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UHURU’S PYRRHIC VICTORY: Uthamaki’s suffocating hold on the Kikuyu people

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UHURU’S PYRRHIC VICTORY: Uthamaki’s suffocating hold on the Kikuyu people

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.

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The Ideology of Uthamaki

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.

Hating Raila

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.)

Betrayal

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?

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Mr Kahura is a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

MORDECAI OGADA explains why black Africans are almost completely absent in the field of conservation in Kenya, which has been hijacked by whites and foreigners who pander to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

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A DARK TRUTH: The racist dynamic at the heart of Kenya’s conservation practices and policies

The practice of conservation and the narrative around African wildlife is a kingdom, albeit without a single monarch. The monarchy and nobility consist of an eclectic mix of royalty, commoners, idlers, misfits, scientists, killers (who refer to themselves as “hunters”) across a very broad spectrum of backgrounds. We have youthful cowboys in their 20s, and we have octogenarians. There are also wealthy lords and scruffy backpackers. The one thread that links them is the fact that they are all white.

Their race is also what confers upon them a unity of purpose and mutual sympathy in lands where the indigenous majority are black. This kingdom is absolute and doesn’t tolerate dissent from its subjects. Those who serve the kingdom faithfully are rewarded with senior positions in the technical (not policy) arena and international awards and are showered with praise and backhanded compliments in descriptions like “being switched on”, “a good chap”, and best of all, “a reformed poacher”. This praise also manifests itself in the form of the Tusk Conservation Award, which is conferred annually by the Duke of Cambridge, HRH Prince William, on the local conservationist who best serves as an implementer or enforcer of the kingdom’s conservation goals.

Structured conservation practice in East Africa began largely when demobilised World War II soldiers started looking for a field where they could apply one of the few skills they had gained in the war (shooting) without harming people. The rise of the conservation officer or protector was actually preceded by the establishment of the first hunting reserves at the turn of the century a few decades earlier.

However, there was a new recognition that the resource was finite and needed to be preserved for the exclusive use of the colonial nobility that was necessarily defined by race; hence the need for enforcement. Exploitation of African wildlife by Western consumers began in the early 1900s with hunting safaris, which were basically tests of resilience and skill with the target of harvesting the biggest and largest number from this bounty under pretty harsh and rustic conditions. It was closely followed in the 1960s by the photographic safari and cinematography that cemented the romanticism of these adventures in the African wild. This led to a spurt in tourist interest, which no doubt pleased the foreign exchange-hungry newly independent states.

Intellectual desert

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife. Thus my compulsion to describe Kenya (rather harshly, in some of my readers’ estimation) as an “intellectual desert” as far as wildlife conservation is concerned.

Two major pitfalls arose from the romantic age between 1950 and1970 – pitfalls that continue to determine how wildlife conservation is practised today. The first major pitfall was the illogical link and valuation of wildlife based on tourists’ appreciation and (where hunting was allowed) consumption. The second pitfall was the firm placement of black Africans as “props” who were destined never to be equal intellectual participants in the management of and discourse around African wildlife.

Indeed, photographic and hunting safaris have since then included a very obvious but unspoken element of domination over black Africans – we can see it in the nameless black faces in white hunters’ photographs and in the postures of servile African staff attending to white tourists in the advertising brochures. Black Africans are totally absent as clients in all the media and advertising materials and campaigns. When hunting was legal in Kenya, it was normal for a photograph of a hunter with his guides, porters and gun bearer to be captioned: “Major F. Foggybottom and a fine leopard bagged in the Maasai Mara region of Kenya, September, 1936.” Fast forward 80 years or so. Black Africans are prominent in their absence from the reams and hours of literature and footage on Africa’s spectacular wildlife. The uniformity of this anomaly is startling across the board, whether one is watching the Discovery channel, BBC, or National Geographic.

With the advance of neoliberalism, market forces have become important drivers of both tacit and explicit policies all over the world. In African conservation policy and practice, the black African has become like an insidious impurity that sometimes leaks into the final product but should ideally be absent in anything considered “premium”. This is not to say that media houses and marketing firms are deliberately engaging in racial discrimination; however, they are, sadly, pandering to prejudices that have been cultivated by romantic or colonial notions about Africa and its wildlife.

The colour bar

Blatant racism becomes much more evident in the conservation field, which in Kenya is dominated by whites. From a strictly academic standpoint, the open discrimination and obvious colour bar evident in the conservation sector in Kenya is fascinating for two major reasons: one is its longevity – business, agriculture, banking, education and all other fields have changed beyond recognition in the last few decades, but conservation remains firmly in the “Victorian gamekeeper” mode, where conservation is basically about protecting wildlife from the proletariat so that the nobles can consume the same for luxury/ recreational purposes.

The second is the acceptance of this status quo by senior indigenous state officials and technical experts across the board. Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems. Examples that come to mind are the appointment of one Peter Hetz (MSc, American) as Executive Director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum in 2011 to supervise one Mordecai Ogada (PhD, Kenyan) who was appointed as Deputy Director. The recent appointment of Mr. Jochen Zeitz to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) board is another case in point. Here I have used very pointed racial references because it is quite simply a racial divide. We simply do not find non-Caucasian foreigners in wildlife leadership positions in Kenya, nor do we find Latin Americans or Asians. We also don’t find Kenyans of European descent in any of the subordinate roles.

Wildlife conservation is the one field where highly-qualified black Africans are routinely supervised by white practitioners of far lesser technical pedigree or experience. Indeed, some of the supervisors are American or Europeans relatively new to Kenya and with very rudimentary knowledge (if any) of Kenyan wildlife and ecosystems.

How, an observer might ask, is this hierarchy maintained without any disruption by the growing number of indigenous Kenyans pursuing advanced studies in the conservation field? How do the academic exertions of all these technicians fail to moisten the intellectual desert in Kenyan conservation?

One reason is because, just like water never produces vegetation on seedless ground, the intellectual barrenness of indigenous Kenyans has been built into the training facilities and curricula. It goes without saying that Kenya’s ecological diversity and abundant wildlife are key pillars in the country’s economic, social and cultural identity, but Moi University, the de facto leading local institution in this field, only offers a degree course in “wildlife management”, which basically equips local wildlife practitioners to be technicians or foot soldiers for conservation, not to be fully engaged with any of the intellectual challenges that exist in the sector. Those who are better trained and experienced in this field are a small minority who seldom find acceptance in the sector because they inherently threaten the existing hierarchy.

KWS itself has two training facilities: the Manyani field school and a well-resourced training institute in Naivasha. Manyani is a proven centre of excellence in tactical field training necessary for wildlife rangers. The Naivasha training institute, which was established in 1985 to develop the “soft skills” and policy thinking around conservation and fisheries, changed in 2009 when it began offering rudimentary naturalist and paraecologist courses more geared towards serving the tourism industry than the cause of conservation. As one would expect, the academic contribution of this institution to tourism falls so short of the standards required by Kenya’s highly developed tourism industry that in the final analysis, it is a lost investment. One of its more recent distinctions is the levels of academic performance advertised on its website as requirements for admission, which are far below what an institution training custodians of any country’s most valuable resource should be.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

Kenya as a nation still struggles with this colour bar and our public arena is replete with the symptoms of it. One that stands out is the dropping of charges against the late Tom Cholmondeley for the killing of Samson Ole Sisina, a KWS officer, at the scene of an industrial bushmeat harvesting and processing operation on the former’s Soysambu ranch. Those familiar with Kenyan society know that the killing of a security officer on duty is a (judicial or extrajudicial) death sentence in Kenya 99.99% of the time. The truth is that there were absolutely no mitigating circumstances here, other than the victim’s race. Barely a year later, in May 2006, Cholmondeley shot and killed Robert Njoya, a stonemason who lived in a village that borders his 50,000-acre estate, a crime for which he was jailed in 2009 following public uproar.

Closer analysis of these institutions and their low intellectual ceilings reveals a far subtler, but important, perspective on the colour bar in Kenyan conservation. The people being trained in these institutions are replacing the gun bearers and gamekeepers of feudal England and colonial Kenya.

More recently, in January 2018, there was a memorial service for the late Gilfrid Powys, a renowned rancher, conservationist, and KWS honorary warden. The service was attended by a plethora of top brass from KWS in full uniform, as well as several government leaders, as befitted his status in society. I suspect many in the congregation were taken aback when one of the eulogisers, Mr. Willy Potgieter, read a long and touching tribute where he detailed how the departed wasn’t a particularly religious man but would indulge his spirituality by hunting buffalo every Sunday morning. The discomfiture of the uniformed staff and company gathered was palpable and would have been amusing had it not been such a stark testament to the existence of conservation apartheid in our country and our society’s acceptance thereof.

Sanitised terminology

Apartheid in conservation matters. The duplicity that exists within many people and institutions purported to be dedicated to conservation may seem bizarre to those unfamiliar with the sector. Here is how it works: Basic psychological examination of wildlife hunting reveals that it is a uniquely complex aspect of human endeavour because it occurs at both ends of the spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Subsistence hunting is firmly at the bottom of the hierarchy as it fulfils physiological needs while sport hunting is at the top, within the realm of self-actualisation. This is illustrated by the celebrated blood sports of falconry and fox hunting pursued by royalty in the Middle East and Britain, respectively.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

Likewise, the term “hunter” is never applied to the activities of black people. These three degrees of separation in the hierarchy of needs are the basis of the colour bar. They are the reasons behind the flawed belief that we can allow white people to kill (not poach) wildlife and shoot black people suspected of being “poachers”. This is also the basis of the ongoing nonsensical scheme of a “task force” going around Kenya trying to gather support for proposed “consumptive use” of wildlife, an activity de facto delineated by race. It stands to even casual examination that the practice of structured legal hunting of wildlife in Kenya (and much of Africa) is an activity controlled by, and indulged in, by people of Caucasian extraction.

The highly sanitised terminology is also in striking contrast to the derogatory terms like “bushmeat poaching” used in reference to subsistence hunting. This highlights the role of the media in cultivating the racial divide because in Africa the term “poacher” or “bushmeat” is never applied to the activities or diets of people of European descent, regardless of legality.

It also goes without saying that the colour bar we live with in Kenyan conservation is an anachronism that we should have escaped from in the mid-20th century. But before we can achieve that freedom, we must squarely face up to the problem and appreciate its full extent. It is systemic.

When the board chairmanship of KWS fell vacant about four years ago, our government turned, almost reflexively, to the ageing Dr Richard Leakey, who is no longer at his physical or intellectual best, and who, in my view, is not even the best candidate for the job. The spectacular failure, frantic inactivity, and deafening silence on conservation issues that characterised Dr Leakey’s last tenure at KWS came as no surprise to those of us familiar with the man’s capabilities. The most poignant memory of this is a photo of Leakey posing with the black board members holding tusks beside him – an image that evoked memories of the “great white hunter” of yore. The photo itself was taken during the torching of 105 tonnes of ivory in 2016, a fairly logical conservation activity, but the carefully structured pose shows a board composed of people who have no knowledge or reading of the history and culture around wildlife conservation in Kenya. If they had even rudimentary knowledge of the history of conservation practice in Kenya, they would have recognised that their photo was misplaced in space and time. There is little doubt that Leakey (and possibly Brian Heath, in the back left, distancing himself from the ivory) were aware of this nuance and were the only intellectual participants in this photo – and therein lies a snapshot of our enduring tragedy.

The intellectual desert that is Kenya’s conservation sector remains as barren as ever in 2018. The sporadic and disjointed efforts to moisten it with sprinklers will all come to nought unless we concurrently plant the seeds of indigenous knowledge and expertise.

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE documents the rise of the “Ghetto President” who has become a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state. By ISAAC OTIDI AMUKE

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Bobi Wine and the Politics of Revolution

‘‘I believe in the politics of friendship. Without the politics of friendship there can be no radical movement.’’ – Srecko Horvat

‘‘…struggles, incarcerations and whistle blowing bring people together through friendship to try and do something. Will we succeed? Who knows! Who cares! What matters is the actual process of trying to do it… the chances may not be good. But we have the moral obligation to try’’

– Yanis Varoufakis

It came as a huge relief to many – especially to his wife Barbara and their four children – to learn that the highly popular Ugandan musician and MP for Kyaddondo East, Robert Kyagulanyi Ssentamu – popularly known as Bobi Wine – was still alive following his dramatic night arrest on August 13, 2018 in Arua town, Northern Uganda. The country’s political machinery – including President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni of the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) and Dr. Kizza Besigye Kifefe of the opposition’s Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) – had descended on Arua Municipality to drum up support for their respective candidates in a hotly contested by-election necessitated by the June 8, 2018 shooting to death of the incumbent MP, Ibrahim Abiriga, a Museveni loyalist who was killed alongside his bodyguard by hitmen riding on a motorcycle.

Kyagulanyi, who some say appears to have been flirting with the idea of establishing a people’s movement – a third force of sorts away from the Museveni-Besigye historical antagonism – arrived in Arua with clarity of purpose. Lately, he had been preaching that Uganda’s problems would not be solved through adherence to political party positions, and had been urging his supporters to think of broader formations, a proposition which sounded a little vague and amorphous.

On arriving in Arua, Kyagulanyi chose to back a different candidate from those backed by the big boys, Besigye and Museveni. Addressing a packed rally, he acknowledged that the divided opposition risked losing the seat to Museveni’s NRM, seeing that the crowded field of contestants had five individuals who passed for progressives. The way out, he suggested, was if the opposition overwhelmingly voted for the most suitable candidate out of the five. He endorsed Kassiano Wadri, a onetime MP and parliamentary whip in Besigye’s FDC, who ran as an independent. On August 15, Wadri won the seat from his prison cell.

Two notable events happened during the final round of campaigns in Arua. The first was when Kyagulanyi led a huge procession of cheering supporters – him riding atop a vehicle and urging his followers on – past a relatively well-attended Besigye rally, forcing the former army colonel to cut short his speech and wait for the noise to subside, seeing that the uninvited guests had overpowered the strength of his microphone. The whole episode had a somewhat humiliating effect on Besigye, the long-time undisputed symbol of opposition politics in Uganda. He nevertheless maintained a straight face, eventually succumbing to a group dance once the music started playing, seeing that the only way to ignore the intruders was by getting busy.

The second incident took place when President Museveni’s convoy was driving out of Arua and passed a group of supposed Kyagulanyi supporters who jeered the head of state. However, according to Museveni’s version of events, as posted on his Facebook page, his convoy was stoned, resulting in the shattering of the rear window of his official vehicle. It was this second event that resulted in Kyagulanyi’s troubles.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

The following day, news broke that the MP had been arrested, alongside 33 of his colleagues on the Arua campaign trail, their whereabouts remaining a mystery. It was alleged that Kyagulanyi had been found in possession of a gun in his hotel room, and was being charged with treason before a military court. There were fears that he and his colleagues had been heavily tortured.

In a hurried tweet sent on the fateful August 13 night, Kyagulanyi released a photo of the lifeless body of his driver, Yasiin Kawuma, shot inside the MP’s vehicle. “Police has shot my driver dead thinking they’ve shot me. My hotel is cordoned of…” read part of the tweet. The message was perturbing. Kyagulanyi’s followers expected more updates from him but none came.

***

Kyagulanyi became a person of particular interest to the Ugandan state following his June 29, 2017 victory in a parliamentary by-election in Kampala. Running as an independent against Museveni’s NRM and Besigye’s FDC, the new kid on the block seemed to have brought with him the multitude of supporters accumulated through his music career, merging showbiz with the new business of commandeering an insurrection in Uganda, shifting from artist to politician and vice versa.

The Ghetto President – Kyagulanyi’s other moniker – had taken Uganda’s political establishment by storm, and possibly by surprise, some having imagined that the satirical (or not) ghetto presidency had no tangible political implication. However, the residents of Kyaddondo East – the real and proverbial ghetto Kyagulanyi governed – showed through the ballot that his “presidency” was real.

One of the early signs that Kyagulanyi would prove troublesome to the Museveni regime was his defiant and confrontational conduct during the debate to abolish the presidential age limit, a sneaky NRM-driven amendment that sought to scrap a constitutional provision barring anyone beyond 75 years of age from contesting for the country’s presidency. For the NRM, it was necessary to leave a window of possibility open for Museveni were he to entertain thoughts of participating in future elections. Kyagulanyi, as part of the opposition’s Red Beret movement, became a star attraction when violence broke out, turning parliament’s debating chamber into a boxing ring.

Photographed and filmed physically facing off with overzealous state security agents who breached parliamentary protocol and sneaked in to manhandle opposition MPs, Kyagulanyi engaged in fist fights with Museveni’s henchmen, who seemed to have marked him as a prime target. When the same series of events were repeated a second time, Kyagulanyi uprooted a microphone stand and used it as a weapon against the security men, proving that when push came to shove, he was willing to use his fists in defending the things he believed in. Museveni took note.

***

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Before Arua, there had been a number of other by-elections in Jinja East, Bugiri, then Rukungiri, Besigye’s home district. In an interesting turn of events, Besigye’s FDC candidate won Jinja East, with Bugiri going to Kyagulanyi’s candidate. However, when it was Rukungiri’s turn, Besigye and Kyagulanyi combined forces and campaigned together for the victory of the FDC candidate. In his party’s acceptance speech in Rukungiri, Besigye said that the election was won not because they had the numbers but because of defiance, and thanked Kyagulanyi for his support, a clear acknowledgement that the veteran appreciated the capabilities of the rookie. It is through these successive by-elections that Kyagulanyi got an early chance to test his support outside of Kampala.

Kyagulanyi had only been an MP for a year when a new group of pundits began comparing him to the FDC’s Besigye. The young MP was holding massive rallies wherever he went in Uganda, a spectacle previously seen as a preserve of the consummate FDC leader. Suddenly, Besigye appeared to have a challenger for the opposition’s throne.

Upon Kyagulanyi’s arrest in Arua on the night of August 13, among those who demanded for his immediate release were Besigye and other leading FDC figures, including Kampala’s Mayor Erias Lukwago, who was acting as one of Kyagulanyi’s attorneys, and the former head of Uganda’s military and FDC stalwart Major General Mugisha Muntu, who stood front and centre in his defense.

Yet the Besigye-Kyagulanyi comparisons wouldn’t go away, even at this dicey time. On leaving Kampala’s Lubaga Cathedral on August 22, where prayers were being held for Kyagulanyi, a journalist asked Besigye if he might be a stumbling block to the young MP’s political project for Uganda. ‘‘People have to get this clear,’’ Besigye said. “I am not contesting for any seat and there is no leadership contest between Kyagulanyi and I.”

From the cathedral, Besigye headed for a night radio interview, where he furthered the gospel of freeing Kyagulanyi. The following morning, on August 23, Besigye took to social media to post familiar photos of police vehicles barricading the road leading to his home in Kampala’s Kasangati area in an effort to block him from standing in solidarity with Kyagulanyi, who was being presented before court. The residences of Mayor Erias Lukwago and Ingrid Turinawe, the head of the FDC’s Women’s League, were also cordoned-off. Coincidentally, a 2016 video of a defiant Turinawe confronting policemen and throwing open roadblock spikes placed outside the road to Besigye’s home had been trending.

***

In reading Ugandan journalist Daniel Kalinaki’s book Kizza Besigye and Uganda’s Unfinished Revolution, one realises that fighting Museveni is not a walk in the park. Detailing the early days of the National Resistance Army (NRA) – later NRM – bush war, Kalinaki takes one on the long journey Besigye travelled as a comrade of Museveni before the two fell out. Besigye had come to realise that Museveni had gone rogue and had started to shop around for comrades who were courageous enough to stand up to the latter’s fast growing dictatorship.

In an interesting turn of events, Besigye even asked his wife, Oxfam’s executive director, Winnie Byanyima, if she thought she could lead the onslaught. When everyone else thought they weren’t ready yet to lead the revolt, Besigye grudgingly decided to be the man of the moment, starting a journey that would take him to prison, exile and back, which cost him broken limbs and more.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

However, throughout this period of his detention, and looking back at his meteoric rise as one of Uganda’s most visible opposition figures, one wonders what this moment portends for Kyagulanyi, since, as many had predicted, it was only a question of when – and not if – Museveni would strike back with the might of his state security apparatus. It is in looking at individuals like Besigye – on whose shoulders Kyagulanyi must stand, one way or another – where some answers, certainly not all, will arise. It is the likes of Besigye, who have travelled this road before and who refused to compromise, who may offer Kyagulanyi some clarity. It is through such associations that Kyagulanyi may learn how to navigate certain difficult terrains. Kalinaki’s book shows how a youthful Besigye was forced to make tough choices the moment he chose to oppose Museveni, lessons that Kyagulanyi can benefit from.

There is no doubt that Kyagulanyi has become a political sensation in Uganda. It also has to be said that depending on how things go – considering factors within and outside his control – he may have a truly bright future as an important leader in the struggle for the liberation of Uganda.

***

In “wanting to stress that we live in dangerous times in which everyone opposed to the political and financial powers might soon become targets”, a unique series of events held in July 2016 titled ‘‘First They Came for Assange’’ happened simultaneously across 14 cities, marking four years since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange sought refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. It was during such an event in Brussels that Greece’s former Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, while in conversation with the Croatian philosopher Srecko Horvat – both of whom are Assange’s close friends and regular visitors to his place of isolation – said the following:

“We talk about brave people like Julian… all those people that are putting themselves in the line of fire on behalf of that which is good and proper. But there is a lot of cowardice today, friends, ladies and gentlemen. Julian Assange has a problem with his shoulder. Do you know that it is impossible to get a shoulder specialist to come into the embassy and take a look at him? Because they fear they will lose their clientele. We have to remember that human beings are capable of the best and the worst. Our job as a movement is to cultivate the former against the latter.”

Julian Assange may or may not be some people’s ideal example of a freedom fighter, but there is no denying the fact that through his continued isolation at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, he has become a contemporary example of how persecution can be meted out on an individual for reasons directly or indirectly linked to their revolutionary actions and beliefs.

Importantly, the words by Varoufakis underline one truism that is apparent as we witness the overwhelming outpouring of support for Kyagulanyi. With hundreds, if not thousands, using his silhouette as their profile picture on social media, we must come to the conclusion that there can be no successful revolution in these times we live in – where everyday struggles push us into little survival cocoons – without the politics of revolution embracing the politics of friendship. Even a retweet or an M-Pesa contribution can trickle into a massive pot of support that may just turn the tide.

The journey will be long and tedious – especially after Kyagulanyi’s release.

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

President Museveni successfully thwarted political opposition until Bobi Wine came along and posed a formidable challenge to the ageing leader’s ambitions. By ERIASA SSERUNJOGI

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BATTLE FOR THE PEARL: Bobi Wine, Museveni and the future of Uganda

Thirty-six years ago, in 1982, the year Bobi Wine was born, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was busy commanding the war that eventually led him to power. At 36, Museveni had run for president in 1980 as a rabble-rouser representing the new Uganda Patriotic Movement (UPM).

His party did not even stand an outside chance of winning the election, with Milton Obote’s Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) and Paul Ssemogerere’s Democratic Party (DP) being the hot favourites. In the end, Museveni even failed to win his own parliamentary seat. During the campaigns, he had warned that he would start a war should the election be rigged, and he did indeed start a war after UPC controversially claimed the election for itself amidst claims that DP had won.

Paulo Muwanga, who was the head of the interim Military Commission government on which Museveni served as Deputy Minister for Defence, had arrogated himself the powers that were entrusted in the Electoral Commission to announce election results, returning UPC as the winner, with Obote proceeding to form a government for the second time, having been earlier deposed by Idi Amin in 1971.

Museveni had watched the intrigue and power play and how the gun had emerged as the decisive factor in Ugandan politics since 1966. He had decided early in life that his route to power would be through the barrel of the gun. His determination to employ the gun became manifest when he launched a war against Amin’s new government in the early 1970s.

Museveni’s Fronasa fighters were part of the combined force that was backed by the Tanzanian army to flush out Amin in 1979. Also among the fighting forces was a group that was loyal to Obote. Museveni’s and Obote’s forces and other groups were looking for ways to outsmart one another as they fought the war. It was a time when Bobi Wine was not yet born.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun. He wants future leaders to work their way into the hearts of Ugandans and convince them that they can take the country forward.

Bobi Wine first rose to popularity through music. Even though the popstar is new to Ugandan politics, he has for over a decade been disseminating political messages through his songs, in which he positions himself as a poor man’s freedom fighter.

Bobi Wine (real name Robert Kyagulanyi), who has been a Member of Parliament for just a year, has followed a different path. He is one of those Ugandans who believe that Museveni should be the last Ugandan leader to access power through the barrel of the gun.

Through his music, he has criticised the government when he felt it sold the people short; he has castigated the Kampala City authorities over throwing vendors and other poor people off the streets; and he has sought to encourage Ugandans, especially the youth, to take charge of their destiny.

“When freedom of expression becomes the target of oppression,” Bobi Wine said in one of his songs, “opposition becomes our position.” That was before he joined active politics.

When he married in 2011, he made sure that the marriage was celebrated by the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in the capital. When he was incarcerated recently, there were prayers for him at Rubaga Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic Church in Uganda. Catholics are the biggest religious grouping in the country.

Bobi Wine was born in Gomba, one of the counties of Buganda, the biggest ethnic group in Uganda. He has worked his way into the Buganda king’s heart, dubbing himself “Omubanda wa Kabaka” (the King’s Rasta man).

In Uganda’s music industry, Bobi Wine and his “Fire Base Crew” rose to the very top in their category, with Bobi Wine calling himself the “Ghetto President”, whose retinue included a “Vice President”, a cabinet and other members. He also has a security detail. His chief personal bodyguard – Eddie Sebuufu, aka Eddie Mutwe – was picked up at night by suspected military operatives on August 24, 2018.

Bobi Wine has over the past decade traversed the country where he has been performing as an artiste. Then, shortly after his election to Parliament, he travelled to many places within the country to introduce himself this time as a politician. He enjoys name recognition across the country that no Ugandan politician of his age and experience can command.

Battle for the youth

Bobi Wine plays the music that many Ugandan youth want to listen to, but he also preaches the gospel of change and prosperity in a way that is attracting crowds to him. He was born in rural central Uganda but he moved into a shanty neighbourhood of Kampala early in life, struggling through what most young people in the city experience. Although he went school up to university level, he went through all the hassles that young Ugandans go through. He speaks their language.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above. In fact, only 450,500 people, or 1.2 per cent of Ugandans, according to the UBOS projection, are as old as Museveni or older.

Reliable numbers on employment in Uganda are hard to come by but it is generally agreed that the country has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Museveni’s opponents often cite his age to make the point to the youth that their future is not safe with a 74-year-old leader who has been in power for 32 years.

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) projects that at the mid-point of this year, Uganda had 39,041,200 people. Of these, only 648,000 people were projected to be 70-years-old or older. This means that Museveni, at 74 years of age, is among a lucky 1.7 per cent of Ugandans who are alive at the age of 70 or above.

Museveni being Museveni – the Maradona of Uganda’s politics – has tried to tilt the debate on age to his advantage. He has, for instance, distinguished between “biological age” and “ideological age”, saying that many Ugandans are young biologically but very old ideologically. He has identified “ideological disorientation” as one of Uganda’s “strategic bottlenecks”, positioning his “ideological youth” as the solution. For one to be “ideologically young”, Museveni says, one needs to have the right ideas and mindset on how to transform society. He regards himself as a master in that. He says biological age is of no consequence in politics.

In his State of the Nation address last year, the Ugandan president said staying in power for long – and therefore being old – is a good thing because the leader gains immense experience along the way. In the wake of the recent arrest of Bobi Wine and 32 others who were charged with treason after allegations of stoning the president’s motorcade, Museveni wrote at least six messages on social media addressed to “fellow countrymen, countrywomen and bazzukulu (grandchildren)”. He now takes comfort in addressing many of his voters and opponents as grandchildren.

The choice of social media (especially Facebook and Twitter) as the preferred way of transmitting the president’s messages also raised debate. From July 1, social media users had a daily tax imposed on them because the president said people used the platforms for rumour-mongering. Many social media users have avoided the tax by installing virtual private networks (VPNs) on their handsets and so the “rumour-mongering” on social media continues. Since younger people spend a lot of time on social media, their septuagenarian president has decided to follow them there. Whenever he has addressed them as “grandchildren”, there have been hilarious responses in the comments section.

Beyond the debates, Museveni has in past election campaigns come up with a number of things to attract the youth, including recording something akin to a rap song in the lead-up the 2011 elections. But if it is about music, Museveni now faces Bobi Wine, a man less than half his age who has spent all his adult life as a popular musician.

Museveni’s government has tried one thing after another in an attempt to provide the jobs that young people badly need, with initiatives ranging from setting up a heavily financed, but highly ineffectual, youth fund in the ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development. After the 2016 elections, in which Museveni suffered the heaviest defeat in Kampala City and its environs, he set out to dish out cash to youth groups to promote their businesses. Not much has come out of this initiative.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods. Museveni’s opponents latch onto such contradictions as they keep piling up.

Is it Bobi Wine’s turn?

Over the last 32 years that he has been around, Museveni has had a number of challengers and Bobi Wine is now threatening to storm the stage as the new kid on the block.

When he shot to power in 1986, Museveni rebuked leaders who overstayed their welcome, saying that the vice was at the root of Africa’s problems. As time went by, and with him still in power, he changed his views. He now says that he actually prefers leaders who stay in power for long periods.

Many of the people who were in the trenches with Museveni in the earlier years and who dreamt of picking the baton of leadership from him have dropped their ambitions because age and/or other circumstances have come into play as Museveni stayed put. Former ministers who once nursed presidential ambitions, like Bidandi Ssali, Amanya Mushega, Prof George Kanyeihamba and even the younger Mike Mukula, for instance, have since retreated to private lives. Others, like Eriya Kategaya and James Wapakhabulo, have passed on.

Of the Bush War comrades who harboured ambitions of taking over from Museveni, only four-time challenger Kizza Besigye and former army commander Mugisha Muntu remain standing, with the largely silent former prime minister Amama Mbabazi thought to be lying in wait for a possible opening.

By staying in power for so long – since January 1986 – Museveni has worn out his ambitious former comrades and perhaps even ensured that the chance to rule the country passes their generation by, a reality that has made it more likely that he will face a challenger who is younger than his own children.

But Museveni will not allow this generation of youth to win. The ruling party consistently stifles the emergence of younger leaders. In the lead-up to the 2016 election, for instance, Museveni’s National Resistance Movement party saw a rare surge in activity championed by younger people. One of Museveni’s in-laws, Odrek Rwabwogo, was among them. Rwabwogo had resorted to penning a string of articles in the partly state-owned New Vision newspaper about how the ruling party’s ideology could be sharpened to take care of the new Uganda. A number of other younger leaders within the party vied for space and expressed their visions in what was interpreted by some as a jostle for a front row seat as Museveni was expected to be standing for his last term in preparation for retirement in 2021.

Then, shortly after returning to power in 2016, Museveni engineered the removal from the Constitution the 75-year cap for presidential candidates, which would make him eligible to run again for as many times as he would be physically able to handle. This was a sure sign that Museveni was not willing to hand over power to a more youthful generation.

Repression heightens

The move to remove the age limit for presidential candidates from the Constitution inevitably invited stiff opposition from those who for decades have worked towards removing Museveni from power. In September last year, army men invaded Parliament and beat up and arrested Members of Parliament who were trying to filibuster the debate and perhaps derail the introduction of the bill to remove the age limit. Two MPs were beaten to a pulp and one of them, Betty Nambooze, has been in and out of hospitals in Kampala and India over broken or dislocated discs in her back.

This unfortunate incident, however, did not stop the State from bringing charges against her when after the shooting to death in June of an MP, Ibrahim Abiriga – who was one of the keenest supporters of the removal of age limits – Nambooze made comments on social media that the State interpreted as illegal. This week she had to report to the police over the matter, but she was informed that the officers were ready to have her charged in court, where she was delivered in an ambulance. She was carted into the courtroom on a wheelchair for the charges to be read out to her before the magistrate granted her bail. She sobbed all the way and afterwards wrote on Facebook that while in court she was “crying for my country”.

Francis Zaake, the other MP who was also was beaten, had to be taken to the US for treatment. He is now being treated again and is set to be fly out of the country due to injuries he sustained during the violence in Arua in which Bobi Wine was also attacked by soldiers of the Special Forces Command that guards the president.

Bobi Wine and 32 others have since been charged with treason but Zaake hasn’t yet – though Museveni has said in one of his statements posted on social media that Zaake escaped from police custody. When he is supposed to have escaped, Zaake was unconscious and could not move or talk. He was reportedly just dropped and dumped at the hospital by unidentified people. The head of the hospital has said that Zaake is at risk of permanent disability because of the damage he suffered to his spinal cord. The authorities say they are waiting for Zaake to recuperate so that he can face charges related to the violence in Arua.

By these callous actions, Museveni has demonstrated how ruthless he can get when his power is challenged. He has referred to the injured MPs as “indisciplined” and has not extended any sympathy towards them.

Those who have dared to challenge Museveni, especially Besigye, have been here before. The new opposition politicians currently in the line of fire, including Bobi Wine, have been served with a dose of what to expect if they push Museveni hard. The decision on how far they are willing to go is now in their court.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover. They will be arrested, intimidated, or offered money to start businesses, a ploy to get them to abandon him. Some, like his driver Yasin Kawuma, who was buried a few weeks ago, will die.

It seems that Museveni plans to apply to Bobi Wine the script he has used on Besigye over the past two decades. Apart from being targeted for physical assaults, Bobi Wine will be – and it is already happening – isolated from members of his inner circle, especially those who provide him with physical cover.

Another thing the Museveni machine will do, and which it has done in the past, is plant fifth columnists around him – men and women who will show immense eagerness to work with Bobi Wine to remove Museveni from power but whose real assignment will be to get him to make mistakes and to spy on him.

It is also to be expected that Museveni will reach out to Bobi Wine with some kind of deal – he seems to offer all his credible opponents proposals for an amicable settlement so that they can drop their political ambitions. It is hard to say whether Museveni has already approached Bobi Wine or not, but there are rumours to that effect.

Ultimately, it will be up to Bobi Wine to decide what he wants to do going forward, but with him fighting for his life in hospital, we dare not predict the future.

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