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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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IMF and SAPs 2.0: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are Riding into Town
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The International Monetary Fund’s announcement on the 2nd of April 2020 that it had approved a US$ 2.3 billion loan for Kenya prompted David Ndii to spell it out to young #KOT (Kenyans on Twitter) that “the loan Kenya has taken is called a structural adjustment loan (SAPs). It comes with austerity (tax raises, spending cuts, downsizing) to keep Kenya creditworthy so that we can continue borrowing and servicing debt”, adding that the “IMF is not here for fun. Ask older people.” With this last quip, Ndii was referring to the economic hardship visited on Kenyans under the structural adjustment programmes of the 80s and 90s.

Well, I’m old enough to remember; except that I was not in the country. I had left home, left the country, leaving behind parents who were still working, still putting my siblings through school. Parents with permanent and pensionable jobs, who were still paying the mortgage on their modest “maisonette” in a middle class Nairobi neighbourhood.

In those pre-Internet, pre-WhatsApp days, much use was made of the post office and I have kept the piles of aerogramme letters that used to bring me news of home. In those letters my parents said nothing of the deteriorating economic situation, unwilling to burden me with worries about which I could do nothing, keeping body and soul together being just about all I could manage in that foreign land where I had gone to further my education.

My brother Tony’s letters should have warned me that all was not well back home but he wrote so hilariously about the status conferred on those men who could afford second-hand underwear from America, complete with stars and stripes, that the sub-text went right over my head. I came back home for the first time after five years — having left college and found a first job — to find parents that had visibly aged beyond their years and a home that was palpably less well-off financially than when I had left. I’m a Kicomi girl and something in me rebelled against second-hand clothes, second-hand things. It seemed that in my absence Kenya had regressed to the time before independence, the years of hope and optimism wiped away by the neoliberal designs of the Bretton Woods twins. I remember wanting to flee; I wanted to go back to not knowing, to finding my family exactly as I had left it — seemingly thriving, happy, hopeful.

Now, after eight years of irresponsible government borrowing, it appears that I am to experience the effects of a Structural Adjustment Programme first-hand, and I wonder how things could possibly be worse than they already are.

When speaking to Nancy* a couple of weeks back about the COVID-19 situation at the Nyahururu County Referral Hospital in Laikipia County, she brought up the issue of pregnant women having to share beds in the maternity ward yet — quite apart from the fact that this arrangement is unacceptable whichever way you look at it — patients admitted to the ward are not routinely tested for COVID-19.

Nancy told me that candidates for emergency caesarean sections or surgery for ectopic and intra-abdominal pregnancies must wait their turn at the door to the operating theatre. Construction of a new maternity wing, complete with its own operating theatre, has ground to a halt because, rumour has it, the contractor has not been paid. The 120-bed facility should have been completed in mid-2020 to ease congestion at the Nyahururu hospital whose catchment area for referrals includes large swathes of both Nyandarua and Laikipia counties because of its geographical location.

According to Nancy, vital medicine used to prevent excessive bleeding in newly delivered mothers has not been available at her hospital since January; patients have to buy the medication themselves. This issue was also raised on Twitter by Dr Mercy Korir who, referring to the Nanyuki Teaching and Referral Hospital — the only other major hospital in Laikipia County — said that lack of emergency medication in the maternity ward was putting the lives of mothers at risk. Judging by the responses to that tweet, this dire situation is not peculiar to the Nanyuki hospital; how much worse is it going to get under the imminent SAP?

Kenya was among the first countries to sign on for a SAP in 1980 when commodity prices went through the floor and the 1973 oil crisis hit, bringing to a painful halt a post-independence decade of sustained growth and prosperity. The country was to remain under one form of structural adjustment or another from then on until 1996.

Damaris Parsitau, who has written about the impact of Structural Adjustment Programmes on women’s health in Kenya, already reported in her 2008 study that, “at Nakuru District Hospital in Kenya, for example, expectant mothers are required to buy gloves, surgical blades, disinfectants and syringes in preparation for childbirth”. It would appear that not much has changed since then.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation states that “the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being without distinction of race, religion, political belief, economic or social condition” and that “governments have a responsibility for the health of their peoples which can be fulfilled only by the provision of adequate health and social measures.”

The WHO should have added gender as a discrimination criteria. Parsitau notes that “compared to men, women in Kenya have less access to medical care, are more likely to be malnourished, poor, and illiterate, and even work longer and harder. The situation exacerbates women’s reproductive role, which increases their vulnerability to morbidity and mortality.”

With economic decline in the 80s, and the implementation of structural adjustment measures that resulted in cutbacks in funding and the introduction of cost sharing in a sector where from independence the government had borne the cost of providing free healthcare, the effects were inevitably felt most by the poor, the majority of who — in Kenya as in the rest of the world — are women.

A more recent review of studies carried out on the effect of SAPs on child and maternal health published in 2017 finds that “in their current form, structural adjustment programmes are incongruous with achieving SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] 3.1 and 3.2, which stipulate reductions in neonatal, under-5, and maternal mortality rates. It is telling that even the IMF’s Independent Evaluation Office, in assessing the performance of structural adjustment loans, noted that ‘outcomes such as maternal and infant mortality rates have generally not improved.’”

The review also says that “adjustment programmes commonly promote decentralisation of health systems [which] may produce a more fractious and unequal implementation of services — including those for child and maternal health — nationally. Furthermore, lack of co-ordination in decentralised systems can hinder efforts to combat major disease outbreaks”. Well, we are in the throes of a devastating global pandemic which has brought this observation into sharp relief. According to the Ministry of Health, as of the 6th of April, 325,592 people had been vaccinated against COVID-19. Of those, 33 per cent were in Nairobi County, which accounts for just 9.2 per cent of the country’s total population of 47,564,296 people.

The Constitution of Kenya 2010 provides the legal framework for a rights-based approach to health and is the basis for the rollout of Universal Health Coverage (UHC) that was announced by President Uhuru Kenyatta on 12 December 2018 — with the customary fanfare — as part of the “Big Four Agenda” to be fulfilled before his departure in 2022.

However, a KEMRI-Wellcome Trust policy brief states that UHC is still some distance to achieving 100 per cent population coverage and recommends that “the Kenyan government should increase public financing of the health sector. Specifically, the level of public funding for healthcare in Kenya should double, if the threshold (5% of GDP) … is to be reached” and that “Kenya should reorient its health financing strategy away from a focus on contributory, voluntary health insurance, and instead recognize that increased tax funding is critical.”

These recommendations, it would seem to me, run counter to the conditionalities habitually imposed by the IMF and it is therefore not clear how the government will deliver UHC nation-wide by next year if this latest SAP is accompanied by budgetary cutbacks in the healthcare sector.

With the coronavirus graft scandal and the disappearance of medical supplies donated by Jack Ma still fresh on their minds, Kenyans are not inclined to believe that the IMF billions will indeed go to “support[ing] the next phase of the authorities’ COVID-19 response and their plan to reduce debt vulnerabilities while safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, as the IMF has claimed.

#KOT have — with outrage, with humour, vociferously — rejected this latest loan, tweeting the IMF in their hundreds and inundating the organisation’s Facebook page with demands that the IMF rescind its decision. An online petition had garnered more than 200,000 signatures within days of the IMF’s announcement. Whether the IMF will review its decision is moot. The prevailing economic climate is such that we are damned if we do take the loan, and damned if we don’t.

Structural adjustment supposedly “encourages countries to become economically self-sufficient by creating an environment that is friendly to innovation, investment and growth”, but the recidivist nature of the programmes suggests that either the Kenyan government is a recalcitrant pupil or SAPs simply don’t work. I would say it is both.

But the Kenyan government has not just been a recalcitrant pupil; it has also been a consistently profligate one. While SAPs do indeed provide for “safeguarding resources to protect vulnerable groups”, political choices are made that sacrifice the welfare of the ordinary Kenyan at the altar of grandiose infrastructure projects, based on the fiction peddled by international financial institutions that infrastructure-led growth can generate enough income to service debt. And when resources are not being wasted on “legacy” projects, they are embezzled on a scale that literally boggles the mind. We can no longer speak of runaway corruption; a new lexicon is required to describe this phenomenon which pervades every facet of our lives and which has rendered the years of sacrifice our parents endured meaningless and put us in debt bondage for many more generations to come. David Ndii long warned us that this moment was coming. It is here.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’

African states are involved in the War on Terror more than we think. They’re surrounded by an eco-system of the war industry.

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East Africa: A ‘Hotbed of Terror’
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In late January, reports circulated on social media about a suspected US drone strike in southern Somalia, in the Al-Shabaab controlled Ma’moodow town in Bakool province. Debate quickly ensued on Twitter about whether the newly installed Biden administration was responsible for this strike, which was reported to have occurred at 10 p.m. local time on January 29th, 2021.

Southern Somalia has been the target of an unprecedented escalation of US drone strikes in the last several years, with approximately 900 to 1,000 people killed between 2016 and 2019. According to the nonprofit group Airwars, which monitors and assesses civilian harm from airpower-dominated international military actions, “it was under the Obama administration that a significant US drone and airstrike campaign began,” coupled with the deployment of Special Operations forces inside the country.

Soon after Donald Trump took office in 2017, he signed a directive designating parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities.” While the US never formally declared war in Somalia, Trump effectively instituted war-zone targeting rules by expanding the discretionary authority of the military to conduct airstrikes and raids. Thus the debate over the January 29 strike largely hinged on the question of whether President Joe Biden was upholding Trump’s “flexible” approach to drone warfare―one that sanctioned more airstrikes in Somalia in the first seven months of 2020 than were carried out during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, combined.

In the days following the January 29 strike, the US Military’s Africa Command (AFRICOM) denied responsibility, claiming that the last US military action in Somalia occurred on January 19, the last full day of the Trump presidency. Responding to an inquiry from Airwars, AFRICOM’s public affairs team announced:

We are aware of the reporting. US Africa Command was not involved in the Jan. 29 action referenced below. US Africa Command last strike was conducted on Jan. 19. Our policy of acknowledging all airstrikes by either press release or response to query has not changed.

In early March, The New York Times reported that the Biden administration had in fact imposed temporary limits on the Trump-era directives, thereby constraining drone strikes outside of “conventional battlefield zones.” In practice, this means that the US military and the CIA now require White House permission to pursue terror suspects in places like Somalia and Yemen where the US is not “officially” at war. This does not necessarily reflect a permanent change in policy, but rather a stopgap measure while the Biden administration develops “its own policy and procedures for counterterrorism kill-or-capture operations outside war zones.”

If we take AFRICOM at its word about January 29th, this provokes the question of who was behind that particular strike. Following AFRICOM’s denial of responsibility, analysts at Airwars concluded that the strike was likely carried out by forces from the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somali (AMISOM) or by Ethiopian troops, as it occurred soon after Al-Shabaab fighters had ambushed a contingent of Ethiopian troops in the area. If indeed the military of an African state is responsible for the bombing, what does this mean for our analysis of the security assemblages that sustain the US’s war-making apparatus in Africa?

Thanks to the work of scholars, activists, and investigative journalists, we have a growing understanding of what AFRICOM operations look like in practice. Maps of logistics hubs, forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations―from Mali and Niger to Kenya and Djibouti―capture the infrastructures that facilitate militarism and war on a global scale. Yet what the events of January 29th suggest is that AFRICOM is situated within, and often reliant upon, less scrutinized war-making infrastructures that, like those of the United States, claim to operate in the name of security.

A careful examination of the geographies of the US’s so-called war on terror in East Africa points not to one unified structure in the form of AFRICOM, but to multiple, interconnected geopolitical projects. Inspired by the abolitionist thought of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, who cautions activists against focusing exclusively on any one site of violent exception like the prison, I am interested in the relational geographies that sustain the imperial war-making infrastructure in Africa today. Just as the modern prison is “a central but by no means singularly defining institution of carceral geography,” AFRICOM is a fundamental but by no means singularly defining instrument of war-making in Africa today.

Since the US military’s embarrassing exit from Somalia in 1993, the US has shifted from a boots-on-the ground approach to imperial warfare, instead relying on African militaries, private contractors, clandestine ground operations, and drone strikes. To singularly focus on AFRICOM’s drone warfare is therefore to miss the wider matrix of militarized violence that is at work. As Madiha Tahir reminds us, attack drones are only the most visible element of what she refers to as “distributed empire”—differentially distributed opaque networks of technologies and actors that augment the reach of the war on terror to govern more bodies and spaces. This dispersal of power requires careful consideration of the racialized labor that sustains war-making in Somalia, and of the geographical implications of this labor. The vast array of actors involved in the war against Al-Shabaab has generated political and economic entanglements that extend well beyond the territory of Somalia itself.

Ethiopia was the first African military to intervene in Somalia in December 2006, sending thousands of troops across the border, but it did not do so alone. Ethiopia’s effort was backed by US aerial reconnaissance and satellite surveillance, signaling the entanglement of at least two geopolitical projects. While the US was focused on threats from actors with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda, Ethiopia had its own concerns about irredentism and the potential for its then-rival Eritrea to fund Somali militants that would infiltrate and destabilize Ethiopia. As Ethiopian troops drove Somali militant leaders into exile, more violent factions emerged in their place. In short, the 2006 invasion planted the seeds for the growth of what is now known as Al-Shabaab.

The United Nations soon authorized an African Union peacekeeping operation (AMISOM) to “stabilize” Somalia. What began as a small deployment of 1,650 peacekeepers in 2007 gradually transformed into a number that exceeded 22,000 by 2014. The African Union has emerged as a key subcontractor of migrant military labor in Somalia: troops from Burundi, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda deployed to fight Al-Shabaab are paid significantly higher salaries than they receive back home, and their governments obtain generous military aid packages from the US, UK, and increasingly the European Union in the name of “security.”

But because these are African troops rather than American ones, we hear little of lives lost, or of salaries not paid. The rhetoric of “peacekeeping” makes AMISOM seem something other than what it is in practice—a state-sanctioned, transnational apparatus of violent labor that exploits group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death. (This is also how Gilmore defines racism.)

Meanwhile, Somali analyst Abukar Arman uses the term “predatory capitalism” to describe the hidden economic deals that accompany the so-called stabilization effort, such as “capacity-building” programs for the Somali security apparatus that serve as a cover for oil and gas companies to obtain exploration and drilling rights. Kenya is an important example of a “partner” state that has now become imbricated in this economy of war. Following the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) invasion of Somalia in October 2011, the African Union’s readiness to incorporate Kenyan troops into AMISOM was a strategic victory for Kenya, as it provided a veneer of legitimacy for maintaining what has amounted to a decade-long military occupation of southern Somalia.

Through carefully constructed discourses of threat that build on colonial-era mappings of alterity in relation to Somalis, the Kenyan political elite have worked to divert attention away from internal troubles and from the economic interests that have shaped its involvement in Somalia. From collusion with Al-Shabaab in the illicit cross-border trade in sugar and charcoal, to pursuing a strategic foothold in offshore oil fields, Kenya is sufficiently ensnared in the business of war that, as Horace Campbell observes, “it is not in the interest of those involved in this business to have peace.”

What began as purportedly targeted interventions spawned increasingly broader projects that expanded across multiple geographies. In the early stages of AMISOM troop deployment, for example, one-third of Mogadishu’s population abandoned the city due to the violence caused by confrontations between the mission and Al-Shabaab forces, with many seeking refuge in Kenya. While the mission’s initial rules of engagement permitted the use of force only when necessary, it gradually assumed an offensive role, engaging in counterinsurgency and counterterror operations.

Rather than weaken Al-Shabaab, the UN Monitoring Group on Somalia observed that offensive military operations exacerbated insecurity. According to the UN, the dislodgment of Al-Shabaab from major urban centers “has prompted its further spread into the broader Horn of Africa region” and resulted in repeated displacements of people from their homes. Meanwhile, targeted operations against individuals with suspected ties to Al-Shabaab are unfolding not only in Somalia itself, but equally in neighboring countries like Kenya, where US-trained Kenyan police employ military tactics of tracking and targeting potential suspects, contributing to what one Kenyan rights group referred to as an “epidemic” of extrajudicial killings and disappearances.

Finally, the fact that some of AMISOM’s troop-contributing states have conducted their own aerial assaults against Al-Shabaab in Somalia demands further attention. A December 2017 United Nations report, for example, alleged that unauthorized Kenyan airstrikes had contributed to at least 40 civilian deaths in a 22-month period between 2015 and 2017. In May 2020, senior military officials in the Somali National Army accused the Kenyan military of indiscriminately bombing pastoralists in the Gedo region, where the KDF reportedly conducted over 50 airstrikes in a two week period. And in January 2021, one week prior to the January 29 strike that Airwars ascribed to Ethiopia, Uganda employed its own fleet of helicopter gunships to launch a simultaneous ground and air assault in southern Somalia, contributing to the deaths—according to the Ugandan military—of 189 people, allegedly all Al-Shabaab fighters.

While each of the governments in question are formally allies of the US, their actions are not reducible to US directives. War making in Somalia relies on contingent and fluid alliances that evolve over time, as each set of actors evaluates and reevaluates their interests. The ability of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda to maintain their own war-making projects requires the active or tacit collaboration of various actors at the national level, including politicians who sanction the purchase of military hardware, political and business elite who glorify militarized masculinities and femininities, media houses that censor the brutalities of war, logistics companies that facilitate the movement of supplies, and the troops themselves, whose morale and faith in their mission must be sustained.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore the image of the United States abroad, it is possible that AFRICOM will gradually assume a backseat role in counterterror operations in Somalia. Officially, at least, US troops have been withdrawn and repositioned in Kenya and Djibouti, while African troops remain on the ground in Somalia. Relying more heavily on its partners in the region would enable the US to offset the public scrutiny and liability that comes with its own direct involvement.

But if our focus is exclusively on the US, then we succumb to its tactics of invisibility and invincibility, and we fail to reckon with the reality that the East African warscape is a terrain shaped by interconnected modes of power. The necessary struggle to abolish AFRICOM requires that we recognize its entanglement in and reliance upon other war-making assemblages, and that we distribute our activism accordingly. Recounting that resistance itself has long been framed as “terrorism,” we would do well to learn from those across the continent who, in various ways over the years, have pushed back, often at a heavy price.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.
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