On November 3, 2017, Kenya’s main opposition party, the National Super Alliance (NASA), spelt out to its supporters the names of three companies whose products they ought to boycott because of these companies’ association with the ruling Jubilee party. The three companies were: Safaricom, the giant money-minting mobile telecommunications company; Brookside Dairies, the largest milk-producing company in East and Central Africa; and Bidco Industries, one of the leading edible oil products manufacturer in this part of the world.
One month later, how has the embargo faired?
The better option?
Bina Wambui has been selling mobile phones’ airtime and sim cards for well over a decade in Nairobi’s city centre. She is an agent for both Safaricom and its main competitor Airtel. Her Charity Sweepstake-type kiosk is located on Moi Avenue, one of the busiest streets in the central business district. “Let me be honest with you,” she told this writer. “The boycott on Safaricom is definitely working. Does Baba (Raila Odinga) have shares in the company (Airtel)?” she asked me, half in jest. “His bonuses should be coming up well. Airtel has a lot to thank Raila for.”
“Let me be honest with you,” she told this writer. “The boycott on Safaricom is definitely working. Does Baba (Raila Odinga) have shares in the company (Airtel)?” she asked me, half in jest. “His bonuses should be coming up well. Airtel has a lot to thank Raila for.”
Bina told me that one of the biggest revenue streams for Safaricom remains the mobile money transfer service M-Pesa. The others are airtime for making voice calls and bundles for surfing the Internet. “My M-Pesa customers are still intact, but Safaricom customers for airtime and sim cards have dipped. I have sold more Airtel sim cards and airtime than at any other time,” she said.
On the day I went to interview her, she told me she had just received her day’s bonus from Airtel’s management. She did not divulge how much the bonus amounted to, but she said it was a good incentive for any Airtel agent who is keen on pushing sales. “An Airtel supervisor, not believing the money I am making in selling Airtel cards and airtime, came personally to see me at my kiosk,” said Bina. “I cannot complain. While my Safaricom sales have been fluctuating, my Airtel sales have been soaring. Should I call it a blessing in disguise?”
“I bank money every single day – money that I cannot dare venture out with from my kiosk. That should give you an inkling of the sales I make in a day.” Bina told me that mobile telecommunication products salespeople who operate in the central business district hold weekly meetings. “The story is the same from the rest of my colleagues: unprecedented booming Airtel sales. Now, the company is even giving a bonus for airtime sold apart from every sim card sold – even on the lowest airtime of 20 bob, you get a bonus.”
However, not all her Safaricom customers have jumped ship. “I will tell you why my M-Pesa customers are still with me: Airtel money transfer is very poor – it is inefficient and hopelessly disorganised and slow – its network is perpetually on a hang mode and if, by bad luck, you make a mistake, it takes between three to four days to sort out the problem. It is too much trouble for a supposedly cheaper money transfer system,” noted Bina. “If only Airtel would fix its money transfer issues, it would really give Safaricom a run for its money.”
A former senior Safaricom executive told me that the sprawling Eastleigh “town” or “little Mogadishu” – so named because of its large Somali population – together with the famous Kibera slum represent the largest Safaricom markets in Nairobi city. Between them, they generate for Safaricom millions of shillings in profits.
“Eastleigh might not be the best place to gauge whether the Kenyatta family’s products are faring well or not,” he said. “There has been a deliberate effort by hoteliers and restauranteurs in Eastleigh and elsewhere where there are food outlets to promote camel milk.”
Eastleigh – which is today a commercial hub of every imaginable type of business, as well as humungous residential estates and three-star hotels – has some of the biggest and busiest Safaricom shops anywhere in the country as well as small retail traders and street vendors hawking airtime and sim cards. My random check on the impact of the Safaricom boycott showed that Airtel had increased its airtime and sim cards sales in this area.
Near the famous Garissa Lodge shopping mall, a woman was selling Safaricom and Airtel airtime from the boot of her car. “Do I need to answer your question of whether the boycott is working?” she asked me. In the fifteen minutes I watched her mostly sell sim cards, only one asked for a Safaricom line; the rest all bought Airtel lines. “Some of my new customers have been forthright on why they are buying new Airtel cards – they are responding to the boycott/resist call,” while keeping their Safaricom lines, said the saleslady.
Ahmed, who I met in Eastleigh, told me that he had recently bought an Airtel card, “because I decided to heed Raila’s call of boycotting some of these consumer products. But I will be honest with you: I will not abandon my Safaricom card – I need it for my M-Pesa transactions. He did not give us a viable option, Airtel is not the option for now – its network system for money transfer is hopelessly inefficient. If Airtel would improve on its money transfer system, I would be the first one to move.”
Airtel has been recruiting massively to beef up the number of its agents countrywide. “One of Airtel’s weakest marketing link has been its inadequate agents to push their products,” said Peter Achayo, a marketing consultant. “Now they have begun advertising aggressively in Nairobi and the other major towns. It is evident they are experiencing a windfall.” Achayo said that part of the reason why Safaricom has been successful is because of its army of agents nationwide. “Agents give your products visibility and generate market competition, which ensures your products are moving fast.”
Like Bina, the saleslady at Garissa Lodge said that the Airtel money transfer system was grossly incompetent. “That is why many people who would gladly want to wholly migrate to Airtel will not: what they are doing is keeping their Safaricom sim card intact specifically for M-Pesa transactions and buying a cheaper non-smartphone phone for their Airtel line.”
Achayo said he had been conducting an impromptu survey to gauge to what extent people had moved from Safaricom to Airtel. “The entire WhatsApp NASA fraternities have changed their mobile numbers to Airtel. I have gone through nearly all the Opposition coalition groups’ on social media, which have members running into their thousands – Airtel fell on a windfall, like manna from heaven, without spending a penny doing any marketing promotion. Safaricom may pretend the shift, however slight it may be, has not affected them, but it sure like hell is feeling the heat.”
Six years ago, Gor Mahia Football Club, named after the famous Luo medicine man and magician, was looking for a sponsor after Brookside Dairy terminated its contract with the club after two years. The premier league soccer club with a fan base across Kenya, whose base support lies among the passionate Luo people, sought Safaricom’s sponsorship.
“My customers warned me I would be playing with fire if they found me selling Brookside. They have formed a vigilante group made of youths who are now moving from shop to shop to detect who is flouting the boycott.”
Its argument was simple and straightforward: We are a leading football club in Kenya and our major colour is green, which is also the brand colour of Safaricom. The club’s management argued that if Safaricom sponsors them, it would be a win-win for both: Safaricom would enjoy enhanced visibility with the green and white matching colours of the two brands, while the club would gain access to much needed financial help. Safaricom dithered and did not consider the offer.
“Safaricom is today regretting not jumping at the offer,” whispered a senior sales and marketing manager at the telecommunications company. Faced with a marketing boycott, the company is now facing the threat of a dent in its profits and market share, which could result in a collision with its major shareholders. Safaricom has been mulling over how to now approach Gor Mahia.
The company is in a dilemma: If they show interest now, it will be obvious they are responding to the boycott and the club may call its bluff and embarrass the company. If they continue dithering, without trying to woo the club, whose supporters are as passionate about football as they are about the opposition and its leader Raila Odinga, they may lose a chance to salvage their company’s reputation. The manager admitted that if Safaricom had agreed to sponsor the club, it would have been difficult and perhaps unlikely that Raila would have asked his supporters to boycott its products.
Camel milk in your tea?
Ahmed invited me for tea in one of the many Eastleigh restaurants that offer exquisite mouth-watering Somali cuisine. It provided me with the perfect opportunity to also ask him whether Eastleigh residents were boycotting Brookside Dairies’ milk. “Personally I take tea made with camel milk – it’s the best nutritionally and it is not overly skimmed,” Ahmed replied. He added that many Somali restaurants were increasingly turning to using camel milk in tea. “Eastleigh might not be the best place to gauge whether the Kenyatta family’s products are faring well or not,” he said. “There has been a deliberate effort by hoteliers and restauranteurs in Eastleigh and elsewhere where there are food outlets to promote camel milk.”
Camel milk is brought to Nairobi in trucks daily from Ilbisil, Isinya, Kitengela and Namanga towns where camel farming, specifically for milk production, is booming business. The milk is distributed to various hotels and restaurants in Eastleigh as well as in Nairobi’s central business district. Increasingly, camel tea is becoming popularly as an alternative to the usual cow milk that Kenyans are used to. A couple of years ago, if you had told Kenyans that camel milk was a practical alternative to what they are used to, they would have smirked, but today it is even sold in supermarkets.
Ahmed, who holds a PhD in Business Administration, told me people only change their habits when they are offered viable options that work just as well, or better. “As of now, Airtel is not that option, so naturally and ordinarily, what people do is such situations is they fall back to what is predictable and what they know best.”
The camel milk option among Kenyans will, in the fullness of time, become an acquired taste, said Ahmed, because just as cow milk is an acquired taste, so too is camel milk. In any case, what cow milk offers, camel milk can offer too, if not better in terms of nutritional value and taste.
Eastmatt Supermarket is a mwananchi (common man’s) shoppers’ departmental store that has three outlets in the central business district. The biggest one is on Tom Mboya Street, across from the Nairobi County Fire Station. Every day before 9.00 a.m., the supermarket receives 100 crates of Brookside Dairies milk products, namely, Brookside, Delamere, Ilara, Molo and Tuzo. A couple of years ago, Brookside Dairies, which is owned by the Kenyatta family, bought out Delamere Milk, which was formerly owned by the Delamere family that is domiciled at Elementaita in Naivasha.
A supervisor told this writer that the supermarket receives 20 crates each of each brand, that is, a total 100 crates every day. Each crate has 18 packets of milk, so it receive 1,800 packets of Brookside products daily. On a good day almost all the packets are sold.
However, in the days following NASA’s announcement of the boycott – which was aimed at hurting the Kenyatta family and its scion President Uhuru Kenyatta – the supermarket was left with a lot of unsold milk. Since the milk has an expiry date, it is the shelf manager’s job to ensure that all unsold milk approaching its expiry date (most expiry dates last three days) is returned to the company.
“Our sales seems to have stabilised somewhat, the boycott now is not as biting,” said the supervisor. Normally, by 8.30 p.m., the sales figures are reconciled and summed up. The day I visited the supermarket, the supervisor said they had 10 unsold crates. That month, Brookside had chosen to rebranded the Ilara brand. When I asked the shelf manager why Ilara milk had been repackaged, he was coy with the answer, only saying, “The company is responding to market demands.”
But if Brookside Dairies’ products have been jolted in the supermarkets, it is in the small retail outlets that the company has faced its greatest challenge. In the slums of Nairobi, from Baba Dogo, Gomongo, Huruma, Kibera to Kariobangi North, Mathare to Mlango Kubwa, Mukuru kwa Reuben, Lucky Summer and Riverside, shopkeepers have been warned to stock Brookside milk at their own risk. People in these areas, who make up NASA supporters in great numbers, have completely boycotted the milk.
Japwoyo, a shopkeeper in Kibera, near Ayany estate, the bastion of Raila’s support in Nairobi, said he had stopped accepting Brookside milk from his distributors. “My customers warned me I would be playing with fire if they found me selling Brookside. They have formed a vigilante group made of youths who are now moving from shop to shop to detect who is flouting the boycott.” Japwoyo said even the Brookside distributors are no longer bringing milk to Kibera in their lorries. “One distributor escaped with his dear life after he was accosted by the vigilante one early morning. He pleaded with them not harm him, and to take the milk and not burn his van. They obeyed, but just this one time.”
“Why Lato is sold in Kenya is ostensibly because Museveni and Brookside Dairies entered into a deal: The Kenyatta family is allowed to access the Uganda market, in return, Lato is allowed to penetrate the lucrative Kenyan market. It was a deal between two business entities and has got nothing to do with a bilateral agreement between two countries,” said my Ugandan friend.
In Kibera, people have taken to Lato milk. Lato is from Uganda and it has both fresh and the long life UHT (Ultra Heat Treatment) milk brands. Although it is manufactured all the way in Mbarara town in western Uganda, Lato UHT milk is 10 shillings cheaper than Brookside UHT. I called my friend from Mpigi in Uganda and enquired about Lato milk. She told me Lato was supposedly produced by President Yoweri Museveni’s company.
“Apart from keeping the cultural and traditional long horned Ankole cows, Museveni also keeps dairy cows in Mbarara. Why Lato is sold in Kenya is ostensibly because Museveni and Brookside Dairies entered into a deal: The Kenyatta family is allowed to access the Uganda market, in return, Lato is allowed to penetrate the lucrative Kenyan market. It was a deal between two business entities and has got nothing to do with a bilateral agreement between two countries,” said my Ugandan friend.
Jack Oduor, who lives in Riverside estate – which is ensconced between Mathare North and Baba Dogo – told me that Lato was selling like hot cakes in these adjoining areas. “My shopkeeper at Riverside is a guy from the Jubilee supporting community. He was warned not to annoy the residents by stocking Brookside milk. The shopkeeper had to extend the warning to his distributors.”
In Riverside, Mathare North, Baba Dogo and Lucky Summer, sales of Brookside milk have suffered, said Jack, who has been doing his own random survey in these areas to find out whether the boycott has been effective. “The truth of the matter is the boycott has been biting,” said Jack. “In these areas, there are boycott vigilante youth groups, whose task is to ensure that Brookside milk is not sold in the shops.”
Just for the record, the boycott is not only confined to Nairobi’s ghettoes. Dan Shikanda, who was Peter Kenneth’s running mate in the city’s gubernatorial election in August, lives and runs a shop in Nyayo estate, a middle-class suburb in Embakasi area, 12km southeast of Nairobi. Once a famous footballer who played for AFC Leopards, Shikanda is also a medical doctor-cum-politician. Shikanda’s customers in the larger Nyayo estate told him that if he wanted to keep them as his loyal customers, he should “re-stock” his shop. Translation: Do not sell Brookside milk.
“Like Airtel, Pwani Oil, Kapa Oil Refineries and Menegai Oil companies have Raila to thank,” said a Bidco sales and marketing manager, who requested anonymity to safeguard his job. “Let me tell you just how bad things are at Bidco: The company has had to do two things quickly to reposition itself: suspend the launch of a new product and do something that we have never done before – enter into sports sponsorship.”
In other multi-cultural and multi-ethnic suburban areas like Buru Buru, Donholm, Umoja, Jacaranda, Greenview Innercore, all in Eastlands, plus Kitengela and Ongata Rongai in Kajiado County, shoppers have found a way to boycott, Safaricom, Brookside and Bidco companies’ products. “We have gone ethnic: we Luhyas in Buru Buru Phase 1 have opted to buy from our Luhya shopkeepers, because we know they will not stock these products. The same goes for the Kisiis and Kambas.” In Kitengela and Ongata areas, where the Kisii diaspora mostly live, my friends in those areas told said that it is a strategy they had also opted for: “Just buying from shopkeepers from our own ethnic communities.”
These boycott warnings are not without their dire consequences. Three weeks ago in Mbita, Homa Bay County, a Brookside milk distributor was nearly lynched for showing up with his canter truck. Confronted by a rowdy vigilante mob, the driver, a Luo, was spared his life because he spoke the youth’s language. Evans Otieno, who runs a retail shop at Katitu on the Katitu-Kendu Bay Road opposite the Sondu Miriu power plant, told me that what saved the distributor’s life was that he was one of their own. “But he was given a stern warning not to be seen distributing Brookside milk in that area.” Of course, the vigilantes emptied the canter truck of all its milk. Otieno himself received the same warning from the vigilante youth group: “I cannot sell or stock Brookside milk.”
Brookside Dairy not only sells fresh and long shelf life milk, but each of its five brands have an accompanying yoghurt product: so there is Brookside Yoghurt, Delamere Yoghurt, Ilara Yoghurt, Molo Yoghurt, and Tuzo Yoghurt. Brookside Dairies’ yoghurt products have not also been spared the boycott – and nowhere has this been felt more than on the Nakuru-Naivasha Highway.
This highway is mostly used by long-distance buses and shuttles going to western Kenya and all the way to the Kenya-Uganda-Tanzania borders. Many of the travellers are destined for Busia, Bungoma, Homa Bay, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Kitale, Luanda, Malaba, Mbale, Migori, Oyugis and Rongo, among other smaller towns. In western Kenya, these towns form the bedrock of NASA’s support.
At the Gilgil weigh bridge 110km from Nairobi city centre, the buses and the shuttles have to slow down as they file in a queue as the 24-wheel trucks get weighed. Over time, the toll station and weigh bridge have become places that sell Delamare yoghurt and other Brookside yoghurts. Roving yoghurt traders and hawkers have become famous at this Gilgil weigh bridge stop, where they usually do roaring business selling cold fresh yoghurts to travellers. But since the boycott, the hawkers have decried their plummeting sales. “The travellers have been boycotting the yoghurts,” said Edward Okul who lives in Nakuru, and who plies that route between Nairobi and Nakuru every week.
Bidco Industries, which has its main offices in Thika town in Kiambu County, has also been suffering as a result of the boycott. A market leader in manufacturing cooking oil (both liquid and solid) and laundry soaps – known in the consumer market as domestic consumables – Bidco is now having to contend with a sustained onslaught from other market competitors.
Bidco produces more than 10 brands of cooking oil, such as the popular Elianto, Gold Fry, Soya Gold and Yellow Gold and cooking fats aimed at low-income households, such as Chipsy, Chipo, Mallo, Kimbo and Cowboy.
The boycott caught the company flatfooted. “Like Airtel, Pwani Oil, Kapa Oil Refineries and Menegai Oil companies have Raila to thank,” said a Bidco sales and marketing manager, who requested anonymity to safeguard his job. “Let me tell you just how bad things are at Bidco: The company has had to do two things quickly to reposition itself: suspend the launch of a new product and do something that we have never done before – enter into sports sponsorship.”
In the face of a sudden stiff competition amid a dipping market, Bidco Industries halted the launch of a carbonated drink that was to be unleashed in this quarter of the festive season. It also entered into a sports sponsorship deal with the rugby team Kenya Sevens.”
Bidco Industries has divided its Kenya market into three regions: Nairobi, western and coast regions. “All the regions are suffering,” said the manager, who oversees one of the regions. But your guess is as good as mine about which regions are suffering most, Coast and western regions, of course.”
Just after the announcement of the boycott, the sole distributor of Bidco products in western Kenya pulled out. Junet Mohammed, the MP for Suna East constituency in Migori, a great friend and supporter of Raila Odinga, said he could not continue with the distribution no matter however lucrative it was.
The western region begins at Flyover 60kms from Nairobi city centre and covers the region that stretches all the way to Busia, Malaba (Kenya-Uganda border) and Sirare (Kenya-Tanzania) border towns. This market, particularly, the fried fish business mainly concentrated on the Busia-Muhuru Bay along Lake Victoria – commonly knowns as the fish belt market – is key to Bidco Industries’ sales of its cooking oil products. “The fried fish business run by women is big time in western Kenya. Bidco had managed to convince the women that we have the best cooking oil for frying fish,’ said the Bidco manager.
Just after the announcement of the boycott, the sole distributor of Bidco products in western Kenya pulled out. Junet Mohammed, the MP for Suna East constituency in Migori, a great friend and supporter of Raila Odinga, said he could not continue with the distribution no matter however lucrative it was. He recalled all his trucks, which today are packed back in Migori town, which has been his home since the family emigrated from the border town of Mandera 30 years ago. “Our competitors are zeroing in hard and quick on us. It is a huge market that no company can afford to lose,” admitted the Bidco manager.
The same story is replicating itself in the coast where Bidco oils have been used to fry fish and make mahamri, a sweet doughnut that is popular in the region. Bidco’s woes are accentuated by the fact that Pwani Oil and Kapa Oil Refineries are based in Mombasa. Pwani Oil products include Fresh Fri, Fry Mate, Mpishi poa and Salit, while Kapa Oil Refineries manufactures Rina. “Bidco is seriously thinking of revising its prices in the hard hit regions as a way of stemming the slipping market to the competitors,” said the manager.
In Nairobi’s slums, most Bidco oil products are also used by traders who make chapati, fry chips, mandazi (a delicacy similar to mahamri) and fish. “These chapatis, chips and mandazi are daily delicacies that are consumed by low-income people at very friendly prices, so what we did, we tailored a cooking fat that is cost effective,” said the manager. “We had penetrated this market – from the frying fish business of Gikomba Market to these feisty small time traders of Congo, Kariobangi, Korogocho, Kibera, Mathare and Mukuru slums.”
It is still too early to conclusively tell if the boycott, called barely a month ago, has thrown these companies’ products off-balance. But as Ahmed of Eastleigh reminded me, habits are acquired and learned and people can be taught to appreciate new tastes.
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Kenya Chooses Its Next Chief Justice
The search for Kenya’s next Chief Justice that commenced Monday will seek to replace Justice David Maraga, who retired early this year, has captured the attention of the nation.
Since Monday, the 12th of April 2021, interviews to replace retired Chief Justice David Maraga for the post of the most important jurist in Kenya and the president of the Supreme Court have been underway.
The Judiciary is one of the three State organs established under Chapter 10, Article 159 of the Constitution of Kenya. It establishes the Judiciary as an independent custodian of justice in Kenya. Its primary role is to exercise judicial authority given to it, by the people of Kenya.
The institution is mandated to deliver justice in line with the Constitution and other laws. It is expected to resolve disputes in a just manner with a view to protecting the rights and liberties of all, thereby facilitating the attainment of the ideal rule of law.
The man or woman who will take up this mantle will lead the Judiciary at a time when its independence and leadership will be paramount for the nation. He or she will be selected by the Judicial Service Commission in a competitive process.
KWAMCHETSI MAKOKHA profiles the ten candidates shortlisted by the JSC.
IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
Stabilisation, liberalisation, deregulation, and privatisation: what do these four pillars of structural adjustment augur for Kenya’s beleaguered public health sector?
The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.
Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.
In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.
My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.
Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.
When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.
Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.
According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?
Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.
Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.
The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”
The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”
With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.
A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”
The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.
The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.
However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”
These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.
With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.
#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.
Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.
But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.
East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.
In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.
Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.
Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.
In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:
We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.
In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”
If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?
Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.
A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.
Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.
Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.
The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”
But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)
Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.
Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”
What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.
Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.
Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.
While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.
As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.
But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.
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