Universal health coverage is by many measures considered to be the Holy Grail of delivering quality healthcare. In fact, achieving universal health coverage by 2030 – ensuring that all people have access to the health services they need without the risk of financial hardship – was included as part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the United Nations in 2015. Writing a year later, Marie-Paule Kieny, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO), described it as “the linchpin of the health-related SDGs; the one target that, if achieved, will help deliver all the others by providing both population- and person-centred high-quality services that are free at the point of delivery and designed to meet the realities of different people’s lives.” WHO estimates that about 150 million people around the world suffer financial catastrophe annually from out-of-pocket expenditure on health services, while 100 million people are pushed below the poverty line.
According to the 2013 Kenya Household Health Expenditure and Utilisation Survey, medical expenses account for more than 40 per cent of non-food bills in over half the counties in the country.
In Kenya, though access to quality healthcare is a constitutional right, the scarcity of quality public and private health facilities, as well as the high cost of care even when it is available, means that universal health coverage remains little more than words on paper for much of the population. President Uhuru Kenyatta has made achieving universal health coverage by 2022 a major part of his second term agenda and indicated in his inauguration speech that this would be achieved by expanding coverage under the National Health Insurance Fund (NHIF). The president said that half a century after it was established in 1966, the Fund has only attracted 6.8 million beneficiaries. The World Bank estimates that only a fifth of Kenyans have any sort of medical cover, which means that as many as 35 million Kenyans are vulnerable to the financial devastation occasioned by a medical emergency.
Related stories: Behind the Makueni Healthcare Revolution
When illness eventually strikes, it takes a huge financial toll. According to the 2013 Kenya Household Health Expenditure and Utilisation Survey, medical expenses account for more than 40 per cent of non-food bills in over half the counties in the country. In fact, direct payments by citizens accounted for a third of the country’s total health expenditure in the same year, according to Dr. Izaaq Odongo, the head of the Department of Curative and Rehabilitative Health Services at the Ministry of Health, with the balance being made up by government (36 per cent), donors (20 perc ent) and employers (10 per cent). As a result, many Kenyans are forced to resort to selling off property, relying on networks of relatives and friends, or even making desperate appeals on social media to raise the necessary funds. Hence the large, and seemingly never-ending appeals all Kenyans make when clearing medical bills. Despite this, according World Bank Country Director, Diarietou Gaye, the number of those thrust into poverty by medical expenses is close to one million.
Kenya’s network of public healthcare facilities has traditionally been hierarchically organised into 6 levels, with the lowest unit being community health workers embedded within communities. At level 2, dispensaries and clinics provide the link between community-based healthcare and the formal health system. Together with level 3 facilities – health centres, maternity clinics and nursing homes – these make up the primary healthcare units. Levels 4-6 are sub-county, county and national referral hospitals. It is at the lower levels that the majority of people interact with the healthcare system and it especially at the primary healthcare facilities that national government interventions with regard to cost have been most consequential.
Since independence, Kenya has blown hot and cold on the abolition of user fees and decentralisation, both of which, given the economic circumstances of most Kenyans as well as the devolution introduced by the 2010 constitution, are prerequisites for universal health coverage. In 1965, according to the paper “Reforming health systems: The role of NGOs in decentralization – lessons from Kenya and Ethiopia by Richard G. Wamai of the Harvard School of Public Health, “a free access policy abolished the KSh5 co-payment operative in the colonial healthcare system… [and] proposed expanding coverage through centralizing the delivery responsibilities from the counties and municipalities to the Ministry of Health”. Eighteen years later, the provision of health services was again decentralised as part of the District Focus for Rural Development programme and in December 1989, user fees were reintroduced in an effort to inject money into crumbling health facilities. The “cost-sharing” programme was part of a comprehensive health financing strategy that also included social insurance, efficiency measures and private sector development. The fees would, the argument went, generate additional revenue, incentivise use of low-cost primary healthcare services rather than the more expensive referral facilities and improve targeting of resources by reducing unnecessary demand.
Still, implementation problems led to the suspension of the policy less than a year later though it was gradually reintroduced in 1991. A 1996 study found that despite revenue increases and facilities being allowed to budget for three-quarters of the money they remitted to the districts, this did not necessarily result in improved quality of care because the funds were used to offset a fall in government funding for basic care. As evidence mounted that despite a waiver policy to protect the poor and children under five, user fees were proving to be a significant barrier to access, the government – in what came to be known as the 10/20 policy – again reversed course and in 2004 eliminated all fees in dispensaries and health centres, save for a minimum registration fee of KSh10 and KSh20, respectively. By 2007, it had instituted a maternity waiver allowing for free deliveries in public health facilities and introduced the Health Sector Service Fund (HSSF) to compensate these facilities for lost revenue.
Since October 2014, Makueni has been offering its one million residents free healthcare across all its public facilities, including county and sub-county hospitals.
However, as a study published in 2015 showed, this was largely ignored by health facilities for whom user fees represented almost all the cash income they used to cover basic operating costs. As a result, most patients ended up being charged for more than the specified amount while very few received waivers. In 2013, the government abolished all user fees in public dispensaries and health centres and allocated KSh 700 million to the HSSF.
The picture was further complicated by the fact that health is one of the services devolved by the 2010 constitution. This means that while the national government is still responsible for policy and managing two Level 5 referral facilities, namely, the Kenyatta National Hospital and the Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital, the bulk of public healthcare in Kenya is delivered in facilities run by county governments. A history of skewed investment that marginalised some counties, as well as the lack of policy coordination between the various counties and between the counties and the national government, have left a rather confused picture of access to healthcare across the country.
There have, however, been some wins. For the first time since independence, residents of historically marginalised counties, such as Lamu and Mandera, now have access to Caesarean section procedures within their county. There have been problems too: from the controversy arising from the national government forcing counties to lease equipment they neither wanted nor had the resources to use, to ambulance purchases that seemed more about burnishing a governors’ image than delivering care to constituents, to the First Lady’s much trumpeted Beyond Zero initiative that today is in shambles, with many of the facilities either abandoned or turning patients away.
The Makueni model
Nonetheless, an ambitious experiment in the provision of universal health coverage is underway in Makueni, a county that borders Kajiado, Machakos, Kitui and Taita-Taveta counties. Since October 2014, Makueni has been offering its one million residents free healthcare across all its public facilities, including county and sub-county hospitals. It is a model well worth examining if President Kenyatta is serious about expanding access to medical care across the country.
“When we took over in 2013, we realised that 40 per cent of the people of Makueni would sell land and exhaust family income to pay medical bills for relatives,” says Makueni’s Governor, Prof. Kivutha Kibwana. Given that medical services in dispensaries and health centres were already free and paid for by the national government, the county government figured that if it doubled the 100 million that its Level 4 sub-county hospitals were collecting in user fees, it could offer free, across the board healthcare to its residents.
Thus MakueniCare, as the county government has labelled it, was conceived. It piggybacks on the national government’s free primary healthcare policy and the national coverage provided by NHIF to plug the gap in between with the aim of providing seamless cover across all public health services.
Thus, for an annual subscription of KSh500 per household, which covers parents and all their children under the age of 18 years (or up to 24 years in case of students), Makueni residents can access free primary healthcare at dispensaries and health centres courtesy of the national government, free treatment, including inpatient care and ambulatory services, at the 13 level 4 hospitals within the county paid for by the county government, and, if they’re subscribed to NHIF, free care at referral facilities outside the county. The Level 4 hospitals provide free care and bill the county government, which also supplies them as well as the primary healthcare facilities with drugs, equipment and medical staff.
However, universal health coverage is more than eliminating out-of-pocket expenditure; it is also about ensuring access to healthcare. According to Dr. Cyrus Matheka, the head of the county’s Health Promotion Services, MakueniCare took two years to plan and was preceded and piloted by a programme offering free care to those over the age of 65 without a requirement for registration. Within that time, the county government invested in expanding facilities, from dispensaries and health centres to sub-county hospitals, and has continued to do so. In under five years, it has more than doubled the number of health facilities built by the colonial and national governments over the last 50 years. Apart from an additional 113 dispensaries and health centers, the county now boasts 13 Level 4 hospitals and has employed 160 doctors, compared to just 38 doctors and 3 hospitals in 2013. At KSh2.3 billion, health is the county’s single largest budget item.
All this means that the county can offer a wide array of free services to residents, from hospital admission, surgical procedures, X-ray imaging, laboratory testing, to dental and counselling services. Even in death, patients benefit from 10 days of free mortuary services. However, the cover does not apply to specialised care and equipment that are not available at the hospitals, including dialysis for patients suffering from kidney failure, intensive care units, implants, as well as auxiliary devices, such as wheelchairs.
Insurance schemes are essentially funds where people pay into a pool when they are healthy – in this case through both taxes and direct contributions – which they can draw on when sick. The Makueni recruitment model reversed this, thus courting adverse selection, or the tendency of people to get insurance only when they are seriously sick, which can consume huge resources.
Dr. Andrew Mutava Mulwa, the County Minister of Health, estimates that MakueniCare covers at least 93 per cent of the county’s healthcare needs. He says it is built on a platform of ensuring adequate provision of primary care by increasing facilities, improving services and ensuring that medicines are available. “Someone who is sorted at the dispensary will not find their way to the hospital,” he says, adding that only 35 per cent of patients in Makueni need to seek care in the secondary institutions covered by MakueniCare or in tertiary referral facilities outside the county.
However, the programme has had its share of challenges. The first, rather surprisingly, was low uptake. In March last year, when The Elephant visited Makueni, less than 10,000 households had signed up for the programme out of a potential 200,000. The scheme had a mere 30,000 beneficiaries. Part of the reason for this was the decisions taken to make the coverage voluntary, to register subscribers at county hospitals when they sought care and to make the cover active immediately upon registration and payment. Initially there did not seem to be much of a public campaign to get residents to register: there were no posters announcing the programme in all the hospitals The Elephant visited and, despite officials claiming to advertise on vernacular radio, most residents we spoke to had not heard about MakueniCare.
Julia Musau of Kaselia village, who we met at the Tawa Sub-County Hospital, is a typical case. She had been unaware of the scheme until a month prior to our visit. She found out about it after she took a patient to the Makueni General Hospital in Wote, and had difficulty settling the bill. It was another woman whose child had been admitted there who told her about MakueniCare. That was when she enrolled her family immediately.
However, even those who know about it opt to wait till they or their dependents get ill to register since there is no penalty as the cover is activated immediately and registration is done at the hospitals, anyway. This made registration vulnerable to industrial action by medical personnel. For example, during the nationwide strikes, first by doctors and then nurses, fewer people went to the hospitals as there was little expectation of receiving care. In any case, According to Dr. Matheka, less than 5 per cent of the county’s population seeks medical care at any one time, and many of these are over the age of 65, a group that already enjoys free care. This means registration will inevitably be slow unless there is a serious epidemic.
The Makueni model also faces other challenges. Insurance schemes are essentially funds where people pay into a pool when they are healthy – in this case through both taxes and direct contributions – which they can draw on when sick. The Makueni recruitment model reversed this, thus courting adverse selection, or the tendency of people to get insurance only when they are seriously sick, which can consume huge resources. This brings into question the sustainability of the programme. However, in more recent times, according to Wambua Kawive, a former Makueni County Minister, the county government has ramped up its recruitment efforts and has now launched a mass registration exercise targeting 100,000 registrations by the end of the year.
Another challenge the system needed to cope with was an initial influx of patients into hospitals once the policy was implemented. Tawa Sub-County Hospital Administrator, Justus Kilonzo, told The Elephant that the workload at the hospital had increased, which necessitated the recruitment of more staff. Further, there has been an influx of people from neighbouring counties who sought to take advantage of the system. Geoffrey Kirui, the Health Administrative Officer at Makindu Hospital next to the busy Nairobi-Mombasa highway, spoke about having to filter out patients from other counties, especially Taita Taveta, Kajiado and Kitui. Still, trying to determine someone’s place of residence using identification cards, birth certificates and a ward administrator’s or chief’s letter is an inexact science and one gets the sense that this too was not well thought through.
MakueniCare also faces a hazard where, having paid the subscription, patients will head to the hospital for even minor complaints that can be addressed at lower levels, adding stresses to the system. They may also engage in risky behaviour knowing that there is the safety net of free care. Such behaviour may be inadvertently complemented by a shift in focus from preventative to curative care by hospitals seeking to generate more revenue and county officials seeking to make political hay from the scheme.
The latter is particularly important. It is crucial to note that MakueniCare is undergirded by an administrative structure that was created to deliver a different type of healthcare where users contributed directly. Suddenly eliminating such fees can have unintended deleterious effects on both the facilities and their ability to deliver quality services. One study on the effect of the removal of user fees found that although the revenue generated was generally low, it served to ensure that facilities met the costs of services and salaries for support staff not directly funded through the government’s budget.
There is also a legitimate fear that the political priority placed on MakueniCare may be diverting resources from primary and preventative care at the health centre and dispensary levels.
In Makueni, a doctor-turned-administrator who did not want to be named told The Elephant that MakueniCare had created a mismatch of skills, with doctors having to do administrative tasks rather than attend to patients. When MakueniCare was first proposed, the doctor told us, there was much resistance from hospitals, which were concerned about the lack of a clear system as well as lack of necessary training and preparation. “Why the rush to launch in October 2016?” asked the doctor, concluding that the timing had largely been influenced by the interests of county politicians vying in the August general election.
MakueniCare essentially transfers control over funds and decision-making away from hospitals to bureaucrats at county headquarters in Wote town. Hospitals not only have to worry about delays in receiving reimbursements for resources spent in providing care – which can happen if, for example, the national government delays disbursements to the county governments – but also about losing their largely autonomous decision-making power on the equipment they need to procure and the staff they need to recruit. Similarly, where and when new facilities are built may reflect more the political priorities of those running the county government rather than the genuine health needs of the populace. Lastly, as with all government-driven procurement decisions, the spectre of corruption is never far away.
There is also a legitimate fear that the political priority placed on MakueniCare may be diverting resources from primary and preventative care at the health centre and dispensary levels. Ilatu dispensary, which was built by the Kenya Pipeline Company and opened in March 2014, may be a case in point. In September 2015, the facility was handed over to the county government that provided staff and equipment. Adjacent to a settlement scheme, it is the busiest facility in Kibwezi West and offers outpatient, maternal and child health, family planning as well as HIV testing and counselling services. The staff of two nurses and one laboratory technologist attend to between 70 and 100 patients every day. The county government is upgrading it to a health centre and building a 40-bed inpatient facility.
Jacinta Mbula is the nurse in-charge. She says staffing and resources are big challenges. When The Elephant visited the facility, her fellow nurse was on maternity leave and she was running the facility on her own. She said that there is only enough accommodation for one nurse to stay at the facility and take care of overnight maternity cases, and that nurse still has to report to work the next day. Although they receive adequate supplies of essential medicines from the county government, they do sometimes run out of non-essential drugs.
Further, she only gets KSh60,000 – “peanuts” – every quarter from the county government to pay casual labourers and purchase essential supplies. She currently employs one casual worker and one watchman but says she actually needs – but cannot afford – two casuals and a groundsman to manage the 10-acre facility. And because it was not built by the national government, the dispensary is not entitled to access the HSSF, despite its workload, though other less busy facilities do. Ilatu does, however receive, as all facilities do, reimbursement from the national government for maternal deliveries –KSh2,500 each.
Dr. Matheka says the average distance to a health facility has been nearly halved, from 9km to 5km in the last 4 years. However, having more facilities will not necessarily improve health outcomes for the people of Makueni if the quality of care they provide begins to decline as a result of underinvestment.
So as the county keeps building more dispensaries and health centres, questions must be asked about whether underfunded facilities can truly serve as the bedrock for universal health coverage even though access has been improved. Dr. Matheka says the average distance to a health facility has been nearly halved, from 9km to 5km in the last 4 years. However, having more facilities will not necessarily improve health outcomes for the people of Makueni if the quality of care they provide begins to decline as a result of underinvestment. Further, especially as the county expands the number of Level 4 hospitals, one must wonder whether this is being done at the expense of funding primary healthcare.
Makueni officials say some of the potential pitfalls are ameliorated by enhancing public participation. Governor Kibwana says local committees of citizens participate in co-supervision of projects and must, along with technical people and administrators, give approval. This, Kawive asserts, removes politics from the equation and makes bureaucrats and hospital administrators directly accountable to citizens. While it is definitely a good idea to involve local communities, true accountability must be accompanied by real access to information as well as consequences for those who are implicated in wrongdoing.
Though MakueniCare faces its share of challenges, everyone The Elephant spoke with in Makueni who was aware of the programme was full of praise for its ambition, including those who were critical of its implementation. The fact is, as Kenya ponders the way to achieve universal health coverage, the country would do well to pay attention to the lessons from Makueni. The expansion of NHIF cover by itself will not suffice; the national government must work with county governments to outline a plan that creates a seamless spectrum of cover at every level of care and provides the necessary resources at the appropriate time.
Further, there should be horizontal cooperation among counties in providing healthcare and any plan must strive for equity but without punishing the counties that have taken serious strides. Criteria for eligibility for county programmes should be clearly spelt out and counties should be encouraged to collaborate in designing their schemes within the framework of the national plan.
Thirdly, the system should primarily invest in and direct resources towards building the capacities of the public health sector, not in creating opportunities to generate private profits. It should embrace a rights-based approach that seeks to deal with health as a human right rather than an industry. That shifts the focus away from the needs of “investors” to those of citizens. As Ann Wanyoike notes, “an expanded role for the private sector became a health sector reform theme of the 1990s” but this resulted in “a dichotomous health structure that was characterised by the rich opting for high-cost private healthcare providers, with a majority of the populace who had no such means relying on the publicly run health institutions”. This means that those who can contribute the most to a national universal health coverage scheme have little incentive to do so, especially if such contributions are voluntary. More on that later.
In addition, it does no good to simply superimpose universal health coverage on a system designed for hospitals to generate revenue. The latter must be fundamentally retooled to suit the former and this will take both time and resources.
Fourth, the plan must prioritise prevention and care at the lower levels. In 2013, according to the Kenya Service Availability and Readiness Assessment Mapping report, less than 6 out of 10 health facilities in the country have the capacity to provide the Kenya Essential Package for Health (KEPH) – a standardised comprehensive package of health services – and less than half have the basic amenities to provide healthcare services. And while two-thirds have half the basic equipment required, 59 per cent do not have essential medicines. Only 2 per cent of facilities are providing all KEPH services required to eliminate communicable diseases. Providing universal healthcare on such a foundation would be building on sand.
Universal healthcare requires a substantial increase in the resources both levels of government commit to health. The point is not that both levels of government should spend more on health at the expense of other social services; rather they should increase spending on the full range of human rights and social determinants of health. For example, Kenya’s Health Policy identifies reducing the burden of violence and injuries as one of the top objectives and notes that this will require addressing causes. Given that road crashes account for between 45 and 60 per cent of all admissions to surgical wards, comprehensively addressing the problems on our roads would free up considerable resources in the health sector.
According to Djesika Amendah, an associate research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, Kenya spends most of its health budget on salaries, allowances, drug supplies and other recurrent costs; only 7 per cent of the budget goes towards capital expenditure to improve the quality of healthcare by building new facilities or purchasing equipment to care for more people in the future.
How the money that is allocated to the health sector and how it is spent should also change. According to Djesika Amendah, an associate research scientist at the African Population and Health Research Centre, Kenya spends most of its health budget on salaries, allowances, drug supplies and other recurrent costs; only 7 per cent of the budget goes towards capital expenditure to improve the quality of healthcare by building new facilities or purchasing equipment to care for more people in the future.
In addition, the country spends nearly four times as much on curative care as it does on disease prevention and “we devote a higher share of our health shillings (20 per cent) on governance, health system and financing administration; in other words, paying people in the ministries of health who actually do not see any patients rather than spending money on preventing diseases or promoting health.” Further, although most Kenyans live in rural areas, government health expenditure has in the past tended to favour urban areas. Given the country’s limited resources, more prudence will need to be exercised if universal access to care is to be guaranteed to all.
Along the same lines, there should be an emphasis on getting Kenyans to pay into the system when they are healthy and not to wait till they get sick to get the cover. This also means making it easier for people to register and pay. For example, one can currently download a registration from the NHIF website but one then has to deliver it physically to their offices. There appears to be no way to pay via mobile money or credit/debit card. With nearly all Kenyans able to access the internet though their mobile phones, allowing online registrations and payments would be an easy way to bring in more registrations.
Further, whether the scheme should be voluntary or compulsory is a matter for serious debate. While Makueni’s system is completely voluntary, the NHIF is compulsory only for those in formal employment. Yet the WHO’s 2010 World Health Report titled “The Path to Universal Coverage” says that “there is strong evidence that raising funds through compulsory prepayment provides the most efficient and equitable path towards universal coverage. In the countries that have come closest to achieving universal health coverage, prepayment is the norm, organised though general taxation and/or compulsory contributions to health insurance.”
Makueni teaches us that universal health coverage is doable and that we do not need to have the resources of an industrialised country to achieve it.
There is also the question of whether, like in Makueni, everyone pays the same amount regardless of income, and whether wealthier people are asked to pay a little bit more in order to lighten the load on the poor. As the WHO notes, “financial risk protection is determined by how funds are raised and whether and how they are pooled to spread risks across population groups” and “rais[ing] funds equitably … usually implies a degree of progressivity (where the rich contribute a higher proportion of their income than the poor)”. The NHIF, rather strangely, only has a graduated scale for contributions from those in formal employment; others who join pay a flat monthly fee regardless of income. This is curious for a country where, according to the United Nations’ Economic Commission for Africa, only a quarter of workers are in the formal sector.
Fifth, accountability must permeate the entire system. Implementation of the scheme should not become, as we have seen with the free primary education reintroduced in 2003 and the Standard Gauge Railway, hostage to political priorities. Kenyans must accept that if it is to be done well, it will not be done overnight. Public participation at every stage should be encouraged and resources, especially human resources, should be utilised in the most appropriate and effective manner. Effective public participation as well as transparency will be indispensable if the country is to avoid universal health coverage becoming another avenue for looting by the state.
While universal health coverage focuses on reducing the financial burdens of patients, more will be required if access to the healthcare system is to be expanded. As the World Health Report notes, “eliminating direct payments will not necessarily guarantee financial access to health services, while eliminating direct payments only in government facilities may do little to improve access or reduce financial catastrophe in some countries. Transport and accommodation costs also prevent poor people using services, as do non-financial barriers, such as restrictions on women travelling alone, the stigma attached to some medical conditions and language barriers.”
Finally, Makueni teaches us that universal health coverage is doable and that we do not need to have the resources of an industrialised country to achieve it. All that is needed is a belief that Kenya should be run for the benefit of all Kenyans and that Kenyans are just as capable as any other people of imagining and creating better worlds and better futures. This may be the greatest lesson we can learn from Makueni County.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Congo-Brazzaville Strongman Buys Secret Weapons Haul from Azerbaijan
Congo-Brazzaville’s repressive government has quietly bought an arsenal from Azerbaijan. Opponents of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso say one recent cache is designed to tighten his grip on the nation.
In January 2020, at the Turkish port of Derince on the eastern shores of the Sea of Marmara, a huge cache of weapons was loaded onto the MV Storm. Registered in the tax haven of Vanuatu, the ship set sail with an arsenal of mortar shells, multiple launch rockets, and explosives, en route from Azerbaijan to the Republic of the Congo, better known as Congo-Brazzaville.
In total, more than 100 tons of weaponry wound its way to a building that appears to be the headquarters of Congo-Brazzaville’s elite Republican Guard, according to a confidential cargo manifest obtained by OCCRP. The cargo, estimated to be worth tens of millions of dollars, was just the latest in a series of at least 17 arms shipments sent by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense to the regime of President Denis Sassou-Nguesso since 2015, according to flight plans, cargo manifests, and weapons inventories obtained by OCCRP.
Saudi Arabia was listed as the “sponsoring party” on several of the cargo manifests reviewed by reporters. It’s unclear what that sponsorship entailed, but it could mean that Riyadh paid for the weapons or the cargo deliveries.
There are no public records of Azerbaijan exporting these weapons, and no similar records of Congo-Brazzaville importing them. The latest transfer has sparked opposition concerns that Sassou-Nguesso is prepared to use force if necessary to maintain power as the country’s March 21 election nears.
His well-armed security services are a key reason he has ruled the Central African country for 36 years, split between two separate terms, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. His party looms large over parliament, which recently changed the constitution to allow Sassou-Nguesso to run for office again, sparking local and international condemnation. The move means the 77-year-old could, in theory, run in every election for the rest of his life.
OCCRP has obtained confidential documents showing that in the eight months preceding the March 2016 election, and for over a year after it, Sassou-Nguesso’s security services bought more than 500 tons of arms from Azerbaijan in 16 separate shipments. Just weeks after the vote, the government began a brutal campaign against a militia from an opposition stronghold that lasted for more than a year.
Opposition leaders claim the Republican Guard used the Azerbaijani weapons in that post-election conflict, spurring a humanitarian emergency which the United Nations said affected around 140,000 people in the region of Pool, in the country’s south. Satellite imagery obtained by international media outlet The New Humanitarian appears to show widespread destruction caused by weapons like rocket launchers and explosives. (There is no way to be certain that these weapons were from Azerbaijan, since Congo-Brazzaville does not declare its arms imports.)
Since 2015, Congo-Brazzaville has bought a huge weapons stockpile from Azerbaijan, with over 500 tons of weapons delivered to the country in multiple shipments.
Sassou-Nguesso’s regime is facing one of Africa’s most severe debt crises, raising questions about how these arms shipments have been financed. Documents show that at least two consignments delivered between 2016 and 2017 were sponsored by Saudi Arabia, at a time when Riyadh was vetting Congo-Brazzaville’s application to join the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Given Congo-Brazzaville’s significant oil reserves, the kingdom had an incentive to have a compliant Sassou-Nguesso government in the Saudi-dominated club, according to leading arms expert Andrew Feinstein, author of The Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade.
The world’s biggest arms importer, Saudi Arabia is also an unremorseful supplier of weapons to global conflict zones including Yemen, where it is fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.
Flight manifests list Saudi Arabia as a “sponsoring party” on multiple arms shipments to Congo-Brazzaville, dispatched in 2016 and 2017, as Congo-Brazzaville was on the verge of OPEC membership.
Described by critics as an oil cartel whose members must be compliant with Saudi output demands, OPEC helps the kingdom dominate global oil supply. The effect this has on oil prices, in turn, can boost petroleum revenues in member states.
OPEC’s 13 members include Africa’s biggest producers, Nigeria, Angola, and Algeria. Congo-Brazzaville, which eventually joined OPEC in 2018, would have been seen as a coveted member because it is one of the continent’s top oil producers, which gives OPEC even more heft.
Azerbaijan is not a full OPEC member but it is a significant oil producer.
Feinstein added that the latest Azerbaijan shipment could have been intended to give Sassou-Nguesso the arms to enforce his political will.
“The timing of this shipment is extremely suspicious, given Sassou-Nguesso’s previous crackdowns around elections,” he said. “The government is likely preparing to quash any dissent around the polls.”
A spokesman for Congo-Brazzaville’s government did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence did not respond to a reporter’s email seeking comment, and neither did a ministry representative listed on multiple documents. Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Defense did not respond to questions about the nature of their sponsorship of the arms deals.
Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso
The most recent weapons load, addressed to the Republican Guard at 1 Boulevard Denis Sassou-Nguesso in Brazzaville in January 2020, included 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of Soviet-era trucks, the confidential cargo manifest shows. The consignment from Azerbaijan was loaded onto the MV Storm at Derince, about 1,000 kilometers southeast of Istanbul.
The exact price paid by the Congolese regime for the arms shipment could not be verified, although an expert who examined the cargo manifests said it would be worth tens of millions of dollars. A former senior diplomat with access to information about arms inventories, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal from authorities, confirmed the authenticity of the cargo manifest and other documents and noted the sale price for the arms was likely well below market value.
The documents included end-user certificates, which are issued by the country importing the arms to certify the recipient does not plan to sell them onward.
In January 2020, more than 100 tons of weaponry was sent from Azerbaijan to Congo-Brazzaville’s Republican Guard, including 775 mortar shells and over 400 cases of rockets designed to be launched out of trucks.
Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said arms received at a discount are often either surplus weapons or those produced in Bulgaria or Serbia, which are both known for their cheap ordnance.
“It would be less likely that Congo-Brazzaville would be able to buy some of this equipment from … other European countries which have more restrictive arms export policies,” he said.
The Pool Offensive
The 100-ton shipment from Derince was significant, but separate documents reveal another arsenal sent from Azerbaijan between 2015 and 2017 that dwarfed it — and may have had terrifying consequences.
In total, over 500 tons of weapons, including hand grenades, mortar systems, and millions of bullets, were sent to Congo-Brazzaville in 16 shipments during those years, according to documents including inventories, end-user certificates, and cargo manifests obtained by reporters.
One end-user certificate shows five thousand grenades imported for the purposes of “training, anti-terrorism, security and stability operations.” It was signed by a special adviser to President Sassou-Nguesso on March 3, 2016, just days before the election.
After the vote, the opposition claimed the government had rigged the election in favor of Sassou-Nguesso, and unrest broke out in the capital, Brazzaville. The government blamed the unrest on a militia known as the Ninjas, made up of people mainly from the Lari ethnic group and based in the Pool region, which partially surrounds Brazzaville.
The weapons from Azerbaijan were then used, an opposition leader claims, to help fuel a prolonged armed conflict in Pool targeting the Ninjas. Amnesty International condemned the offensive as “an unlawful use of lethal force by the country’s security forces.” As the government pursued the Ninjas, witnesses to the carnage told Amnesty that dozens of bombs were dropped from helicopters, hitting a residential area and even a school.
“During the violence in Pool, the regime deployed a scorched earth strategy,” said Andréa Ngombet Malewa, leader of the Incarner l’Espoir political party. “The weapons that they bought from Azerbaijan went straight to that operation.”
The Baku-Brazzaville Connection
Azerbaijan has emerged as a key foreign ally of Congo-Brazzaville, providing its regime with discount arms and, perhaps more importantly, secrecy.
Buying from Ilham Aliyev, strongman of the notoriously opaque South Caucasus nation, Congo-Brazzaville could do so in the knowledge that the sales wouldn’t be reported.
Congo-Brazzaville has not reported any arms imports for more than three decades, and since there’s no arms embargo in place against the country, it isn’t required to do so. Nonetheless, a trail exists, with disclosures by other countries showing Sassou-Nguesso has been active in the arms market. In 2017, Serbia reported exporting 600 assault rifles to Congo-Brazzaville. Bulgaria sent 250 grenade launchers.
Opposition figures claim that previous shipments of weapons from Azerbaijan were used to fuel a brutal post-election offensive in 2016 that led to a humanitarian crisis.
But the Azeri weapons shipments have never been publicly reported, even though documentation seen by OCCRP shows Azerbaijan has been exporting lethal weapons to Sassou-Nguesso since at least as far back as September 2015. Some of the weapons were sourced from Transmobile, a Bulgarian company authorized to trade weapons for Azerbaijan, while others were bought from Yugoimport, a Serbian manufacturer. Neither company responded to requests for comment.
The first shipments of arms arrived in Brazzaville on Azerbaijani Air Force planes, but starting in 2017 a private carrier, Silk Way Airlines, began flying the weapons in instead. As a private carrier, Silk Way would have likely received less scrutiny than its military counterpart.
Silk Way is registered in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, and was previously linked to the Aliyev family. As well as previously winning lucrative contracts with the U.S. government to move ammunition and other non-lethal materials, Silk Way was found, in leaked correspondence reported by Bulgarian newspaper Trud, to have used flights with diplomatic clearance to secretly move hundreds of tons of weapons around the world, including to global conflict zones, between 2014 and 2017. The airline did not respond to a request for comment.
Braced for a Crackdown
As his regime heads to the polls on March 21, strongarm tactics mean Sassou-Nguesso is expected to win. He will reportedly face Mathias Dzon, his former finance minister from 1997 to 2002, and Guy-Brice Parfait Kolélas, who finished second in the 2016 presidential election, among others.
Saudi Arabia was listed as a “sponsoring party” in at least two arms consignments sent in 2016 and 2017, around the same time Congo-Brazzaville’s admittance to OPEC was being negotiated.
In 2016 he claimed 60 percent of the vote, with Kolélas securing just 15 percent. The U.S. slammed the government for “widespread irregularities and the arrests of opposition supporters.”
Experts don’t believe the opposition will fare any better this time around. Abdoulaye Diarra, a Central Africa Researcher for Amnesty International, said the government is carrying out a pre-election campaign of intimidation, harassment and arbitrary detention against its political opponents.
Fears that press freedom could be under threat ahead of the polls have risen after Raymond Malonga, a cartoonist known for satirical criticism of the authorities, was dragged from his hospital bed by plainclothes police at the beginning of February.
And now, the weapons haul from Azerbaijan has the opposition concerned about the prospect of violence around the polls.
“We are worried that the weapons that Sassou-Nguesso’s regime bought from Azerbaijan could be used to crack down on the opposition during the upcoming election,” said opposition leader Ngombet.
“They don’t want the world to see how much the Congolese people are eager for political change.”
Simon Allison, Sasha Wales-Smith, and Juliet Atellah contributed reporting.
A Class That Dare Not Speak Its Name: BBI and the Tyranny of the New Kenyan Middle Class
Even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised as a class with its own economic interests and one that holds contemptuous and racist views of Africans despite being made up of Africans.
Despite many Kenyans’ opposition to the Building Bridges Initiative there is a sense that politicians are moving with the project full steam ahead and there is nothing the people can do about it. More perplexing is the fact that with elections just over a year away, the fear of what supporting BBI could do to their political careers does not seem to faze the politicians. What explains this powerful force against democracy?
I argue here that the aspect of the BBI — and its charade of public participation — that most passes under silence is the role of the civil service and the intelligentsia. Behind the spectacle of car grants to members of the County Assemblies is an elite that is growing in influence and power, and is pulling the puppet strings of the political class. The bribery of MCAs would have been impossible without the civil service remitting public funds into their accounts. The president would not succeed in intimidating politicians if there were no civil servants — in the form of the police and prosecutors — to arrest politicians and charge them with corruption.
The academy’s contribution to the BBI has been in controlling the social discourse. The mere fact that it was written by PhD holders brought to the BBI an aura of technical expertise with its implied neutrality. Using this aspect of BBI, the media and academics tried to tone down the political agenda of the document. They demanded that discussion of the BBI remain within the parameters of academic discourse, bombarding opponents with demands of proof that they had read the document and exact quotations, refusing to accept arguments that went beyond the text to the politics and actors surrounding the initiative. Discussing the politics of BBI was dismissed as “irrelevant”.
Two cases, both pitting male academics against women citizens, illustrate this tyranny of technocracy and academics. In both cases, the professors implicitly appealed to sexist stereotypes by suggesting that the women were irrational or uninformed. In one debate in February last year, political science professor and vice-chair of the BBI task force, Adams Oloo, singled out Jerotich Seii as one of the many Kenyans who had “fallen into a trap” of restricting her reading of the document to only the two pages discussing the proposed prime minister’s post, while leaving out all the goodies promised in the rest of the document. Jerotich was compelled to reply, “I have actually read the entire document, 156 pages.”
Likewise, earlier this month, Ben Sihanya sat at a desk strewn with paper (to suggest an erudite demeanour) and spoke in condescending tones about Linda Katiba, which was being represented by Daisy Amdany. He harangued Linda Katiba as “cry babies”, demanded discussions based on constitutional sociology and political economy, and declared that no research and no citation of authorities meant “no right to speak”. He flaunted his credentials as a constitutional lawyer with twenty years’ teaching experience and often made gestures like turning pages, writing or flipping through papers as Amdany spoke.
The conversation deteriorated at different moments when the professor accused Linda Katiba of presenting “rumors, rhetoric and propaganda”. When Amdany protested, Sihanya called for the submission of citations rather than “marketplace altercations”. The professor referred to the marketplace more than once, which was quite insensitive, given that the market is the quintessential African democratic space. That’s where ordinary Africans meet, trade and discuss. And women are often active citizens and traders at the market.
Meanwhile, anchor Waihiga Mwaura did too little too late to reign in the professor’s tantrums, having already taken the position that the media is promoting, which is that every opposition to BBI is a “No” campaign, essentially removing the opposition from the picture on the principle of a referendum taking precedence.
Both cases reveal a condescending and elitist attitude towards ordinary Kenyans expressing opinions that run counter to the status quo. The media and academy have joined forces in squeezing out ordinary voices from the public sphere through demands for academic-style discussions of BBI. When discussions of BBI first began in 2020, these two institutions bullied opponents of the process by imposing conditions for speaking. For instance, in the days before the document was released, opponents were told that it was premature to speak without the document in hand. In the days following the release of the document, demands were made of Kenyans to read the document, followed by comments that Kenyans generally do not read. The contradiction literally sounded like the media did not want Kenyans to read the BBI proposals. Now it has become typical practice for anchors and the supporters of BBI to challenge BBI opponents with obnoxious questions such as “You have talked of the problems with BBI, but what are its positive aspects?” essentially denying the political nature of BBI, and reducing the process to the cliché classroom discussion along the lines of “advantages and disadvantages of …”
Basically, what we are witnessing is autocracy by the media, the academy and the bureaucracy, where media and the academy exert symbolic power by denying alternative voices access to public speech, while the civil service intervenes in the material lives of politicians and ordinary people to coerce or bribe them into supporting BBI. Other forms of material coercion that have been reported include chiefs forcing people to give their signatures in support of the BBI.
In both these domains of speech and interactions in daily life, it is those with institutional power who are employing micro-aggression to coerce Kenyans to support BBI. This “low quality oppression”, which contrasts with the use of overt force, leaves Kenyans feeling helpless because, as Christine Mungai and Dan Aceda observe, low-quality oppression “clouds your mind and robs you of language, precision and analytical power. And it keeps you busy dealing with it so that you cannot even properly engage with more systemic problems.” In the end, despite the fact that there is no gun held to their heads, Kenyans face BBI with literally no voice.
But beyond the silencing of Kenyans, this convergence of the media, the academy and the civil service suggests that there is a class of Kenyans who are not only interested in BBI, but are also driven by a belief in white supremacy and an anti-democratic spirit against the people. I want to suggest that this group is symptomatic of “a new middle class”, or what Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich have referred to as the “professional managerial class”, which is emerging in Kenya.
For the purposes of this article, I would define this class as one composed of people whose managerial positions within institutions give them low-grade coercive power to impose the will of the hegemony on citizens. The ideology of this class sees its members as having risen to their positions through merit (even when they are appointed through familial connections), and holds that the best way to address problems is through efficient adherence to law and technology, which are necessarily neutral and apolitical. This class also believes that its actions are necessary because citizens do not know better, and that by virtue of their appointment or their training, the members of this class have the right to direct the behaviour of ordinary citizens. Basically, this class is anti-political.
The worst part about this class is that it is a group of people who cannot recognise themselves as such. As Amber A’Lee Frost puts it, it is “a class that dare not speak its name.” This means that even as they exert coercive power in Kenya, members of this class remain largely unrecognised or discussed as a class with its own economic interests.
Even worse, this is a class that holds contemptuous – and ultimately racist – views of Africans despite being made up of Africans. For example, Mohammed Hersi, chair of the Kenya Tourism Federation, has been at the forefront of proposing the obnoxious idea that Kenya should export her labour abroad, the history of the Middle Passage notwithstanding. Despite a history of resistance to the idea that Africans should not receive any education beyond technical training, from the days of WEB Dubois to those of Harry Thuku, the Ministry of Education has introduced the Competency Based Curriculum (CBC), a new education system affirming that ideology. A few months ago, Fred Matiang’i waxed lyrical about the importance of prisons with these words which I must repeat here:
“To Mandela, prison was a school; to Malcolm X, a place of meditation; and to Kenya’s founding fathers, a place where visions of this country were crystallised. We’re reforming our prisons to be places people re-engineer their future regardless of the circumstances they come in.”
How is it possible for educated Africans to talk in public like this?
One factor is historical legacy. The civil service and institutions such as the mainstream media houses were established during colonial rule and were later Africanised with no change in institutional logic. This factor is very disturbing given that the media and the civil service in Kenya opposed nationalist struggles. During colonialism, it was the civil service, its African employees in the tribal police and the local administrations (such as chiefs and home guards), who crushed African revolt against oppression. This means that the Africans who were in the civil service were necessarily pro-colonial reactionaries with no interest in the people’s freedom.
Essentially, Kenyan independence started with a state staffed with people with no economic or political allegiance to the freedom and autonomy of Africans in Kenya. The better-known evidence of this dynamic is the independence government’s suppression of nationalist memories through, for instance, the assassination of General Baimungi Marete in 1965. What remains unspoken is the fact that the colonial institutions and ideologies remained intact after independence. Indeed, certain laws still refer to Kenya as a colony to this day.
It is also important to note that colonial era civil servants were not even European settlers, but British nationals sent in from London. This meant that the primary goal of the civil service was to protect not the settlers’ interests both those of London. Upon the handover of the state to Africans, therefore, this focus on London’s interests remained paramount, and remains so to this day, as we can see from the involvement of the British government in education reforms, from TPAD (Teacher Performance Appraisal and Development) to the curriculum itself. This dynamic is most overt in the tourism and conservation sector, where tourism is marketed by the government using openly racist and colonial tropes, including promises to tourists that in Kenya, “the colonial legacy lives on”.
There was also a practical aspect to the dominance of these kinds of Africans in the civil service. As Gideon Mutiso tells us in his book Kenya: Politics, Policy and Society, the Africans who were appointed to the civil service had more education than the politicians, because as other Africans were engaged in the nationalist struggles, these people advanced in their studies. Upon independence, Mutiso says, the educated Kenyans began to lord it over politicians as being less educated than they were.
Mutiso’s analysis also points us to the fact that colonial control remained in Kenya through the management of the state by people whose credentials and appointments were based on western education. The insidious role of western education became that of hiding the ideology of white supremacy behind the mask of “qualifications”. As such, Africans who had a western education considered themselves superior to fellow Africans, and worse, British nationals remained civil servants in major positions even a decade into independence, under the pretext that they were technically more qualified.
Less known, and even less talked about, is the virulent anti-African dispensation in the post-independence government. The new government not only had within its ranks Africans who had fought against African self-determination during colonial rule, but also British nationals who remained in charge of key sectors after independence, among them the first minister of Agriculture Bruce McKenzie. Similarly, the only university in Kenya was staffed mainly by foreigners, a situation which students complained about during a protest in 1972.
The continuity of colonial control meant that civil servants were committed to limiting the space for democratic participation. Veteran politicians like Martin Shikuku and Jean-Marie Seroney complained that the civil service was muzzling the voice of the people which was, ideally, supposed to have an impact through their elected representatives. In 1971, for instance, Shikuku complained that the government was no longer a political organ, because “Administrative officers from PCs have assumed the role of party officials [and] civil servants have interfered so much with the party work.” Shikuku Inevitably arrived at the conclusion that “the foremost enemies of the wananchi are the country’s senior civil servants.” For his part, Seroney lamented that parliament had become toothless, because “the government has silently taken the powers of the National Assembly and given them to the civil service,” reducing parliament to “a mere rubber stamp of some unseen authority.” Both men where eventually detained without trial by Jomo Kenyatta.
However, the scenario was no different in the education sector. As Mwenda Kithinji notes, major decisions in education were made by bureaucrats rather than by academics. It was for this reason, for example, that Dr Josephat Karanja was recalled from his post as the High Commissioner to the United Kingdom to succeed Prof. Arthur Porter as the first principal of the University of Nairobi, going over the head of Prof. Porter’s deputy, Prof. Bethwell Ogot, who was the most seasoned academic in Kenya with a more visionary idea of education.
Unfortunately, because the appointment went to a fellow Kikuyu, reactions were directed at Dr Karanja’s ethnicity, rather than his social status as a bureaucrat. Ethnicity was a convenient card with which to downplay the reality that decisions about education were being removed from the hands of academics and experts and placed in the hands of bureaucrats.
And so began the long road towards an increasingly stifling, extremely controlled administrative education system whose struggles we witness today in the CBC. As Kithinji observes, government bureaucrats regularly interfered in the academic and management affairs of the university, to the point of demanding that the introduction of new programmes receive approval from the Ministry of Education. Other measures for coercing academics to do the bidding of civil servants included imposing bonding policies and reducing budgetary allocations.
In the neoliberal era, however, this ideology of bureaucracy expanded and coopted professionals through managerial and administrative appointments. For instance, the practice of controlling academic life was now extended to academics themselves. Academics appointed as university managers began to behave like CEOs, complete with public relations officers, personal assistants and bodyguards. The role of regulating academic life in Kenya has now been turned over to the Commission for University Education whose headquarters are in the plush residential suburb of Gigiri. CUE regularly contracts its inspection work to academics who then exercise power over curriculum and accreditation under the banner of the commission.
With neoliberalism, therefore, bureaucrats and technocrats enjoy an increase in coercive power, hiding behind the anonymity provided by technology, the audit culture and its reliance on numbers, and concepts such as “quality” to justify their power as neutral, necessary and legitimate. However, the one space they now need to crack is the political space, and by coincidence, Kenya is cursed with an incompetent and incoherent political class. Life could not get better for this class than with the BBI handshake.
BBI therefore provided an ideal opportunity for an onslaught of the managerial class against the Kenyan people. The document under debate was written by PhD-holders, and initial attempts by professors and bureaucrats to defend the document in townhall debates hosted by the mainstream media backfired spectacularly. These technocrats were not convincing because they adamantly refused to answer the political questions raised around BBI, so they have taken a back seat and sent politicians off to the public to give BBI an air of legitimacy. Behind the scenes, however, support for BBI brings together the bureaucrats and the foot soldiers who are behind Uhuru, and the educated intelligentsia that is behind Raila.
And as if things could not get more stifling, Kenyans are looking favourably at the declared candidacies of Kivutha Kibwana, a former law academic, and Mukhisa Kituyi, a former United Nations bureaucrat, in the next presidential election. The point here is not their winning prospects, but the belief that maybe people with better paper credentials and institutional careers might do better than the rambling politicians. However, this idea is dangerous, because it places inordinate faith in western-educated Africans who have not articulated their political positions about African self-determination in an age when black people worldwide are engaged in decolonisation and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Basically, BBI is camouflaging the attack on politics and democracy in Kenya by a new managerial class. We are paying a heavy price for not decolonising our institutions at independence. Since independence, bureaucrats have whittled away at our cultural and institutional independence through police harassment, underfunding, the tyranny of inspections and regulatory control, and through constriction of the Kenyan public and cultural space. Even the arts and culture are tightly regulated these days, with the Ministry of Education providing themes for schools’ drama festivals and the government censoring artists in the name of morality. Worse, this new managerial class collaborates with foreign interests in a shared contempt for African self-determination.
Kenyans must be wary of academics and bureaucrats who use their credentials, acquired in colonial institutions, to bully Kenyans into silence. We must not allow bureaucrats and technocrats to make decisions that affect our lives without subjecting those decisions to public debate. We must recognise and reproach the media for legitimising the bullying from this new managerial class. And we must continue to recognise the Kenyan government as fundamentally colonial in its logic and practice and pick up the failed promise of the NASA manifesto to replace the master-slave logic of the Kenyan civil service. Most of all, we must learn to demystify education, credentials and institutional positions. Kenya is for everybody, and we all have a right to discuss and participate in what happens in our country.
For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
Hon. William Ruto’s hustler vs dynasty narrative is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics in order to avoid playing the tribal card in his quest for the presidency.
Stifling the “hustler” vs “dynasty” debate will not save us from the imminent implosion resulting from Kenya’s obscene inequalities. While the debate is a welcome distraction from our frequent divisive tribal politics, leaders in government and society are frightened that it might lead to class wars. Our sustained subtle, yet brazen, war against the poor has made class conflict inevitable. If only we had listened to Hon. J. M. Kariuki, the assassinated former Member of Parliament for Nyandarua (1969-1975), and provided the poor with the means to develop themselves, perhaps the prospect of revolt would now be remote.
Could this be the angry ghost of J.M. Kariuki coming back to haunt us? Listen to his voice still crying from the grave, as did his supporters at a rally in 1974: “We do not want a Kenya of ten millionaires and ten million beggars. Our people who died in the forests died with a handful of soil in their right hands, believing they had fallen in a noble struggle to regain our land . . . But we are being carried away by selfishness and greed. Unless something is done now, the land question will be answered by bloodshed” (quoted by Prof. Simiyu Wandibba in his book J.M. Kariuki). Fired by this speech, his followers set ablaze 700 acres of wheat on Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s farm in Rongai and slaughtered cattle with malice. Thus did J.M. invite his death.
What Hon. William Ruto propounds in his hustler vs dynasty debate is a shrewd way of redefining Kenyan identity politics. Ruto is re-directing the political narrative from the “us” vs “them” of tribalism, to one characterised by the poor and desperate (hustlers) who have seen subsequent governments betray their hopes for a better life, pitted against “them”, Ruto’s rivals, the offspring of politicians born to unfair and unearned privilege.
Wycliffe Muga, the Star newspaper columnist, has eloquently described them as the “sons of a hereditary political elite who absorbed all the benefits that came with independence, leaving ‘the rest of us’ destitute and having no choice but to beg for the crumbs under their table.” By opting for an alternative approach, Ruto hopes to avoid playing the tribal card to attain the presidency. For, besides his own, he would need the support of at least one other of the five big tribes who often reserve support for their own sons unless there is a brokered alliance. But even then, the underlying logic of Kenyan politics remains that of identity politics, which creates a binary narrative of “us” against “them”.
Meanwhile, Ruto has not only radicalised the poor, but he has also hastened the country’s hour of reckoning — judgement for the years of neglect of the poor — and this may ignite the tinder sooner we imagine.
In their article in The Elephant, Dauti Kahura and Akoko Akech observe that, “Ruto might have belatedly discovered the great socio-economic divide between the walala-hoi and the walala-hai in Kenya”. Ruto has galvanised the poor and their plight around the banner of the “hustler nation”, a nation aspiring to erase the tribal or geographical lines that have kept Kenyans apart. As a result the poor are restless as they compare their state with the ease of the lives of the affluent. But Ruto is not organising to awaken class-consciousness among the exploited. ‘As Thandika Mkandawire, citing Karl Marx, observed, “The existence of class may portend class struggles, but it does not automatically trigger them. It is not enough that classes exist in themselves, they must also be for themselves”’, Kahura and Akech further reiterate.
The problem kicks in immediately he points to the “dynasty”. In juxtaposing the hustlers and dynasty, the poor find a target of hate, an object of their wrath. This situation can easily slide into violence, the violence emerging only when the “us” see themselves as all good and the “them” as all evil.
I worry this controversy has led us to that radicalisation stage where the poor see themselves as the good children of light fighting evil forces of darkness. In our case, the so-called hustler nation believe they are against the deep-state which doesn’t care about them but wants to give to the dynasty that which is due to them. They believe that this collusion between deep-state and dynasty is preventing them from reaching prosperity and so they blame their situation on those who they perceive to be the cause of their wretchedness. Interestingly, the colonial state always feared the day when the masses would rise up and topple it. Unfortunately, Ruto is using the crisis of the underclass created by the colonial state and perpetuated by the political class for political expediency and for his own self-advancement.
By declaring himself the saviour of the hustlers from the dynasties, Ruto — who is devoid of any pro-democracy and pro-suffering citizens political credentials — is perceived to be antagonising the Kenyatta family’s political and financial interests. He has with precision stoked the anger of the poor against particular political elites he calls dynasties and the Odingas, the Kenyattas, the Mois and their associates have become the hustler nation’s enemy. So, one understands why President Uhuru Kenyatta considers Ruto’s dynasty vs hustler debate “a divisive and a major threat to the country’s security”, which he fears may degenerate into class warfare.
Hon. Paul Koinange, Chairman of the Parliamentary Administration and Security Committee errs in his call to criminalise the hustler vs dynasty narrative. If this is hate speech, as Koinange wants it classified, then neglect of the poor by their government is a worse form of hate speech. The application of policies favouring tender-preneurs at the expense of the majority poor, landless and unemployed will incite Kenyans against each other faster than the hustler vs dynasty narrative. The failure to provide public services for the poor and the spiralling wealth of the political class must be confronted.
We have been speeding down this slippery slope for years. According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data released in December 2020, only 2.92 million Kenyans work in the formal sector, of which 1.34 million or 45.9 per cent earn less than Sh30,000. If we accept that the informal sector employs another 15 million Kenyans, an overwhelming majority (71 per cent) would be in micro-scale enterprises or in small-scale enterprises (which make up 26 per cent). This implies that 97 per cent of our enterprises are micro or small, and these are easily wound up. The situation is exasperated by the opulence at the top. The UK-based New World Wealth survey (2014) conducted over 5 years paints a grim picture of wealth distribution in Kenya. Of the country’s 43.1 million people then, 46 per cent lived below the poverty line, surviving on less than Sh172 ($2) a day.
The report shows that nearly two-thirds of Kenya’s Sh4.3 trillion ($50 billion) economy is controlled by a tiny clique of 8,300 super-wealthy individuals, highlighting the huge inequality between the rich and the poor. Without a clear understanding of these disparities, it is difficult to evaluate the currents that are conducive to the widening of this gap not to mention those that would bridge it. Hon. Koinange should be addressing these inequalities that the masses are awakening to rather than combatting the hustler narrative. Our government must be intentional in levelling the playing field, or live in perpetual fear like the British colonials who feared mass revolt across imaginary ethnic lines.
In Kenya, past injustices have yielded gross inequalities. In Reading on inequality in Kenya: Sectoral Dynamics and Perceptions, Okello and Gitau illustrate how state power is still being used to perpetuate differences in the sharing of political and economic welfare. Okello further observes that: “In a country where for a long time economic and political power was/has been heavily partisan, where the state appropriated for itself the role of being the agency for development, and where politics is highly ethnicised, the hypothesis of unequal treatment has been so easy to build.”
This, and not the euphoria of the hustler nation, is the pressure cooker that is about to explode. The horizontal manifestation of inequality stemming from the failure of state institutions and policies that have continued to allow inequalities to fester is what should be of concern to the state. How can the government not see the risk such extreme economic disparities within the population pose for the nation’s stability?
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
The Militarisation of US/Africa Policy: How the CIA Came To Lead Deadly Counter-Terrorism Operations in Kenya
Politics1 week ago
We Didn’t Make It for You: Vaccine Nationalism and the West’s Claim to the COVID-19 Jab
Politics1 week ago
For J.M’s Ten Million Beggars, the Hustler vs Dynasty Narrative is a Red Herring
Long Reads3 days ago
The Anatomy of Kenya Inc: How the Colonial State Sustains and Re-Creates Itself
Op-Eds1 week ago
Revealed: MI6 ‘Misled’ Two Inquiries Into Arrest of Lee Rigby’s Killer
Op-Eds1 week ago
USA: For Right-Wing Extremists the Attack on Capitol Hill Was a Victory
Op-Eds1 week ago
Dismantling and Transcending Colonialism’s Legacy
Satire1 week ago
Storm Deaths in US as Caucasian Spring Spreads