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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
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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 senior writer for The Elephant.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19

President Magufuli’s response to the current coronavirus crisis has been far from exemplary. Some of his actions, like urging pubs to throw post-coronavirus parties and firing those who question his bizarre remedies for COVID-19, could actually put the lives of thousands of Tanzanians at risk.

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A Problem of Denial: Why Tanzania Could Lose the War Against COVID-19
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Authorities in the East African nation of Tanzania have started a process to reopen the country, claiming that the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has dropped significantly, with numerous cases of recoveries reported. However, given the state’s laxity in containing the pandemic since it was first reported in the country, plus its obsession with excessive secrecy in its approach to dealing with this new virus, makes many Tanzanians suspicious of the state’s claims and intentions – and for good reason.

Tanzania’s handling of COVID-19 remains a divisive and controversial subject that is passionately debated both within the East African nation and beyond. As nations across the world grapple with the deadly virus, which continues to indiscriminately claim the lives of thousands of people, and wrecks the economies of many countries, opinion here is sharply divided between those who are convinced that this novel coronavirus situation in the country is not so worrying as to warrant interventions seen in other countries, such as lockdowns, and those who accuse the government of underestimating the magnitude of the pandemic, thereby putting the economy above public health, and thus risking the lives of hundreds of citizens. No compromise seems to be on the horizon between these two warring factions.

The ongoing debate, which feeds into the political polarisation already prevalent in Tanzania, has been made more acute by the government’s own approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, which to this day remains opaque and unknown to the general public. The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

So confusing is the government’s response to COVID-19 that after almost three months since the crisis was first reported, people’s anger and apprehension have subsided to ridicule and mockery as President John Magufuli’s administration continues to expose deep and terrible contradictions in its strategy and style to deal with the pandemic. Annoyance, therefore, seems to have subsided into derision. (If one would expect a different reaction then it means that one is not well-versed in Tanzania’s political culture. The long-reigning years of the ruling CCM have reduced the population to apathy and conformism, all in exchange for “peace and development” as defined by the party’s own ideologues and propagandists.)

Corona parties

The sheer absence of organised protest and pushback on the part of the citizenry, the press, religious institutions, and civil society organizations (CSOs) against the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic means that the minimalists (those who advocate for less restrictive measures lest the economy is hurt and interpret the news that portrays Tanzania in a gloomy picture as fear-mongering and hysterical) secure an ostentatious victory and hence wield a significant influence in the government’s latest measures aimed at bringing the country back to normalcy.

The government’s approach seems to be informed by partial denial, inordinate secrecy, sheer incompetence, and ancient superstitions and prejudices.

On May 21, for example, while addressing the nation from the capital Dodoma, President Magufuli announced that schools, colleges, and universities will be reopened on June 1 and called for the resumption of suspended football activities, citing physical exercise as one of the best ways to avoid contracting the virus. A day earlier, the cocky regional commissioner of Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Paul Makonda, urged hoteliers and restaurant owners in the city to reopen their businesses, and claimed that COVID-19 was now over and that the city should go back to work. He even urged pub owners to throw a party on Sunday, May 24, to celebrate the end of COVID-19 in the country.

These measures follow the ones taken earlier, including the opening of the country to tourists and the lifting of a restriction that required tourists to undergo the mandatory 14-day quarantine when they visit the country. In the same vein, churches and mosques that were closed due to the pandemic have been ordered to reopen. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in Tanzania (ELCT) bishop of Karagwe Diocese, Dr Benson Bagonza, subsequently announced that church services would resume on May 31.

The government’s claim is that these and other measures aimed at returning the country back to normal are thanks to the “tremendous drop” in the number of people contracting COVID-29 in Tanzania and the increasing number of COVID-19 recoveries across the country. For instance, during a church service in his hometown of Chato, a town in Geita region of northwestern Tanzania where President Magufuli has been self-isolating since the pandemic arrived in the country, the head of state told his fellow congregants that, thanks to what he termed as divine intervention, the number of COVID-19 cases in different hospitals across the country have gone down and the number of recoveries have increased. It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons, things that he and his government have been pushing people to use to “stay safe” against the pandemic for a while now.

President Magufuli’s assurance notwithstanding, not many people seem to buy into his government’s claims that Tanzania is safe now and people can go back to doing their business. People’s doubts have been intensified by many factors, the most important factor being the lack of transparency. The claim about the sharp drop in COVID-19 cases reported in the country are being made at a time when the government does not share COVID-19 updates with the public and other national and regional public health stakeholders. This follows the temporary closure of the national health laboratory to pave way for an investigation into the allegations made by President Magufuli that the lab officials were “conspiring with imperialists” to portray Tanzania in a negative light by releasing more positive cases, an allegation which eventually led to the sacking of the lab’s director, Dr Nyambura Moremi.

It was in this address that Mr Magufuli talked about his daughter who contracted the virus but who was able to recover, thanks to steam therapy and the consumption of lemons…

These misgivings are made more relevant by reports from neighbouring Kenya where the increasing number of truck drivers from Tanzania test positive for COVID-19 when they cross the border into Kenya, something which led to the Kenyan authorities to not only close all their borders with Tanzania but also deport 182 people who tested positive for COVID-19 back to Tanzania in an effort to protect Kenyans from the pandemic. Another reason why people doubt the government’s claims of the “divine defeat” of COVID-19 is the feeling that the government is not there to serve their interests in the first place but that of President Magufuli and his administration.

Attacking political opponents, not the virus

Mr Magufuli’s actions portray him as a person who is more interested in himself than he is in the people. One of these actions includes getting rid of people from his administration who are thought to be realists and replacing them with sycophants who are willing to go the extra mile in their attempts to please the president, even if is at the expense of people’s lives.

For instance, President Magufuli swore in Mr Mwigulu Nchemba, a man who just before his appointment as the new constitutional and legal affairs minister to replace Mr Augustine Mahiga, who died after a short illness, had suggested that the government announce only the number of people who recover from COVID-19 and leave out the numbers of those who died of the pandemic.

If that was not enough, President Magufuli fired Dr Faustine Ndungulile as the deputy health minister – a man who once contradicted the president’s steam therapy as a cure for coronavirus and pointed out its associated health risks – and replaced him with Dr Godwin Mollel, who had once advised against mass testing, a practice emphasised by the World Health Organization (WHO) if the war against the coronavirus is to be won, saying it was too expensive for people to afford. According to this lawmaker, who defected from the opposition Chadema to the ruling CCM, “to support President Magufuli’s efforts to bring development to the people” the government’s complete abandonment of mass testing made more sense to him as a people’s representative than asking the government to make the testing free of charge!

Tanzania seeks to reopen at a time when its laxness in its efforts to contain the pandemic has triggered a diplomatic crisis with neighbouring Kenya following the latter’s decision to close all its borders with Tanzania, allowing only cargo to pass through, something which so infuriated the Magufuli administration that regional commissioners with the regions that border Kenya (Arusha, Mara, Kilimanjaro and Tanga) retaliated against Kenyan truck drivers, banning even cargo trucks to pass through. The border crisis, now settled, led to the sacking of Tanzania’s High Commissioner to Kenya, Pindi Chana, presumably because she was not as aggressive as her Kenyan counterpart in Tanzania, Dan Kazungu, in finding a solution to the problem.

The inward-looking approach of Tanzania made it skip two important COVID-19-related consultative meetings organised by the East African Community (EAC) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). While opening the SADC meeting, South African president Mr Cyril Ramaphosa is quoted to have said that he talked to President Magufuli, the sitting chairperson of the block, of the need to organise the meeting but the Tanzanian leader asked for the member states to just send their opinions to him, a charge that Tanzania denies. These and other steps taken during the pandemic had some analysts worried that Tanzania risked losing its historical and strategic allies in the region.

It is this same megalomaniacal type of thinking that has made President Magufuli not listen to, and work on, the advice offered by other stakeholders of Tanzania’s development, such as opposition parties (see here and here) and CSOs, which on more than one occasion have outlined some of the necessary measures to be taken to help the country combat the pandemic and save lives.

Election-related measures

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space. The measures come against the backdrop of debates among Tanzania’s lawyers and intellectuals on whether or not Tanzania should go ahead with the general elections given the presence of the public health emergency. However, the latest steps that the government has taken to reopen the country seem to have brought this debate to an end.

Efforts to reopen the country go hand in hand with steps to further shrink the available civic space in the country. For example, COVID-19 has not stopped the Magufuli administration from detaining a comedian who laughed at the president’s old photos, arresting journalists, local and foreign, who interviewed people on their experience with the pandemic, as well as restricting NGOs working in the country. On May 22, for example, a coalition of Tanzanian NGOs planned to organise a TV programme with a local television station, ITV, to talk about NGOs’ role in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic only to have the network postpone it at the last minute without giving a rational or understandable reason.

It was against this troubling background then that after being tired of government lies and prevarications, and having lost her close relative to COVID-19, gender and human rights activist Mwanahamisi Singano was forced to write an open letter to President Magufuli, reminding him that fear is not fought with threats, torture, or shackles (or lies if I could add), but with “sincere and intentional government actions in the fight against [COVID-19] scourge”.

The measures to reopen the country are being taken when Tanzania is just a few months away from a general election in October 2020. The measures are being viewed as preparatory work towards the elections that President Magufuli’s party, CCM, is projected to win in a landslide largely due to a disorganised opposition and years of deliberate efforts to shrink Tanzania’s political and civic space.

Sincerity is what is missing in the government’s entire strategy in the fight against the pandemic and thus explains to a great extent why most people are suspicious of its assurances that the pandemic has been contained and that people are free to go about their business as they did during the pre-COVID-19 period.

How, for instance, can a sane person trust a government claiming that the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped yet it declines to share those very statistics with anyone, not even its own citizens or at least with the Africa Disease Control and Prevention? How can we trust an administration that tries to lull us to sleep with sweet songs that the pandemic is over when it has treated the pandemic more as a national security issue than as a public health crisis? (The president’s second address on COVID-19 was to the heads of Tanzania’s security organs, not with public health experts.)

If the government is being genuine that coronavirus has been contained in the country to the extent that studies and sports should resume, why did it find it necessary to ask Kenya in making public the data on the COVID-19 status of truck drivers, not to mention the nationality of those who test positive?

If we cut through the propaganda barrage, we find that Tanzania is not as safe as the ruling elites and their apologists want people to believe. People who heed the call to go about their business believing that the pandemic is over will be doing so at their own risk.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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