On December 28, 2017, a funeral entourage from Saba Saba town in Murang’a County that was on its way back to Nairobi stopped at a Kenol petrol station some 45 kilometres northeast of Nairobi to drink late afternoon tea. The group was just in time to catch Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka’s press conference on his return home that was being aired on Citizen TV.
Kalonzo, who is one of the four National Super Alliance (NASA) co-principals, had been away for close to ten weeks in Germany, where his wife Pauline had been receiving treatment and recuperating from cancer. On seeing Kalonzo addressing the media, everyone, including the waiters, stiffened and stayed glued to the television set. Kalonzo’s statement supporting Raila Odinga’s swearing-in as “The Peoples’ President” elicited groans and moans and angry clicking and smacking sounds.
“Kirimu giki giacoka gwika atia. Riu gioka gututhukiria bururi?” said one of the women who was among the entourage. “This fool, why has he come back? Has he come to ruin our country?” Our country here interpreted to mean the Kikuyus’ “hard won” electoral victory. Kalonzo should not support Raila in his devious schemes to make the country ungovernable – ungovernable here to mean any political manoeuvres meant to rattle or scuttle Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. “Kalonzo ought to know that politics are over and there is no looking back,” muttered the woman who had called him a fool.
Since Uhuru was sworn in on November 28, 2017, the Kikuyu people have been projecting a veneer of braggadocio and showmanship, but beneath all this bravado is a real fear and vulnerability that is eating away at the community quietly.
According to the crowd gathered at Kenol, Raila’s pending swearing-in, which had been postponed once, would be a disaster and did not augur well for uthamaki (Kikuyu political elite) rulership. With the return of Kalonzo, the NASA quartet settled for January 30, 2018, as their new date for Raila’s swearing-in, with Kalonzo as his deputy.
Since Uhuru was sworn-in on November 28, 2017, the Kikuyu people have been projecting a veneer of braggadocio and showmanship, but beneath all this bravado is a real fear and vulnerability that is eating away at the community quietly. It is soon going to be obvious why this is so.
Raila was the opposition NASA’s presidential candidate who contested the August 8, 2017 general election. Uhuru, who was the Jubilee coalition’s flagbearer, was pronounced the winner by the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) thereafter. NASA went to the Supreme Court of Kenya, and the court, in an unprecedented ruling, annulled Uhuru’s victory. When the court decreed that the IEBC must organise another election within the constitutionally mandated 60 days, it finally picked the October 26, 2017, date, a day – whether by design or default – happened to fall on Uhuru Kenyatta’s 56th birthday.
However, on October 10, Raila Odinga pulled the rug under the feet of the Jubilee coalition by stating that he was keeping off the fresh presidential election. Catching Uhuru Kenyatta and his team unawares, Jubilee at first did not know how to deal with Raila’s withdrawal from the repeat poll. When the election took place, Uhuru essentially ran against himself, but he ensured there were sufficient but largely insignificant “also-ran” candidates, who were supposed to give the election some modicum of credibility.
What that election did was expose Uhuru Kenyatta and the Jubilee coalition’s projected myth of the much-touted “tyranny of numbers”. Less than a third (just under 30 per cent) of the total registered voters cast their vote. As if that was not bad enough, votes were mostly cast in regions that are dominated by Kikuyus and Kalenjins. In the western region of Nyanza, four counties – Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya – did not vote at all.
When I asked some of my close relatives whether they had voted in the repeat presidential election, they retorted: “Kirimu kiu gitanakirugama.” “That fool, (meaning Raila Odinga), did not contest. It was going to be a waste of time.” The Kikuyu people, generically speaking, like to believe they are a busy lot with productive work to attend to and so do not get caught “wasting time” in political rallies. “Political rallies are for idlers,” they like projecting (to all and sundry) their ostensible cleverness about their political awareness. So, the question must be posed: Who used to pack the “mammoth” Jubilee rallies in Kikuyu-dominated areas in the lead-up to the August 8 general election? Wage earners or hired idlers?
The people seemed apprehensive and uptight, like they knew something about that repeat election that did not sit well with them, but could not vocalise it, perhaps for fear of exposing a community’s secret and their own guilt.
The paradox of Kikuyus professing their love for their muthamaki (Uhuru Kenyatta), a man who will not stand by them, will soon become clearer. The fundamental question is why Kikuyus, even after witnessing what non-Jubilee Kenyans refer to as the “coronation” of Uhuru Kenyatta at Moi International Sports Centre at Kasarani – where some of the Jubilee coalition loyalists, who had been bussed from around the country, died in stampede – are surreptitiously nonchalant about his October 26 win.
The December festive season provided me with an opportunity to travel and connect with my ancestral people and Kikuyu rural folk from central Kenya and in the diaspora. As we partied, I could not help notice that they did not seem to rejoice in the October 26 victory of Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta. The people seemed apprehensive and uptight, like they knew something about that repeat election that did not sit well with them, but could not vocalise it, perhaps for fear of exposing a community’s secret and their own guilt. They were uncannily silent about his “election win” and were seemingly unimpressed by his flaccid promises of improving their lives or assuring their livelihoods, even after bagging a “legacy” second term. Instead, my relatives were itching to ask me: “Why is Raila not talking?” When one of them finally asked me that question, it was with such concern that I did not know exactly what kind of an answer she was looking for.
“What would you like him to say?” I responded.
“Why is he so quiet?”
“What does it matter whether he speaks or not?” I said. “Was he not vanquished?”
“He must be plotting something sinister,” posited my relative. “Why can’t he leave us alone?”
I realised that Raila was the millstone that Kikuyus have chosen to carry around in their lives, or perhaps have been unwittingly made to shoulder, always serving as a reminder of the Kikuyu political elites’ narrative to the ordinary Kikuyu folk that all their problems began and ended with an ogre called “Raira”.
I also realised that for both rural and urban Kikuyus, Raila is damned if he speaks, damned if he does not. I found out that the Kikuyu people are not savouring Uhuru’s electoral victory; rather, they seem to be fearful and silent on the victory. It is as if they are not sure about what the victory portends. I realised that they are being weighed down by Uhuru’s pyrrhic victory, which has become an albatross around their necks.
To situate this apparent dilemma, I sought the audience of 70-year-old Mzee Maina from Nyeri, known to his friends and age-mates as “Doctor”. “I have seen it all, young man, so I will not fear to speak my mind on this hot-button issue about our people and politics,” said Mzee Maina. “It is unfortunate what has become of our community – it has been blinded by this thing called uthamaki. This uthamaki business has become an oppressive tool to them, it has impoverished them mentally and materially – but they will hear none of it.” Mzee Maina said that the Kikuyu people have been brainwashed by their political barons that if they hate Raila enough, their political and economic problems will disappear.
The Kikuyu people have always been primed to think inwardly, from Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s days to the present, added Maina. “But it is worse now under Uhuru. My prognosis is that after the post-election violence of 2007, the Kikuyu people became even more manipulated by their political cabal. Since then, they have been filled with a foreboding fear and have been admonished that if they do not band together, they are finished. To this extent, the community has been used to violate successive elections and election processes in their name.”
“‘Raira agiathana guku nitwathira,’” one of my closest aunties, told me just before the August 8 elections. “If Raila happens to be Kenya’s president, we are done.”
“Kikuyus have been prepped to know that if Raila ascends to the office of the president, they will not find sleep or sleep soundly. Which Kikuyu does not know what happened in the general election of December 2007?” Maina said matter-of-factly. “Their political class stole the elections in their name to perpetuate its ilk and continue oppressing the very same Kikuyus they purport to defend. This is a guilt the Kikuyu people will have to live with for as long as Kenyans will discuss electoral theft.”
“This religious zeal is largely being driven by fear, the fear of future political and economic uncertainties and what they portend for the Kikuyu community. True, the Kikuyu people voted for uthamaki, but deep down, at the bottom of their hearts, they know all is not well and they are not in a good place,” said the former politician.
“This festive season I engaged some Kikuyu young men and asked them to candidly tell me how Uhuru’s presidency in the last four or so years had (positively) affected their lives,” Mzee told me. “They could not pinpoint at any one thing. ‘But doctor, what do we do, we were told uthamaki is the way and it is all what our people sing.’” Maina told me he threw the challenge to the lads because they were all ravaged by searing poverty, spent all their idle time drinking poison in the name of alcohol, and all they could sing is how ‘Raila will never rule the country.’”
See also: End of Empathy in Kenya
In their moments of sobriety, the youth told him they had been hugely disappointed by the Uhuru presidency, which had promised big things in 2013, none of which were fulfilled, top on the list being jobs. Disillusioned and dispossessed, the disaffected youth in 2017 were lured into campaigning for Uhuru by being dished between Ksh200 and 500. “What were we to do?” said the youth to Maina. “He can do whatever with the presidency – the truth is, it will not benefit us. It hasn’t benefitted us.”
“The Kikuyu youth have become fatalistic and have resigned to their fate (they have convinced themselves fate is destiny), while the elderly Kikuyu men and women have sought refuge in religion and become fearful,” opined Mzee Maina. “The elderly Kikuyu will not face the truth in the face; instead, they are now saying, ‘we have left everything to the Lord. It is only God who will stand for us and ensure that we are protected and do not lack.’” It is a tacit acknowledgement that even after voting for Uhuru, the Kikuyu people do not expect anything tangible from him. “The crux of the matter,” said Maina, “is that the Kikuyu people voted for Uhuru because they hoped he will fade away from their lives. In any case, the Kenyatta family’s political juggernaut is too strong to be countenanced.”
Turning to religion
This religiousness sweeping the Kikuyu people is not without foundation, said a former elected politician from central Kenya who cut his political teeth in the fight for the second liberation in the 1990s. “This religious zeal is largely being driven by fear, the fear of future political and economic uncertainties and what they portend for the Kikuyu community. True, the Kikuyu people voted for uthamaki, but deep down, at the bottom of their hearts, they know all is not well and they are not in a good place,” said the former politician.
“Uhuru has had no time for them and the people are pawns in a chess game, they are a cog in the wheel. Once he is done with them, he will walk away into the horizon and leave them vulnerable to the antagonistic forces that may want to eke out vengeance on them. The Kikuyu ordinary folk are in dire straits. Central Kenya people have been reduced to abject poverty. They are becoming poorer by the day. Confused and fearful, they are tottering between an oppressive uthamaki and the fear of setting themselves free.”
Yet, the former politician told me of a more complex reason, unbeknownst to people outside the community, for why the Kikuyu people come off as religious zealots, even more religious than the Biblical Israelites of the Old Testament: “The Kikuyus are realising they have abnegated all their societal ethics and morals. They no longer believe in anything. The socio-cultural norms that tied the community together have all been broken. Kikuyus today have no culture. You cannot call the culture of pursuing money and power for greed’s sake as culture.
In the mid-1990s, in the wake of the struggle for multiparty politics, President Daniel arap Moi, under pressure from the Kikuyu nation – which was furiously agitating for a return to pluralistic politics – is reported to have said: “Hakuna Kikuyu siku hizi….hii ni photocopy tu….Kikuyu ilikwisha kitambo.”
“Let me illustrate. During the post-election violence of 2007-2008, a group of prominent and wealthy Kikuyus from Central Kenya came together to fund-raise to help their trapped kith and kin who were being massacred in the North Rift by the Kalenjin warriors. They approached the owner of the Eldoret Express Bus company, a Kikuyu mogul who had successfully monopolised the Nairobi-Nakuru-Eldoret-Kitale route for many years. (I will not bore you with stories about this bus company.)
“The owner of the bus told them he was going to charge them KSh2000 for every Kikuyu that entered his buses from Eldoret to Nakuru – a distance of 150km. This amount per head meant that if a woman had seven children, the bus company would charge her a total of KSh16,000 (the equivalent of US$160), irrespective of the age or size of each child. The organisers of this ‘bus lift’ reckoned that once they were able to bring their people to Nakuru town, they would be on safer ground and out of danger. But the bus owner did not see it that way. He saw a business opportunity in the midst of blood and death of fellow Kikuyus. The organisers of this clandestine manoeuvre pleaded with him to listen to his philanthropic heart. They told him the money they had collected was for fuel only. No more. He told them to take a walk – and they did.
“A couple of years later, when one of the architects of this scheme spoke to me, it was with a lot of angst and pain over the bus company owner’s behaviour. ‘On principle we told him we would not give him the money he was asking for and reminded him that it was extortion. Of course, other groups opted for the extortion, for whatever reasons,’ said the prominent wealthy Kikuyu. Several months after the post-election violence, the bus company, which had a 500-plus fleet of buses, collapsed. To date, it remains collapsed. The owner has been trying to resuscitate the fleet, but many of his buses are still grounded in Nairobi, Nakuru, Eldoret and Kitale.
See also: Central Kenya’s Biting Poverty
“How could have the company have survived after the owner affirmed that what drives his existence is money, money and more money? You can imagine how many Kikuyus cursed him and his buses. I will be frank with you, I cursed him too. That act of this bus tycoon made me introspect and that is when it occurred to me that we the Kikuyus had lost it a long time ago. Kikuyus are callous and cold, and we just do not care for anything else other than primitive accumulation of cash.” Bottomline: To create a smokescreen of righteousness and to cover up their apparent iniquities, they have embraced Christianity like the zealots of yore.”
Fear and loathing
In the mid-1990s, in the wake of the struggle for multiparty politics, President Daniel arap Moi, under pressure from the Kikuyu nation – which was furiously agitating for a return to pluralistic politics, is reported to have said: “Hakuna Kikuyu siku hizi….hii ni photocopy tu….Kikuyu ilikwisha kitambo.” Loosely translated – “There are no genuine (cultured) Kikuyus nowadays…all these Kikuyus you see around are not originals…the original Kikuyu is a thing of the past.” Interpreted politically, Moi could also have been saying he no longer feared the once-powerful Kikuyu political barons who, just before the death of Mzee Kenyatta in 1978, had worked overtime to put all stops to his ascending to the presidency.
“These Kikuyus have always been left out of the Kikuyu political matrix. They have always been taken for granted. They have borne the brunt of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley for the last two decades and neither Mwai Kibaki nor Uhuru Kenyatta have given any thought to them.”
The community is undergoing a crisis of self-reawakening, said the elderly Mzee Maina. “Let me give you a concrete example. Theft in all sensible societies – whether in Africa or elsewhere – is an abomination. In Kikuyuland today, theft has been sanitised. Nowadays, you hear of parents who engage in outright corruption and pilfering of public coffers saying, “niwamenya, nomuhaka tuthukume…gatari guthukumira ciana” – “you know we must work (extra) hard…we must fend for the children.” When is theft just theft and when is theft ostensibly ‘working smart’? This is one of the ethical issues the community is grappling with as it also contemplates its security and survival post-2022.”
I thought about what the former politician had told me – about the Kikuyus’undefined fear and religious overzealousness – when in the New Year I went visiting in Ngong area. Ngong, a former territory of the pastoralist Maasai, is today a cosmopolitan area that has been infiltrated mainly by the sedentary Kikuyus, Kisiis and Luhyas. I was deep in the expansive Oloolua area, which today is settled by the Kikuyu people. Most of them have plots of land ranging from between one and three acres. “We are (already) in Canaan…let those who still dream of going to Canaan continue dreaming,” my hosts told me. The Canaan reference was a jibe at Raila Odinga and his NASA supporters, who during the electioneering campaign had used the biblical Canaan as an analogy to making Kenya a better place for all.
I asked one of my hosts whether there were any Maasai people in Oloolua. “We pushed them all to the hills,” said one elderly man. “Consider yourself at home.”
From Oloolua, you can see the famous undulating Ngong Hills, once immortalised by the Danish dame, Karen Blixen, in her memoir Out of Africa. The expression “feel at home” here had a wider connation: the mzee meant to tell me that all this area is now Kikuyuland – as good as being anywhere in central Kenya. Still, this inconspicuous ethnic cockiness did not stop many prayers to be offered to God for having protected the Kikuyus in Oloolua, “in one of our most traumatic year in all our stay here,” said a very prayerful woman.
Although the men told me they had successfully exiled the Maasai from Oloolua, their prayer was that the Maasai would not come back to reclaim the land they had already sold to them. “2017 was a year full of political challenges to us Kikuyus in the diaspora,” said the praying woman. “Yet, the God of David threw a blanket of protection over us. We the Kikuyus are like the biblical Israelites – like them, we have gone through many trials and tribulations, but always we triumph in the end.”
None of my hosts talked directly of Uhuru’s electoral victory on October 26, but the incessant reference to religion was unmistakable. There was also another unmistakable whiff of covert paranoia. I recognised this fear of the unforeseen and unpredictable future among the menfolk as we tore freshly roasted goat ribs and chewed on mutura (sausages made out of stuffed offal and blood). “Last year, we had a narrow escape,” said one of the men. “You know, we are far from our ancestral home, we always have to think of our security and survival.” What he was trying to say was, “We managed to get one of our own back at State House, but what happens once he exits in five years?”
That fear was concretised for me by Keffa Magenyi of the Internal Displacement, Policy and Advocacy Centre (IDPAC) in Nakuru. Nakuru County, once the hotbed of Kenya politics, has always remained true to that moniker. “The Kikuyus of Nakuru, which is in Central Rift, as indeed the Kikuyus of Laikipa, Molo, Nyandarua, are angry, bitter, cautious, disoriented, fearful and vengeful,” said Magenyi. “These Kikuyus have always been left out of the Kikuyu political matrix. They have always been taken for granted. They have borne the brunt of ethnic violence in the Rift Valley for the last two decades and neither Mwai Kibaki nor Uhuru Kenyatta have given any thought to them.”
Keffa told me that Uhuru did not campaign in Kuresoi, Molo or Njoro and “when he stopped by in Nyahururu he was booed.” The Kikuyus were angry with Uhuru because, “he seemingly was continuing with the Mwai Kibaki policy – of treating them as collateral damage. Njoro has one of the largest concentrations of Kikuyus in the Central Rift. The people are impoverished, they are the remnants of ethnic cleansing and forced evictions and most of them are therefore internally displaced people, but Uhuru did not have a care in the world about their tribulations.”
The fact that Kikuyu interests (which incidentally include Kikuyus in the diaspora) within Jubilee were driven solely by Kiambu mandarins did not escape their attention. The appointment of Kinuthia Mbugua, the former Nakuru governor who hails originally from Kiambu and is settled in Nyandarua, as Uhuru’s diary keeper (State House Comptroller), is supposed to placate the Laikipia/Nakuru/Nyandarua Kikuyus.
Even without elaborating on the reasons why Kikuyus (especially Kikuyus in the diaspora) may not want Ruto as president, it is blatantly obvious that the killing of Kikuyu peasants in Uasin Gishu County in the North Rift – especially in Burnt Forest, Kesses, Timboroa and Ziwa, and their subsequent displacement in the thousands immediately after the bungled 2007 elections – has never endeared Ruto to the ordinary Kikuyu, try as he might.
The Kikuyus of the Rift Valley have divided themselves into three zones: North Rift, Central Rift and South Rift. “These Kikuyus in these zones do not have a voice because politically, they are in the midst of Kalenjinland – and they have been told there cannot be two disparate voices coming from one region. So, the voice of the Kikuyu has always taken a back seat,” said Keffa. “Amidst growing desperation, dispossession and hopelessness, the Kikuyus’ silence in the Rift Valley is a deadly one. The Kikuyus in the Rift Valley have always felt they are owed an explanation about why they have been abandoned and neglected. They have this strong urge to avenge their hurt, yet they do not know who to revenge against.”
Keffa claimed that the poverty index among the Kikuyu of the Rift Valley is around 80 per cent. “Oftentimes, the Kikuyu in the Rift do not know who their political or economic enemy is. Is it the Kalenjin or the Luo people? This dichotomy of deep political emotions were cultivated in 2012 when Uhuru Kenyatta embraced Ruto. That partnership tore the Rift Valley Kikuyus right in the middle. To date, the Kikuyus are still divided on how to treat Ruto, more so now that we are headed towards 2022.” (The current uthamaki narrative is that the Luo and Raila are the enemy.)
The brutal truth is that the ordinary Kikuyu man or woman cannot contemplate voting for Ruto. Although, some Kikuyu elite with selfish and vested interests have seemingly been “sanitising” Ruto to the Kikuyu voter, the rank and file will hear none of it. Even without elaborating on the reasons why Kikuyus (especially Kikuyus in the diaspora) may not want Ruto as president, it is blatantly obvious that the killing of Kikuyu peasants in Uasin Gishu County in the North Rift – especially in Burnt Forest, Kesses, Timboroa and Ziwa and their subsequent displacement in the thousands immediately after the bungled 2007 elections – has never endeared Ruto to the ordinary Kikuyu, try as he might.
Subukia farm, which stretches from Ainabkoi, cuts across to Burnt Forest into Chagaia and Hill Tea (a corruption of Kikuyu lexicon to mean a place where one stops to take tea) and then to Timboroa, grows fresh vegetable produce and potatoes, which are sold along the roads that passes through Hill Tea and Timboroa. The Kikuyus of the giant Subukia farm in Uasin Gishu aptly capture this fear of Ruto. Since 1992, when they first experienced ethnic cleansing and up to 2007, when many of their kith and kin were killed by marauding Kalenjin warriors, these Kikuyus have felt a sense of abandonment and resentment from their own government. “We have been discriminated against, neglected and victimised by a government that is supposed to empathise with our plight,” said a group of peasant wazees. “Many of the families affected by the 1992, 1997 and 2007 ethnic upheavals have never really recovered. Yet, the governments’ of Kibaki and Uhuru have never found it fit to concretely tackle our problems of grabbed land, internal displacement, grinding poverty, education and jobs for children.”
The wazees said their children are not recruited in the regular police service, the paramilitary General Service Unit (GSU) and the military. Why? “Politically, we are in a Kalenjin county and the county’s quota for the recruitments all goes to the Kalenjins. So, many of our children have given up hope and turned to cheap and heavy drinking and loitering in the major Rift Valley towns of Eldoret, Kitale and Nakuru. If Uhuru – who is one of our own – will not solve our historical injustices, how will Ruto or any other Kalenjin politician do it?”
With the succession politics uppermost in their minds, the Kikuyu rank and file recurring question is: How are we going to survive post-uthamaki? It is a question that is also gravely troubling some Kikuyu political mandarins. Feeling shortchanged and isolated and therefore exposed, the nervous Kikuyu ordinary folk are now blaming the political elite for betraying them. This pent-up anger and emotion is buttressed by the fact that the muthamaki (Uhuru Kenyatta) has not shown any indication that he has put any safeguards to protect the ordinary Kikuyu once he exits the political scene. The common Kikuyus are increasingly feeling that Uhuru is of no use to them now and as they face 2022, they are showing signs of paranoia, and with it, resentment.
This paranoia, fuelled invariably by the political uncertainties facing the community, has not been helped by the muthamaki’s perceived succession game plan: of returning the power to the Kalenjin – either by handing it over to the Kalenjin’s “aristocracy” or giving it to the “hustler” kingpin, who it is now believed will stop at nothing to achieve his burning ambition of becoming president. Whichever the case, for the Kikuyu commoner, it is the devil’s alternative.
When the Kikuyu rank and file think of Gideon Moi, they are reminded of the “pain” they underwent under the senior Moi for 24 long years. They do not trust Gideon because of the fear that the pain will return to haunt them. This fear, of the return of the Moi aristocracy to lord it over them again, has compounded their fears about their own Uhuru, who they now fear and suspect could be planning to negotiate with the Mois’ to return the presidency to the family. The Kikuyu feels he is being prepped to accept Gideon.
Another worry that has the Kikuyus on tenterhooks is that they have woken up to the harsh realisation that, contrary to what the current political elite would like them to believe, Luos are not their political enemy – that is a false narrative. The Kikuyus now belatedly know their enemy is the 42 tribes of Kenya. This harsh fact – that they do not have political friends anywhere – has made them recoil in great trepidation when they think of a post-2022 future.
Suffice it is to say, the Kikuyus have been conditioned (by successive Kikuyu political elites) since 1963 to believe that their community’s security and survival can only be achieved if they vote for one of their own. But this belief is beginning to worry the community, including some of the more reasonable and sensible people within the Kikuyu political elite (uthamaki). The obvious question they are now having to grapple with is: After Uhuru, where will their security come from? And how will their survival be assured?
Beyond Political Freedom to Inclusive Wealth Creation and Self-Reliance
Malawi can alleviate poverty and become a model for development and democracy by investing in and improving the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions.
The Tonse Alliance that made history in June by winning the rerun of the presidential election, the first time this has happened in Africa. It represented a triumph of Malawian democracy, undergirded, on the one hand, by the independence of the judiciary, and on the other, by the unrelenting political resilience and struggles of the Malawian people for democratic governance. In short, we can all be proud of Malawi’s enviable record of political freedom. However, our democratic assets are yet to overcome huge developmental deficits. Our record of economic development and poverty eradication remains dismal, uneven, and erratic.
Malawi’s persistent underdevelopment does not, of course, emanate from lack of planning. In 1962, Dunduzu Chisiza convened “what was perhaps the first international symposium on African Economic Development to be held on the continent”. It brought renowned economists from around the world and Africa. In attendance was a young journalist, Thandika Mkandawire, who was inspired to study economics, and rose to become one of the world’s greatest development economists. I make reference to Chisiza and Mkandawire to underscore a simple point: Malawi has produced renowned and influential development thinkers and policy analysts, whose works need to be better known in this country. If we are to own our development, instead of importing ready-made and ill-suited models from the vast development industry that has not brought us much in terms of inclusive and sustainable development, we have to own the generation of development ideas and implementation.
I begin, first, by giving some background on the county’s development trajectory; and second, by identifying the three key engines of development – the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions – without which development is virtually impossible.
Malawi’s development trajectory and challenges
Malawi’s patterns of economic growth since independence have been low and volatile, which has translated into uneven development and persistent poverty. A 2018 World Bank report identifies five periods. First, 1964-1979, during which the country registered its fastest growth at 8.79%. Second, 1980-1994, the era of draconian structural adjustment programmes when growth fell to 0.90%. Third, 1995-2002 when growth rose slightly to 2.85%. Fourth, 2003-2010, when growth bounced to 6.25%. Finally, 2011-2015, when growth declined to 3.82%. Another World Bank report, published in July 2020, notes that the economy grew at 3.2% in 2017, 3.0% in 2018, an estimated 4.4% in 2019, and will likely grow at 2.0% in 2020 and 3.5% in 2021.
Clearly, Malawi has not managed to sustain consistently high growth rates above the rates of population growth. Consequently, growth in per capita income has remained sluggish and poverty reduction has been painfully slow. In fact, while up to 1979 per capita GDP grew at an impressive 3.7%, outperforming sub-Saharan Africa, it shrunk below the regional average after 1980. It rose by a measly 1.5% between 1995 and 2015, well below the 2.7% for non-resource-rich African economies. Currently, Malawi is the sixth poorest country in the world.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension. Women and female-headed households tend to be poorer than men and male-headed households. Most of the poor live in the rural areas because they tend to have lower levels of access to education and assets, and high dependency ratios compared to urban dwellers, who constitute only 15% of the population. Rural poverty is exacerbated by excessive reliance on rain-fed agriculture and vulnerability to climate change because of poor resilience and planning. In the urban areas, poverty is concentrated in the informal sector that employs the majority of urban dwellers and suffers from low productivity and incomes, and poor access to capital and skills.
While the rates of extreme poverty declined from 24.5% in 2010/11 to 20.1% in 2016/17, moderate poverty rates increased from 50.7% to 51.5% during the same period. Predictably, poverty has a gender and spatial dimension.
The causes and characteristics of Malawi’s underdevelopment are well-known. The performance of the key sectors – agriculture, industry, and services – is not optimal. While agriculture accounts for two-thirds of employment and three-quarters of exports, it provides only 30% of GDP, a clear sign of low levels of productivity in the sector. Apparently, only 1.7% of total expenditure on agriculture and food goes to extension, and one extension agent in Malawi covers between 1,800 and 2,500 farmers, compared to 950 in Kenya and 480 in Ethiopia. As for irrigation, the amount of irrigated land stands at less than 4%.
Therefore, raising agricultural productivity is imperative. This includes greater crop diversification away from the supremacy of maize, improving rural markets and transport infrastructure, provision of agricultural credit, use of inputs and better farming techniques, and expansion of irrigation and extension services. Commercialisation of agriculture, land reform to strengthen land tenure security, and strengthening the sector’s climate resilience are also critical.
In terms of industry, the pace of job creation has been slow, from 4% of the labour force in 1998 to 7% in 2013. In the meantime, the share of manufacturing’s contribution to the country’s GDP has remained relatively small and stagnant, at 10%. The sector is locked in the logic of import substitution, which African countries embarked on after independence and is geared for the domestic market.
Export production needs to be vigorously fostered as well. It is reported that manufacturing firms operate on average at just 68 per cent capacity utilisation. This suggests that, with the right policy framework, Malawi’s private sector could produce as much as a third more than current levels without needing to undertake new investment.
After independence, Malawi, like many other countries, created policies and parastatals, and sought to nurture a domestic capitalist class and attract foreign capital in pursuit of industrialisation. The structural adjustment programmes during Africa’s “lost decades” of the 1980s and 1990s aborted the industrialisation drive of the 1960s and 1970s, and led to de-industrialisation in many countries, including Malawi. The revival and growth of industrialisation require raising the country’s competitiveness and improving access to finance, the state of the infrastructure, the quality of human capital, and levels of macroeconomic stability.
Over the last two decades, Malawi has improved its global competitiveness indicators, but it needs to and can do more. According to the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, which covers 12 areas of business regulation, Malawi improved its ranking from 132 out of 183 countries in 2010 to 109 out of 190 countries in 2020; in 2020 Malawi ranked 12th in Africa. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, a four-pronged framework that looks at the enabling environment – markets, human capital, and the innovation ecosystem – Malawi ranked 119 out of 132 countries in 2009 and 128 out of 141 countries in 2019.
Access to finance poses significant challenges to the private sector, especially among small and medium enterprises that are often the backbone of any economy. The banking sector is relatively small, and borrowing is constrained by high interest rates, stringent collateral requirements, and complex application procedures. In addition, levels of financial inclusion and literacy could be greatly improved. The introduction of the financial cash transfer programme and mobile money have done much to advance both.
Corruption is another financial bottleneck, a huge and horrendous tax against development. The accumulation of corruption scandals – Cashgate in 2013, Maizegate in 2018, Cementgate and other egregious corruption scandals in 2020 – is staggering in its mendacity and robbery of the county’s development and future by corrupt officials that needs to be uncompromisingly uprooted.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales; 40.9% of the firms have been forced to have generators as backup. The country’s generating capacity needs massive expansion to close the growing gap between demand and supply. Equally critical is investment in transport and its resilience to contain the high costs of domestic and international trade that undermine private sector development and poverty reduction.
Digital technologies and services are indispensable for 21st century economies, an area in which Malawi lags awfully behind. According to the ICT Development Index by the International Telecommunications Union, in 2017 Malawi ranked 167 out of 176 countries. There are significant opportunities to overcome the infrastructure deficits in terms of strengthening the country’s transport systems through regional integration, developing renewable energy sources, and improving the regulatory environment. Developing a digitally-enabled economy requires enhancing digital infrastructure, connectivity, affordability, availability, literacy, and innovation.
Malawi’s infrastructure deficits are daunting. Access to clean water and energy remains low, at 10%, and frequent electricity outages are costly for manufacturing firms that report losing 5.1% in annual sales.
The services sector has grown rapidly, accounting for 29% of the labor force in 2013 up from 12% in 1998. It is dominated by the informal sector which is characterized by low productivity, labor underutilization, and dismal incomes. The challenge is how to improve these conditions and facilitate transition from informality to formality.
Enablers and drivers of development
The challenges of promoting Malawi’s socio-economic growth and development are not new. In fact, they are so familiar that they induce fatalism among some people as if the country is doomed to eternal poverty. Therefore, it is necessary to go back to basics, to ask basic questions and become uncomfortable with the county’s problems, with low expectations about our fate and future.
From the vast literature on development, to which Thandika made a seminal contribution, there are many dynamics and dimensions of development. Three are particularly critical, namely, the quality of human capital, the quality of infrastructure, and the quality of institutions. In turn, these enablers require the drivers embodied in the nature of leadership, the national social contract, and mobilisation and cohesiveness of various capitals.
The quality of human capital encompasses the levels of health and education. Since 2000, Malawi has made notable strides in improving healthcare and education, which has translated into rising life expectancy and literacy rates. For the health sector, it is essential to enhance the coverage, access and quality of health services, especially in terms of reproductive, maternal, neonatal, and early child development, and public health services, as well as food security and nutrition services.
The introduction of free primary education in 1994 was a game changer. Enrollment ratios for primary school rose dramatically, reaching 146% in 2013 and 142% in 2018, and for secondary school from 44% in 2013 to 40% in 2018. The literacy rate reached 62%. But serious challenges remain. Only 19% of students’ progress to Standard Eight without repeating and dropout rates are still high; only 76% of primary school teachers and 57% of secondary school teachers are professionally trained. Despite increased government expenditure, resources and access to education remain inadequate.
Consequently, in 2018 Malawi’s adult literacy was still lower than the averages for sub-Saharan countries (65%) and the least developed countries (63%). This means the skill base in the country is low and needs to be raised significantly through increased, smart and strategic investments in all levels of education. Certainly, special intervention is needed for universities if the country, with its tertiary education enrollment ratio of less than 1%, the lowest in the world, is to catch up with the enrollment ratios for sub-SaharanAfrica and the world as a whole that in 2018 averaged 9% and 38%, respectively.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend. Critical also is accelerating the country’s demographic transition by reducing the total fertility rate.
As for infrastructure, while the government is primarily responsible for building and maintaining it, the private sector has an important role to play, and public-private-partnerships are increasingly critical in many countries. It is necessary to prioritise and avoid wish lists that seek to cater to every ministry or constituency; to concentrate on a few areas that have multiplier effects on various sectors; and ensure the priorities are well-understood and measurable at the end of the government’s five-year term. Often, the development budget doesn’t cover real investment in physical infrastructure and is raided to cover over-expenditure in the recurrent budget.
The quality of institutions entails the state of institutional arrangements, which UNDP defines as “the policies, systems, and processes that organizations use to legislate, plan and manage their activities efficiently and to effectively coordinate with others in order to fulfill their mandate”. Thus, institutional arrangements refer to the organisation, cohesion and synergy of formal structures and networks encompassing the state, the private sector, and civil society, as well as informal norms for collective buy-in and implementation of national development strategies. But setting up institutions is not enough; they must function. They must be monitored and evaluated.
Human capital development is essential for turning Malawi’s youth bulge into a demographic dividend rather than a demographic disaster. Policies and programmes to skill the youth and make them more productive are vital to harnessing the demographic dividend.
The three enablers of development require the drivers of strong leadership and good governance. Malawi has not reaped much from its peace and stability because of a political culture characterised by patron-clientelism, corruption, ethnic and regional mobilisation, and crass populism that eschews policy consistency and coherence, and undermines fiscal discipline. Malawi’s once highly regarded civil service became increasingly politicised and demoralised. Public servants and leaders at every level and in every institutional context have to restore and model integrity, enforce rules and procedures, embody professionalism and a high work ethic, and be accountable. Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
Also critical is the need to forge social capital, which refers to the development of a shared sense of identity, understanding, norms, values, common purpose, reciprocity, and trust. There is abundant research that shows a positive correlation between the social capital of trust and various aspects of national and institutional development and capabilities to manage crises. Weak or negative social capital has many deleterious consequences. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this devastatingly clear – countries in which the citizenry is polarised and lacks trust in the leadership have paid a heavy price in terms of the rates of infection and deaths.
Impunity must be severely punished to de-institutionalise corruption, whose staggering scale shows that domestic resources for development are indeed available. To quote the popular saying by Arthur Drucker, “organisational culture eats strategy”.
The question of social capital underscores the fact that there are many different types of capital in society and for development. Often in development discourse the focus is on economic capital, including financial and physical resources. Sustainable development requires the preservation of natural capital. Malawi’s development has partly depended on the unsustainable exploitation of environmental resources that has resulted in corrosive soil erosion and deforestation. Development planning must encompass the mobilisation of other forms of capital, principally social and cultural capital. The diaspora is a major source of economic, social and cultural capital. In fact, it is Africa’s largest donor, which remitted an estimated $84.3 billion in 2019.
In conclusion, Malawi’s development trajectory has been marked by progress, volatility, setbacks, and challenges. For a long time, Malawi’s problem has not been a lack of planning, but rather a lack of implementation, focus and abandoning the very basics of required integrity in all day-to-day work. Also, the plans are often dictated by donors and lack local ownership so they gather the proverbial bureaucratic dust.
Let us strive to cultivate the systems, cultures, and mindsets of inclusion and innovation so essential for the construction of developmental and democratic states, as defined by Thandika and many illustrious African thinkers and political leaders.
This article is the author’s keynote address at the official opening of the 1st National Development Conference presided by the State President of Malawi, His Excellency Dr. Lazarus Chakwera, at the Bingu International Convention Centre, Lilongwe, on 27 August, 2020.
Kenya’s Gulag: The Dehumanisation and Exploitation of Inmates in State Prisons
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. And like their colonial predecessors, they are also sites of forced labour.
The influx of the Mau Mau transformed the prison population in Kenya from one predominantly made up of recidivist petty criminals and tax defaulters to one composed largely of political prisoners, many of whom had no experience of prison life and who brought with them new forms of organisation.
Prison life was harsh, with its share of brutalities and fatalities. Between 1928 and 1930, about 200 prisoners in Kenya died. According to British historian David Anderson, “Kenya’s prisons were already notably violent before 1952 [when the Mau Mau uprising began], more violent than other British colonies.”
However, the incorporation of prisons and detention camps into the “Pipeline” (the system developed by the colonial state to deal with the Mau Mau insurgents and to try and break them using terror and torture) inevitably led to the institutionalisation of the methods of humiliation and torture.
As Anderson notes, “Most of the staff in both the Prison Service and in the [Mau Mau] detention camps were Africans. Some were even Kikuyu. They certainly ‘learned’ these methods during their periods of early employment.” He goes on to say that “those who ran the service by the 1960s and early 1970s were all men who had been recruited and trained during the Mau Mau period”. He thinks it “very likely that these individuals practiced what they had learned as cadets and trainees in the 1950s…I think the Mau Mau experience certainly hardened Kenya’s prison system and introduced a greater range of punishments and harsher treatment for prisoners as a consequence of the conditions off the Emergency”.
Compare, for example, this account of the treatment of Mau Mau detainees in the 1950s published in Caroline Elkins’ book, Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya:
Regardless of where they were in the Pipeline (the system of camps established for deradicalizing Mau Mau detainees and prisoners), roll call meant squatting in groups of five with their hands clasped over their heads. The European commandants would then walk through the lines, counting and beating the detainees. “The whole thing was just so ridiculous,” recalled one former detainee from Lodwar. “Whitehouse [the European in charge] would just count us over and over again.”
It bears stark similarities to this account published in the Daily Nation about conditions in Kenyan prisons 65 years later:
Omar Ismael, 64, a former Manyani inmate who served nine years till his exoneration in 2017, says he woke up at 5am, despite his advanced aged. They then squat in groups of five to be counted and checked by guards. “My knees are still hurting to date. I have a joint problem too as a result,” he says. He says they had at least six head counts per day. The first one at 5am, followed by 10am, noon, 4pm, 6pm and 7pm.
Kenyan prisons today carry the DNA of their forebears – the colonial prisons and Mau Mau detention camps. They are about brutalising prisoners into submission and, along with the police and military, scaring the rest of society into compliance with the state. They are places of dehumanisation, abandonment and retribution. And like their colonial parents, they prefer to employ the least educated. (At present, out of a staff complement of 22,000, the Kenya Prison Service only has about 700 graduate officers.) As of 2015, according to the World Prison Population List prepared by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research, Kenya has incarcerated more of its citizens per 100,000 population than any other country in Eastern Africa with the exception of Rwanda and Ethiopia.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent. By comparison, the median proportion of pre-trial prisoners in Africa is 40 per cent and nearly 30 per cent globally. In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees than Kenya. As in colonial times, pre-trial detention is driven by two factors – the need to extract resources from the populace and the subjugation of the native through criminalisation of ordinary life.
In 1933, submissions to the Bushe Commission provided some flavour of how the threat of arrest and imprisonment was ever-present among the natives.
Relates one Ishmael Ithongo:
Once I was arrested by a District Officer on account of my hat because I did not see him approaching. He came from behind and threw it down. I asked him why because I did not know him. He called an askari and asked for my name. It was in a district outside. He asked me, “Don’t you know the law here that you should take off your hat when you see a white man?” Then he asked me, “Have you got your kipandi?’ I said “No, Sir.” So I was sent to prison… When an askari thinks that you look smart he asks if you have your kipandi. I have seen natives who are going to church in the morning who have changed their coat and forgotten their kipandi. They meet an askari. “Have you got your kipandi?” “No.” “Ah right” and they are marched off to prison.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention by the National Council on the Administration of Justice found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends. Most releases from police custody also happened over the weekend with no reason recorded for two-thirds of those releases. Further, only 30 percent of all arrests actually elicited a charge, the vast majority for petty offences. This implies that most police detentions today are something of a catch-and-release programme designed to create opportunities to extract bribes rather than labour.
However, for those who get incarcerated, matters are somewhat different. The exploitation of prisoners’ labour continues. Like the Mau Mau detainees, they are required to work for a token amount determined by the government, which, unlike its colonial ancestor, does not even pretend that the 30 Kenyan cents per day is meant as a wage, with the Attorney-General declaring in court that “prison labour is an integral component of the sentence”. The courts have held that it is entirely compatible with the protection of fundamental rights for the Prison Service to do this as well as to deny convicts basic supplies such as soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and toilet paper. Apparently, the conditions the convicts are experiencing cannot be called forced labour and servitude because, the strange reasoning goes, “the Constitution and the Prisons Act do not permit forced labour or servitude”.
Notably, about 50 per cent of Kenya’s 54,000 prisoners are pre-trial detainees or those held in remand as they await trial – people legally considered innocent…In Eastern Africa, only Uganda and Ethiopia have a higher proportion of pre-trial detainees.
Like in colonial times, the beneficiaries of this prison industrial complex are the state and those who control it. Remandees and convicts are liable to be put to work cleaning officials’ compounds and there have been persistent rumours of them being compelled to provide free labour for the private benefit of prison officers and other well-connected government officials, as is the case in Uganda.
While in 1930 earnings from convicts’ labour accounted for a fifth of the total cost of the Prisons Department, the official goal today, as declared by the Ministry of Interior, is for the Department to transform into a “financially self-sustaining entity”. To achieve this, President Uhuru Kenyatta has created the Kenya Prisons Enterprise Corporation with the aim of “unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry” and to “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector”.
This basically entails deeper exploitation of prisoners’ labour. And even though Kenyatta speaks of improving remuneration, it is notable that this is not a free exchange. Whatever the courts might say, it is clear that the state and its owners feel entitled to the labour of those they have incarcerated, much like their predecessors (the colonial regime and the European settlers) once felt entitled to African labour.
This will sound familiar to many Kenyans today whose encounters with the police often begin with demands for the production of the kipande (ID card) and end with a stint in overcrowded police cells. However, there are some differences. An audit of pre-trial detention…found that police generally arrested and charged people for petty offences, with close to half of those arrests occurring over weekends.
In this regard, the attitude is very like that of the white settler in Kiambu, Henry Tarlton, who told the 1912 Native Labour Commission regarding desertion by African workers that “this is my busiest season and my work is entirely upset, and it is hardly surprising if I am in a red-hot state bordering on a desire to murder everyone with a black skin who comes within sight”. Another white settler, Frank Watkins, in a letter to the East African Standard in 1927 boasted of his “methods of handling and working labour”, which included “thrash[ing] my boys if they deserve it”.
This brutality, especially directed towards African males, was paired with forced labour from the very onset of the colonial experience. (Brett Shadle, Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech, notes that the settlers were much more reticent about their violence on African women, which tended to be sexual in nature.) These settlers were already pushing the colonial state to institute unpaid forced labour on public works projects in the reserves (which it eventually did) as a means of driving Africans to wage employment for Europeans.
But it was within the prison system and Mau Mau detention camps that the practice of forced labour found its full expression. According to Christian G. De Vito and Alex Lichtenstein, “Conditions inside the detention camps created in Kenya in the 1910s and 1920s and in the prison camps opened in 1933 depended on the assumption that forced labour, together with corporal punishment, could actually serve as the only effective forms of penal discipline.” The influx of Mau Mau detainees, they explained, overwhelmed the system “since police repression by far exceeded the capacity of the already overcrowded prisons, and the colonial government decided to establish a network of camps, collectively called the ‘Pipeline’, characterized by violence, torture, and forced labour.”
These are the footsteps in which the Kenyan state is walking. Nelson Mandela once said that a nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but by how it treats its lowest ones. By that measure, the current Kenyan state is no different from its colonial predecessor.
“It is also worth thinking about what happens to the prison at the end of colonialism,” says Prof Anderson. “There is no movement for prison reform in Kenya after 1963 – rather the opposite: the prison regime becomes harsher and is even less well funded than it was in colonial times. By the end of the 1960s, Kenya is being heavily criticised by international groups for the declining state of its prison system and the tendency to violence and abuse of human rights within the system.”
Prof Daniel Branch stresses that “post-colonial prisons urgently need a history. The Mau Mau period rightly gets lots of attention, but there’s very little by scholars on the post-colonial period”.
It is critical, as Kenya marks a decade since the promulgation of the 2010 constitution, that we keep in mind Mandela’s words and ask whether, if at all, it has changed how those condemned by society – “our lowest ones” – are treated. That will, in the end, be the true measure of our transformation.
The Myth of Unconditionality in Development Aid
Based on interviews and ethnographic fieldwork in Western Kenya, Mario Schmidt argues that local interpretations of Give Directly’s unconditional cash transfer program unmask how the NGO’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ obscures structural inequalities of the development aid sector. Schmidt argues that in order to tackle these structural inequalities, cash transfers should be ‘ungifted’ and viewed as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
The New York Times praises the US-American NGO GiveDirectly (GD), a GiveWell top charity, for offering a ‘glimpse into the future of not working’ and journalists from the UK to Kenya discuss GD’s unconditional cash transfer program as a revolutionary alternative in the field of development aid. German podcasts as well as international bestsellers such as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists portray grateful beneficiaries whose lives have truly changed for the better since they received GD’s unconditional cash and started to invest it like the business people they were always meant to be. At first glance, GD indeed has an impressive CV.
Since 2009, the NGO has distributed over US$160 million of unconditional cash transfers to over tens of thousands of poor people in Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, the USA and Liberia in an allegedly unbureaucratic, corrupt-free and transparent way. Recipients are ‘sensitized’ in communal meetings (baraza), the cash transfers are evaluated by teams of internationally renowned behavioral economists conducting rigorous randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and the money arrives in the recipients’ mobile money wallets such as the ones from Mpesa, Kenya’s celebrated FinTech miracle, without passing through the hands of local politicians.
In 2015 and after finalizing a pilot program in the Western Kenyan constituency Rarieda (Siaya County), GD decided to penetrate my ethnographic field site, Homa Bay County. On the one hand, they thereby hoped to enlarge their pool of potential beneficiaries. On the other hand, they had planned to conduct further large-scale RCTs (one RCT implemented in the area, studied the effects of motivational videos on recipients’ spending behavior). To the surprise of GD, almost 50% of the households considered eligible for the program in Homa Bay County refused to participate. As a result, the household heads waived GD’s cash transfer which would have consisted of three transfers amounting to a total of 110,000 Kenyan Shillings (roughly US$1,000).
In order to understand what had happened in Homa Bay County and why so many households had refused to participate, I teamed up with Samson Okech, a former field officer of Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) who had conducted surveys for GD in Siaya. Samson had been an IPA employee for over ten years and belongs to the extended family I work with most closely during fieldwork. During our long qualitative interviews with recipients of GD’s cash transfer and former field officers as well as Western Kenyans who refused to be enrolled in the program, the celebratory reports by journalists and scholars were replaced by a bleaker picture of an intervention riddled with misunderstandings and problems.
Before I offer a glimpse into what happened on the ground, I want to emphasize that I am neither politically nor economically against unconditional cash transfers which, without a doubt, have helped many individuals in Western Kenya and elsewhere. It is not the what, but the how against which I direct my critique. The following two sections illustrate that a substantial part of Homa Bay County’s population did not consider GD’s intervention as a one-time affair between themselves and GD. In contrast, they interpreted GD’s program either as an invitation into a long-term relationship of patronage or as a one-time transfer with obscured actors.
These interpretations should make us aware of ethical problems entailed in conducting social experiments (see Kvangraven’s piece on Impoverished Economics, Chelwa’s and Muller’s The Poverty of Poor Economics or Ouma’s reflection upon GD’s randomisation process in Western Kenya). They can also crucially encourage us to think about ways of radically reconfiguring the political economy of development aid in Africa and elsewhere.
Instead of framing relations between the West and the Rest as relations between charitable donors and obedient recipients, in my conclusion I propose to ‘ungift’ unconditional cash transfers as well as development aid as a whole. Taking inspiration from rumors claiming that Barack Obama, whose father came from Western Kenya, has created GD in order to rectify historical injustices, I suggest rethinking cash transfers as reparations or debts repaid. Consequently, recipients should no longer be used as ‘guinea pigs’ but appreciated as equal partners and autonomous subjects entitled to reap a substantial portion of the value produced in a global capitalist economy that, historically as well as structurally, depends on exploiting them.
Why money needs to be spent on ‘visible things’
Those were guidelines on how to use the money. It was important that what you did with the money was visible and could be evaluated’, William Owino explained to us after we had asked him about a ‘brochure’ several other respondents had mentioned. One of the studies on the impact of GD’s activities in Siaya also mentions these brochures. In order to ‘emphasize the unconditional nature of the transfer, households were provided with a brochure that listed a large number of potential uses of the transfer.’
When being asked which type of photographs and suggestions were included in these brochures, respondents mentioned photographs of newly constructed houses with iron sheets, clothes, food and other gik manenore (‘visible things’). When we inquired further if the depicted uses included drinking alcohol, betting, dancing or other morally ambiguous goods and services, the majority of our respondents dismissed that question by laughing or by adding that field officers had also advised them against using the money for other morally dubious services such as paying prostitutes or bride wealth for a second or third wife.
One of our respondents in Homa Bay took the issue of gik manenore to its extreme by expressing the opinion that GD’s money must be used to build a house with a fixed amount of iron sheets and according to a preassigned architectural plan so that GD, in their evaluation, would be able to identify the houses whose owners had benefited from their program quickly and without much effort. Such practices of ‘anticipatory obedience’ are also implicitly at work in the rationalizations of another respondent. He expected that GD’s field officers who had asked him questions about what he intended to do with the money during the initial survey – questions whose answers had, in his opinion, qualified him to receive the cash transfer – would one day return to see if he had really used the money according to his initially stated intention. The logic employed is clear: The ‘unconditional’ cash transfers needed to be spent on useful and, if possible, visible and countable things so that GD would return with further funds after a positive evaluation.
Recipients understood the relation with GD not as a one-off affair, but as an entrance into a long-term relation of fruitful dependency. In contrast to GD which, like most neoliberal capitalists, understands unconditional cash as a context-independent techno-fix, the inhabitants of Homa Bay framed money as an entity embedded in and crystallizing social power relations.
From such a perspective, free money is not really free, but like Marcel Mauss’ famous gifts, an invitation into a ‘contract by trial’ which has the potential to turn into a long-term relationship benefitting both partners if recipients pass the test and reciprocate with obedience. While some actors framed the offer of unconditional cash as a test that could lead into an ongoing patron-client relationship between charitable donors and obedient recipients, others, the majority who refused to accept GD’s offer, interpreted it as a direct exchange relation with unseen actors.
Why money is never free
‘People in the market and those I met going home told me it is blood money’, Mary, a 40-year old mother remembered. After she had been sampled, Mary had never received money from GD but failed to understand why and believed the village elder had ‘eaten’ her money. She further told us that rumors about ‘blood money’ circulated in church services and funeral festivities. ‘Blood money’ refers to widespread beliefs that accepting GD’s cash implied entering into a debt relation with unknown actors such as a local group sacrificing children or the devil.
Comparable rumors playing with the well-known anthropological trope of money’s (anti)-reproductive potential circulate widely in Homa Bay: Husbands who wake up only to see their wives squatting in a corner of the room laying eggs, a huge snake that lives in Lake Victoria and vomits out all the money GD uses, mobile phones that can be charged under the armpit or find their way into the recipient’s bed if lost or thrown away (many people allegedly threw their phones away in order to cut the link to GD), money that replenishes automatically or a devilish cult of Norwegians that abducts Kenyan babies and transports them to Scandinavia where they are adopted into infertile marriages.
All of these rumors, which are epitomized in a phrase some recipients considered to be GD’s slogan, Idak maber, to idak matin – (‘You live well, but you live short’) – revolve around the same paradox: Money initially offered with no strings attached, but whose reproductive potential will soon demand blood sacrifice or lead to a fundamental change in one’s own reproductive capacities.
Local attempts to ‘conditionalize’ GD’s unconditional cash as well as rumors about tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil undermine GD’s assumption that their cash transfers are perceived by recipients as unconditional. This has two consequences. On the one hand, it questions the validity of studies trying to prove that the program was successful as an unconditional cash transfer program. On the other hand, it urges us to focus on the unintended consequences caused by GD’s intervention. While Western Kenyans who have given consent to participate in the intervention invested their hopes in an ongoing charitable relation with GD, those who have refused to participate – as well as some who did – have been haunted by fear and anxiety triggered by situating GD’s activities in a hidden sphere.
All this raises ethical and political questions about GD’s intervention in Homa Bay County. Did GD, an actor that is neither democratically elected nor constitutionally backed up, have the right to intervene in an area where almost 50 % of the population refused to participate? Did the program really reach the poorest members of society if accepting the offer depended on understanding the complex networks of NGOs that constitute the aid landscape? Should it not be considered problematic that a US-American NGO uses whole counties of an independent country as laboratories where they experimentally test the feasibility of unconditional cash transfers in order to assure their donors that recipients of unconditional cash ‘really’ do not spend donations on alcohol and prostitutes?
Apart from raising these and other ethical and political questions, the reactions of the inhabitants of Homa Bay County can be understood as mirrors reflecting a distorted but illuminating image of the development aid sector. Narratives about women laying eggs and satanic cults sacrificing children exemplify an awareness of the fact that, on a structural level, the development aid sector is shot through with inequalities and obscure hierarchical power relations between donating and receiving actors. At the same time, recipients’ anticipatory obedience to use the cash on ‘visible things’ unmasks a system that appears overwhelmed by the necessity to constantly evaluate projects in order to secure further funding.
By ‘conditionalizing’ cash transfers as long-term patronage relations or tit-for-tat exchanges with the devil, inhabitants of Homa Bay unmask GD’s ‘myth of unconditionality’ and thereby relocate GD into the wider development aid world in which they have never been equal partners.
Why we must ‘ungift’ development aid
‘I think it was because of Obama’, a former colleague of Samson who had administered the surveys of GD in Siaya County told me while we enjoyed a meal in a restaurant along Nairobi’s Moi Avenue after I had asked him why the rejection rates of GD’s program in Siaya had been so low. According to rumors that circulated widely during GD’s first years in Siaya, Barack Obama, whose father came from a village in Siaya County, had teamed up with Raila Odinga, an almost mythical Luo politician, in order to channel US-American funds ‘directly’ to Western Kenya, i.e. without passing through the Central Kenyan political elite who had – in 2007 as well as 2013 – ‘stolen’ the elections from Raila.
As a consequence, at least some recipients did not agree with interpretations of the cash transfers as market exchanges with shadowy actors or invitations into long-term relationships of patronage. Rather, they conceptualized the transfers as reparations originating in Obama’s attempt to recoup losses accumulated by the Luo community due to political injustices provoked by the actions of what many consider to be a corrupt Kikuyu elite. This conjuring of a primordial ethnic alliance between Obama and Western Kenyans might strike many as chimerical.
Be that as it may, we should acknowledge that the rumor of Obama’s intervention situates the cash transfers in a social relation between two equals who accept their mutual indebtedness and act accordingly by putting things straight. By reinterpreting GD as a clandestine operation invented by their political leaders, Barack Obama and Raila Odinga, inhabitants of Siaya portray themselves as belonging to a community of interdependent equals whose members are entitled to what the anthropologist James Ferguson has called their ‘rightful share’.
How would development aid look like if we dared to transfer this idea of a community whose members acknowledge their equality and mutual indebtedness to our global economic system? One way to redeem the fact that we all live in a highly connected capitalist economic system spanning the whole globe and depending on exploiting a huge portion of the global community would be to follow in the footsteps of the inhabitants of Siaya and rebrand cash transfers as reparations being paid for historical and structural injustices.
By way of conclusion, I want to suggest the idea of ‘ungifting’ development aid, i.e. to reframe it as a duty and to accept that recipients of cash transfers have the right to receive their share of the value produced by the global capitalist economic system. Consequently, cash transfers should be considered as debts repaid and not as gifts offered.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy.
Names of individuals in this article have been anonymized.
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