“The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”—Toni Morrison
When Britain and the West in general face economic crises, eugenics crops up as a seemingly innocuous topic for general academic discussion. However, the recent revelation that University College London has secretly hosted conferences at which race science has been on the agenda is cause for genuine concern.
While European eugenics focused on natural traits thought to be inherent in “class”, American and colonial eugenics were based on perceived racial differences. Eugenics, race-based science and “genetic behaviourism” are one and the same thing – a justification for economic exclusion that could easily gain traction in a globalised economy.
In the 21st century, competition for land has given rise to land-grabbing as Northern countries attempt to ensure future food security for their citizens. Actual ownership of the means of food production would enable importers of food to side-step the problems of commodities price volatility, such as the hike in food prices that occurred in 2007-8.
Activists monitoring the phenomenon state that a significant proportion of Africa’s arable land is now owned by foreign governments or transnational companies. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 20 million hectares were appropriated in this manner between 2007 and 2009 alone. The goals of white settler colonial states are now being achieved by the global North and the more developed countries in the global South through the grabbing of land from the poor in sovereign countries – land that is handed over to them by these countries’ elitist leaders. A lack of food security after the First World War was what drove scientific racism in Kenya and other colonies.
It is important to know and understand the nature and history of eugenics because of its impact on the course of modern history and its potential impact on the future. Mercurial in nature, eugenics comes disguised as science. But even as it is derided as a pseudo-science, it continues to be studied by members of the most respected educational institutions (Cornell University, Harvard and Stanford and Cambridge in the 1920s and University College London from at least 2014). Early studies were funded by oligarch-owned philanthropic organisations, such as the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1920s, and the findings were applied to the entire spectrum of government policy, including education, population control and immigration.
Activists monitoring the phenomenon state that a significant proportion of Africa’s arable land is now owned by foreign governments or transnational companies. The International Food Policy Research Institute estimates that 20 million hectares were appropriated in this manner between 2007 and 2009 alone.
The connection between the Carnegie Institution’s work through the Eugenics Record Office in New York, which the Carnegie Institution funded between 1910 and 1939, and the Holocaust is often missed: the director of the Eugenics Record Office received an honorary degree for his work in “racial cleansing” from a German university.
It is important to remember that the Nazis used eugenics to justify their extermination of Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, gypsies and others they viewed as “genetically unfit”. Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” addressed a problem perceived and defined by the eugenics movement – what to do with the poor, the disabled and the non-Caucasian. The vigilant will recall that the Holocaust, among the worst excesses of eugenics, was preceded by the stigmatisation of non-Caucasian, unhealthy and poor people in the United States and elsewhere.
For these reasons, Africans must monitor the ebb and flow of the eugenics movement. The first line of defence is to be able to recognise eugenics policies in whatever disguise they appear and regardless of the prestige of their sponsors.
Race science in colonial Kenya
Throughout the colonial period, Britain attempted to address its food security challenges (Britain produced less than 10% of its own food) by encouraging immigration to Canada, Australia and the colonies. To do so they had to offer sweeteners, such as free or cheap land and labour.
Eugenics took root in British colonies, notably Kenya, during the Great Depression. In those days, racism was perfectly acceptable; the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, was a known eugenicist.
The report of a study tour of five East and Central African territories by the East Africa Commission was tabled in parliament during the annual Colonial Office debate of 1925. The Commission was staffed by officials from the three British political parties and drew up a strategy for the Empire in Africa.
The Commission answered policy questions, the most pressing and persistent being about land ownership. It was finally decided that Africans in Kenya and Rhodesia could not legally own land. Much of the land was sold, leased or given away to British economic migrants by the colonial government. Over 2,000 British ex-servicemen were given free smallholdings in Kenya as a reward for service, and more were given land in what is now Zimbabwe. In Southern Rhodesia, the remaining land belonged to a charter company while in Kenya the land was deemed Crown Land.
Eugenics took root in British colonies, notably Kenya, during the Great Depression. In those days, racism was perfectly acceptable; the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, was a known eugenicist.
It was hoped that the white settler population would multiply and grow agricultural produce for export as well as provide a market for British goods. Africans were relegated to areas designated as “native reserves”. Within a generation, as predicted by MPs such as J. Wedgwood Benn, the population of the reserves was too large to sustain subsistence farming for all.
Landless Africans were forced to become labourers and squatters on British plantations and “houseboys” in the settlers’ homes. When gold was discovered in the Kakamega reserve, prospectors were allowed to invade the area from as far away as Australia and the United States while Kenyans could not get licences to participate in mining.
Those in the reserves who were able to grow crops were banned by Ordinance from growing coffee and maize, lucrative exportable crops on which the settlers depended for their income.
To ensure people turned up for work, those Africans who were unable to show that they had put in between two and six months labour on British farms were brought before magistrates who sentenced them to a number of lashes. So determined were some Afrcians to farm their own plots that they would volunteer immediately for the lashing, and having done with it, would return to their plots in the reserves. This was the case even where compulsory labour on the railway was being enforced:
“It is a matter of common knowledge and every day practice in the Colony that the native, given the choice of going before a magistrate or accepting a thrashing from his master, will choose the latter. That sort of thing, and a matter of £6 a year wages, is not going to produce cotton in Kenya to justify this railway. The native will not work for £6 a year or the alternative presented to him of either a thrashing or going before a magistrate.” (Hope Simpson, Colonial Services debate, 3 March 1924.)
To rationalise their exploitation and abuse of African people, the Imperial government resorted to pseudo-medicine backed by a species of law. Beginning with the law, the East Africa Commission relied on the principle of trusteeship. The Imperial government, it was said, held the resources of the colonial empire in trust for Africans, British settlers in Africa and for mankind in general. The trusteeship was necessary, in the Commission’s analysis, because Africans were unable to govern themselves or husband their resources even though there were stable communities that had existed at least as long as Britain.
To ensure people turned up for work, those Africans who were unable to show that they had put in between two and six months labour on British farms were brought before magistrates who sentenced them to a number of lashes.
This brings us to the pseudo-medical science. Eugenics attributed (perceived) economic “backwardness” to inherited “feeblemindedness”. Roadblocks to African economic development imposed by the Imperial government and all the indignities visited on them notwithstanding, the key to the African “problem” was said to be an inherited incapacity to thrive economically or socially.
Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, William Ormsby-Gore, stated in his introduction to the report that he had the following on the authority of the European settlers he met on his tour:
“During our tour of East Africa we were frequently told by Europeans, officials and unofficials alike, that the African native is a ‘child’. Without questioning the truth of such a generalisation, it at any rate suggests that the position of the European race ruling in Africa is that of a guardian to a ward, and that our duty is to protect the interests of someone less capable of safeguarding his or her own interests, and to educate a less developed and less efficiently equipped people to become better equipped and more efficient (emphasis added).
“It is difficult to realise without seeing Africa what a tremendous impact is involved in the juxtaposition of white civilisation, with its command over material force, and its comparatively high and diversified social system, on the primitive people of Eastern Africa.
“The African native is confronted with a whole range of facts entirely beyond his present comprehension and he finds himself caught in a maelstrom of economic and cultural progress which in the majority of cases baffles him completely.” (The East Africa Commission Report, 1925, p.21.)
Ormsby-Gore’s remarks should not lead to the conclusion that the Under-Secretary was naïve; he was not. He prefaced his remarks by saying that claims of African backwardness are a generalisation – but then he went on to build a policy based on that generalisation, characterising Africans as bewildered by the social changes going on around them. His use of the word efficient is a code used by eugenicists to describe everything the purported lesser races and classes are said not to be — intelligent, conscientiousness, capable of impulse control and, therefore, able to be productive workers.
Stressing the need for British trusteeship, Ormsby-Gore added that it would be necessary only until Africans had been educated to fend for themselves – as though a hereditary disease of the mind is curable by education. Ormsby-Gore was a consummate opportunist – he used scientific racism as a justification for theft and exploitation. Given that the Colonial Secretary, Leo Amery, belonged to the eugenics movement, Ormsby-Gore, his Under-Secretary for five years and then his successor, can be assumed to have held similar views.
To rationalise their exploitation and abuse of African people, the Imperial government resorted to pseudo-medicine backed by a species of law.
The Europeans who met with the East African Commission would have been settlers and colonial officials with a financial interest in the matter. They may have included some of the sixty individuals who joined the Kenyan Society for the Study of Race Improvement (KSSRI) founded in 1933. There was the influential Nellie Grant, a prominent eugenicist and philanthropist in Kenya. Ormsby-Gore may also have met Dr. Grant, Chief Medical Officer (in the colonial administration), who received a grant from the Carnegie Institution to study African innate backwardness and who unsuccessfully lobbied the British Parliament for a grant to continue his research.
H.L. Gordon, a medical doctor resident in Kenya, was a representative of the British Medical Association and the author of several papers on eugenics published in scientific journals. He argued that any investment in the education of Africans without improving their genetic stock would be a waste. These principles were applied to European immigration as well – some with mental illnesses were forcibly sterilised and immigration was controlled to admit elite classes. (Chloe Campbell in Race and Empire: Eugenics in colonial Kenya).
The research involved measuring the skulls of living Africans and European settlers and weighing the brains of the deceased in mortuaries for comparison. The choice of this method was odd given that a founding father of eugenics, Karl Pearson, had done similar experiments at the beginning of the 20th century and found no correlation between skull/brain size and mental capacity. In a paper delivered to the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1902, he stated, “So far then as our Cambridge results go, they thoroughly confirm Dr. Lee’s investigation as to the capacity of the skull. There is no marked correlation between ability and the shape or size of the head.”
Grant, however, arrived at the conclusion by extrapolation that all African “backwardness” was actually a medical condition that he called bradyphysis, a disease defined by eugenicists and never recognised outside that field. He advised that any attempt to educate Africans had to take account of this condition. To fail to do so, he further argued, caused schizophrenia in Africans, whose frontal lobes are incapable of assimilating so much complex new information. It was no coincidence that such a large potential financial saving should come to light at a time when resources were scarce and all resources were required to bring Britain out of the post-war Depression.
The East African Commission Report had envisioned making education available to Africans only “in the widest possible sense”. Shortly after it was debated in parliament, the nationwide education systems set up and run by Christian missionaries partnering with indigenous leaders in Uganda was taken over by the colonial government for “reorganisation”.
There was significant opposition over the years to academic education for Africans and Makerere University, in particular – Africans were to be trained only for labour and service. However, there were individual British MPs who were willing to blow the whistle on such exploitative policies:
“I agree, and every sane Member of this House agrees, with the desirability of doing all that can be done to educate the natives, but I have a very shrewd suspicion that the motive behind the suggestion contained in this [Ainsworth] circular is not altogether the benefit of the native, but in order that the native may become a better wealth-producing machine.” (Ben Spoor, Colonial Office Debate, 29 April 1920.)
An early scheme for colonial development was debated in parliament in 1929. Major Archibald Church, the Labour MP, a eugenicist recently returned from touring Kenya, proposed research in alleged African backwardness. With reference to colonial development research, Church said, “We are in the first instance reclaiming human material, much of which is waste human material at the present time; and, in the second place, we are developing the natural resource of territories which are otherwise going to waste.”
The treatment of colonised people in Kenya provides some insight into the consequences of allowing the state (limited or otherwise) to determine the standards to which the citizenry should aspire. In Kenya, in particular, the Imperial government issued numerous ordinances to force the indigenous population to abandon subsistence farming in favour of wage labour. It introduced a poll tax, a hut tax (European settlers were not required to pay income tax, which served as an incentive to attract new immigrants), forced labour and child labour.
The treatment of colonised people in Kenya provides some insight into the consequences of allowing the state (limited or otherwise) to determine the standards to which the citizenry should aspire.
It is immediately clear that the vested interests of those controlling the state shaped the decisions regarding the lifestyle of the rest. Africans were required to provide the labour without which settler plantations could not function. In addition, their wages were the source of income with which to buy British goods manufactured from the very commodities the Africans produced. Parliamentary debates of the 1920s through to the 1940s show that the Africans in Kenya and Uganda were unwilling to abandon their homes to labour for cash and to accumulate manufactured possessions, and preferred self-employment, which was a constant source of frustration to the ruling class.
“[…] We do not want to force anybody to work who is able to support himself and his family without doing more than he cares to do. It is all very well to talk about teaching men the dignity of labour, but, when that lesson is taught by the people who are going to benefit from that labour, I think we want to look at it very closely before we allow ourselves to be carried away by that sort of argument.” (Wedgwood Benn, HC Deb 30 July 1919.)
Naturally, there was resistance to this kind of exploitation even as Africans were being stigmatised as being lazy.
The resurgence of eugenics
Race-based science was thought dead by the 1960s, mortally wounded by universal revulsion at the extreme measures applied by Nazi eugenics and the fall of the British Empire in the 1960s. However, the announcement of its demise was premature. One Philippe Rushton, a Canadian psychology professor at Ontario’s North Western University, put eugenics on the agenda again in 1988. He too did a lot of measuring and tabulating and found, among other things, that the length of a male’s penis is inversely proportional to the size of his brain. He then concluded that there is an inverse relationship between intelligence and sexuality: non-whites – blacks, in particular – are highly sexual. And less intelligent than whites.
Then followed a long nationwide series of demonstrations by students against Rushton, not because of his absurd findings, but because he undertook his study without informing his subjects about what he was doing (the work of eugenicists is so often shrouded in secrecy). He was reprimanded for that, although he was not required to resign. He went on to advocate for the preservation of Canadian society by erecting barriers to Arab and African immigration.
Coming to the present day, in 2018, Toby Young, a British public servant, resigned voluntarily from the board of the Office for Students for some Twitter-related offences. During parliamentary questions regarding his conduct, his interest in eugenics came to the fore. It was interesting to learn that he had attended one of the secret conferences on eugenics hosted by University College London and his support for the movement was known at the time of his appointment. (These conferences are currently suspended pending an investigation into the abuse of venue booking procedures.)
In his essay “The Fall of the Meritocracy”, Young asserts that he is not an egalitarian and that social differences are inevitable. These differences come about, he argues, because of genetically-inherited traits like IQ, conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to delay gratification (presumably as when training to be a white collar professional). His markers for success are the attendance of elite schools and employment in what are considered elite professions. Young then says that for the state to attempt to obtain these benefits for all would only lead to coercion and loss of liberty, as evidenced by the failure of the “socialist utopia”.
Young’s ultimate goal is to maintain minimal state intervention in governance: “If you think a free society is preferable to one dominated by the state, and the unequal distribution of wealth is an inevitable consequence of reining in state power, then you should embrace the principle of meritocracy for making limited government sustainable.”
The basic weakness of his thesis is that he assumes that everyone has identical values and aspirations in life. He defines success as “wealth and prestige” and white collar jobs (“high-paying firms and rarefied social environments”) as the most desirable employment. Meritocracy is his roadmap for providing everybody with the opportunity to attain those goals while accepting not all will reach them.
He too did a lot of measuring and tabulating and found, among other things, that the length of a male’s penis is inversely proportional to the size of his brain. He then concluded that there was an inverse relationship between intelligence and sexuality: non-whites – blacks, in particular – are highly sexual.
It would be interesting to see a study of the types of lifestyle people actually aspire to (for example, does everyone want a white collar job?) Many professionals desire a simpler, uncomplicated life, possibly involving growing their own vegetables. Many farmers enjoy being farmers, potters want to be potters and bakers, bakers. Their choices should not be seen as a lack of ambition or success.
Young’s proposes a scheme for enabling the less intelligent – and according to him, the less affluent/successful – to produce offspring more intelligent and better equipped than their parents (assuming they want to join the war for accumulation of wealth). It is what he calls progressive eugenics. This emergent area of study seeks to develop technology with which poor couples with low IQs would be able to screen their embryos for IQ to enable them to choose the ones with the highest IQs for implanting and birth. The higher IQ offspring would then avoid being trapped in a cycle of “poverty, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependency, criminality and drug abuse.” Wow.
The scheme is envisaged as completely voluntary. In the beginning it may be voluntary, but successive modifications could lead to coercion by barring the offspring of people not practising “racial hygiene” from access to health and education services. The “genetically unclean” could be easily stigmatised and excluded, for example, by requiring an individual’s embryonic registration number to be included on birth certificates and/or other official documentation.
What this tells us is that it is too easy to concoct scientific-sounding covers for greed. Judging from his paper, what Young’s real fear is the old-fashioned concept of sharing that made society possible in the first place, a vision of society as a community to which all are able to make an important contribution. Eugenicists are reluctant to allow a greater share of the common good to go to the less affluent who also happen to be the world’s primary producers and service providers. However, he does admit that redistributive taxation has its place. Thus the rationale for new eugenics is simply built on multiple deceits.
The myth about IQ and success
IQ (intelligence quotient) testing has been controversial from its inception, a bit like lie-detector testing, a fact that is not widely acknowledged. IQs develop as a child grows, so environment would have more to do with it than eugenicists may be willing to admit. There has been work done showing that the more an infant is stimulated by rocking and the environment, the more dendrites (interconnecting transmitters) develop in her brain and, therefore, the more complexities the infant can grasp. Therefore, IQ is not quite like the lottery in blue eyes.
Eugenicists are reluctant to allow a greater share of the common good to go to the less affluent who also happen to be the world’s primary producers and service providers.
Eugenicists believe that IQ influences the financial decisions people make and that those who are intelligent invariably make good decisions while the unintelligent make poor decisions, resulting in generational poverty or wealth. Young puts it this way, “Cognitive ability and other characteristics that lead to success, such as conscientiousness, impulse control and a willingness to defer gratification, are between 40 per cent and 80 per cent heritable.”
This argument does not take into account existing evidence that the tendency for the poor to gamble on lotteries is strongly influenced by “peer-play” and self-perceived social deprivation as well as educational attainment. These findings suggest that risky behaviour, whether it be gambling, poor academic performance, drug use, promiscuity, impulsivity, low self-control or violent crime (what the eugenicist calls inefficiency), increases to the degree that the actor perceives a gap between his current state and his desired goals/state. Addressing this need by providing access to health care, education, employment or other opportunities reduces the risk-taking behaviour (gambling, in this case).
Myths about the poor and non-Caucasians
Of course, anyone on the earnings spectrum could perceive themselves as being deprived and could engage in destructive behaviour. After all, undesirable characteristics perceived in the poor by eugenicists have been found to be present in the affluent too. A good example would be the relentless pursuit of profit by vulture-funds, stockbrokers and bankers that contribute to the collapse of entire economies. These people are driven by the perception that they are not doing as well as their peers and must act in increasingly extreme ways to close the gap. Much of the profits they make are not connected to any type of productive activity but are purely gambling profits. Their losses tend to be equally dramatic.
A University of St. Gallen study of stockbrokers indicated a tendency among them to be so highly competitive that they were motivated not only to outperform their peers in accumulating wealth, but also to destroy the achievements of their competitors. On tests, their performance showed higher levels of recklessness and manipulative behaviour than a control group of psychopaths. Aside from engaging in activities that should ideally be construed as immoral or unethical, it has been shown that stockbrokers can be as illogical as poor gamblers in the decisions they make. Therefore, the link between IQ, decision-making and wealth is not as linear as eugenicists insist.
On this basis, environmental factors imposed by an economic system that relies on some existing in poverty traps in order for others to live lives of privilege need to be considered as drivers of persistent poverty. An example would be the sub-prime mortgage scam that lead to the global financial crisis of 2008.
The angst driving the current resurgence of interest in eugenics seems to stem from the experience of the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the shock and awe of Brexit and the banking crisis predicted for the near future.
Finally, the link between race and crime was found not to have been proven when Rushton’s data was re-examined. When it comes to drug abuse, for example, this is an addiction that knows no social boundaries. And white collar crime is just as much a menace to society as crimes committed by inner-city or poor people. In the UK and USA, fraud by bankers and shady government bail-outs with taxpayers’ money are as damaging to the common good as drug-smuggling. Corruption in public office and predatory trade practices by multinational corporations literally cause the deaths of millions in the developing world.
Interest in eugenics has marched hand-in-hand with Britain’s economic fortunes from the colonial era. The fear of not having enough has always led some to scramble to justify their instinct to acquire as much as possible for themselves at the expense of others. They blame the less acquisitive for their lack of aggression and make plans to assault them — physically, if necessary — to achieve economic ends.
The angst driving the current resurgent interest in eugenics seems to stem from the experience of the global financial crisis of 2008/9, the shock and awe of Brexit and the banking crisis predicted for the near future. This renewed interest in race-based science is an effort to stigmatise and exclude some sections of the global community and to justify the exploitation of those deemed to be racially inferior.
 https://harvardmagazine.com/2016/03/harvards-eugenics-era accessed on 22 January 2018.
 https://wellcomelibrary.org/item/b16238114#?c=0&m=0&s=0&cv=0 accessed on 22 January 2018.
 Cited by https://sites.google.com/site/colonyofkenyaeducation/home/eugenics-in-kenya accessed on 16 January 2018.
 Cited by Dr Stephen Courtney, History and Philosophy of Science at https://anthropometryincontext.com/2017/05/01/blog-post-title/#_edn37 accessed on 17 January 2018.
 COLONIAL DEVELOPMENT BILL. House of Commons debate 17 July 1929
 For an account of the controversy see The Race Science of J. Philippe Rushton: Professors, Protesters and the Press by James Philip Grey, B.A., Simon Fraser University, 1989. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/56367875.pdf accessed on 22 January 2018.
 Ardiel EL, Rankin CH. The importance of touch in development. Paediatrics & Child Health. 2010;15(3):153-156.
Beckert, Jens, and Mark Lutter. 2013. “Why the Poor Play the Lottery: Sociological Approaches to Explaining Class-based Lottery Play.” Sociology 47:1152-1170. DOI: 10.1177/0038038512457854 http://www.mpifg.de/people/lm/downloads/Why-lottery_SOC_JULY2012_print_preview.pdf accessed on 20 January 2018
 SPIEGEL ONLINE 2011 http://www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/going-rogue-share-traders-more-reckless-than-psychopaths-study-shows-a-788462.html accessed on 19 January 2018.
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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?
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