and participated in the attacks. They made these allegations in 2016 in written testimony, after the case was submitted to a court in London. Anne and 217 other survivors wanted Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in the United Kingdom to pay reparations. Among the claimants were 56 women who were raped and the family members of seven people who were killed.

In hundreds of pages of witness testimony and other court records and in interviews I conducted, the survivors describe how, in the run-up to the election, their colleagues threatened to attack them if the « wrong » candidate won. When they reported these comments, their managers dismissed their concerns, issued veiled threats, or made derogatory remarks of their own.

Former managers from Unilever Kenya admitted to the court that the company’s top management, including then-managing director Richard Fairburn, discussed the possibility of election violence in several meetings but only ramped up the security for its senior personnel, factories, and equipment.

Unilever Kenya insists it is not responsible and blames the police for acting too slowly. Meanwhile, its corporate parent in London maintains that it owes the workers nothing and that the victims should sue the company in Kenya, not in the United Kingdom. But the workers say that a lawsuit in Kenya could spark more violence, including from their earlier assailants, some of whom still work at the plantation.

In 2018, a judge in the United Kingdom ruled that Unilever’s London headquarters could not be held liable for the failures of its Kenyan subsidiary. Now, Anne and her former coworkers are looking to the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, which is expected to decide, over the next few months, whether Unilever has failed to meet the United Nations’ guidelines for responsible business behavior. As Anne explained to me,  “The company promised they would take care of us, but they didn’t, so now they should pay us so we can finally rebuild our lives.”

Unilever’s hilly tea plantation in Kenya’s southern Rift Valley covered about 13,000 hectares in 2007. With a population then of roughly 100,000 people, including about 20,000 residential workers and their families, and boasting on-site schools, health clinics, and social facilities, the estates are essentially a company town, and a cosmopolitan one: The workers belong to several ethnicities from across the country.

The Johnsons hailed from Kisii, a county two hours away from the Unilever estates, and identify ethnically as Kisii. On the plantation, the Kisiis made up nearly half the residents, but in nearby Kericho—the homeland of an ethnic group called the Kalenjins—they were a much smaller minority. And many people in Kericho looked down on the Kisiis and other  “foreigners.” The plantation reflected this divide: The Kalenjins were mostly managers, and the Kisiis and other minorities worked primarily as tea pluckers.

The couple spent the last Sunday of December 2007 as they did any other day—in the field with a basket on their backs—though they expected the evening to be tense, since the election results would be announced in the late afternoon. Earlier in the week, millions of Kenyans had gone to the polls to elect either Raila Odinga, who led the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM), or Mwai Kibaki, of the Party of National Unity (PNU), as their new president.

Anne hadn’t voted herself. Weeks earlier, she had applied for leave to travel to Kisii, where she was registered to vote, but her manager declined the request, she said. This experience was common among the members of minority tribes, said Daniel Leader, a lawyer and partner at the London law firm Leigh Day, who represented the survivors in court and whose team interviewed all 218 claimants.

The impending elections had exacerbated tensions between Unilever’s Kalenjin workers and their more junior Kisii colleagues.  “They assumed we Kisiis backed Mwai,” Anne explained, whereas the local Kalenjin population were overwhelmingly pro-Odinga.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property. Anne told me that the perception of the Kisiis as Kibaki supporters led some Kalenjins to treat them with hostility. She said that team leaders, for example, began to allocate her job duties to non-Kisii workers. Other coworkers stopped talking to her altogether. To Anne’s distress, she found leaflets with hateful slogans like  “Foreigners go home” in the residential areas, making her worry that  “something bad may happen after the election.”

Anne was frightened but kept quiet.  “The company is so big. I assumed they would protect us,  “she told me. Those who felt less assured and who asked their team leaders and managers for protection were met with indifference, according to survivors. In court testimony, many recalled how various managers ignored their pleas for more security or dismissed them by saying,  “It’s just politics.” Other managers instructed the concerned workers to lobby and vote for Odinga, saying they would be « forced to leave » if they didn’t.

In the weeks leading up to the election, survivors say ODM-supporting staff turned the tea estates into a fiercely pro-Odinga space, organizing political rallies and strategy meetings on the property.

An estate manager admitted to the London court that Unilever Kenya’s senior management—including Fairburn, the managing director—had been aware that « there would be unrest and that the Plantation could be invaded. » They had discussed the need for extra security in at least three meetings in December, he said. But management took measures only to « secure company property, factories, machinery, stores, power stations and management housing, » while « no thought was given to increasing the security of the residential camps in order to protect the workers. » Another former Unilever manager corroborated this claim.

Fairburn, who was allegedly present at them, refused to comment on the meetings when I called him. To this day, Unilever claims that it could not have predicted the attacks, even though the media in Kenya and internationally, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, The New York Times, and Reuters, had reported on the impending ethnic violence.

“Anyone who knew anything about the Kenyan election in 2007 knew it had the potential to end in significant and widespread violence, and that this violence would largely break down along lines of identity and affiliation, » said Tara Van Ho, who teaches law and human rights at the University of Essex. Both Unilever Kenya and its corporate parent in London should have known that the workers and their families were at risk, she continued. To protect them, she argued, Unilever could have hired extra security guards, trained its security personnel and managers, and solidified their buildings or evacuated residents for the period immediately surrounding the election.

Instead, said Leader, the workers’ London attorney, Unilever « created a situation where [these employees] were sitting ducks—at risk because of their ethnicity. “

Meanwhile, Unilever Kenya’s managing director and other executives went on holiday before the crisis, according to the former managers, and the company evacuated the remaining managers and expats on private jets once the violence broke out.

When the news of Kibaki’s victory came on Sunday evening, Anne was preparing supper with her family. Moments later, she heard people screaming outside and knew they were in danger. « We quickly locked our doors, » she said.

That night, hundreds of men armed with machetes, clubs, kerosene jars, and other weapons invaded the plantation. They looted and burned thousands of Kisii homes—which they marked with an X—and attacked their inhabitants.

Court records paint a harrowing picture of what unfolded on the plantation over the next week. People were gang-raped and viciously beaten and saw their coworkers set on fire. When they fled for safety to the tea bushes, the attackers pursued them with dogs.

“We do not know the total number of people who were raped, killed, and permanently disabled, » Leader told me. He thinks the 218 claimants he represented are not the only surviving victims. « Many people are too scared of retribution or renewed attacks from colleagues who they continue to work alongside of,” he said.

Concern about violent reprisals was one reason the survivors wanted to sue Unilever in the United Kingdom. Another was that Leigh Day represented them for free, whereas in Kenya the survivors would not be able to afford legal counsel.

Leigh Day argued that their Kenyan clients had a right to sue Unilever in London, since UK law allows workers from international subsidiaries to sue the UK-based parent companies if, among other things, they can show that the corporate parent plays an active and controlling role in the subsidiary’s day-to-day management. Unilever, Leigh Day argued, clearly did.

Unilever’s lawyers nonetheless insisted that the victims should file their case in Kenya and suggested the tea pluckers  “band together” and  “raise funds from friends and family.”

Multiple victims said they recognized their attackers as Unilever colleagues. One woman told the court she was “started beating me with a metal rod on my back and on my legs and were going to rape me,” she stated in witness testimony, until  “a Kalenjin neighbor who was a male nurse intervened to stop the attack.”

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

After the attackers left, the Johnsons fled and hid for three nights in the tea bushes before making their way to the police station in nearby Koiwa, covered in mud and blood. From there, police officers escorted them to safety, and the family was able to escape to Kisii where they kept a small plot of land. Without savings, they could not afford the hospital costs for either their eldest daughter, who suffered severe injuries and got weaker by the day, or for Makori, who had internal bleeding. In the months that followed, both of them died in their mud house in Kisii.

Anne said that the only communication she received from Unilever since the attacks was an invitation to return to work months later and a letter offering her about $110 in compensation. The letter suggests that this amount was set and paid for by Unilever’s corporate headquarters in London.

In court, Unilever denied that its own staff participated in the attacks. But when I asked Unilever representatives how the company knew this, they declined to comment further on the issue.

“On behalf of the entire Unilever Tea Kenya Ltd family,” it reads,  “we thank Unilever for their understanding, material and moral support and we hope that this timely gesture will go a long way to bring normalcy back to our employees and their families.”

Anne told me she never returned to the plantation because she can’t leave her son, now in his mid-20s.  “He developed very bad seizures and panic attacks after what happened and needs constant care,”  she said. Severely traumatized and unable to afford the psychological treatment they need, her son and daughter both stopped going to school.  “We live off gifts from relatives and neighbors and the little maize we grow on our land,” she said.

The claimants say that Unilever owes them meaningful reparations, but Unilever insists it has already compensated them. The company’s spokespeople told me that it has paid all of the workers who eventually returned to the plantation with cash and new furniture and has also offered their families free counseling and medical care. But they won’t say how much the company gave them or comment on the letter that Anne shared with me.

In the summer of 2018, Anne and a group of other victims rebutted these claims in a letter to Paul Polman, the company’s CEO at the time:  “It’s not right that Unilever has said it helped us when we know that is not true,” the letter stated. It continued:

Unilever just wanted us to go back to work as if nothing happened [and those of us who did] were told we must not talk about what happened. We are still scared that we will be punished if we speak about the violence.

Unilever says that after the violence every employee was given  “compensation in kind” to offset our lost wages and that we were given replacement items or cash to buy new items to replace our stolen property…but those who were too afraid to return got nothing and only some of those who returned were given KES12,000 [$110], a little more than a month salary, and a little maize, which was then deducted from our salary. We were told that if we saw people with our belongings we should say nothing.

Polman appears not to have responded to the letter.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

To prove to the court that the UK parent company did indeed exercise such control over Unilever Kenya, Leigh Day submitted witness statements from former workers, who testified to the frequent visits made by London managers, and from four former managers, who gave evidence that the head office shaped, supervised, and audited the safety and crisis management policies of Unilever Kenya and even made its own safety protocols compulsory. This meant that, as one senior manager with over 15 years of experience with the company put it, Unilever Kenya was « confined to strictly complying with the policies and procedures which had been cascaded down by [Unilever] Plc.  “Another senior manager stated that London’s « checklists and detailed policies had to be complied with or an employee would be dismissed or face some other sanction.”

These testimonies seemed to support Leigh Day’s claim that the London headquarters shared liability. Yet to prove it to the court, the law firm needed access to the actual text of the protocols that the managers described. However, since these were pretrial proceedings—meaning that the court had not accepted jurisdiction—Unilever had no duty to disclose relevant materials and simply refused to hand over the documents.

Under UK law, a parent company can only be held liable for the health and safety breaches of its subsidiaries if it exercises a high degree of control over their safety and crisis management policies.

The judge’s ruling made clear that the  “weakness” of their evidence played a major role in her decision to deny the Kenyans jurisdiction. Human rights scholars and corporate accountability advocates condemned the ruling. The court had created a catch-22 for the workers, Van Ho observed:  “The claimants couldn’t get the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong until they had the documents that showed Unilever UK did something wrong.”  It’s  “dizzying,”  she said, and  “an unfair expectation for employees who have a lot less power than the multibillion-dollar company that employed them.”

Anne said she remains hopeful that international human rights advocates will support her cause. With other victims, she recently filed a complaint against Unilever at the United Nations, arguing that the company violated the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights. One requirement is that companies must ensure that victims of human rights abuses in their supply chain have access to remediation. Van Ho anticipates that the UN body, which is expected to reach a decision soon, will agree that Unilever breached these guidelines.  “Hiding behind legal loopholes and refusing to disclose relevant information to avoid paying reparations is the exact opposite of what the Guiding Principles prescribe,” she said.

Though the United Nations can’t force Unilever to pay up, Anne hopes the case will generate the attention and public pressure necessary to push the company in that direction. When asked what it would mean to her if the workers succeed, she told me,  “It would be the greatest moment in my life.”

Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by The Nation. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international. 

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