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ERASED MEMORIES: Re-couping Zimbabwe’s humanity

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I was born in 1988, eight years after Zimbabwe’s independence from British colonial rule. I am thus considered a “Born Free” — meaning one born after the liberation war. For a long time, particularly over the last two decades and the fraught turmoil we have endured as Zimbabweans, the term has been used to denigrate those of us who were born into freedom from colonial rule and did not experience the struggles of the liberation war.

Robert Mugabe, for me, has always been a figure of ambivalence. This is because many people from Matabeleland, where I come from, have always had a great loathing for him. As a child, I was never able to fully understand why.

It was only when I began working on my novel House of Stone, which has been my way of trying to understand and grapple with the many faces of Zimbabwe’s past, that I came face to face with one of these faces, Gukurahundi, the genocide in Matabeleland and Midlands that occurred in the 1980s, shortly after independence. Gukurahundi was something I grew up knowing about, for it is spoken about among the people of Matabeleland with great pain and in fearful whispers; it’s taboo in Zimbabwe to remember the genocide, and those who remember these “criminal memories” are constantly punished.

It is for this reason that the genocide was something I knew about but did not know. This ambivalence about working through our pasts as well as our presents is something I grew up with; it’s the tentativeness born from having to live in a state of physical or psychological violence. This ambivalence was amplified in 2001 when I was in my teens and when our socio-politico-economic meltdown started – when things became so unbearable for my family, as they did for millions of Zimbabwean families, so much so that we had to leave for South Africa in search of a better life in 2009.

This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.

Ambivalence was a necessary condition for us to go about living, loving, celebrating, mourning and dreaming amidst the constant stress of the empty supermarkets, the never-ending scuffles in the queues for food and money, and the abuse lambasted at us by Mugabe and his advocates on state media. Politicians and army generals would pop up on state television during election time declaring that there would be war if the populace dared to vote for the opposition party, MDC, and that Zimbabweans who did not support Zanu (PF) and its doctrines were traitors and sell-outs who deserved to be expelled, ideologically, communally and most terrifying of all, violently, from the Zimbabwean imagination. This culture of erasing whole peoples and their experiences from the geographical, communal and imaginative space that is Zimbabwe is not unique to the past two decades; it’s an indelible part of our Zimbabwean history, as Gukurahundi exemplifies.

Many of my family members found Gukurahundi too difficult to talk about when I asked them as part of my research for House of Stone, as it brought up so much pain. This pain is not just a pain about what is past—for the past is never about the past, but is about the future and dealt with in relation to the present. It’s very much a pain that endures in the present, since those who went through Gukurahundi are not acknowledged by our communities and our country, meaning they are not able to freely mourn their dead, exhume mass graves, perform rites, build shrines, work through their trauma, and come together in remembrance and healing – things that are done for other periods in our country’s history where great suffering and loss was endured, such as the liberation war.

In her introduction to the book Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe on the Catholic Commission Report on the genocide — the said report which euphemistically described the genocide as “disturbances in Matabeleland and Midlands”— writer and human rights activist Elinor Sisulu writes:

“The Shona expression ‘Gukurahundi’, meaning ‘the first rain that washes away the chaff of the last harvest before the spring rains’, used to have pleasant connotations…In the 1980s the term Gukurahundi assumed an entirely new meaning when the North Korean-trained 5 Brigade murdered thousands of people in the Zimbabwean province of Matabeleland and parts of Midlands. Both the 5 Brigade and the period of mayhem and murder they caused were called Gukurahundi, which is why, since then, the word Gukurahundi invokes nothing but negative emotions among Zimbabweans, ranging from indifference, shame, denial, terror, bitter anger and deep trauma, depending on whether one is a victim, perpetrator or one of the millions of citizens who remained silent.”

My research for House of Stone showed me that Gukurahundi was not just “something terrible that happened” and gave me an opportunity to confront the experiences and testimonies of the victims who endured it. The Catholic Church Commission Report has the most comprehensive of these testimonies, including reports about the goings on at places such as Bhalagwe Concentration Camp, which was near Antelope Mine in the Kezi district of Matabeleland South. Here, horror is told of sharp objects being forced up women’s genitals, of civilians being forced to have sexual relations with donkeys and beaten up if they refused. Other reports relate water torture, which included drenching the victim’s head in a bucket of water, and then the perpertrator jumping on the victim’s stomach until he vomited blood.

The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well.

In the villages, civilians were made to dig graves, and then forced to watch as their loved ones were ordered into these graves and shot; they were then forced to cover the mass graves, and then dance on top of these graves while singing praises to Mugabe. It has been very confusing for these victims because although the genocide was not an ethnic one (civilians from Mashonaland did not come to Matabeleland and commit these acts on the civilians there); the specially trained 5 Brigade that committed these atrocities were mostly Shona speaking, and would force the mostly Ndebele civilians to chant praises to Mugabe in Shona while dancing on the graves of their loved ones.

Thus, language was abused as a tool of terror, and has caused great trauma to the victims. The atrocities committed during Gukurahundi, then, were not just against the people of Matabeleland; they were also against Shona as a language and as a culture, against the humanistic values and precepts that this language and culture carries, and thus, against the Shona people as well. Many Zimbabweans don’t seem to know or understand exactly what happened during Gukurahundi, and why this period looms large for its victims and their communities. Hence the importance of working through our histories. (More on the findings by the Catholic Commission Report here.)

Having to read, watch and listen to these testimonies caused me to break down. I wept for our people, for their humanity, for their dehumanisation, and for the silence that continues to surround what they went through. Yet, witnessing and re-experiencing was a necessary step, is a necessary step, towards empathy, towards being able to see others.

The culture of violence around Gukurahundi in our country encourages a looking around but not a looking at the victims who experienced it and who live with its scars. Many discussions about the genocide tend to weaponise the victims; as tools and symbols for justice, for instance. Though justice is necessary, weaponising the victims in this way — as symbols caught in this dehumanising glare, without fleshing them out as human beings whose humanity we seek to recover and honour — has the ironic effect of de-centring them, so that we are unable to see them and thus witness with them, which is the first step towards building empathy, and prioritising them and their healing.

Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them.

Perhaps, with this landmark removal of Grandfather after thirty-seven years from the office of President, we can begin to look our histories in the face and work through them. This is something we ought to do for our own sakes, as a matter of moving into a future that honours our humanity, as Africans, and makes sure the cycle of violence that has been unacknowledged in our country right from its inception does not keep repeating itself.

Many eulogies, odes and critiques have been written about Grandfather since the army’s soft coup, the protest marches, and his resignation. In many of them, Grandfather has been the towering centre. Even in the bitter criticisms about him, he remains, ironically, the main visible figure in the glare of the indicting spotlight. Furthermore, the Mugabe who is alternately deified or indicted is not Mugabe the person; he is objectified to represent the land reform programme, for instance, or Zimbabwe’s excellent education system, or Gukurahundi, or the liberation war, or our recent desperate decades of destruction.

I think of these abstractions of Mugabe as a manifestation, in our languages and our psyches, of the authoritarian culture we have lived with for the past thirty-seven years. It has led not just to physical and political violence, but has also affected us psychologically and culturally, leading to a narrowing of our imaginings and thus our vocabulary. In all of this, Mugabe the person, Mugabe as a person, is lost, and in it, we, as people, as well as our humanity, are lost, too.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another. This deification has also influenced the kinds of values we have come to prioritise in our country, such as “cleverness,” which we tend to use to describe acts of corrupt wheeling and dealing.

In humanising him, we also humanise ourselves.

It would be so very easy to dehumanise Grandfather; the impulse is there. I loathe him for what his governance put us through, for what he has come to represent for us. I lost loved ones in the last two decades who didn’t have to die – aunts, uncles, and cousins, some only children. I hate that this kind of loss became normalised; our cemeteries overflow with graves, many of them child-sized.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that in order for us to recoup our humanity, we need to recoup Grandfather’s humanity, too? In humanising him, we are removing him from the deified aura he has sought to build around himself and that others have helped to build around him, which has affected how we experience reality, rendering us imprisoned in his glare and thus unable to look at and see one another.

Why do I keep emphasising humanity, Grandfather’s humanity and our humanity as Africans? Because African lives, right from the time of colonisation, have always been rendered “unimportant” and thus fit for being sacrificed for “the greater good.” African lives have always been deemed fit to wait a little longer for the recognition of their humanity; for the sake of “unity” or “progress,” we shove aside the protests of the suffering and the dissenting. This is manifested in the way in which they, African lives, remain a clump of shadows in our discussions about our societies, never meant to disturb any glare that we wish to shine on those in power, be it celebratory or accusatory. In this sense, African lives become weaponised, and thus sacrificial, for other wars we claim to fight in their name and for their well-being; wars against Western imperialism, for example.

In this sense, Mugabe – the misnomer we continue to use to describe wholesale pasts and futures – has the unwitting effect of perpetuating authoritarian culture and its intolerance for contradictions and the existence of multiple realities and truths. This misnomer also erases us from the human glare. By using it to describe wholesale pasts and periods, we render ourselves as existing because of and thanks to Mugabe the abstraction.

Our mythologising of these abstractions, then, sets up our de-humanisation— we become enthralled with the myth, and in tying our narratives about ourselves to it, in banking our humanity on the myth’s existence and endurance, we shackle ourselves to upholding it at any cost, including the cost of denying and brushing aside the experiences of, and thus de-humanising, those in our communities who have horrific experiences and memories that shatter this myth. Like the victims and survivors of Gukurahundi.

Ironically, it’s in Mugabe’s humanisation, and not de-humanisation (we do not seek to de-mythologise him as a matter of stripping him of his humanity, which is as much a stripping of our own humanity as is the act of deifying him), that we realise our own humanisation, too. In the spirit of working with what one has, we can use the weapons that authoritarian culture has used to build itself over the last thirty-seven years to free ourselves from it.

All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes.

We ought not to, for instance, if we are to recognise our humanity, talk about the honeymoon years of Zimbabwe’s independence, its education policies and prosperity for its citizens, without talking about and witnessing the victims and survivors of the Gukurahundi genocide. In the same way, we can’t talk about the land reform programme, which as a concept and a process was necessary (land was always at the centre of the liberation struggle) without talking about everything else that was done to the people of Zimbabwe over the past two decades in its name: beatings; Operation Murambatsvina; facilitation of corruption; repression of freedom of speech and civic participation and gatherings; rigging of elections and withholding of election results; abduction of activists such as Jestina Mukoko and disappearance of activists such as Itai Dzamara; conflating patriotism with supporting Zanu (PF); considering Zimbabweans who do not agree with Zanu (PF)’s doctrines as “non-Zimbabweans” and “un-Zimbabwean”; and criminalising the discussion of our pasts, both pre- and post-independence.

All of this was facilitated and justified ideologically by the land reform programme, known as The Third Chimurenga, which I think of as the hijacking of real and true grievances for nefarious purposes. It is true that corruption and genocide are used by Western governments to blackmail non-Western leaders to conform to the unfair way the world is run. It is also true that corruption and genocide are used by non-Western leaders to coerce their populations into accepting the ways they run them. In all of this, one thing endures: African lives remain abstract in the imaginations of colonial and post-colonial societies, and are considered easy or somehow justifiable collateral, readily cast aside, unwitnessed, and swept under carpets so as to pave the way for authoritarian re-imaginings and the deifying of those in power.

A democratisation or opening up of our societies also entails a democratisation and opening up of our language and our imaginings. Instead of using “Mugabe” or even “Mnangagwa” as short-cut terms for both our dreams and nightmares (as metaphors they are inaccurate because they erase or hide other individuals and groups who have contributed to these dreams and nightmares), we may do well to try to be concrete, and in this way expansive, in our vocabulary. These misnomers carry so many histories; we use them to capture the vast events we seek to evoke, yet they end up contradicting these events. Words matter; how we use them matters.

In re-couping our humanity, I’m imagining a kind of practice that offers a third way for African lives. A way that centres them and honours them as real and concrete. A way that says: African Lives Matter. Ubuntu—I Am, You Are, We Are.

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Novuyo Rosa Tshuma is a Zimbabwean writer and author of the recently published book House of Stone

Politics

Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.

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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Politics

Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.

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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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Politics

The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?

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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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