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THE APOCALYPSE NOW: Pathways to building a nation called Kenya

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THE APOCALYPSE NOW: Pathways to building a nation called Kenya
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Kenya is on the brink of plummeting into the abyss of political catastrophe. The government and the opposition are locked in an existential contest for Kenya’s leadership. Either the government will cement its hold on power by employing all means possible (illicit not excluded) or the opposition National Super Alliance (NASA) will wrench power in a way not yet anticipated (but adjudged illegal). Such is the fix that my people would say, “Thuol odonjo e ko” (The snake has entered the guard, would we salvage the milk or the gourd?)

Could it be that Kenya is headed for apocalyptic politics?

Critics of this government accuse it of wantonly undermining Kenya’s democratic principles by infringing on democratic accountability, individual rights and the rule of law. This has been manifested in its preference for tyranny rather than dialogue as a response to pressure from the opposition and other critics. Toiling to deter and deal with dissidents, the State has turned to its vast repressive apparatus on Kenyans perceived as a threat.

The repeat election on 26 October exposed what has been a closely-kept secret: a government appearing strong on the outside but whose power remains brittle at its core.

The first victims of the State’s assault have been democratic institutions. The opposition politicians are harassed and picked up by police on flimsy charges. Basic freedoms of expression and assembly have been restricted in practice, though not in law. Elections have become choreographed performances that are neither free nor fair. At its core, this assault has been motivated by the regime’s desire to protect power and accumulate wealth. The government purports to run the country according to the tenets of Western democracy. What we have, however, is a democratic facade, paying lip service to those tenets even as they are subverted.

The repeat election on 26 October exposed what has been a closely-kept secret: a government appearing strong on the outside but whose power remains brittle at its core. It is apparent that the regime projects a nimbus of invincibility that masks the shallow roots of its public support. What else would necessitate the massaging of votes, the muzzling of civil society organisations, the swamping of social media with propaganda and the hyping of approval ratings and other forms of manufactured consent?

NASA’s hopes of assuming power have been reliant on the independence of the country’s institutions. The opposition demands that the principles of democracy be applied in toto. When the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) failed to conduct a free and fair election on 8 August 2017, they said that these principles had been manipulated or distorted. The opposition threatened to unleash its final bullet, “wacha kiumane” (let hell break loose). This meant that it would arbitrate its case on the streets, thus confronting a government ready to crush protests even if lives were lost.

The opposition has a large and increasingly radicalised and aggrieved following. These people are determined to change their situation no matter the consequences – anarchy or death don’t matter.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Not in God’s Name, explained that: “Apocalyptic politics is the strange phenomenon of a revolutionary movement whose gaze is firmly fixed on the past. It arises at times of destabilising change and speaks to those who feel unjustly left behind.”

In messianic politics, people believe that the destination is close and God is beckoning. “Hence the readiness of messianic militants to welcome even to initiate the terrors that proceed the last days”, writes Michael Walzer. “Hence the strange politics of the worse the better and hence the will to sin, to risk any crime for the sake of the end.”

The opposition’s followers had high hopes of reaching “Canaan” this time around. The manipulation and illegality of the election stole this hope, and with it went the aspiration for change. They were stranded

“wondering between two worlds,

one dead the other powerless to be born.”

(Matthew Arnold, Stanzas from the Grande

Chartreuse [c1850)

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his book Not in God’s Name, explained that: “Apocalyptic politics is the strange phenomenon of a revolutionary movement whose gaze is firmly fixed on the past. It arises at times of destabilising change and speaks to those who feel unjustly left behind.” It is the longing for the end of time in the midst of time, the search for redemption now. That is why this political position suspends the normal rules that restrain people from murdering the innocent.

It is like Samson in the Temple of the Philistines, bringing down the building on his enemies but destroying himself in the process.

If the event of Raila’s return from his USA trip is indicative of the future, then I am certain we are on the cusp of revolt and Armageddon. The disenfranchisement in the country must be addressed, and all should have an opportunity to prosper. With increasingly dim prospects for a livelihood, health care and a future to latch on to, the protesting opposition followers cannot be deader than they are already. It’s already tragic.

Nowhere is this condition as explicit as in the myth of Sisyphus. Condemned by the gods to roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whereupon its own weight makes it fall back down again, Sisyphus was trapped in this perpetually futile labour. He was condemned to everlasting torment and the accompanying despair of knowing that his efforts were pointless. Efforts to bring about change in Kenya have also been futile. Hopes hinged on the Constitution of Kenya 2010 did not materialise.

Intriguingly, Albert Camus, the French philosopher, noticed defiance in Sisyphus at the moment he goes back down the mountain. The consciousness of his fate is the tragedy, yet consciousness also allows Sisyphus to scorn the gods, providing a small measure of satisfaction. There is a mingling of satisfaction and tragedy, which is reflected in the opposition followers’ loaded scorn in the face of police brutality: “I would rather die standing than kneeling.”

Yet we delude ourselves when we claim that the problems facing Kenya are due to individual politicians. Ignoring these seismic shifts that undermine the foundations of the country’s democracy and fault Raila and his followers’ street protests is also cheeky dishonesty.

The opposition’s unexpected decision to go to the Supreme Court shifted the direction of events and possibly averted a grave bloody encounter. The Supreme Court judges, acting according to their conscience, kept Kenya on the narrow pass between anarchy and tyranny, on the narrow way of peace. In asserting their independence, they ruled to nullify the election and called for repeat polls. This salvaged the country by redirecting energies towards reforms. The opposition recognised that pursuing the reform of independent bodies would build lasting peace for the country, and therefore demanded changes and openness within the vilified IEBC.

The opposition also sought reforms of the laws that the Supreme Court applied to nullify the polls. They opted to regularise the “irregularities” and make illegalities “legal”, so to speak. Parliament, without opposition members, made changes in law apparently to make it easy for Jubilee to win in the repeat polls. This was a significant and definitive decision that, as we shall learn, took the country away from the path of peace back to the sinking sands of uncertainty. The resulting confusion at the IEBC, working under duress and alleged pressure from the State, forced a key member of the commission to quit. The president is believed to have tacitly supported the confusion; he had to win in the repeat election and so made these decisions willfully.

Yet we delude ourselves when we claim that the problems facing Kenya are due to individual politicians. Ignoring these seismic shifts that undermine the foundations of the country’s democracy and fault Raila and his followers’ street protests is also cheeky dishonesty. Why could we not see the obvious in the president’s decisions? That he first repudiated the faith on which the nation was founded – the rule of law and therefore the Judiciary and the Constitution. Then the precepts that governed the country, the independent institutions of the nation: the police force, IEBC, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, all which were so systematically strangled that they effectively operate under instruction “from anonymous sources” (guessing who these sources are is not difficult). The stifling of public freedoms and the vigour with which civil society organisations were hunted threatened the moral framework that gave us the impetus for a free society under the Constitution of Kenya 2010.

These are the terrifying decisions he made. They are the kind of decisions we are making all over the world at this time. The entire global monetary crisis of 2008 was based upon a framework that defies the moral law of God. This framework allows you to violate the rules, to cheat in elections and to build your own storehouses while exploiting others and eliminating anyone who stands in your way. The truth has been simplified to the most elemental choice: agree or die. We have desecrated the very essence of human life, which is why the normal rules that restrain people from murdering the innocent are suspended. Very seldom do we talk about the right to be human. And we think we can do all of this with impunity? These are the issues that are strangling Kenya.

Consequently, the opposition lost patience. Essentially, it wanted a revolution without the slow process of transformation. Its decision to withdraw from the rescheduled election of 26 October 2017 – informed by the failure of the IEBC to act independently and to reform – reflects this frustration. In the determination to act for change, the opposition resorted to the setting up of People’s Assemblies at the county levels across the nation, as it were, invoking the sovereignty of the people as enshrined in the Constitution. It won’t accept Uhuru as president, instead demanding to swear in Odinga as the people’s president (initially scheduled for the 12 December 2017 but which took place on 30 January 2018). The details of this and how it will sit in law is still opaque. Here are an ominous sign of imminent legal confrontations and conflicts.

These political protagonists look to use power in the place of persuasion, to use daggers instead of debate. There are no listening ears among them or their followers. The government resorts to tyranny and brutal force, while the opposition urges the masses to revolt and spread anarchy.

What Prof. Ogude observed of the post-Kenyatta State can be said of this regime – an increase in what may be called “an ethnocratic state” whose basic political rhetoric is nation-building, while in practice it undermines any real desire for nationhood.

What ails Kenya’s politics is not ethnicity per se. The seismic events of 2002 – when the organised opposition seized power – proved that Kenyans can come round. Such coming together, however, has the potential to inflame violence, as we would witness five years later.

Prof. James Ogude, a Senior Research Fellow and Director at the Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria, exposed the popular use of “ethnicity as a means to establishing difference or exclusivity for political expediency”. Holders of power are bent on wantonly wrenching the thin web that binds Kenya. They dutifully ape the nation’s founding fathers, who established the country on the ethnic exclusion of certain communities perceived to be a threat to the State. What Prof. Ogude observed of the post-Kenyatta State can be said of this regime – an increase in what may be called “an ethnocratic state” whose basic political rhetoric is nation-building, while in practice it undermines any real desire for nationhood. It is unfortunate that political leaders goad ethnic hostilities like the bullfighters in Khayeka, Kakamega County. They have weaponised ethnicity.

The real shame has been the failure to transition from ethnic-based to ideologically-based politics. Aggravating this situation is the absence of concrete class markings, which allows this void to be filled with tribalism. We are ruined when in the absence of proper political ideology, tribalism has filled the vacuum. Prof. Colin Leys, writing in the Institute of Development Studies Bulletin 7(3): Underdevelopment in Kenya, The Political Economy of Neo-Colonialism affirmed this when he said, “‘Tribalism is in the first instance an ideological phenomenon. Essentially, it consists in the fact that people identify other exploited people as the source of their insecurity and frustrations, rather than their common exploiters.”

Of course, this does not happen “spontaneously”. Kenyans are victims of political leaders who create this situation. The challenge, therefore, goes beyond individual politicians and tribalism, and to our refusal to agitate for the establishment of effective democratic institutions to serve all Kenyans.

Tribalism serves our politicians by retarding the development of mass class-consciousness, which in turn is achieved by deliberate recasting of such issues into tribal terms. Colins Legum, in his book Africa Since Independence, observes how “politicians seek to secure their class position by constructing inter-tribal patron-client hierarchies, defining social conflicts in terms of ethnic relationships…” What this argument reveals also is that, although ethnic categories have intrinsic reasons for existence, it is not a given that ethnic groups must develop on the basis of mutual hostility and competition.

The book of Genesis in the Bible is about the willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than see them as a threat. The classification of “others” as threats has enabled pathological dualism that, according to Sacks, “divides humanity into children of darkness and of light, all good among us but all evil in the others”.

The book of Genesis in the Bible is about the willingness to accord dignity to the other rather than see them as a threat. The classification of “others” as threats has enabled pathological dualism that, according to Sacks, “divides humanity into children of darkness and of light, all good among us but all evil in the others”.

When a section of Kenyans would commit evil just to prevent Odinga from being president, we see an outright refusal to accept the partially good intentions of others with whom, according to Thomas Melton, “we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism, our own ethical and political quackery.” This kind of dualism must be defeated if Kenya is to become a nation.

One way out of this is role reversal. Rabbi Sacks suggests: “The way we learn not to commit evil is to experience an event from the perspective of the victim. That is what (Biblical) Joseph is forcing his brothers to do. He educates them in otherness through role reversal.”

Joseph forces his brothers to recognise that just as a brother can be a stranger (when kept at a distance), so a stranger can turn out to be a brother. Cain is able to commit murder because he asks, “Am I my brothers’ keeper?” He refuses to feel the pain of Abel but cares only about his rejected offering. On the contrary, in showing that he is his brother’s keeper, Judah’s repentance redeems not only his own earlier sin but also Cain’s. No wonder then that the nation of Israel began in Egypt with slaves so that they could know from the inside what it feels like to be on the other side.

Going forward, let truth be the foundation upon which Kenya is built. History is replete with evidence that truth can be betrayed and systems can be manipulated in the service of oppression and injustice. This has been the story of Kenya.

But aren’t these the challenges also confronting the human family now, calling us to look beyond those dangers? The opposition needs to remain committed to good governance and resist half-measure application of democratic principles, individual rights and the rule of law. The government that calls on all to respect the Constitution must also be exemplary in adhering to the tenets of the Constitution. This is dealing with each other truthfully.

Addressing civil and political leaders and members of the diplomatic corps in the Presidential Palace in Prague on 26 September 2009, Pope Benedict XVI could have as well been addressing Kenya’s stalemate today when he said: “The thirst for truth, beauty, and goodness, implanted in all men and women by the Creator, is meant to draw people together in the quest for justice, freedom, and peace.” He questions what is more inhuman and destructive than the cynicism which would deny the grandeur of our human quest for truth, and the relativism that corrodes the very values which inspire the building of a united and fraternal world. It is imperative, therefore, to place confidence in our innate capacity to crave for and grasp the truth and allow this confidence to point us to work for the Kenya we want.

Our priority must be to pursue principle above pragmatism. To get there, we must admit that while pragmatism determines the greater part of politics, it must never be at the expense of moral principles.

Now, however, we need to also embrace the truth with all its ramifications. Kenyans have a capacity for doing right and upholding the principles of democracy, as demonstrated in the 2002 election and the referendum that yielded the 2010 Constitution. This will ensure an end to election theft. I doubt there is need for more laws. I also do not imagine that changing people at the helm of failing institutions like the IEBC, without a shift in attitude, will change the situation.

Our priority must be to pursue principle above pragmatism. To get there, we must admit that while pragmatism determines the greater part of politics, it must never be at the expense of moral principles. For the professional politician, judge, administrator of justice or manager of the country’s crucial institutions, this means the priority of conscience above mere expediency. This will not be without a cost. Cardinal Ratzinger warns: “To live by the priority of moral principle over pragmatism requires moral courage. To adhere to your (genuinely moral) principles, must bring you into conflict with the powers and principalities of this world.” And for politics to recover its sense of direction, argues Ratzinger, what is needed is the recovery and public recognition of those moral norms that are universally valid.

In the end, we need to pursue truth to its logical conclusion. Attempts to bridge the divide and solve the present crisis have focused on reconciliation. Needless to say, these have so far been futile, for want of honest mediators. The depth of the crisis transcends a simple reconciliation between President Kenyatta and Mr. Odinga. Reconciliation must be grounded in repentance, which means a complete change in attitude and behaviour. A role reversal would be the best way of entering the world of those with “no stake in the economy” and whose rights have been trampled again and again.

We must urgently move away from the path of apocalyptic politics and affirm, through reforms, the national institutions that accommodate us all. The day these conflicts are transformed into conciliation will be the beginning of our journey to becoming members of one family called Kenya.

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Rev. Francis Omondi is a priest at All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own.

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Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing

In the 1980s and 1990s parts of Mathare gradually became the epicenter of the large scale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa and a booming local economy emerged that has since become a major source of contestation between the police and the residents.

Fire and Chaos: Mathare’s Chang’aa Problem and the Optics of Policing
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On Tuesday 2 April 2019, social workers, youth group members, activists and friends, all residents of Mathare in Nairobi, hurdled together on the top floor of the Macharia building near the Olympic petrol station at Juja road as they watched in horror, as two schools were set alight by police. Thick, black smoke circled up and soon blanketed the entire valley. Alongside the two schools, another thirty or so houses quickly burned down to ashes in the raging fire. People raced to quell the fire with buckets of water, but were blocked by police in their tracks. Furious shouts filled the air as licking flames destroyed what residents had built over decades; businesses, schools and homes, all gone in minutes.

This criminal act of arson by police of a part of a Nairobi neighborhood took place on the third day of a raid against the local alcohol economy, spearheaded by the notorious ‘killer cop’ Rashid. This police officer gained notoriety after being filmed executing two teenagers on a busy street in Eastleigh in broad daylight on 31 March 2017. Ironically, the raid against the local alcohol economy in Mathare under his command started exactly two years later, on Sunday 31 March 2019. In between, Rashid has killed, maimed and harassed many people, especially young and poor men, in Mathare and beyond, and with absolute impunity.

Subsequently, Rashid was free to walk into Mathare on the aforementioned Sunday while guiding a troop of police officers down the valley where they barged into homes and bars to destroy alcohol and other belongings of local business owners and their employees. Shockingly, the Pangani OCS (Officer Commanding Police Station) and the Area Chief both claimed to ‘have had nothing to do with the raid’, despite eyewitnesses who stated that regular police and AP officers and equipment (such as a well-known land rover used by AP) were employed during the raid. Residents wondered how a full-blown war be waged on residents for days by police without the police officers in charge ‘having nothing to do with it’?

As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa

That first Sunday night of fear chaos and gunshots transpired without dead bodies, but many had lost weeks of work and earnings, and others nursed bruises and deep cuts from trying to defend homes and properties from the pillaging police. One of us found his grandmother crying on Monday morning; a woman who has distilled and sold alcohol for more than four decades and has raised her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren while doing so. The police had poured her kangara, the distilling mixture, which had been almost ready for cooking. She lost 4000 shillings, her monthly earnings, and was left in deep debt. Thousands of small business owners and their employees and tens of thousands of their dependents suffered the same fate. On Monday, all the jiko’s (‘kitchens’) near the river remained closed; no one could work while the police patrolled in search of alcohol and production tools to destroy. This went on for yet another day and night, until on Tuesday tensions between angry residents and police culminated into protests by alcohol distillers.

History of the local alcohol economy

To understand the impact of this crackdown on people living and working in Mathare, a brief insight into the history of the alcohol economy is crucial. As early as 1930s, women who settled in abandoned parts of the quarry that later came to be known as Mathare earned money through sex work and selling home-brewed alcohol such as busaa and chang’aa. This area was wedged in by several military and police bases, and the influx of soldiers during the war period (1940-45) attracted a growing number of women in search of work. These women were among the many young people who were forced to leave their homesteads in the colonial confinements of people called ‘Native Reserves’ in the rural areas following soil erosion, population pressures and the demand for ‘hut tax’ (which had to be paid in cash to the colonial government). Even if women comprised the majority of residents in Mathare from the onset, men increasingly migrated to live here—often after being chased from colonial settler farms when mechanization of farm work took hold during the late 1930s. Following these and other developments, Mathare became the nexus of urban resistance against the colonial government and formed an important node in the Kenya Land and Freedom Armies (KLFAs)—also known as ‘Mau Mau’.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa. According to several bar owners we spoke with, the influx of rural-urban migrants during this period boosted the selling of chang’aa to unprecedented levels. Also, they soon found that the profit margins for chang’aa were much higher than for instance busaa, and soon multiple cooking sites emerged along the banks of the Mathare river. Profit margins have fallen significantly since the 1990s, following a convergence of rising food prices (especially a type of molasses called ngutu) and increasing demands for police bribes since the 2000s. Still, the local alcohol economy sustains thousands of people in Mathare directly and is fundamental to most other economic activities located here.

For example, a major shortage of firewood often plagues adjacent neighborhoods, but every other small business on Mau Mau Avenue in Bondeni, a neighborhood in Mathare, sells large quantities of this wood. These firewood sellers have arrangements with construction companies for frequent early morning deliveries. Old wood from scaffolding at construction sites is transported to the area in trucks so large they can barely enter the ghetto. Every day, these trucks drop off mountains of firewood intended to fuel the widespread and constant distillation of alcohol at the sites near the river. At the same time, young men in search of work hang around these businesses from sunrise to midday to help offload the bulks of firewood and chop them into smaller pieces in return for a small stipend. Suffice to say that thousands more depend indirectly on the alcohol economy in Mathare. All this provides some insight into the abrupt devastation to the livelihoods of thousands and thousands of people caused by frequent crackdowns on the local alcohol economy by police.

After independence in 1963, alcohol production and distribution remained a home-based economy, and houses often doubled as bars where alcohol and sexual services were sold. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that parts of Mathare (especially the following villages: Bondeni, Shantit and Mabatani) gradually became the epicenter of the largescale production and distribution in Nairobi of chang’aa

After days without work and consequently food, alcohol distillers took to Juja road on Tuesday morning, 2 April 2019, to protest the illegal and violent raid by police. The few media outlets describing the protests squarely blamed ‘angry youth’ for starting the fire. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have spoken to many eyewitnesses who saw police officers deliberately setting the houses and schools alight. The so called ‘angry youth’ were alcohol distillers who had not earned a living for three days. These (mostly) men who make on a good day, Kshs 300 for 10 hours of backbreaking work, barely enough to provide for a family of four. These families do not have any savings to rely on when work is disrupted by state violence, and the illegal raid by police had left hundreds of families hungry for days. This provoked husbands, fathers and brothers to take to street and fight for their families, and they burned tires on the road to underscore their demand to work by blocking traffic.

As has been witnessed by several people, during the ensuing fracas one officer carelessly threw one of the burning tires into a row of make-shift houses and carpentry workshops along Juja road, all constructed of highly flammable materials. Other eyewitnesses saw police officers violently dispersed people trying to stop the fire from reaching the labyrinth of homes, businesses and schools down the street leading into Mabatini, thus effectively enabling the fire to destroy several houses and properties. Teargas was lobbed at the crowds of people who had gathered with buckets of water trying to rescue their homes and belongings. The teargas canisters further ignited the fire as residents watched their schools and homes burn to the ground.

The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police

Distraught, many slept outdoors in the cold on Tuesday night. The fire also destroyed the electricity supply line and the ensuing blackout increased insecurity. One resident recounted that, “For nights, gun shots have become our ringtone.” Another lamented, “We live in a war(zone), but nobody cares.” As Mathare endured this terror for three days and nights, residents watched in disbelief as the evening news headlines either ignored their plight and the criminal acts by police or apportioned the blame decidedly on them using the pejorative ‘angry youth’ frame. Mathare residents were profiled as criminals and the local alcohol economy as illicit and dangerous. Indeed, misconceptions about Mathare and local industries persist. For example, chang’aa was legalized in September 2010 and is not an ‘illicit brew’. The current modes of chang’aa production in Mathare may occur without a license and may not adhere to regulations, but that does not warrant such a violent and criminal crackdown by police. If the production is not up to standard, why not encourage or enable owners, distillers and sellers to obtain licenses and invest in improved production? The answer is simple: too many people high-up in police and government ‘eat’ from the industry as it is.

The Culture of Policing In Mathare

Everyone living and working in Mathare is familiar with the daily routine of police visiting the distilling sites and bars where alcohol is produced and sold to solicit bribes. For each drum of kangara, the police receive at least 200 KES. Let us assume that there are seven distilling sites (we don’t disclose any specific details for security reasons) which have the capacity to process seven drums simultaneously, meaning there are 7 fires operative at each site at all times. Each drum takes three rounds to cook and each round takes 1 hour (45 minutes to distill and 15 minutes to cool). So seven sites and seven fires operating for 24 hours can process 392 drums of distilling mixture per day. For each drum, police receive Kshs 200 and the figure adds up to an average of kshs 70 000 per day and in excess of Kshs 2 million per month. This is a conservative estimate since it does not include the bribes police take from bars and alcohol distributors, and it does not include police officers who run their own alcohol operations. And the number of drums along the riverside also vary immensely. Sometimes, a jiko can have 15 or 20 fires operating at once, while at other times only three or four. The above calculations, though based on thorough research, only serve to give an indication of police involvement and investment in the alcohol industry in Mathare. Considering this, why then does the police initiate a raid to clamp down on the very industry that ‘feeds’ them?

A first part of the answer pertains to internal divisions within police. Police does not entail a homogenous entity, and rumors have it that Rashid and his team were eventually stopped by other police officers in the course of the week because they saw their avenues to ‘easy money’ destroyed. That, at least to some measure, explains why on Thursday the raid was abruptly halted. What’s more, crackdowns on the alcohol economy are not uncommon, despite the entanglement of police in this business. In July 2015, Mathare residents lived through a similar period of police terror which left two people dead and thousands people without work for weeks. Many believe that such attacks are often triggered by a desire of particular police units or individual officers to show, as one resident put it to us, “the ‘higher ups’ that they are doing their ‘job’ and/or deserve promotion”. This time too, many residents believe the notorious Rashid went out of his way to impress in the incoming Inspector General Mutyambai. A resident shared with us that in his view Rashid demonstrated his exceptional cruelty during the course of the raid by forcing a customer of a local bar to drink bleach while he compared bleach to chang’aa. The young punter barely survived this ordeal.

The police officer mentioned here is not the only one. Similar notorious policemen who are known to execute and torture mainly young and poor men frequently patrol most informal urban settlements in Nairobi. According to several of our fellow activists, these plain cloth police officers, called ‘killer cops’ or maspiff by some, are not part of regular police units that are locally known to be connected to specific police stations and which patrol Mathare and surrounding neighborhoods on a daily basis. They told us that these police officers operate under the direct command of the County Criminal Investigations Officer (CCIO). Several (non-state) security groups in Mathare that work together with these police officers revealed to us that several of them also enjoy substantial support by influential business owners, for instance in Eastleigh. The exact operational and support structures of these ‘killer cops’ and how they collaborate with regular police units remain somewhat opaque to local activists and residents, but all agreed that these plain cloth police officers enjoy considerable power and are able to kill with impunity through their powerful back-up.

When considering the relative opacity of their operations, the public visibility of these police officers in Mathare (and other urban settlements) is indeed rather astounding. They are also not a recent phenomenon. Most Mathare residents above 25 years old can easily recall the cruel reign of different ‘killer cops’ as far back as the late 1990s, such as the ruthless Habel Mwareria a.k.a. ‘Tyson’ in early 2000s who was also popularly dubbed ‘the Ghost’ because he often seemed to materialize out of thin air when- and wherever problems occurred. He killed suspects without asking questions, in front of people and in broad daylight and would vanish as rapidly as he had appeared. He was later promoted to the ATPU ( Anti Terrorism Police Unit).

Nevertheless, the ‘killer cops’ gained new strength in popular discourse when in April and May 2017 alleged police officers calling themselves ‘Hessy’ became rapidly infamous by posting pictures on different Facebook pages, under this name, of suspected ‘thugs’ before and after they purportedly shot them. Speculations continue to the date about who or what ‘Hessy’ really is. Some people claim it started with an actual police officer who was shot in the leg and while he was recovering home in the month of April 2017 he started this network of ‘Hessy’s’ on Facebook. This is substantiated to some extent by the fact that there is an infamous police officer who is nicknamed Hessy and who is known to kill mostly young male crime suspects in Kayole. Others say that one officer or a group of police officers from different police stations in Eastlands chose this name because of the reputation of this particular police officer. Others state that the different ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages on Facebook were not created by one or more police officers, but by a team of bloggers working in collaboration with specific ‘killer cops’. The ‘Hessy’ and adjacent pages (such as Nairobi Crime Free and Dandora Crime Free) soon gained a massive following online and continue to be a topic of intense debate offline, for instance among residents in Mathare.

Local Dynamics and the Future of Chang’aa

Police violence in Mathare, such as extra-judicial killings and illegal raids on people’s livelihoods, are enabled by a combination of factors. In contrast to the knee-jerk homogenization and criminalization of ghetto residents, for instance in mainstream media in Kenya, people inside Mathare are equally divided about the use of (criminal) violence by police. Police use such local divisions inside this neighborhood to push their own agenda. For instance, they work together with residents, popularly dubbed informers or watihaji, who are paid by police for information on people, business activities and other developments locally. This explains how police were able to find the entrance to the jiko’s at the river or the places where bars are located.

However, the incentives of informers to tell on their neighbors often go beyond merely monetary motivations or concerns about crime. Local competition or revenge plays a big role as well. Police also depend too much on such secondary and often faulty intelligence because the local turnover of police, following frequent transfers, is quite high thus limiting the time police have to understand local dynamics. As a result, local informer-networks have some power to manipulate police behavior towards their own agendas. To illustrate, sometimes ‘killer cops’ like Rashid parade a suspect throughout Mathare and when they receive calls from as little as three informers confirming the identity of the suspect, the suspect is taken to a backstreet and executed. Our fellow activists have documented several cases that follow this pattern.

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

The recent raid in Mathare on the local alcohol economy stopped as suddenly as it had started and without any outcome other than destroyed livelihoods, schools and homes and injured people. Slowly, alcohol distillers went back to work on Friday and gradually the local economy picked up again. Such crackdowns have never stopped the local alcohol industry and never will. If the government wants to make the local alcohol industry safer and bring it in line with regulations, it needs to work together with business owners and their employees to develop ways to improve production standards. If alcohol consumption is the problem, why not invest in rehabilitation programs and explore underlying factors that contribute to widespread cheap alcohol consumption, such as vast unemployment and extreme stress? If the government wants people to stop working in this industry all together why not develop alternatives together with them?

Crackdowns briefly slow production but do not alter the make-up of this industry in any way, yet the Mathare residents who have for generations depend on this economy bear the brunt for the simple reality that they cannot afford to miss a day of work.

On Thursday 4 April 2019, one resident asked us: “Who is Rashid? How can he do all this, kill our young men for years, then come to destroy our work, huh? Who is he?”

“Why are there no people coming from Red Cross, or our government leaders, like when Dusit happens or Westgate? Are we not human beings?”

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Liberty for Whom? D-Day’s African Ghosts

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

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Three-quarters of a century ago, hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy in what was the start of a war to save Western Europe from Nazi occupation. American and European leaders gathered at the scene last week to memorialise and honour those who fell, including on the German side. The US President, Donald Trump, began his tribute to them thus: “On this day 75 years ago, 10,000 men shed their blood and thousands sacrificed their lives for their brothers, for their countries, and for the survival of liberty.”

Undoubtedly, much of that is true. From the perspective of those in occupied Europe, it was the beginning of their liberation and the defeat of fascist tyranny. It would inaugurate, for many, an era of democratic freedom and economic prosperity that was at the time unparalleled in history.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

President Trump went on to state that “the GIs who boarded the landing craft that morning knew that they carried on their shoulders not just the pack of a soldier but the fate of the world.” This may be true, but the world is not just Western Europe; from the perspective of those on the African continent, the GIs were not there to shore up liberty and democracy, but rather to free countries that were themselves engaged in colonial plunder and occupation.

Africa tends to be swept under the carpet in the memorials for the two World Wars, which are always couched in terms of, again to borrow a phrase from Trump’s speech, “the ferocious eternal struggle between good and evil” – the Germans being branded as the ultimate evil and the Allies being the forces of good.

But there was little that was “good” about what these same countries were doing and would continue to do to the people in Africa whose land and resources they were continuing to steal and whose people they not only oppressed but also press-ganged into their wars. More than a million Africans fought in World War II – hundreds of thousands of them were sent to the front in Europe, others to India, Burma and the Pacific islands. Few understood why they were fighting, let alone why they volunteered to do it. Many died and survivors today receive nothing of the recognition and adulation bestowed on their European and American counterparts.

Now it is probably true that a world governed by the Nazis would have been much worse for Africans than the present one, so in that sense their defeat was good for the continent. But in that case, it could also be argued that the two World Wars, which exhausted the European powers and shattered the myth of white invincibility for the returning African veterans, were also good in that they paved the way for the end of colonialism. In either case, the uncontested fact would be that these were not wars to free all people but rather to determine who would be their overlords – despite the rhetoric, they were fought less for global liberation than for global domination.

David Frum, in his brilliant piece for The Atlantic, “The Ghosts of D-Day”, notes how the memory of D-Day and the liberation of Europe have been distorted in French and American imaginations. In truth, it is not just American memories that have “become more triumphalist and self-aggrandizing”. The memorials at Normandy are not so much about remembering history but rather spinning it. And within that spin, the tale of the Africans has no place – it muddies the moral waters to admit that the liberation the Allies sought did not include that of the black and brown peoples they were oppressing; that those on this continent had, and to a large extent still have, little share in the freedom that was heralded on that day.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art.

For Africans, the irony is that the tools for making concrete the memory of what the European nations were actually doing – the records and documents that tell the story of the occupation and the crimes that were committed against Africans – are, for the most part, either deliberately destroyed or safely hidden away in European vaults. Many were stolen at the end of the colonial occupation in an effort to maintain the fiction of its benevolence.

However, what is today undeniable is that the Allies were guilty of committing, and would go on to commit, many of the same crimes that qualified the Nazis as evil – from implementing a racist occupation, to genocides, to interring entire communities in concentration camps, to jailing homosexuals, to looting cultural artefacts and art. Yet, unlike the Germans, who have owned up to “the unforgettable rupture of civilization that [they] provoked in Europe” and to the fact that “the fallen German soldiers are resting in foreign soil not because they came as liberators to this country but as occupiers”, there has been no such admission from the Europeans with regard to their occupation of Africa. Today, they still repeat the lie that colonialism was about bringing civilization and the benefits of modernity to the primitive peoples of the continent rather than implementing a system of extraction that continues to bleed the continent to this very day.

In 2017, Bruce Gilley, a professor of political science at Portland State University, published the article, “The Case for Colonialism” (withdrawn after a public uproar and death threats), in which he argued that Western colonialism was both “objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate”. He further advocated for “colonial modes of governance; by recolonizing some areas; and by creating new Western colonies from scratch”. While much of this has been debunked, he is hardly the only one to go public with such views. In the same year, the former leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, was removed from her leadership roles after she put out a series of tweets touting the benefits of colonialism.

Rather than the selective and hagiographic portrayals we are treated to today, a better memorial for D-Day would be to return the colonial archives and to acknowledge the truth – the whole, unvarnished truth – about what was being defended on that day. For it surely was not the ideal of liberty for all. Importantly, this would include an acknowledgement and compensation for the Africans who were forced to fight and die in the wars that were not of their making.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa

The rise of a global technology industry to support financial services, known as fin-tech, has grown enormously in Africa in the last decade. Across the continent, many commentators have proclaimed fin-tech as the solution to poverty and development. Examining the case of Kenya’s celebrated fin-tech model, M-Pesa, Milford Bateman, Maren Duvendack and Nicholas Loubere reveal a flawed system that is not an answer to poverty, despite the wild claims of some academic commentators. Quite the contrary, fin-tech offers Africa a further case study of how contemporary capitalism continues to under-develop Africa.

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Another False Messiah: The Rise and Rise of Fin-tech in Africa
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In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology). Defined as ‘computer programs and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services’, the last decade or so has seen the rise of a new global fin-tech industry, a development that is widely regarded to be positively changing the world in a variety of ways. Thanks to almost daily reports of major new investments, especially in Africa, many investment professionals are of the opinion that something akin to a new ‘gold rush’ is clearly underway. At the same time, the fin-tech model is also touted as an innovation that will greatly benefit the global poor, with enthusiastic supporters claiming that a new golden age of ‘inclusive capitalism’ is upon us.

By far the most well-known example of the fin-tech model to date is Kenya’s M-Pesa – the agent-assisted, mobile-phone-based, person-to-person payment and money transfer system. M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor. Taking inspiration from M-Pesa, many in the international development community now regard the fin-tech model as a potentially game-changing private sector-funded driver of development and poverty reduction in the Global South.

In both the global investment community and the international development community one of the most talked-about issues today is fin-tech (financial technology)

In the academic community the apparent combination of poverty reduction with profit generation proved to be a very seductive pro-capitalist narrative that many mainstream economists were only too willing to engage with. The most well-known academic economists examining the impact of M-Pesa are Tavneet Suri, based at MIT, and William Jack, based at Georgetown University. With extensive funding from Financial Sector Deepening (FSD) Kenya and the Gates Foundation, since 2010 Suri and Jack have produced a series of outputs extolling the benefits of M-Pesa. Suri and Jack’s generally positive findings have resulted in mainstream media attention and large numbers of citations. This has played an important part in galvanising the international development community into supporting the fin-tech model as a development and poverty reduction intervention.

In particular, their 2016 article published in the prestigious journal Science, entitled ‘The Long-run Poverty and Gender Impacts of Mobile Money’ has played a considerable role in sparking the imagination of the international development community. This is mainly because of its sensational claim that ‘access to the Kenyan mobile money system M-PESA increased per capita consumption levels and lifted 194,000 households, or 2% of Kenyan households, out of poverty.’ According to this article, M-Pesa was not just making profits, but the evidence seemed to show it was also making an astonishing ‘bottom-up’ development and poverty reduction contribution. This poverty reduction claim, often cited in full in media articles, quickly became the centrepiece of the evidence used by many in the international development community to justify its increasingly strong support for, and investment in, the fin-tech model.

M-Pesa is widely seen as the first fin-tech institution to conclusively demonstrate that it is possible to make a profit while also very meaningfully improving the lives of the poor.

Unfortunately, all that glitters is not gold. As we write in a Briefing just published in the ROAPE Suri and Jack’s hugely influential signature article actually contains a surprising number of errors, omissions, poor logic, and methodological flaws. Crucial labour market evaluation parameters, such as business failure (exit) and the impact of new businesses on existing ones (displacement), were entirely over-looked. The core issue of individual over-indebtedness, which in Kenya is now approaching crisis levels and which has a clear and direct link to the operation of M-Pesa, was not even mentioned as a possible downside of the fin-tech development model. For such an important and well-financed project, the methodology was also weak, diverging from many of the standard ‘best practices’ in the impact evaluation field. The important issue of causation was also raised, but in a way that we found to be questionable at best. In many ways, therefore, Suri and Jack’s analysis appears to misrepresent and vastly over-state the development impact of M-Pesa. 

Fin-tech represents a new form of resource extractivism

One of the most disturbing aspects of Suri and Jack’s flawed analysis, however, is that they completely bypass the crucial equity and distributional issues that arise from the operation of M-Pesa and other similar fin-tech corporations. This is inexcusable because there are clear warning signs today that the fin-tech model possesses the potential to extract immense value from the poorest communities in the Global South, with potentially calamitous long-term consequences. Like the gambling, sub-prime mortgage and payday loan industries in the United States and UK that before and after the financial crisis of 2008 were able to grow rich by expertly extracting massive amounts of value from the communities of the poor, one might argue that Kenya’s poorest communities are also being drained of much of their needed collective wealth.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform (which has become ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid). This includes microloans, money transfers, grant disbursement, credit card usage, pension payments, and so on. One simply cannot escape from the fin-tech ‘net’ that is gradually being lowered on to the poor. As more and more governments and elites are brought in as allies by the fin-tech industry, this value extraction process is only likely to speed up and intensify, with cash transactions being increasingly jettisoned and ever more transactions being mediated by fin-tech organisations.

M-Pesa has essentially perfected a form of ‘digital mining’ that captures and extracts a small tribute from each and every one of the growing number of tiny financial transactions made by the poor through the platform

By the same token, given the profit motive at play, it is inevitable that a range of services and products will end up being pushed on to the poor even though they largely do not need them, are not able to productively use them, or do not have any means to repay debt associated with them. The value realised through such ‘digital mining’ techniques is then extracted from the local community and deposited into the hands of the fin-tech entity’s owner(s). However, with so many fin-tech entities backed by foreign capital from the Global North, the chances are that a large proportion of this ‘digitally mined’ value will head abroad to the world’s leading investment locations.

What we have here, therefore, is a value extraction process that contains the potential to progressively undermine the development process in local communities in the Global South. It does this in two important ways: first, it denies the local community an extremely valuable aggregate amount of local spending power, which is instead appropriated by wealthy individuals and institutions, many of which are located abroad. This renders an important endogenous growth trajectory inactive, since it is rising local demand that often provides the initial impetus for local enterprises to emerge in order to meet this demand. Second, fin-tech institutions also starve the local (re)investment cycle by siphoning value out of the community, and thus make it more difficult for local businesses to access the meaningful amounts of capital needed to establish sustainable commercial operations. Experiences in Asia with local banking from 1945 onwards, for example, show that reinvesting/recycling the bulk of locally-generated value back into the local economy has significant potential to kick-start economic growth.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries. The ‘resource’ increasingly being extracted from Africa today might no longer be a physical one – such as diamonds, gold, platinum, or silver -and the process might not require slavery, the employment of ultra-exploitative waged labour, or involve horrendous working conditions, but the eventual negative outcomes of ‘digital mining’ could very well be the extension and continuation of under-development.

M-Pesa thus provides us with a valuable case study of how contemporary platform capitalism operates in neoliberal Africa and how ‘digital mining’ might actually affect Kenya’s potential growth and development. In recent years, Safaricom (M-Pesa’s parent company) has become far and away Kenya’s largest company, now accounting for a massive 40% of the total stock market valuation on the Nairobi securities exchange. Safaricom is also famous for its spectacular profits. In 2019 it set a record by registering profits of around US$620 million, which would be an impressive result in even the richest countries of the Global North. To put this into perspective, this figure is slightly more than the Kenyan government spends on the entire healthcare system in the country. However, along with an additional bonus paid out in 2019 to shareholders amounting to around US$240 million, a large percentage of this US$620 million in profit was paid out as dividends to foreign shareholders. The main beneficiary was the majority shareholder (at 40%) of Safaricom, the UK multinational corporation Vodafone. Other beneficiaries are a variety of mainly foreign investors located in ‘tax-efficient’ locations (the Caribbean mainly) and who hold a 25% stake. The Kenyan government also holds a further 35% stake in Safaricom.

Fin-tech could, therefore, be seen as a revised version of the natural resource extraction paradigm that was largely responsible for under-developing Africa and other colonised countries over the last four centuries.

This demonstrates that significant value is being created by M-Pesa based on the tiny transactions of the poor, but most of it is spirited abroad via dividend payments to foreign shareholders. This helps explain why M-Pesa has become a beacon for global investors and financial institutions all seeking their own spectacular fortunes in Africa while framing their thirst for profits as altruism. Indeed, by embedding the fin-tech model in Kenya, the international development community is complicit in the establishment of a high-tech extractivist infrastructure similar to colonial-era equivalents.

‘Digital mining’ in Kenya and the foreign appropriation of the wealth generated by those languishing at the bottom of the pyramid is a less directly brutal undertaking than the value extraction process carried out in colonial times.  However, the extractivist logic, the wealth transfer, and the determination to accumulate on the back of the poor have a similar character to colonial-era economic regimes, and similar potential to seriously damage socioeconomic development in the long-term.

Furthermore, as in colonial times, a local elite has been allowed significant freedom to manage this ‘digital mining’ on behalf of the foreign owners. As with Capitec Bank in South Africa, it is no secret that the CEO and senior management at Safaricom have been able to use the company as a vehicle through which to extract fantastic rewards for themselves, enjoying Wall Street-style levels of remuneration in recent years and with several becoming multi-millionaires as a result. However, this also provides the obvious incentive to grow Safaricom as fast as possible because in that way the personal rewards attributable to those at the top are maximised. As a result, Safaricom’s CEO and other senior management have pushed growth to the limits and are now encountering problems in several areas on account of reckless over-expansion, including with regard to the company’s wilful engagement with gambling. In addition, in the early stages of M-Pesa’s growth, certain still unidentified members of the local Kenyan elite were able to secure for themselves a sizeable shareholding in Safaricom, which they later sold off for massive capital gains. Pointedly, the impact on inequality in Kenya arising from these narrow elite enrichment mechanisms has been very significant.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall.

In short, an effective value extraction process involving ‘digital mining’ has been established in Kenya, which has been misleadingly framed by many in the international development community as contributing to ‘bottom-up’ development. This process has ensured the stratospheric enrichment of a narrow group of foreign investors, Safaricom’s own senior managers, and a section of the Kenyan elite. However, this value has effectively been appropriated from M-Pesa’s overwhelmingly poor clients via their growing bundle of tiny fin-tech-mediated financial transactions.

Despite the benefit that some individuals in poverty undoubtedly enjoy as a result of M-Pesa’s services, universal financial inclusion has come at a very high longer-term price for Kenya’s poor overall. Safaricom appears to have become a classic example of the ‘cathedral in the desert’ syndrome – a vastly profitable entity that exists only by ignoring the impoverishment it is helping to create in its wake. As fin-tech spreads across Africa, it is likely we will see similar deleterious extractionist scenarios emerging.

Might we not then consider M-Pesa to be the canary in the coalmine?

Parallels with the failed microfinance revolution?

Our analysis of Suri and Jack’s hugely influential 2016 article shows that it simply does not stand up to scrutiny. One might conjecture that this has something to do with the fact that much of the funding for their work over the past decade has come from FSD Kenya and the Gates Foundation, two of the world’s leading advocates for the fin-tech model.

In this context, it is interesting to recall how the now largely discredited microfinance movement got a game-changing boost back in the 1990s thanks to a study by two high-profile World Bank economists – Mark Pitt and Shahidur Khandker – claiming that microfinance in Bangladesh was generating major poverty reduction benefits for women Pitt and Khandker’s work was much later shown to contain many serious errors and its conclusions were unsound. Nevertheless, Pitt and Khandker’s work more than served its immediate purpose, which was to galvanise support within and around the international development community for an intervention that the World Bank desperately wanted to see go forward on ideological grounds. We might therefore pose the obvious question here with regard to the misrepresentation of M-Pesa’s impact: are Suri and Jack the new Pitt and Khandker?

 

Editors Note: This article was first posted in the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE)

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