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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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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing

In the 1980s and 1990s parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the large scale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa and a booming local economy emerged that has since become a major source of contestation between the police and the residents.

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing
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On Tuesday 2 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare in Nairobi, hurdled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station at Juja road as they watched in horror, as two schools were set alight by police. Thick, black smoke circled up and soon blanketed the entire valley. Alongside the two schools, another thirty or so houses quickly burned down to ashes in the raging fire. People raced to quell the fire with buckets of water, but were blocked by police in their tracks. Furious shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed what residents had built over decades; businesses, schools and homes, all gone in minutes.

This criminal act of arson by police of a part of a Nairobi neighborhood took place on the third day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ Rashid. This police officer gained notoriety after being filmed executing two teenagers on a busy street in Eastleigh in broad daylight on 31 March 2017. Ironically, the raid against the local alcohol economy in Mathare under his command started exactly two years later, on Sunday 31 March 2019. In between, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, especially young and poor men, in Mathare and beyond, and with absolute impunity.

Subsequently, Rashid was free to walk into Mathare on the aforementioned Sunday while guiding a troop of police officers down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. Shockingly, the Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claimed to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses who stated that regular police and AP officers and equipment (such as a well-known land rover used by AP) were employed during the raid. Residents wondered how a full-blown war be waged on residents for days by police without the police officers in charge ‘having nothing to do with it’?

As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa

That first Sunday night of fear chaos and gunshots transpired without dead bodies, but many had lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts from trying to defend homes and properties from the pillaging police. One of us found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; a woman who has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. She lost 4000 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left in deep debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy. This went on for yet another day and night, until on Tuesday tensions between angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local alcohol economy

To understand the impact of this crackdown on people living and working in Mathare, a brief insight into the history of the alcohol economy is crucial. As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. This area was wedged in by several military and police bases, and the influx of soldiers during the war period (1940-45) attracted a growing number of women in search of work. These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their homesteads in the colonial confinements of people called ‘Native Reserves’ in the rural areas following soil erosion, population pressures and the demand for ‘hut tax’ (which had to be paid in cash to the colonial government). Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men increasingly migrated to live here—often after being chased from colonial settler farms when mechanization of farm work took hold during the late 1930s. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the nexus of urban resistance against the colonial government and formed an important node in the Kenya Land and Freedom Armies (KLFAs)—also known as ‘Mau Mau’.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Also, they soon found that the profit margins for chang’aa were much higher than for instance busaa, and soon multiple cooking sites emerged along the banks of the Mathare river. Profit margins have fallen significantly since the 1990s, following a convergence of rising food prices (especially a type of molasses called ngutu) and increasing demands for police bribes since the 2000s. Still, the local alcohol economy sustains thousands of people in Mathare directly and is fundamental to most other economic activities located here.

For example, a major shortage of firewood often plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, a neighborhood in Mathare, sells large quantities of this wood. These firewood sellers have arrangements with construction companies for frequent early morning deliveries. Old wood from scaffolding at construction sites is transported to the area in trucks so large they can barely enter the ghetto. Every day, these trucks drop off mountains of firewood intended to fuel the widespread and constant distillation of alcohol at the sites near the river. At the same time, young men in search of work hang around these businesses from sunrise to midday to help offload the bulks of firewood and chop them into smaller pieces in return for a small stipend. Suffice to say that thousands more depend indirectly on the alcohol economy in Mathare. All this provides some insight into the abrupt devastation to the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people caused by frequent crackdowns on the local alcohol economy by police.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa

After days without work and consequently food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. The few media outlets describing the protests squarely blamed ‘angry youth’ for starting the fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have spoken to many eyewitnesses who saw police officers deliberately setting the houses and schools alight. The so called ‘angry youth’ were alcohol distillers who had not earned a living for three days. These (mostly) men who make on a good day, Kshs 300 for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. These families do not have any savings to rely on when work is disrupted by state violence, and the illegal raid by police had left hundreds of families hungry for days. This provoked husbands, fathers and brothers to take to street and fight for their families, and they burned tires on the road to underscore their demand to work by blocking traffic.

As has been witnessed by several people, during the ensuing fracas one officer carelessly threw one of the burning tires into a row of make-shift houses and carpentry workshops along Juja road, all constructed of highly flammable materials. Other eyewitnesses saw police officers violently dispersed people trying to stop the fire from reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively enabling the fire to destroy several houses and properties. Teargas was lobbed at the crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water trying to rescue their homes and belongings. The teargas canisters further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to the ground.

The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police

Distraught, many slept outdoors in the cold on Tuesday night. The fire also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased insecurity. One resident recounted that, “For nights, gun shots have become our ringtone.” Another lamented, “We live in a war(zone), but nobody cares.” As Mathare endured this terror for three days and nights, residents watched in disbelief as the evening news headlines either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or apportioned the blame decidedly on them using the pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame. Mathare residents were profiled as criminals and the local alcohol economy as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa was legalized in September 2010 and is not an ‘illicit brew’. The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police. If the production is not up to standard, why not encourage or enable owners, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved production? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is.

The Culture of Policing In Mathare

Everyone living and working in Mathare is familiar with the daily routine of police visiting the distilling sites and bars where alcohol is produced and sold to solicit bribes. For each drum of kangara, the police receive at least 200 KES. Let us assume that there are seven distilling sites (we don’t disclose any specific details for security reasons) which have the capacity to process seven drums simultaneously, meaning there are 7 fires operative at each site at all times. Each drum takes three rounds to cook and each round takes 1 hour (45 minutes to distill and 15 minutes to cool). So seven sites and seven fires operating for 24 hours can process 392 drums of distilling mixture per day. For each drum, police receive Kshs 200 and the figure adds up to an average of kshs 70 000 per day and in excess of Kshs 2 million per month. This is a conservative estimate since it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who run their own alcohol operations. And the number of drums along the riverside also vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only three or four. The above calculations, though based on thorough research, only serve to give an indication of police involvement and investment in the alcohol industry in Mathare. Considering this, why then does the police initiate a raid to clamp down on the very industry that ‘feeds’ them?

A first part of the answer pertains to internal divisions within police. Police does not entail a homogenous entity, and rumors have it that Rashid and his team were eventually stopped by other police officers in the course of the week because they saw their avenues to ‘easy money’ destroyed. That, at least to some measure, explains why on Thursday the raid was abruptly halted. What’s more, crackdowns on the alcohol economy are not uncommon, despite the entanglement of police in this business. In July 2015, Mathare residents lived through a similar period of police terror which left two people dead and thousands people without work for weeks. Many believe that such attacks are often triggered by a desire of particular police units or individual officers to show, as one resident put it to us, “the ‘higher ups’ that they are doing their ‘job’ and/or deserve promotion”. This time too, many residents believe the notorious Rashid went out of his way to impress in the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai. A resident shared with us that in his view Rashid demonstrated his exceptional cruelty during the course of the raid by forcing a customer of a local bar to drink bleach while he compared bleach to chang’aa. The young punter barely survived this ordeal.

The police officer mentioned here is not the only one. Similar notorious policemen who are known to execute and torture mainly young and poor men frequently patrol most informal urban settlements in Nairobi. According to several of our fellow activists, these plain cloth police officers, called ‘killer cops’ or maspiff by some, are not part of regular police units that are locally known to be connected to specific police stations and which patrol Mathare and surrounding neighborhoods on a daily basis. They told us that these police officers operate under the direct command of the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO). Several (non-state) security groups in Mathare that work together with these police officers revealed to us that several of them also enjoy substantial support by influential business owners, for instance in Eastleigh. The exact operational and support structures of these ‘killer cops’ and how they collaborate with regular police units remain somewhat opaque to local activists and residents, but all agreed that these plain cloth police officers enjoy considerable power and are able to kill with impunity through their powerful back-up.

When considering the relative opacity of their operations, the public visibility of these police officers in Mathare (and other urban settlements) is indeed rather astounding. They are also not a recent phenomenon. Most Mathare residents above 25 years old can easily recall the cruel reign of different ‘killer cops’ as far back as the late 1990s, such as the ruthless Habel Mwareria a.k.a. ‘Tyson’ in early 2000s who was also popularly dubbed ‘the Ghost’ because he often seemed to materialize out of thin air when- and wherever problems occurred. He killed suspects without asking questions, in front of people and in broad daylight and would vanish as rapidly as he had appeared. He was later promoted to the ATPU ( Anti Terrorism Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cops’ gained new strength in popular discourse when in April and May 2017 alleged police officers calling themselves ‘Hessy’ became rapidly infamous by posting pictures on different Facebook pages, under this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date about who or what ‘Hessy’ really is. Some people claim it started with an actual police officer who was shot in the leg and while he was recovering home in the month of April 2017 he started this network of ‘Hessy’s’ on Facebook. This is substantiated to some extent by the fact that there is an infamous police officer who is nicknamed Hessy and who is known to kill mostly young male crime suspects in Kayole. Others say that one officer or a group of police officers from different police stations in Eastlands chose this name because of the reputation of this particular police officer. Others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook were not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers working in collaboration with specific ‘killer cops’. The ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages (such as Nairobi Crime Free and Dandora Crime Free) soon gained a massive following online and continue to be a topic of intense debate offline, for instance among residents in Mathare.

Local Dynamics and the Future of Chang’aa

Police violence in Mathare, such as extra-judicial killings and illegal raids on people’s livelihoods, are enabled by a combination of factors. In contrast to the knee-jerk homogenization and criminalization of ghetto residents, for instance in mainstream media in Kenya, people inside Mathare are equally divided about the use of (criminal) violence by police. Police use such local divisions inside this neighborhood to push their own agenda. For instance, they work together with residents, popularly dubbed informers or watihaji, who are paid by police for information on people, business activities and other developments locally. This explains how police were able to find the entrance to the jiko’s at the river or the places where bars are located.

However, the incentives of informers to tell on their neighbors often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge plays a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intelligence because the local turnover of police, following frequent transfers, is quite high thus limiting the time police have to understand local dynamics. As a result, local informer-networks have some power to manipulate police behavior towards their own agendas. To illustrate, sometimes ‘killer cops’ like Rashid parade a suspect throughout Mathare and when they receive calls from as little as three informers confirming the identity of the suspect, the suspect is taken to a backstreet and executed. Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern.

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

The recent raid in Mathare on the local alcohol economy stopped as suddenly as it had started and without any outcome other than destroyed livelihoods, schools and homes and injured people. Slowly, alcohol distillers went back to work on Friday and gradually the local economy picked up again. Such crackdowns have never stopped the local alcohol industry and never will. If the government wants to make the local alcohol industry safer and bring it in line with regulations, it needs to work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to improve production standards. If alcohol consumption is the problem, why not invest in rehabilitation programs and explore underlying factors that contribute to widespread cheap alcohol consumption, such as vast unemployment and extreme stress? If the government wants people to stop working in this industry all together why not develop alternatives together with them?

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

On Thursday 4 April 2019, one resident asked us: “Who is Rashid? How can he do all this, kill our young men for years, then come to destroy our work, huh? Who is he?”

“Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

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Liberty for Whom? D-Day’s African Ghosts

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the start of a war to save Western Europe from Nazi occupation. American and European leaders gathered at the scene last week to memorialise and honour those who fell, including on the German side. The US President, Donald Trump, began his tribute to them thus: “On this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.”

Undoubtedly, much of that is true. From the perspective of those in occupied Europe, it was the beginning of their liberation and the defeat of fascist tyranny. It would inaugurate, for many, an era of democratic freedom and economic prosperity that was at the time unparalleled in history.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

President Trump went on to state that “the GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier but the fate of the world.” This may be true, but the world is not just Western Europe; from the perspective of those on the African continent, the GIs were not there to shore up liberty and democracy, but rather to free countries that were themselves engaged in colonial plunder and occupation.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

But there was little that was “good” about what these same countries were doing and would continue to do to the people in Africa whose land and resources they were continuing to steal and whose people they not only oppressed but also press-ganged into their wars. More than a million Africans fought in World War II – hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the front in Europe, others to India, Burma and the Pacific islands. Few understood why they were fighting, let alone why they volunteered to do it. Many died and survivors today receive nothing of the recognition and adulation bestowed on their European and American counterparts.

Now it is probably true that a world governed by the Nazis would have been much worse for Africans than the present one, so in that sense their defeat was good for the continent. But in that case, it could also be argued that the two World Wars, which exhausted the European powers and shattered the myth of white invincibility for the returning African veterans, were also good in that they paved the way for the end of colonialism. In either case, the uncontested fact would be that these were not wars to free all people but rather to determine who would be their overlords – despite the rhetoric, they were fought less for global liberation than for global domination.

David Frum, in his brilliant piece for The Atlantic, “The Ghosts of D-Day”, notes how the memory of D-Day and the liberation of Europe have been distorted in French and American imaginations. In truth, it is not just American memories that have “become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing”. The memorials at Normandy are not so much about remembering history but rather spinning it. And within that spin, the tale of the Africans has no place – it muddies the moral waters to admit that the liberation the Allies sought did not include that of the black and brown peoples they were oppressing; that those on this continent had, and to a large extent still have, little share in the freedom that was heralded on that day.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art.

For Africans, the irony is that the tools for making concrete the memory of what the European nations were actually doing – the records and documents that tell the story of the occupation and the crimes that were committed against Africans – are, for the most part, either deliberately destroyed or safely hidden away in European vaults. Many were stolen at the end of the colonial occupation in an effort to maintain the fiction of its benevolence.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art. Yet, unlike the Germans, who have owned up to “the unforgettable rupture of civilization that [they] provoked in Europe” and to the fact that “the fallen German soldiers are resting in foreign soil not because they came as liberators to this country but as occupiers”, there has been no such admission from the Europeans with regard to their occupation of Africa. Today, they still repeat the lie that colonialism was about bringing civilization and the benefits of modernity to the primitive peoples of the continent rather than implementing a system of extraction that continues to bleed the continent to this very day.

In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, published the article, “The Case for Colonialism” (withdrawn after a public uproar and death threats), in which he argued that Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate”. He further advocated for “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. While much of this has been debunked, he is hardly the only one to go public with such views. In the same year, the former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was removed from her leadership roles after she put out a series of tweets touting the benefits of colonialism.

Rather than the selective and hagiographic portrayals we are treated to today, a better memorial for D-Day would be to return the colonial archives and to acknowledge the truth – the whole, unvarnished truth – about what was being defended on that day. For it surely was not the ideal of liberty for all. Importantly, this would include an acknowledgement and compensation for the Africans who were forced to fight and die in the wars that were not of their making.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa

The rise of a global technology industry to support financial services, known as fin-tech, has grown enormously in Africa in the last decade. Across the continent, many commentators have proclaimed fin-tech as the solution to poverty and development. Examining the case of Kenya’s celebrated fin-tech model, M-Pesa, Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere reveal a flawed system that is not an answer to poverty, despite the wild claims of some academic commentators. Quite the contrary, fin-tech offers Africa a further case study of how contemporary capitalism continues to under-develop Africa.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa
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In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology). Defined as ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, the last decade or so has seen the rise of a new global fin-tech industry, a development that is widely regarded to be positively changing the world in a variety of ways. Thanks to almost daily reports of major new investments, especially in Africa, many investment professionals are of the opinion that something akin to a new ‘gold rush’ is clearly underway. At the same time, the fin-tech model is also touted as an innovation that will greatly benefit the global poor, with enthusiastic supporters claiming that a new golden age of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is upon us.

By far the most well-known example of the fin-tech model to date is Kenya’s M-Pesa – the agent-assisted, mobile-phone-based, person-to-person payment and money transfer system. M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor. Taking inspiration from M-Pesa, many in the international development community now regard the fin-tech model as a potentially game-changing private sector-funded driver of development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology)

In the academic community the apparent combination of poverty reduction with profit generation proved to be a very seductive pro-capitalist narrative that many mainstream economists were only too willing to engage with. The most well-known academic economists examining the impact of M-Pesa are Tavneet Suri, based at MIT, and William Jack, based at Georgetown University. With extensive funding from Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya and the Gates Foundation, since 2010 Suri and Jack have produced a series of outputs extolling the benefits of M-Pesa. Suri and Jack’s generally positive findings have resulted in mainstream media attention and large numbers of citations. This has played an important part in galvanising the international development community into supporting the fin-tech model as a development and poverty reduction intervention.

In particular, their 2016 article published in the prestigious journal Science, entitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’ has played a considerable role in sparking the imagination of the international development community. This is mainly because of its sensational claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.’ According to this article, M-Pesa was not just making profits, but the evidence seemed to show it was also making an astonishing ‘bottom-up’ development and poverty reduction contribution. This poverty reduction claim, often cited in full in media articles, quickly became the centrepiece of the evidence used by many in the international development community to justify its increasingly strong support for, and investment in, the fin-tech model.

M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. As we write in a Briefing just published in the ROAPE Suri and Jack’s hugely influential signature article actually contains a surprising number of errors, omissions, poor logic, and methodological flaws. Crucial labour market evaluation parameters, such as business failure (exit) and the impact of new businesses on existing ones (displacement), were entirely over-looked. The core issue of individual over-indebtedness, which in Kenya is now approaching crisis levels and which has a clear and direct link to the operation of M-Pesa, was not even mentioned as a possible downside of the fin-tech development model. For such an important and well-financed project, the methodology was also weak, diverging from many of the standard ‘best practices’ in the impact evaluation field. The important issue of causation was also raised, but in a way that we found to be questionable at best. In many ways, therefore, Suri and Jack’s analysis appears to misrepresent and vastly over-state the development impact of M-Pesa. 

Fin-tech represents a new form of resource extractivism

One of the most disturbing aspects of Suri and Jack’s flawed analysis, however, is that they completely bypass the crucial equity and distributional issues that arise from the operation of M-Pesa and other similar fin-tech corporations. This is inexcusable because there are clear warning signs today that the fin-tech model possesses the potential to extract immense value from the poorest communities in the Global South, with potentially calamitous long-term consequences. Like the gambling, sub-prime mortgage and payday loan industries in the United States and UK that before and after the financial crisis of 2008 were able to grow rich by expertly extracting massive amounts of value from the communities of the poor, one might argue that Kenya’s poorest communities are also being drained of much of their needed collective wealth.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform (which has become ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid). This includes microloans, money transfers, grant disbursement, credit card usage, pension payments, and so on. One simply cannot escape from the fin-tech ‘net’ that is gradually being lowered on to the poor. As more and more governments and elites are brought in as allies by the fin-tech industry, this value extraction process is only likely to speed up and intensify, with cash transactions being increasingly jettisoned and ever more transactions being mediated by fin-tech organisations.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform

By the same token, given the profit motive at play, it is inevitable that a range of services and products will end up being pushed on to the poor even though they largely do not need them, are not able to productively use them, or do not have any means to repay debt associated with them. The value realised through such ‘digital mining’ techniques is then extracted from the local community and deposited into the hands of the fin-tech entity’s owner(s). However, with so many fin-tech entities backed by foreign capital from the Global North, the chances are that a large proportion of this ‘digitally mined’ value will head abroad to the world’s leading investment locations.

What we have here, therefore, is a value extraction process that contains the potential to progressively undermine the development process in local communities in the Global South. It does this in two important ways: first, it denies the local community an extremely valuable aggregate amount of local spending power, which is instead appropriated by wealthy individuals and institutions, many of which are located abroad. This renders an important endogenous growth trajectory inactive, since it is rising local demand that often provides the initial impetus for local enterprises to emerge in order to meet this demand. Second, fin-tech institutions also starve the local (re)investment cycle by siphoning value out of the community, and thus make it more difficult for local businesses to access the meaningful amounts of capital needed to establish sustainable commercial operations. Experiences in Asia with local banking from 1945 onwards, for example, show that reinvesting/recycling the bulk of locally-generated value back into the local economy has significant potential to kick-start economic growth.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries. The ‘resource’ increasingly being extracted from Africa today might no longer be a physical one – such as diamonds, gold, platinum, or silver -and the process might not require slavery, the employment of ultra-exploitative waged labour, or involve horrendous working conditions, but the eventual negative outcomes of ‘digital mining’ could very well be the extension and continuation of under-development.

M-Pesa thus provides us with a valuable case study of how contemporary platform capitalism operates in neoliberal Africa and how ‘digital mining’ might actually affect Kenya’s potential growth and development. In recent years, Safaricom (M-Pesa’s parent company) has become far and away Kenya’s largest company, now accounting for a massive 40% of the total stock market valuation on the Nairobi securities exchange. Safaricom is also famous for its spectacular profits. In 2019 it set a record by registering profits of around US$620 million, which would be an impressive result in even the richest countries of the Global North. To put this into perspective, this figure is slightly more than the Kenyan government spends on the entire healthcare system in the country. However, along with an additional bonus paid out in 2019 to shareholders amounting to around US$240 million, a large percentage of this US$620 million in profit was paid out as dividends to foreign shareholders. The main beneficiary was the majority shareholder (at 40%) of Safaricom, the UK multinational corporation Vodafone. Other beneficiaries are a variety of mainly foreign investors located in ‘tax-efficient’ locations (the Caribbean mainly) and who hold a 25% stake. The Kenyan government also holds a further 35% stake in Safaricom.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries.

This demonstrates that significant value is being created by M-Pesa based on the tiny transactions of the poor, but most of it is spirited abroad via dividend payments to foreign shareholders. This helps explain why M-Pesa has become a beacon for global investors and financial institutions all seeking their own spectacular fortunes in Africa while framing their thirst for profits as altruism. Indeed, by embedding the fin-tech model in Kenya, the international development community is complicit in the establishment of a high-tech extractivist infrastructure similar to colonial-era equivalents.

‘Digital mining’ in Kenya and the foreign appropriation of the wealth generated by those languishing at the bottom of the pyramid is a less directly brutal undertaking than the value extraction process carried out in colonial times.  However, the extractivist logic, the wealth transfer, and the determination to accumulate on the back of the poor have a similar character to colonial-era economic regimes, and similar potential to seriously damage socioeconomic development in the long-term.

Furthermore, as in colonial times, a local elite has been allowed significant freedom to manage this ‘digital mining’ on behalf of the foreign owners. As with Capitec Bank in South Africa, it is no secret that the CEO and senior management at Safaricom have been able to use the company as a vehicle through which to extract fantastic rewards for themselves, enjoying Wall Street-style levels of remuneration in recent years and with several becoming multi-millionaires as a result. However, this also provides the obvious incentive to grow Safaricom as fast as possible because in that way the personal rewards attributable to those at the top are maximised. As a result, Safaricom’s CEO and other senior management have pushed growth to the limits and are now encountering problems in several areas on account of reckless over-expansion, including with regard to the company’s wilful engagement with gambling. In addition, in the early stages of M-Pesa’s growth, certain still unidentified members of the local Kenyan elite were able to secure for themselves a sizeable shareholding in Safaricom, which they later sold off for massive capital gains. Pointedly, the impact on inequality in Kenya arising from these narrow elite enrichment mechanisms has been very significant.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall.

In short, an effective value extraction process involving ‘digital mining’ has been established in Kenya, which has been misleadingly framed by many in the international development community as contributing to ‘bottom-up’ development. This process has ensured the stratospheric enrichment of a narrow group of foreign investors, Safaricom’s own senior managers, and a section of the Kenyan elite. However, this value has effectively been appropriated from M-Pesa’s overwhelmingly poor clients via their growing bundle of tiny fin-tech-mediated financial transactions.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall. Safaricom appears to have become a classic example of the ‘cathedral in the desert’ syndrome – a vastly profitable entity that exists only by ignoring the impoverishment it is helping to create in its wake. As fin-tech spreads across Africa, it is likely we will see similar deleterious extractionist scenarios emerging.

Might we not then consider M-Pesa to be the canary in the coalmine?

Parallels with the failed microfinance revolution?

Our analysis of Suri and Jack’s hugely influential 2016 article shows that it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. One might conjecture that this has something to do with the fact that much of the funding for their work over the past decade has come from FSD Kenya and the Gates Foundation, two of the world’s leading advocates for the fin-tech model.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how the now largely discredited microfinance movement got a game-changing boost back in the 1990s thanks to a study by two high-profile World Bank economists – Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker – claiming that microfinance in Bangladesh was generating major poverty reduction benefits for women Pitt and Khandker’s work was much later shown to contain many serious errors and its conclusions were unsound. Nevertheless, Pitt and Khandker’s work more than served its immediate purpose, which was to galvanise support within and around the international development community for an intervention that the World Bank desperately wanted to see go forward on ideological grounds. We might therefore pose the obvious question here with regard to the misrepresentation of M-Pesa’s impact: are Suri and Jack the new Pitt and Khandker?

 

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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