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MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Roots of the crisis in Cameroon

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MIND YOUR LANGUAGE: Roots of the crisis in Cameroon
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Since October 2016, Cameroon – one of the most stable states in a volatile subregion – has been making international headlines. A political crisis – the Anglophone Crisis – is shaking the country to the core. It started as a sectoral crisis – with lawyers and teachers demanding for English to remain the primary language of the education and judiciary systems of the English-speaking part of the country – but later turned into a political crisis after the protests were met with military violence, mass arrests and torture.

A country in turmoil

In November 2016, hundreds of people took to the streets in Bamenda after violence was inflicted on lawyers asking for Common Law and English to remain the basis of the judiciary subsystem and on teachers asking for the non-Francophonisation of the Anglophone education subsystem. At first, many people from the northwest and southwest regions were not for separation or violence; people were peacefully protesting for change. However, denial in official statements and the continuous violent responses from the government led to the emergence of small secessionist groups that are taking advantage of the situation to radicalise local activists and non-activist citizens.

Local groups and parts of the Anglophone diaspora have revived the separatist agenda: some demand federalism, others secession.

On October 1st, thousands of people in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon took part in a peaceful march to symbolically proclaim the independence of Ambazonia, the name of an independent country that would be located in the northwest and southwest regions.

According to an International Crisis Group report, security in Cameroon has deteriorated in the Anglophone regions of the northwest and southwest. To protest against the government’s marginalisation of Anglophones, protestors set fire to seven schools and several shops and, for the first time in Cameroon’s post-independence history, homemade bombs were detonated in mid-September 2017. Between 14th and 20th September, two bombs exploded in the northwest region; there were no casualties. On 21st September, another bomb was detonated at a police station in Bambenda, injuring three police officers. A fourth bob nearly exploded in Douala.

After the explosion, the governors of the northwest and southwest regions imposed a de facto curfew, cutting off the Internet for 24 hours, barring movement between Anglophone divisions, and banning gatherings and demonstrations until 3rd October. Despite these measures, around 50,000 people took to the streets in tens of towns and communities in the northwest and southwest regions on September 22nd, demanding the departure of President Paul Biya, the release of Anglophone political leaders and separation. The date chosen coincided with the president’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly. However, what was supposed to be a peaceful march turned violent in some areas. According to local newspapers, some protesters in Buea vandalised the home of the town’s mayor, who is Anglophone but against the protesters. In Mamfe, a police station was set on fire. Four protesters were shot to death by police forces and several more were injured.

On October 1st, thousands of people in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon took part in a peaceful march to symbolically proclaim the independence of Ambazonia, the name of an independent country that would be located in the northwest and southwest regions. This also coincided with the anniversary of the reunification of Cameroon under French mandate and British Southern Cameroon in 1961.

The response of military forces to the march was the most repressive to date. According to Amnesty International, 17 people were reported dead and more than 200 people were arrested during demonstration. The government put the figure at around 10 deaths, but according to locals, the army killed about 100 people on that day. In total, since the beginning of the crisis in October 2016, at least 55 people have officially been reported dead.

These repressive measures led to retaliation by the populace. People burnt vehicles belonging to the sub-prefect and prefect in Boyo and Fundong (in the northwest), snatched weapons from gendarmes in Kumba (in the southwest), ransacked police stations in Ikiliwindi, Mabanda Teke and Kongle, and threw stones at police and military officers in Buea and Bamenda. Since the beginning of November, four military men have been killed in conditions that are still not clear. Cho Ayaba, a leading member of the political wing of the separatist movement who lives abroad, told Reuters, “Cameroon soldiers are enforcing an occupation. The only thing that will make us stop these attacks is if the regime withdraws. If they stop using the military to impose political exclusion and systematic terror on our people.”

The so-called Anglophone Crisis is not something new, as the international media suggest; it has its roots in the decolonisation era.

Currently, the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have become ghost towns due to general strikes – an initiative taken by the Cameroon Anglophone Civil Society Consortium as part of their long-term protest against a government they deem biased towards French speakers. For a year now, schools have not been fully operational, a lost year for students. In September, the so-called Ghost Town operations continued for three days each week. Several stores and seven schools were burnt down to protest against them opening despite the ban. Paul Biya agreed to release some Anglophone leaders and activists to stop the operations and to prevent the school year from being jeopardised for the second year in a row. However, the releases had little or no effect; enrolment rates remain very low and the ghost town operations are still ongoing.

The root of the crisis

The so-called Anglophone Crisis is not something new, as the international media suggest; it has its roots in the decolonisation era. Despite the fact that the current crisis started as a language issue between Anglophones and Francophones, the problem is not really about language; it is about people fighting for respect, integration and identity.

In July 1884, the German government and the traditional Douala chiefs signed a treaty that established a protectorate called Kamerun. After Germany lost in World War I, the victorious powers imposed punitive territorial, military and economic provisions that led to Germany losing her colonies. Kamerun, which was a former German colony, was partitioned between Britain and France under a League of Nations mandate, which appointed France and Britain as joint trustees of Kamerun. France gained the larger share and ruled its territory Cameroun from Yaoundé. Britain’s territory, Northern and Southern Cameroon – a strip bordering Nigeria from the sea to Lake Chad – was ruled from Lagos. During the period of the mandate and the trusteeship, each colonial power shaped their territories in their own image.

 

A report from International Crisis Group describes the situation clearly:

This resulted in major differences in political culture. English was the official language in the territory under British administration. The justice system (Common Law), the education system, the currency and social norms followed the British model. The system of indirect rule allowed traditional chiefdoms to remain in place and promoted the emergence of a form of self-government to the extent that freedom of the press, political pluralism and democratic change in power existed in Anglophone Cameroon prior to independence. The territory was administered as though it was part of Nigeria and several members of British Cameroon’s Anglophone elite were ministers in the Nigerian government in the 1950s.

 In contrast, the Francophone territory was directly administered by France following the assimilationist model, although colonisers and the traditional elites also practised a form of indirect government, especially in the north of the country. French was spoken and France’s social, legal and political norms shaped the centralist political system of successive regimes. Bogged down in a total war against the nationalist movement (Union des populations du Cameroun – UPC), which challenged French presence, the Francophone territory was less democratic.

Being used to self-administration, Southern and Northern Cameroon were in many ways more developed than French Cameroun, with several industries and a sense of democracy. French Cameroun accessed independence before English-speaking Cameroon on January 1, 1961. British Cameroon was aspiring to independence as an autonomous state, but former colonial powers believed that it would not be economically viable and advocated for not creating microstates. So a referendum took place on February 11, 1961: British Cameroon was supposed to choose between joining Nigeria or the new Republic of Cameroon. Northern Cameroon chose to join Nigeria and Southern Cameroon chose to join the Republic of Cameroon. This led to the independence of Southern Cameroon in October 1961 and the creation of a federal state with a flag with two stars symbolising the two territories coming together – West Cameroon being the former Southern Cameroon and East Cameroon being the former Republic of Cameroon. Both territories were now one under the name United Republic of Cameroon.

Problems started when, despite the constitutional provision stating that English and French were both official languages, French became the language of administration.

A federal constitution approved by the National Assembly of the Republic of Cameroon in August 1961 and promulgated by the then president Amadou Ahidjo in September 1961 was imposed when negotiating the terms of reunification. (Southern Cameroon was then still under the trusteeship of Britain since as it obtained independence on October 1, 1961.)

Centralisation was the governing mode of the former French territory, and the federated state was administrated from Yaoundé, where political leaders held all powers in their hands to the detriment of traditional chiefs whose authority was recognised and respected during the trusteeship. The assimilationist model the former French territory experienced under French trusteeship became its way of governance. In line with the constitutional provision stating that the vice president must be from West Cameroon if the federal president comes from East Cameroon and vice versa, John Ngu Foncha became vice president of the country and prime minister of West Cameroon.

Problems started when, despite the constitutional provision stating that English and French were both official languages, French became the language of administration. Then Amadou Ahidjo divided the country into six administrative regions and appointed federal inspectors in each region. English- speaking Cameroonians were not happy because West Cameroon could not at the same time be a federated state according to the constitution and be an administrative region by decree. The appointed federal inspector had more powers over the region than its prime minister. At the economic level, Ahidjo imposed an exchange rate of £1 to FCFA692 instead of the normal FCFA800, which reduced the purchasing power of the region that still had strong ties with Britain. Then he demanded for West Cameroon to cut ties with Britain, which made the region lose export duty advantages.

Though the southwest and northwest regions play an important role in the economy, especially when it comes to agriculture and trade, and though most of Cameroon’s oil, which accounts for one-twelfth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), is located off the coast of the Anglophone region, these regions are still lagging behind.

The economic decline of West Cameroon became evident. Reunification came with the dismantlement of the federal state/region’s economic structures, such as the West Cameroon Marketing Board, the Cameroon Bank and Powercam, as well as abandonment of several projects (the port of Limbé, and airports at Bamenda and Tiko), with investments in the Francophone part of the country having more advantages. The problem still persists to date.

Though the southwest and northwest regions play an important role in the economy, especially when it comes to agriculture and trade, and though most of Cameroon’s oil, which accounts for one- twelfth of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), is located off the coast of the Anglophone region, these regions are still lagging behind.   As Amindeh Blaise Atabong declared on Quartz, “In Cameroon’s 2017 public investment budget, home region of president Paul Biya, in the south, was allocated far more resources than the northwest and southwest regions put together. Going by the country’s government project logbook for the year, the south region was accorded over 570 projects at a total sum of over $225 million (FCFA 126 billion). For its part, the northwest region had no more than 500 projects to be executed with over $76 million (FCFA 42 billion), while the southwest region had slightly over $77 million (FCFA 43 billion) for over 500 projects.”

When Paul Biya succeeded Amadou Ahidjo in November 1982, he further centralised power. On August 22, 1983, he divided the Anglophone region into two provinces: North-West and South-West provinces. The following year, he changed the country’s official name to the Republic of Cameroon and removed the second star representing the English-speaking part of the country from the flag. (The Republic of Cameroon was the name of the former Francophone territory.) These decisions symbolically killed West Cameroon and assimilated it within the Republic of Cameroon.

The separatist agenda and the way forward

As previously mentioned, the separatist agenda is not a new one. In 1993, English-speaking Cameroonians organised the All Anglophone Conference (AAC) and called for a return to federalism. During this period, Anglophone political leaders Muna and John Ngu Foncha went to the United Nations to demand independence for former Southern Cameroon. The position of the Social Democratic Front (the main opposition party then and now with a strong contingent of English-speaking Cameroonians) was judged to be ambiguous since it was against secession, which led to the creation in 1995 of the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC). Since 1996, the SCNC has been demanding secession and has taken its case to the UN, the African Court of Banjul, the Commonwealth and national embassies.

Cameroon cannot afford another armed conflict. The country is already engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the far north and militias from the Central African Republic in the east. The president has to take drastic and lasting measures to solve the crisis.

Despite the situation being a stalemate, measures have been taken to solve the crisis: there have been several attempts to dialogue; about a thousand English-speaking teachers across the southwest and northwest have been appointed; a Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism has been created; and leaders of the separatist movement have been released. In reality, however, these measures were doomed to fail from the start. Dialogue was actually the government trying to impose its conditions on the English-speaking leaders at the table. And the Commission is nothing but the recycling of former members of government or people with close ties to it.

Cameroon cannot afford another armed conflict. The country is already engaged in the fight against Boko Haram in the far north and militias from the Central African Republic in the east. The president has to take drastic and lasting measures to solve the crisis.

Firstly, the president should act as if he cares about the situation and spend more time on national soil instead of abroad. Secondly, a mediator should be appointed to negotiate high-level talks between the government and the separatists, be they on national soil or from the diaspora, since the diaspora is playing a major part in the movement. Thirdly, each official who has ever been publicly disrespectful when addressing or talking about English-speaking Cameroonians should apologise and resign.

The law on decentralisation promulgated in 2004 should be enforced, not for regions to operate autonomously, but for each of them to be in charge of social and financial development of the region for the sake of the region and of the country as a whole. English-speaking regions of the country are not the only ones suffering from bad governance, so this will be an opportunity for the government to solve the crisis and improve the desperate situation of the country as a whole. The best way to go about this is to work on these issues before the next presidential election that is supposed to take place in 2018.

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Anne Marie Befoune is a Cameroonian living in Dakar, Senegal and founder of Elle Citoyenne, an online media platform which focuses on enabling civic participation and expression.

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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