Connect with us

Features

BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

Published

on

BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

At a cybercafé somewhere in Nairobi’s South B estate, stone-faced male clients are glued to their computers. They are youthful, the type that ought to be attending college, or if they are working, should be at their respective work places. It is mid-morning on a weekday, the cybercafé’s computers are all occupied and the young men are not on the Internet doing research for a term paper, collecting data, compiling a literature review, or cleaning up their CVs; they are busy placing bets on football games that are being played thousands of kilometres away, mostly in European cities.

This cybercafé is a replica of the many cybercafés spread all over the city and in suburban areas that have been turned into betting sites. “Cybercafés are no longer the Internet places you knew where people came to download serious stuff, upload a government document or even watch porn,” said Moha, the cybercafé’s owner and himself a former betting addict. “With the introduction of online betting in Kenya, the cybercafé business was transformed and acquired a new model.”

In Rongai town in Kajiado County, 25 kilometres from Nairobi’s city centre, college students and young professionals have turned to cybercafés to gamble in the football betting craze that has left many residents befuddled. “All of them are male and between the ages of 19 and 35 years,” said a cybercafé owner. “A young man who was working for an IT company left his job to bet full time.” In Kikuyu town, Kiambu County, many young men have been sucked into the betting craze. They spend all day holed up in cybercafés, betting on nondescript teams in faraway countries, such as Bulgaria and Ukraine. They pay KSh1,000 upfront to cybercafés daily to satiate their betting addiction.

“Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.

A recovering gambler, Moha was so compulsively addicted to betting that he would bet his cybercafé’s daily proceeds relentlessly and non-stop. Convinced that the following day would be better than the previous one, he would place his bet again and again. Again and again, he would lose: day after day, week after week, month after month. “Just when the business was now about to collapse, I woke up to my senses. I was lucky, I salvaged myself. It could have been worse,” said Moha. At the end of his betting mania, Moha had lost hundreds of thousands of shillings. “That money was never meant to be mine,” he consoled himself.

A full-time occupation

Moha’s cybercafé is decked with a smart 43-inch TV that beams the latest European leagues’ football matches live. I watched as young men worked their bets with the seriousness of college students sitting for an exam. “Betting has become a full-time occupation for some people,” said Njoroge, one of the young men I found betting at Moha’s cybercafé.

Njoroge is your archetypal Kenyan gambler: intelligent, male, young, urbane and computer savvy. He is a recent graduate of Technical University of Kenya. He finished his BSc in IT studies just last year and told me that he was in the process of looking for a job. But as he looks for a job, he said, he is hooked to betting. “I will not lie to you – I cannot stop betting because I have become an addict.” Njoroge has been betting since 2013, when he first entered university as a freshman. “But I will also congratulate myself, I have been able to tame my betting mania to now just once a week,” said Njoroge. “I bet every Friday and I have cupped my betting to no more than KSh3,000. That is the maximum that I can bet.”

I asked Njoroge what was the highest amount he had ever won during his four years of betting. “Twenty-one thousand,” he replied. “I don’t play huge bets. For me to have won the KSh21,000, I had placed a bet of KSh1,000.” Since then, he has been winning small amounts ranging from KSh3,000 to 6,000. Was it out of choice that he was betting small money? I asked him. “Not really. It is because I have never had a huge lump sum. If I did, trust me, I would play in the big league. The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the reward,” Njoroge reminded me.

“Although I am not able for now to stay away from betting, I consider myself a safe bet,” said Njoroge. “I have been betting at Moha’s cyber for a while now and I know all my fellow gamblers. I do not consider myself a serial gambler.” Njoroge told me of a banker who worked at Kenya Commercial Bank who bet every single day. “His online account always has a floating minimum of KSh10,000 for placing his bets. Many times he has lost huge amounts, but he seems to have a constant supply of money. He does not seem to worry about his losses.” Every morning at 7am, his banker betting friend passes by at the cybercafé and places his bet before leaving for work. In the evenings, before going home, he passes by again and places more bets. “I think betting is like a sickness,” mused Njoroge. “I look at the banking fellow and I cannot believe that he often bets to win only KSh1,000 on top of his minimum KSh10,000.”

“Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”

Anthropologist Natasha Schull says, “For gamblers, it is not always the sense of chance that is attractive, but the predictability of the game that underpins the escapism. Even winning disrupts this state of dissociation.”

Before releasing Njoroge to go back to his computer machine, I asked him whether he was genuinely worried that his addiction would (finally) get the better of him. “That is why I am seriously looking for a job. I am hoping once I get a job, I will quit betting.” It sounded more of a wish than an expectation.

“But once you get a job, won’t you start earning some good pay and that may induce you into placing bigger bets? I mean you will now have the bigger cash you been craving for?” I asked him. “Remember what you told me about the greater the odds, the higher the reward?” He paused, then said, “Let me go back.”

A sickness

“Betting is a sickness, a sickness that can only be cured by oneself,” said Simon Kinuthia, a recovered gambler, who once lived in East London and came back home in 2008. It is in East London that he first learned how to bet and eventually got hooked. “Betting and gambling joints are all over the city of London. They are like your local neighbourhood kiosks here in Nairobi.” As a restaurant supervisor in East London, Kinuthia would use his break to dash to the nearest betting kiosk to place a bet.” He been back in Kenya for nearly ten years now, and says he would bet even his house rent and would be perpetually broke and always in debt “because you must always borrow to feed your addiction. Gamblers never have enough money. They are always begging and borrowing and are trapped in a vicious cycle of living in a make-believe world of delusion where they will wake up the next day and be declared a jackpot winner.”

With his colleagues, Kinuthia would bet in the morning, at tea break, during the lunch hour, in the evenings and even at night. “When we got our weekly pay, we would all head to gambling joints and bet the whole night. We would lose all our money, possibly only one of us would win his bets,” said Kinuthia. Yet, that did not deter them. “The more you lose, the more you want to place even more bets, erroneously believing it was not your lucky night. It is a paradox.”

Kinuthia, who is an accountant by profession, told me that betting is a business based on the understanding of probabilities. “What is the probability of a gambler winning the jackpot?” posed Kinuthia. “It is one out of 10 million, assuming every day 10 million Kenyans are placing their bets. In other words, your chances of not winning the big money is 99.9 per cent.” Many of these people, Kinuthia said, have little or no understanding of the probability of losses.

Kinuthia has faithfully kept away from betting in Kenya. “I saw people (in the UK) lose jobs, others got into manic depression. Others who could not live with the shame of losing everything they ever owned – after being auctioned – and of having mounting debts, committed suicide. “Betting is like being a drug addict: People begin using drugs as a leisure activity in the false belief that they can quit anytime, if the leisure becomes boring, or if they find something better to do,” said Kinuthia. “But no sooner do you start dabbling in drugs, then you realise you want more and more of the same. It is no longer a leisure activity, but an addiction that has to be fed to keep it going. That is precisely how betting works, even on the most innocent people, who cheat themselves they are doing it for fun, and if not for fun, at least then to win some money. They soon realise they are hooked onto an alluring activity that is intoxicating, that like a drug gives them a kick, or if you, like ‘a shot in the arm.’”

Photocopy of newspaper

Photocopied newspaper page with “hot games” for betting.

Social anthropologists have long observed that gamblers use their bets to chase losses and often they seek to be in a world where they can forget their problems. I found this to be true of my newspaper vendor friend, who has spawned a business idea from the betting mania: selling photocopied newspaper pages with “hot games” for betting. At KSh20 per page, the vendor mainly sells the information to security guards, casual labourers, matatu drivers and conductors, street vegetable vendors and hawkers, job seekers, as well as jobless Kenyans. All of these people’s dream is to win the jackpot and merrily transform their “miserable” lives by becoming instant millionaires. It is a dream fed daily by the fantastic news that a peasant women from Kakamega County can actually win KSh25 million from placing her bet correctly.

This paradox – of losing hard-earned cash in a betting game and instead of quitting, you immerse yourself even further in the quagmire is something I found prevalent among university students. To understand how the betting mania has caught on among Kenyan youth, I went to the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo campus, where science and medical students are housed. It is a campus for “serious students” who are not even supposed to have time to socialise. But with the onset of online betting in Kenya, Chiromo campus students have not been spared the craze.

Victor Rago, who is studying chemistry, admitted to me that the betting mania has afflicted his campus and is driving many students crazy. “Today students spend more time betting than they do in their academics. If only they spent half the time they did in analysing football matches so as to place the correct bets, we would have very many first class honours.” Rago told me about his roommate, who in their second year in 2017, placed his bet one Saturday afternoon with Ksh200. As luck would have it, by the evening his roomie was worth KSh250,000 sent to his smart phone. “I knew he had ‘struck gold’, because when he came to the room, he said he wanted us to go into town and eat some real food at some real restaurant. He excitedly told me he had won 250K and it was proper for him to take some time and enjoy life. For a whole semester he did not show up in the lecture theatre.”

Rago said students were now spending all their energies dreaming every single day about betting and winning bigtime money. It has become a full-time occupation for them. Studies have become secondary. “Here at Chiromo, there are betting groups, just like there are tutorial groups, but the betting groups are superseding the tutorial groups by the day,” said Rago. I asked him why many of these betting groups are mostly composed of male students. “Male students are ardent football followers, which they have done for a long period, so they have a knack for better and greater analysis and I also suspect they are not averse to risks.”

But that does mean female students do not bet, said Rago. “They do, but they are not in the forefront. And, because they are not as adept analysts like their male counterparts, they rely on ‘seasoned analysts’ to predict for them.” Many of the so-called seasoned analysts run online advisory chats on Telegram applications. “They are also WhatsApp advisory chats, but many gamblers prefer the Telegram app,” said Rago. He said the Telegram app is preferred because your contact details are not exposed to everyone. Unlike WhatsApp, where, if you have to belong to a chat group, you must share your mobile phone number, the Telegram app is created such that it is controlled by a sole administrator and he or she does not need to know your telephone number to chat with his or her clients.

Professional predictors

“One of the biggest of these Telegram app online ‘professional predictors’ is called Binti Foota,” said Rago. Ostensibly targeted at females who do not have the time to analyse or follow football matches religiously, it has an accumulated a following of nearly 19,000 gamblers. “What the betting craze has done is to spawn another industry, which is feeding into the gambler’s addiction,” said Rago. “So, for KSh530 a fortnight, Binti Foota can help you predict the outcome of football games. If you pay her KSh1,030, the site can predict for you for 34 days.” Rago said many of the female students who bet make the bulk of Binti Foota chat followers. “Binti Foota’s identity is not known, neither does she have to know the identity of her clients. So, if you are dissatisfied with her analyses, what you can do is migrate to another prediction site, or bad mouth her on a different site,” said Rago.

Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.

The student told me these online “professional predictors” had been infiltrated by online scammers, who have been conning people of their money in the guise of helping them place winning bets. “Many of the so-called online analysts and professional predictors are just scammers preying on the gambler’s addiction.” Scammers from as far as Nigeria have opened Telegram chat groups that pronounce how they have helped people win hundreds of millions of shillings. And because people are predisposed to greed, they fall prey to such scams,” said Rago.

He added that because of the obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) behaviour displayed by the student gamblers, most of these students tend to neglect their studies and suffer from pendulum-like mood swings that are unpredictable. Rago told me of the Kenyatta University second-year student who committed suicide last year. “The student bet all his tuition fees – KSh80,000. What he did was to place two bets: KSh40,000 each. The odds were high, but he took the risk, convinced he would at least win one gamble. When he lost both bets, his world came crumbling down.”

Social anthropologists say that the social costs of gambling are huge, and include bankruptcy, homelessness, suicide and domestic violence.

The bigger the odds, the greater the risk, the higher the rewards is a principle many gamblers abide by, hoping to cash in on the odds they have placed. Many times, the risk is not worth it, “but then”, said Rago, “gambling is a compulsive behaviour disorder that overtime grips gamblers, who like alcoholics, to cure their alcoholism, must first accept they are suffering from an alcohol problem. Gamblers must also come to terms with their odd behaviour that drives them to bet compulsively.”

A consultant periodontist described to me how self-destructive compulsive behaviour disorder can be. A part-time lecturer, he narrated to me how one of his best students pulled out of class in his third year. “Aaah daktari, this course is taking too long: my peers are making money out there and here I am slogging through an unending degree course,” the student replied when he asked him why he had decided to pull out of medical school. “To my consternation, I did not know he had been betting on the side,” the consultant said. “I was told that his friends were boasting to him that by the time he is finished with his medical degree, they would be owners of real estate and funky vehicles.” His friends apparently were full-time gamblers and some had shown him their bank slips.

The consultant said he should not have been overly surprised: some of the young doctors known as registrars have become master gamblers. “In between their clinical rounds in the hospitals, the physicians are glued to their smart phones busy betting, so much so that one would be inclined to think that betting is one of their examinable units.” But the most shocking revelation came when he learned that some parents were encouraging their children to bet, oblivious of the dangers they are getting their children into.

Sports betting

I met a senior-level manager at one of the better known sports gaming companies for a chat in their posh offices in Nairobi. If a company’s employees is an indication of who its clientele might be, this sports gaming company told it all: The employees I saw were young – hardly more than 33 years-old with a look that declared: “We are here, we have arrived”. “It is not true sports gaming companies are impacting negatively on the Kenyan society, much less its youth,” he ventured to tell me. “This is a wrong notion that is being perpetrated by the mainstream media. It has become all hype and no substance. What I want are facts and figures, not emotional lurid stories.” He reeled off from his head the statistics from a recent poll conducted last November to find out how Kenyan youth are spending their money. “The survey, GeoPoll, showed that 26 per cent of the youth spend their money on saving and expenditure and only five per cent spent their money on betting. Which youth is this that is being destroyed by betting? The Kenyan media is obsessed with sensational reporting,” said the manager.

Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.

The manager, who is not authorised to talk to the media, described betting as an entertainment and said people are entitled to some fun, some leisure, albeit in a controlled environment. “We operate under the rules and obligations of the Betting Control Licensing Board. We are therefore legitimate. What is destroying the youth is not sport gaming companies – on the contrary – it is the so-called amusement machines that are now found all the over the place, including villages in some far-off counties. Those machines are the problem: they are illegal, unregulated and accessed by all and sundry. Of course, most of them are used by pupils and students alike, who are yet to be of the adult age, that is above 18 years. That is what the government and the media should be concerned with and not licensed, legal betting companies,” pointed out the manager. The government should clamp down on these machines, not ask sports gaming companies to part with astronomical taxes – “it just does not make sense. We are a business, not a philanthropic company. The government is being unreasonable when it says sports gaming companies are making so much money, so they have to pay taxes that are pegged to their turnover. It never happens anywhere in the world.”

Implications of Sports Betting in Kenya – a study conducted by Amani Mwadime and submitted to the Chandaria School of Business at the United States International University in Nairobi in 2017, estimates that 2 million people in Nairobi alone participate in online betting.

The manager said his company has a cap on the amount one can bet in a day: KSh20,000. “I should let you know, we are not reckless. We also do not want people to overstretch their enjoyment.” Sports gaming companies and casinos consider gambling a “victimless” recreation, and therefore, a matter of moral indifference.

The sports gaming companies are up in arms because the government has asked them to pay 35 per cent on their monthly turnover in taxes. “And do not forget we still have to pay the annual 30 per cent corporate tax. Some people are misadvising the government,” said the manager. This “misadvising” began last April, 2017, when Henry Rotich, the Treasury Cabinet Secretary, proposed a 50 per cent tax on sports gaming companies when he presented the national budget. He also came up with the Finance Bill, which President Uhuru Kenyatta refused to sign, insisting sports gaming companies ought to pay the 50 per cent tax.

Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth.

When the matter was taken up by Parliament, it was shot down; parliamentarians rejected the 50 per cent tax idea and said that the tax should remain at 7.5 per cent. “Now we don’t know where this 35 per cent is coming from. There is a misconception about sport gaming companies in this country: That we make abnormal and humongous profits. The most profitable company in Kenya is Safaricom. I have not heard the government say, since Safaricom makes billions of shillings, they should pay higher taxes than what they are paying currently, because they happen to be making tonnes of money.”

I told the manager that my preliminary inquiries on the betting mania, especially among the youth, is that it is distracting them from productive activities, be it studies or work. I also told him that betting is unwittingly creating among the most productive cadre of Kenyans a false notion that gambling can be considered an economic activity.

“Kenya is not a theocracy and gambling has existed in independent Kenya for the last 50 years,” shot back the manager. “Where is all this hullabaloo about sports gaming companies coming from suddenly? I sense business envy here from some (powerful) quarters. Could be it that some people are sore because they cannot believe they missed an opportunity to make money?” The manager told me that a tycoon close to the powers that be fought one of the sports gaming companies when it started its operations, arguing that these companies were corrupting the morals of the youth. There are currently 25 sports gaming companies in Kenya, according to latest Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) statistics, which were compiled last year in June.

“The argument about morals is both laughable and superfluous,” said the manager. “What then should we say of alcohol? Shouldn’t the government then shut down all the bars and drinking dens to curb alcoholism? What about beer and liquor manufacturing companies? Shouldn’t the government tax them an arm and a leg because they encourage our youth to drink? Alcohol is not only harmful to their health, but also leads to anti-social behaviour.” The morality argument falls flat on its face, said the manager. “That is the province of the purveyors of heavenly realm. I have not heard them say betting will take the youth to hell or that they are engaged in a sinful activity. ”

The manager dispelled the notion that betting and gambling are reckless behaviour. “Life is about gambling. Did you know prayer is a gamble? Everyday people are offering prayers to God, which are not fulfilled. Yet, they continue praying and they will not stop. At least we fulfil part of our bargain by paying people for their gambles. I can tell you this without a shadow of a doubt, we are going to create millionaires like no industry has done in modern Kenya.”

Anecdotal evidence shows that online betting is impoverishing poor people and reducing their levels of productivity. Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, the Director General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), recently observed: “:….you are seeing sports gambling in Kenya today, but nobody is telling the gambling firms not to accept money from poor gamblers. It is the poor who must be told that they will live with the consequences of dreaming that gambling is an investment.” It is a fact that gamblers are drawn disproportionately from the poor and the low-income classes, who can ill afford to gamble: they are susceptible to the lure of quick imagined riches. This class of people are in financial doldrums and other societal tribulations that make them vulnerable to fantastic dreams of sudden wealth.

A tax expert who did not want his name revealed said, “One of the sports gaming company’s act of sponsorship withdrawal can be interpreted as an act of industry intimidation. The company is taking advantage of the fact that there is no direct evidence attributing societal problems to its activities.” Sportpesa, one of the better known gaming companies, withdrew its sponsorship of 10 sporting entities in Kenya that it was supporting after the government asked all sports gaming companies to pay an upgraded tax of 35 percent.

The tax consultant pointed out that Chapter 12 of the Kenyan Constitution on public finance management requires the creation of a tax system that promotes an equitable society. “Translation: Sports gaming companies such as Sportpesa are obliged to engage in good management practices by not holding the country to ransom, and using scaremongering tactics and threats such as job losses, withdrawing to another country or jurisdiction.”

Social scientists agree that gambling blurs the distinction between well-earned and ill-gotten wealth. I thought of the young man Njoroge – smart and forward-looking – yet, gambling, a debased form of speculation, had reduced him to lusting for sudden wealth that is not linked to the process that produces goods or services. Through gambling he hopes to grow wealth without actually working for it.

Comments

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

Continue Reading

Features

THE DISILLUSIONED AND THE DISCONTENTED: Will the ‘Born-80s’ generation finally rescue Kenya?

Progressive millennials should avoid the nationalistic approaches of their elders and focus their energies on undoing the exploitative colonial state rather than improving the poor quality of its political leadership. By MWONGELA KAMENCU

Published

on

THE DISILLUSIONED AND THE DISCONTENTED: Will the ‘Born-80s’ generation finally rescue Kenya?

Disillusionment seems to be the predominant feeling in the country, an assessment based on analyses of some of the political events and the economy. A number of articles from The Elephant’s millennial edition seem to bring out this sense of despondency among the younger generation of Kenyans. How does this shape or how should it shape the political outlook of millennials, particularly those who are politically progressive and interested in socio-political change? How do these times compare with the times of their forerunners who organised under the Moi and Kenyatta dictatorships? Is there a need for a different approach in political organising by progressive Kenyan millennials?

As argued by Darius Okolla, a generation congeals as an identity when members of an age cluster develop an actual peer bond, thanks to a specific event of a certain type that knits them together into largely observable mindsets and world views. Based on this premise, the construction of a generational identity has some merit.

But who or what gets to define the length of this cluster? Is it the Anglo-linguistic definition of 30 years that defines a generation? Or is it the period of 30 to 40 years when the ituika ceremony would be held in the Kikuyu community to symbolically show that power had been transferred to a new generation? Or did the political realities of the post-colonial Kenyan state make the length of this cluster more elastic than the Western or pre-colonial Kikuyu definitions? Maybe. The membership of underground, multiparty or constitutional movements, such as the December 12th movement, Mwakenya, the Forum for Restoration of Democracy and Kenya Tuitakayo, had a huge age range – few were born in the thirties, some were born in the forties while others grew up in the seventies, but as movements they nonetheless pass Okolla’s litmus test: they had a largely observable nationalistic and patriotic political outlook. They may have had differing approaches and ideologies in their political struggles – approaches that were partially informed by their various classes, as Willy Mutunga demonstrates in his book Constitutional-Making from the Middle – but they had faith in the Kenyan state as a functional unit. I will demonstrate why.

The progressive wing of the “Generation X-extended”, as I would brand them, were either born or came of age during the heady years of independence or at a time when the Kenyan state’s social services had not been privatised. Admittedly, this argument has some grey areas – it does not address Northeastern and other regions, which by far had less investment compared to Central Kenya and Nairobi, or the discontent that brewed in the Rift Valley and the Coast in the 1960s and the Shifta War in the North. The disillusionment of citizens who had been promised Uhuru na kazi but rallied around the Uhuru na taabu call, as well as fighters like Baimungi and Chui who later picked up arms and went back to the forest, also refers. Nonetheless, the zeitgeist of the 60s for the most part was one of relative optimism that was further bolstered by the Harambee call for nation-building. Some of those, like Willy Mutunga, who were born during the colonial era, celebrated the lowering of the Union Jack and the hopes of modernisation and nation-building. They were invested in the nation-building project and the nation-state.

The progressive wing of the “Generation X-extended”, as I would brand them, were either born or came of age during the heady years of independence or at a time when the Kenyan state’s social services had not been privatised.

Compared to the public university students over the past two-and-a-half decades, the students of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s occupied a more privileged position in society. They did not have to worry about a cafeteria system through which they would pay for meals or about supplementing their student loans – a scheme that began in 1974 – with other sources of money to pay for their university fees. In confrontations with the government, these students were constantly reminded, not only by government officials but also by members of the public, about their privileged status and the fact that their privilege came at the Kenyan taxpayer’s cost. Employment prospects for them were not as dim as they are today. Repression aside, the government to a large extent did not violate its social contract with this budding intelligentsia. There lay a caveat, however. The implied, unspoken rule was that the government would not violate the “social contract” with the university students for as long as they kept their heads down. Agitating for political freedom came at a cost – suspensions, expulsions, withdrawal of scholarships and/ or detentions.

Millenial Generation

Read the Millennial Edition

State industries, such as Rivatex, Kikomi and Muhoroni, employed Kenyan workers in their hundreds. A public transport system – OTC, later the Nyayo Bus and the Kenyan Bus Services – ferried people from one point to another in the city of Nairobi. It was a state that managed to keep up an image of functionality. Under Jomo Kenyatta’s regime, in particular, the mainstream media were complicit in promoting the government’s project of nation-building, a project that provided a platform for a patriotic outlook to take root. This focus on nation-building obscured a parallel but insidious development – the use of state power to amass wealth for the president, his family and his cronies. Alternative and dissenting interpretations of nation-building, muffled by repression, took the form of underground movements, like the clandestine Workers’ Party of Kenya, whose outlook was Marxist-nationalist, a forerunner to the December 12th and Mwakenya movements that in the 1980s, organised with the aim of deposing an acquisitive political elite that had frustrated and subverted the meaning of independence.

Those born in the early to the late 1970s may have turned out differently had they not encountered a rebirth of nation-building initiated by a man who was compelled to create a legend for himself owing to the gravitas his leadership lacked in the public eye in the early years of his presidency. The “Nyayo legend” had to lean on Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee nation-building legacy to get the goodwill that Daniel arap Moi needed to command a semblance of credibility. This legend was designed to create a particular kind of citizen and the “Born-70s” became its prototype.

The Generation X, born between 1945 and 1960, as posited in Okolla’s article, also had to be extended. This extension scaled totalitarian heights as state machinery ensured that the Nyayo philosophy permeated all corners of society, from the corridors of power to school classrooms. The Born-70s, or children of the 1980s, underwent a brainwash reinforced by a repertoire of techniquesNyayo milk that showed how benevolent the president was, songs that extolled the virtues of Baba wa Taifa and repeating a loyalty pledge that underscored fealty to him and to the republic.

Those born in the early to the late 1970s may have turned out differently had they not encountered a rebirth of nation-building initiated by a man who was compelled to create a legend for himself owing to the gravitas his leadership lacked in the public eye in the early years of his presidency. The “Nyayo legend” had to lean on Jomo Kenyatta’s Harambee nation-building legacy to get the goodwill that Daniel arap Moi needed to command a semblance of credibility.

These children were the real watoto wa Nyayo; they were the first set of child inductees into the Nyayo-brainwashing programme, and for a better part of the 1980s the image they had of the Nyayo nation-building project held strong partly because of the state benefits they enjoyed, as well as the repression which on the surface put a lid on Kenyans’ frustrations and fear. The discontent was there but it was costly for it to be shown; hence they were shielded from processing some of the violent confrontations between citizens and the state police that were to be witnessed in the following decade. Later in their lives, they would have trouble reconciling their constructed love for Moi with the hard times that his administration produced. As explained by Binyavanga Wainaina, the idea of “demons” as a rationalisation for the deteriorating economic times took root as Kenyans were afraid of attributing this state of affairs to Moi’s incompetence.

But this illusion propped up by authoritarianism could not hold for long. The opening up of the democratic space in the early 1990s coincided with the introduction of cost-sharing measures for social services, particularly in educational institutions. These austerity measures produced dwindling fortunes, unemployment and inequality, which in turn radicalised this group. Its discontent would be manifested in the university student unrest in the 1990s, as well as its militancy in Kenya’s reform movement. The harsh economic conditions, accompanied by the repressive environment that they grew up in, produced progressive individuals who served as the foot soldiers of the country’s reform movement. It is important to note that in their role as “foot soldiers”, some of these individuals felt that they endured frustration from the senior generation of activists who were perceived to be the leaders of the reform movement.

Although the progressive youth of the reform movement may have been more radical than the senior activists in their approach, their outlook for the most part was similar – the Kenyan state was to be rescued. The predominant assumption amongst them was that constitutional reforms would usher in an era of good governance and address the challenges that they faced. They were wrong. Although the country got a new constitution almost two decades after their struggles, the colonial logic of the state remained intact. To be fair, we can’t blame this group and their forerunners; they were merely people of their time. They played the hand that they were dealt.

The Born-80s “millennial” generation

The childhood of the Born-80s came at a time when Kenya was a cauldron of different political contestations. The Nyayo nation-building project continued in our schools against a backdrop of wider events that did not portray the government of the day in as good a light. I remember the time when I was a pre-unit student in St. George’s Primary School receiving Kenyan flags alongside my classmates from our teachers and being walked to State House Avenue where we were prompted to wave our flags at President Moi who shared a car with Queen Elizabeth in his motorcade during her visit to Kenya in 1991.

I also recall watching in the previous year the TV footage of women wailing in reaction to the news of the murder of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Robert Ouko. I remember reciting the loyalty pledge and shortly after or around that time the tense atmosphere under which the first Saba Saba rallies occurred; my parents forced me and my siblings to stay at home without offering us any explanation – our home was relatively close to Nairobi city centre.

I remember my Malkiat Singh Class 5 GHC workbook that glorified Moi and other KANU nationalists for their fight for independence but at the same time I also remember the country’s mood in 1997 when police followed pro-reform crusaders into a church and clobbered them mercilessly. How brutal could a government be?

The 90s decade saw the decline of social services. By the end of the 1990s, government-provided public transport had collapsed and was in private hands. While the nation paid most of its attention to political liberalisation, its economic arm wreaked havoc on the economy. Free trade, as dictated by the IMF and the World Bank, meant that we had to open our markets to imported goods such as mitumba (cheaper clothes than the local alternatives but which had already been used). As a result, a host of textile industries collapsed, which also rendered cotton farming a redundant exercise.

The economy was on its knees with corruption taking centre stage. The effects of the grand corruption of the Moi administration manifested itself in high levels of crime and low-level corruption. In sync with the global music trends, a somewhat new generation of artists emerged, such as Kalamashaka, K-south and Eric Wainaina, whose music spoke to social ills such as corruption and crime. This was the Kenya that we were growing up in – one characterised by disillusionment that we picked up from this new breed of artists as well as from the experiences and insights shared between our parents and our older relatives.

This disillusionment would be a running theme throughout our adult lives. The country’s short-lived optimism during the 2002 election quickly evaporated after the NARC government, with Mwai Kibaki as President, betrayed the unity and goodwill that elevated it to leadership. A re-emerging Mount Kenya Mafia, which was later linked to the Anglo Leasing scandal, frustrated a pre-election memorandum of understanding. NARC became Nothing Actually Really Changes. Political realignments based on the betrayal of the 2002 pre-election MOU took shape, rekindling the ethnic animosities witnessed in the past decade.

This disillusionment would be a running theme throughout our adult lives. The country’s short-lived optimism during the 2002 election quickly evaporated after the NARC government, with Mwai Kibaki as President, betrayed the unity and goodwill that elevated it to leadership.

The 2005 referendum became a dress rehearsal for the shambolic 2007 elections, with a period of economic growth amid structural adjustment which, to a large extent, did not benefit the poor, serving as a bridge between these events. The bungled 2007 elections were merely a trigger for violence that provided a vent for pent-up frustrations and disillusionment with the Kibaki regime. People were killed, raped, maimed. Their houses and places of business were gutted. The violence, of course, was limited to those outside of Kenya’s power structure.

The political settlement between our elite in February 2008 managed to bring the temperatures down. It, however, set the stage for an electoral paradigm shift in Kenya – peace over justice by any means necessary – a shift that would shape the outcome and administration of elections in Kenya for the next decade.

However, the spectre of state violence still lingered – in Mt. Elgon, in the disappearances and murders of suspected members of the Mungiki sect and in the political assassination of Oscar King’ara and my college mate John Paul Oulu who investigated these murders and disappearances. The elite consensus produced by the settlement brought out contradictions between those we thought fought for us – the political elite – and those of us who supported them. In addition, a litany of scandals presided over by the coalition government showed that both of the former feuding camps were on the take. While national unity codified as political leaders from the major political parties serving in government, was sold to Kenyans as a means to end the 2007-2008 impasse, the grand corruption overseen by a 40-member cabinet did little to inspire Kenya’s newfound hope. Disillusionment again defined the times. No elite could save us.

The promulgation of the 2010 constitution could not “pack a patriotic punch”. Young people would later close ranks to form the Unga Revolution that protested the high cost of living at the time. A colleague described its poetry when he said, “It was the President’s office on one side and the Prime Minister’s on the other. We were in the middle. The lines were well defined.” This political formation, however, soon disintegrated in the run-up to the 2013 electoral contest, which Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto won – a contest whose results, however, were said by an observer mission to be wholly lacking in transparency.

Born-80s millennials under Jubilee’s first and now second terms in office have had to endure unemployment, a high cost of living and extrajudicial killings, all taking place against a backdrop of corruption scandals that crop up in the media with worrying frequency. The SGR scandal, the NYS scandal (Seasons 1 and 2), the Eurobond scandal, the health scandal, and the maize scandal have been reported before our eyes with the main perpetrators walking away with impunity. While the media focuses on token perpetrators of these scams, the dumbest thing would be to assume that the youth do not know that there are bigger players in the game who walk away scot free.

Born-80s millennials under Jubilee’s first and now second terms in office have had to endure unemployment, a high cost of living and extrajudicial killings, all taking place against a backdrop of corruption scandals that crop up in the media with worrying frequency.

It was no surprise, therefore, when the father of two sons casually attributed his arrested sons’ alleged involvement in the Thika bank heist to the culture of impunity that allows senior government officials to get away with grand corruption. Unable to secure formal employment after both had scored straight A’s in their A-level examinations, these youth were arguably inspired to rob a bank by the culture of impunity which from time immemorial has routinely shielded the political elite whose grand corruption is responsible for the impoverishment of many young Kenyans. Those who fell through the cracks of our education system and grew up in more hostile neighbourhoods have had to contend with extrajudicial killings for their suspected or real crimes while the officials in government who have done much worse do not pay any price for their crimes; on the contrary, they get to use their largesse to get elected or re-elected to office.

This flavour of impunity, a defining feature of the Jubilee administration, was one of the reasons why it should have been voted out in the previous election. This did not pan out, however. The 2017 August election was nullified by Kenya’s Supreme court over its lack of transparency while the repeat election was boycotted by the National Super Alliance opposition, which in pursuit of “electoral justice” held demonstrations and public meetings that were sabotaged by the Jubilee administration, resulting in several deaths, mostly of youth.

This cause was abandoned by the opposition leader Raila Odinga in his handshake with Uhuru Kenyatta, a handshake that legitimised the crimes of the Jubilee administration. Odinga’s statement at the time of the handshake ignored the impunity and extrajudicial killings that he had campaigned against with his supporters and seemed to disingenuously attribute Kenya’s problems to ethnic diversity. There were casualties, the youth probably the hardest group hit, in pursuit of these causes. Odinga’s dramatic about-face begs the question whether he cared for such causes or whether he simply piggybacked on the discontent of his supporters to secure a deal for himself. For this, Kenyan youth are justified to be disenchanted with the candidate regarded as the “lesser of two evils”.

A case for a different approach in organising

What is the pragmatic way forward for progressive Born-80 Kenyan millennials who have grown up in this era of recurrent despondency? A senior progressive, drawing upon lessons from the handshake, recently called upon Kenyans to continue building PATRIOTIC, alternative politics, for a free, just, equitably, democratic united and prosperous Kenya. But how can one, in full knowledge of the Kenyan state’s past excesses, as well as the disillusionment we have been through, “love” the Kenyan state? Wouldn’t love for the Kenyan state obscure painful histories that it has been responsible for? On a personal level, why should the Born-80s love a state that they witnessed commercialising essential social services? Their times are different from those of their forerunners.

As products of despondency, progressive Born-80s need to ask why the excesses of the Kenyan state have recurred and still recur in worrying frequency. How have four consecutive elections (including the repeat election) not commanded the credibility they should? How is it that senior government officials can get away with grand corruption that impoverishes other Kenyans and causes them to turn to crime? Why is it that young people, particularly those who reside in informal settlements, are gunned down in cold blood for their suspected or imagined crimes, a treatment that the corrupt political elite don’t have to contend with? How can a politician dramatically abandon a cause that some of his supporters died and suffered for and suddenly strike a boardroom deal?

Progressive Born-80s millennials, consequently, need to move away from the patriotic and nationalistic approaches advocated by our seniors and to examine the institution of the state. This would mean recognising that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state rather than from the poor quality of its political leadership.

The answers to these questions would inevitably draw one’s attention to the nature of the Kenyan state, which started out as the IMPERIAL BRITISH East African COMPANY, not the East African Cooperative. It was formed to serve its shareholders; all else, including its workforce, were a means to an end – profit and the protection of it. That’s why elections were designed to serve the ruling elite, that’s why impunity is a privilege conferred to the elite by the Kenyan state, that’s why citizens can die for a politician’s gain – they are simply units of political capital ploughed into the Kenyan company for profit, the enjoyment of the benefits that come from holding state power. The company’s workers – state machinery like the police – exist to serve their masters. The company’s customers – Kenyans not part of the political elite – are mere commodities to be used for profit. The Kenyan state is simply doing the work it was originally set out to do – serving the political elite who were the descendants of the shareholders and the former colonial settler class.

Progressive Born-80s millennials, consequently, need to move away from the patriotic and nationalistic approaches advocated by our seniors and to examine the institution of the state. This would mean recognising that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state rather than from the poor quality of its political leadership. This would speak to Kenya’s political culture rather unlike laws, some of which legitimise the nature of the state and its colonial legacies. It would mean adopting a regional, Pan-Africanist approach in organising that would shift the focus of contestation from the state level to a regional level, thereby undermining the colonial configurations of Kenyan/African states. A clear Pan-Africanist ideology ought to be sought out, one that would serve those who live on the margins of the continent and act as an effective bulwark against inter-state elite interests.

It appears that this approach is gradually shaping up, as demonstrated by the recent show of Kenyan solidarity with the detained Ugandan artist Bobi Wine. Julius Malema’s recent condemnation of xenophobic attacks against other Africans in South Africa and his suggestion to have Kiswahili as the continents’ lingua franca is equally encouraging.

Progressives from the Born-80s generation can learn from the progressives from the Generation X- extended who organically organised during repressive times. (A crop of Born-80s progressives, however, have been somewhat somnambulant in their social media activism.)

Going forward, this group of progressives needs to speak its times – they are the link between the previous generation and the Born-90s generation, which was born into a more or less dysfunctional state and which, therefore, easily accepts this dysfunction as a given reality that it cannot change.

Continue Reading

Features

MWALIMU vs THE BULLDOZER: Has Magufuli overturned Nyerere’s legacy?

The Tanzanian president has turned his back on Nyerere’s open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

Published

on

MWALIMU vs THE BULLDOZER: Has Magufuli overturned Nyerere’s legacy?

Julius Nyerere cultivated an enduring Pan-Africanist domestic and foreign legacy. While his towering clarity is indisputable, in practice, some of his signature achievements are under threat. Domestically, President John Magufuli is emerging as the antithesis of everything Nyerere stood for.

The late Prof. Ali Mazrui once described Mwalimu Julius Nyerere as a Philosopher King. Mazrui was probably compelled by, among other things, Nyerere’s translation of two of Shakespeare’s works: The Merchant of Venice (Mabepari wa Venisi) and Julius Caesar (Juliasi Kaizari) into Kiswahili.

Nyerere and Tanzania remained the intellectual and material well-spring of Pan- Africanism. In political terms, for Nyerere, socialism was not an esoteric adventure; it was a lived experience, and thus, his experimentation with socialism with an African flavour. When it failed, especially in the economic realm, he readily accepted his mistakes.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”. Nyerere preferred “Ujamaa”, or “familyhood”, as opposed to individualism.

Nyerere believed that Tanzania would not be completely free until all African countries were free from colonialism. He, therefore, provided arms, training and sanctuary to many revolutionary movements across Africa – the ANC in South Africa, FRELIMO in Mozambique, and the NRM in Uganda, to mention a few. In the process, Nyerere turned Dar es Salaam into a fervent base of Pan-Africanism, where soldiers and scholars mingled and shared ideas.

Nyerere believed in his ideas. He once got into a spat with Kenya’s former Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, when he described Kenya as a “man-eat-man society” because of its adoption of capitalism, prompting the latter to retort that Tanzania was a “man-eat-nothing society”.

Mobutu and the New World Order

Once the white minority governments were defeated in South Africa and Zimbabwe, Nyerere turned his attention to Zaire, which was later renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). If Nyerere was the Dean of Pan-Africanism, Mobutu Sese Seko was the godfather of counter-revolutionary movements and governments. During the Cold War, Mobutu cleverly exploited the West’s existential fear of the spread of Communism in Africa, and thus acted as the conduit through which the CIA and Western governments supported movements like Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in Angola, the apartheid regime in South Africa, and Rwanda’s Hutu-dominated government of President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Mobutu came to power in Congo, which he renamed Zaire, in November 1965 after colluding with the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies to murder his predecessor and erstwhile ally Patrice Lumumba, who had been in power for only three months.

To the West, the mere mention of Communism was enough to open unfettered largesse, Mobutu’s human rights and economic mismanagement record notwithstanding. The wisdom went: “Yes Mobutu is a bastard, but he is our bastard.”

The end of the Cold War saw the tide change against Mobutu and his ilk; in South Africa, apartheid was defeated and Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island and elected as the country’s first black president.

Across Africa, at around the same time, a core cohort of young, “revolutionary” if not overzealous, leaders were coming into power across Africa. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi assumed power after defeating Mengistu Hailemariam’s regime in a bloody insurgency in 1989; in Eritrea, Isaias Afewerki took power in May 1991; and Yoweri Museveni took over in Uganda in January 1986, with the help of Nyerere. These leaders shared Nyerere’s visceral dislike of Mobutu’s government – the last of the remaining “Old Africa” regime.

Globally, after the end of the Cold War, buoyed by the defeat of the USSR, US foreign policy embarked on creating “The New World Order”. The US saw itself – and acted – as the uncontested leader of this New Order. Mobutu and leaders who were previously used to contain the spread of Communism in Africa now had to adopt market liberalisation and political pluralism if they were to stay in America’s good books.

For Mobutu, who had presided over a patrimonial state with neither functioning state institutions nor accountability, the rise of neo-Pan Africanist leaders presented a mortal danger to the survival of his regime.

Neo-colonialists and Neo-Pan Africanists

In Africa, the end of apartheid generated a good-feel factor and heralded a new dawn. However, the bubble was burst by the 1994 Rwandan genocide in which at least 800,000 people were killed. In its wake, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded and defeated the Juvénal Habyarimana government. Not one to miss an opportunity, Mobutu welcomed the remnants of Habyarimana’s government into Eastern Congo as a bargaining chip with the West.

For the new Rwandan government of Paul Kagame, Mobutu’s support for the old guard crossed a red line; it would not tolerate a génocidaire former government with complete state apparatus in Congo, protected and armed by Mobutu.

Mwalimu Nyerere saw a means of operationalising the removal of the Congolese dictator. Yoweri Museveni naturally welcomed anything Mwalimu Nyerere proposed as he saw himself as his natural heir and so agreed to be part of the effort. Nyerere’s appeal also easily pulled in the new victorious Ethiopians and the Eritreans governments. They all agreed that the process of removing Mobutu should be given a Congolese face.

The coalition settled on Laurent Kabila, who at that time was living in Butiama, Nyerere’s birthplace, and who was engaged in small-time farming. Kabila had well-worn, if sketchy, Pan-Africanist credentials. Che Guevara had described him as having “genuine qualities of a mass leader” but lacking “revolutionary seriousness”. While the coalition countries put in their support, Rwanda’s military, under James Kaberebe, led the military Blitzkrieg in late 1996 that finally saw Kabila installed as the president on May 17, 1997.

Comrades at war

Immediately after Kabila was installed as president in 1997, troubles that were initially overlooked during the anti-Mobutu’s military operations started emerging. Kabila’s poor political judgement, weak management skills and the divergence of Congolese and Rwandese visions for a post-Mobutu state became a cause for concern.

For Rwanda, the raison d’être of overthrowing Mobutu was to secure its border from attacks coming from the DRC, and its support for Kabila was contingent upon that. But once Kabila started supporting anti-Rwandan forces in Congo, he had to be overthrown. In less than three years following Mobutu’s ouster, Rwanda initiated another regime change campaign in Kinshasa, again with the help of Uganda.

Nyerere died in 1999 in a London hospital while undergoing treatment for leukemia. Sixteen years after his death, John Joseph Magufuli became Tanzania’s fifth president.

#WhatMagufuliDid

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment. Many roundly applauded him. This catapulted him to a moment of pop culture cachet, complete with the Twitter hashtag #WhatWouldMagufuliDo, which cast him as an unfailing superhero who could do anything.

When Magufuli first came to power, he was widely applauded domestically and across Africa for his unostentatious folksy approach to public policy. His fight against official corruption resonated with many countries across Africa where entrenched corruption has stymied service delivery and bred disenchantment.

But his likeability quotient depreciated significantly once his administration took an authoritarian turn.

One of Magufuli’s signature policies, after fighting corruption and sloth, was Operation Timua Wageni (Operation Remove Foreigners). This was not limited to the multinational corporations with whom he had fraught relations, but also to citizens from neighbouring East African countries like Kenya.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

It is not just Magufuli; even the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), has turned away from being a bastion of intellectualism into a populist outfit. In many cases, instead of reining Magufuli in, CCM has become an enabler of his worst instincts.

Nyerere was an outward-looking globalist who saw Tanzania as a leader in world affairs. He invited people of African and non-African origin to witness Tanzania’s nascent experiment with an alternative model of governance and economic independence that was not controlled and exploited by global capital. Magufuli, on the other hand, is an inward-looking provincial nativist who wants a Tanzania for Tanzanians alone.

Nyerere saw himself and Tanzania as the vanguard against imperialism. In explaining his vision, he stated: “We the people of Tanganyika, would like to light a candle and put it on top of Mount Kilimanjaro which would shine beyond our borders giving hope where there was despair, love where there was hate, and dignity where there was before only humiliation”.

But Magufuli has turned his back on this open, cosmopolitan and Pan-Africanist vision. Since taking the presidency, he has not travelled outside the East African Community countries. In this aspect, has more in common with the nativist nationalists in Europe and President Donald Trump.

Julius Nyerere was a trained teacher, but he always maintained he was a teacher by choice and a politician by accident. Even when he was a politician, he couldn’t help being a teacher, educating Tanzanians through his many speeches, like a school master. Nyerere did not just speak, he also changed the fortunes of Tanzania. During his tenure, the proportion of Tanzanians who could read and write stood at a phenomenal 83 per cent. Hence his title Mwalimu.

Magufuli was also a trained Chemistry and Mathematics teacher. But he made his name at the Ministry of Works where he got things done in a civil service that is not reputed for efficiency, earning him the moniker “Bulldozer”. He became the president by “accident” after CCM failed to agree on a single candidate. Since becoming the president, he seems determined to take his bulldozer mindset to wrong-headed extremes. Last year he declared: “As long as I am president…no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school…After getting pregnant, you are done.” Such a statement from a president who was a teacher no less is incredulous.

Women and girls are not the only group that Magufuli has picked a fight with; he has also antagonised a wide array of actors, including the media, civil society organisations, international organisations, and opposition Members of Parliament. Kenyans, who have had a complicated relationship with Tanzania following the manner in which the East African Community collapsed in 1977, were particularly on the receiving end of Magufuli’s harsh measures. Recently, the Tanzanian government burned 6,400 one-day-old Kenya-sourced chicks because they were allegedly imported illegally into the country.

Magufuli believes that foreigners are taking away jobs from Tanzanians. Granted, immigration tends to be a complex and complicated issue that doesn’t always necessarily lend itself to sober policy interventions, but making a 360-degree turn away from established Nyerere norms mirrors the views of the nativists politicians on the Right across Europe who have made African and Muslim immigrants their bete noire. Magufuli’s opposition to the free movement of people, goods and services is rooted in his belief that the privatisation of state corporations in the 1990s went too far and, therefore, needs to be reversed. While the diagnosis could be accurate, its policy prescription is misguided.

Domestically, the transformation of Tanzania from a bastion of Pan-Africanism into a government that shares anti-immigration values with right-wing populists in Europe and the United States has done tremendous injustice to Nyerere’s legacy.

Continue Reading

Features

SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

Naipaul’s racism appears to have been transactional right-wingery by one who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound. By A.K. KAIZA

Published

on

SIR VIDIA’S DARKEST SHADOW: V.S. Naipaul (1934-2018)

The first and only time I saw him, Sir Vidia looked frail. Face like a mask, pudgy fingers suspiciously handling the microphone, and eyebrows firmly chiseled in place, he looked as though he had been dragged to school on a day he would have rather stayed home in bed. That day, Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was at Makerere University, replaying the character he had played four decades earlier, as misanthrope in residence. The Naipaul event was immediately after lunch on a late March afternoon. The sun was beaming down directly over the equator and I remember the hall being hot with precipitation.

It’s a decade now since that March 2008 afternoon. Looking back, it seems that V.S. Naipaul, sitting there in Makerere University’s Main Hall, looked like a piece of wood carving. Like one of those giant Chinese wood reliefs, there was his grand magnificence. The brilliance of his finish was outstanding. And this magnificence, this brilliance, was all the more magnified because he was forever on the verge of becoming, tantalising the audience with the possibility that this rendering might come alive.

Arrested in 2D by a physique in distress, Naipaul’s dyspeptic mien marked the entire afternoon. He kept sinking into his chair, till at the end of the event we could only see his head and shoulders. Perhaps he had come expecting a hostile audience. Perhaps it was the heat and the stuffy air. Maybe he had been unwell. Maybe it was the sight of us, a room full of black people.

A farcical afternoon. Exhibit A: What was Naipaul doing in Makerere? Who comes to Makerere anymore?  Even ten years before that, when I had been a student there, we had not thought we could rate a writer, even a third-rate one. And here was a Nobel laureate, Sir Vidia, in person.

Had he come to mock us – again? But seated there in plain sight, Mr. Naipaul looked done with mockery. He had mocked Trinidad. He had mocked India. He had mocked Africa. He had found Ugandans disgusting. He had been the founding CEO and majority shareholder of the flourishing global literary corporation of jibing sneers.

That was back in the day when he looked chipper, when Makerere – the university – had been of enough value to make a killing out of mocking.  By 2008, Makerere (“Maka Ray Ray” as Naipaul reportedly pronounced it) was too far gone for anybody to be interested in mockery or disdain. By 2008, the mocking of black people for profit had been tarnished for a while, which meant that the days of Naipaul’s unqualified standing as a brilliant truth teller were behind him. “Controversial” had replaced “brilliant”, “controversial” being what you call an oaf you are too fond of to let go despite mounting evidence of his oafishness. Even in its time, “brilliant” had been used by certain British right-wing media in a way that you felt meant Naipaul gave the n****rs what they deserved.

We, the few hundreds of us, and Naipaul, who we had all come to stare at, could not have been more mismatched. Right there you could understand why the first time round in the 1960s, Mr. Naipaul had been unenthused about actually having to live in Makerere.

We, as no doubt our fathers’ generation had been then, were not very impressive specimens. Too black for our own good, we were too frayed around the racial edges. We squatted at the university, unable to fit in with the masonry and the woodwork, which had been cut for Europeans.  Unaware of the value of glass windows and flush toilets, we had run down a once famous university. We came from the bush to line up for maizemeal and boiled beans in dining halls built for three-course meals with salad dressing.

There was everything imperfect about us. We had not invented the wheel. We had never manufactured steam locomotives. We still imported, rather than made, paper, which meant that we were still attempting to beat out novels on drums. Yes, we still did that, make drums, and still beat them. Civilisation was wasted on us. And outside the hall, footpaths crisscrossed the once immaculate green lawns laid out in the 1930s and 1940s by Oxbridge visionaries. Six decades after Prof. C.S. Turner transformed the technical school founded in 1922 into a university, tribalism had long become the most important criterion for staff appointments.

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

His was a complexity of prose, rather than of ideas, so why the effort? If he was gathering material for a book, why fly so far when he was already in his 70s?

Naipaul’s coming hence, four decades since he had last been, could have been for any number of reasons. Self-flagellation would not have been the least of possibilities. Material for a new book? Why? He was a brilliant writer. Could he not have invented some sordid tales about us from England, where they had been inventing marvelous things (and steam engines) for centuries?

And us? Why did we turn up? We had never been enthralled by any of the things he had said about us. The admiration we had for his prose style outstripped our love for his books. But we had admired him because we wished that the people with power liked us as much as they liked him. We wanted his good luck (which can look like agreeing with him). Were we self-flagellating too? Could we not have simply read his comments from the safety of our houses? Or was some sado-masochist strain still alive within us?

The collision was utterly unavoidable, a true literary crash. A room filled with the undesirable, coming to an unwanted event to see an unpleasant guest. And that, more rather than less, summarises Naipaul’s oeuvre. In this iteration, hostile questions from the audience: a university lecturer asking a clever question about Tagore, and Naipaul, sensing his Indian roots intruded upon, rapidly slaps it down. Poor chap, he had spent his life teaching V.S. Naipaul books, and had stayed awake all night choosing which question would be best for the event. Next, a Ugandan of Asian descent takes too long with the mic, speaking up too fondly, getting on Nadira’s nerves and deserving what was coming his way; Lady Naipaul cuts him cold and says, next question?

If nothing else, this ping-pong moment was it. Naipaul was in town, game on. Right on cue, Lady Naipaul took charge. She had become the moderator, leaning forward all afternoon while Naipaul slunk back in his chair. The real moderator must have wondered if he had come to the wrong stage.

Naipaul murmured his responses. One thing he said still rings clear in my memory. He said “Africa came to me intuitively. It was not by searching.”

And then the hall emptied. Naipaul shuffled out. The thick entourage that had brought him in taking him out.

Like everyone else present, my journey to that afternoon had begun long ago, albeit in my case, not far away from that hall. Two decades earlier, I had gone to secondary school at Makerere College School, tucked inside the university itself, and read my first Naipaul book there. On the morning of his visit, I had packed my copies of Naipaul’s books, just like you do when you go to a speaking event and the author will be present, and afterwards you line up and confess your besotted heart, and the author, having to wear a droll, heard-it-all-before face, nonetheless signs the books with a flourish. I looked at my collection: a 1957 edition of The Mystic Masseur that I had procured from a flea market and the still fresh-smelling Enigma of Arrival reissued after the Nobel Prize of 2001. I recollected the contents of that, and of another book, Sir Vidia’s Shadow (hatchet job on Naipaul by one-time disciple, the American writer, Paul Theroux).

I then remembered how the opening of The Middle Passage had alerted me to something alarming about Naipaul that only expanded in later books and became all you saw in him. Some things not even magnificent prose could conceal.

I left the books on the top of the workbench in my workshop and headed out for Makerere. Naipaul’s wife Nadira and the university’s literature department staff staged a praetorian guard around him, an impenetrable phalanx of reverence. Asking him to sign books was impossible. Naipaul looked like he would suffer a mental breakdown if an African spoke to him. By day’s end, he looked like he needed to see a doctor. Still, he might have persevered and signed the books, and you would have had to throw them away later.

There was something terribly Naipaulish about the university that stuffy afternoon. Eighteen years before, at the age of 14, when my journey to that afternoon commenced, I had read my first Naipaul, Miguel Street, on Makerere hill at Makerere College School. The edition I read had a foreword by Laban Erapu that mentioned Naipaul’s time in Uganda. I had assumed then that Naipaul was Ugandan.

Miguel Street – that sardonically cheerful primer, of which there had not been that many copies in the school – had exchanged hands many times among us kids and we talked much about it. It had been something of a staple. You had to know Miguel Street. Elias and the posse of Bogart et al, their comical putter, the mother with as many husbands as children.  A sing-song toned collection of stories, curious names, absurd accents. Miguel Street was the book from a man who had a twinkly view of life as a thing to be had to the full. We related to these tales. We laughed.

It was in this mind-frame that five years later, in 1995, I had picked up from the university library an old copy of A House for Mr. Biswas. I half-expected to find in this book the loveable characters from Miguel Street. Certain things were similar. Mohun went off to England, to study, as Elias had dreamt.

Back in the 1990s, with Empire still within striking cultural memory, we too had dreamt of going to English universities. We were starting off from the same place as Naipaul, his clutch of characters so recognisable to us, their sense of the future our own. You understood that fever in A House for Mr. Biswas.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts. What a Sir Hathorn Hall committed in Aden, or Trinidad, he repeated in Uganda – serial murderers leaving tell-tale signatures of their deeds dotted along the grim, imperial trail.

Naturally, we got Trinidad.

What drove Naipaul’s characters was what drove us. Empire had emptied its subject populations of their subjective selves and their metaphysical heritage, which had been replaced by England, Oxford, high tea, biscuit and crumpets, Piccadilly. An equal opportunity impoverisher, the British Empire had left penury and hurt in so many parts of the world that a book from any of these parts tended to speak to all parts.

Empire had taught us to believe in the same things and we had come to believe in them. We dreamt of red letter boxes. Oh, but these lucky red letter boxes lived in London.

As I read deeper, I began to protest. A House for Mister Biswas got heavy. Some leaded weight pulled down the mirth of Miguel Street to darker places. Still you soldiered on, expecting some lift, a sliver of sunlight. Yes, you would always remember Mrs. Tulsi. One day I thought I found her running a bakery in Kampala. And then I thought I met Mr. Biswas himself nursing big-time literary ambitions as a sourpuss editor in a newsroom.

The darkness in the novels was piling up, getting heavier, in that way readers know when the plot has advanced to that point where you size up the remaining pages and determine them too few for the story to work its way back to a different tenor.

I was young and not entirely appraised of what novels were capable of. As young readers tend to, I simply thought I had landed on the wrong novel. Another Naipaul might bring back that Miguel Street thing. In the meantime, A House for Mr. Biswas was teaching me just how serious novels could be. They could also detail stark-real ugliness. The novelist did not have to imagine, as a pot boiler author had to; he could simply observe. Mr. Naipaul made you see how it was possible to weld art into social reality. He made half a millennium of globalising history his material.

Naipaul could be called the Anti-Jane Austen. Miss Austen had examined the same history; you must see through her writing to know it is detailing crimes of history. But she had seen only the other side: the English manors, the indolence, the unbelievable wealth that the slave trade had made possible in the English countryside. She never questioned where the wealth of the characters in her novels came from. She never asked what those young men in need of a wife did when they went overseas. Naipaul laid out the exhibits.

The exhibits – the deformed progeny of Empire’s victims, the craven, the dehumanised – were his material (a Naipaul word). He looked with the dispassionate temper of a forensics expert. These novels were not for escapist reading. It seemed to me that this was as serious as writing would ever get. Naipaul’s craft made everybody else seem to be winging it, wanting it, sleight-of-hand bathos that quickly drained you of interest. Others write so their brilliance could be praised. Naipaul? His was meditation, a haloed temple of letters. He had convened a one-man caucus and solely written a constitution of looking. To have not seen the world as Naipaul had seen it was to have been guilty of sheer unconstitutional acts. The writer was chief justice, high priest.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

At the age of 20, when I read A House for Mr. Biswas, I could not as yet tell what that thing was, what had made Naipaul’s voice so stately, for I was sure that it was a stately voice. I had not found any of Miguel Street in it. Rather, I emerged from A House for Mr. Biswas overawed by grandeur. The plunge to pathos happened with the steadiness of a murderer strangling his victim. An unrelenting vision of dystopia.

There had been Graham Greene; but he could be unconvincing in the role, and he tended to overdo the disgust. There had been Joseph Conrad, but he had tended towards sentimentality. Ernest Hemingway had haunted the same geography as Naipaul. Against what Naipaul had to say, the American was a mere flower girl. Hemmingway loved Kenya; he just never saw Africans (natives, savages) the entire time. Naipaul saw Africans; he was grimly aware of us.

I was in my 20s when I got the full measure of Mr. Naipaul. By then, Uganda had begun to normalise; books were available once more and we had been liberated from borrowing dog-eared texts from friends and relatives. That was when I began to tell that the early books of Naipaul were fundamentally different from his later books, books of he wrote between his late 30s and into his 50s.

The overriding themes of the early books is escape from the colony. The barbs of later years were already there, the mockery, the casual racism; except back then Naipaul thought of them as jokes. The later books are about settling in, and once that project got underway, the books became about the world, its expansiveness. But also about sharpening. Mr. Naipaul begins to grind and file and sand his prose, the sharp defining of edges, the details focused on. His prose knows what to search for, with just the right emphasis, a few strokes that hint at a larger form without overstating. He was becoming a master craftsman.

The novels carry something extra, a certain uncheerful enjoyment even. Ralph Singh, the protagonist narrator of The Mimic Men, has that quality. The Mimic Men signalled the arrival of the man who would later write The Enigma of Arrival.

And then there were the travel writings. The Middle Passage brings to life the Caribbean in ways you, as an outsider, are grateful to Mr. Naipaul for, even though you have a pile of indictments against him. Then in India, in An Area of Darkness, Naipaul goes for broke. He writes with an urgency he has hitherto not displayed, nor will again. One feels, reading the travelogue, that Mr. Naipaul writes faster than he sees. He arrives in Bombay like a tightly-packed grenade, the ejector of a lifetime’s hearing, reading, expecting, ready to go off. This book defined Naipaul like no other. In comparison, there is something processional about The Middle Passage, a processionalness you find in his Caribbean books, novels and travelogues. Explosions, of theme and prose, don’t go off. But they contain the toxins and poisons that came out of Naipaul whenever he met black people.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

His first book on India may have been his most connected (Naipaul was drawn to India), but it was written by a man trapped in a certain view of colonial peoples. Even from the depth of Africa, we could tell that Naipaul failed to see that India was a bigger place than his commentaries offered. Jivan’s refusal to stop sleeping on the pavements despite having a job and owning a taxi is interpreted by Naipaul as India’s foolhardy attachment to the Gita, Hinduism’s religious text. To the rest of us, Jivan was displaying an imperviousness to colonialism’s and capitalism’s crass anti-metaphysics. For me, this vignette of Jivan was too two-dimensional. After all, by the 1960s, Naipaul’s view of “conquered” peoples was already antiquated, even amongst the ranks of colonial anthropologists, who had a more nuanced view of colonised peoples.

Naipaul went out of his way, beyond necessity, in a Trumpian gratuitousness, to mock black people even when there was no discernible literary gain. He made no effort to engage with black people. He treated Indians with less contempt, but the derision was still there. It might look like he gave some thought to Ramnath the “steno” in An Area of Darkness, or to Jivan, but no. It is fascinating how decidedly uncurious Naipaul’s brand of curiosity was.

In Naipaul’s world, we Africans are “Negroes” with “physique”, “nursing racial injustice”. There is always the hint of violence towards us when we appear in his books. In The Mimic Men, we show up at the British Council, garishly dressed up, the gold-rimmed spectacles Naipaul places on us are there so that they can clash against the darkness of our skins. We expect “sex” like a tribute, a right, because we are racially wronged. But that’s in the diaspora. In Africa, in A Free State (so now we come to Uganda, although the reason Mr. Naipaul came to Uganda in the 1960s was so he could write The Mimic Men), we are deeply indolent, with our bush ways and our lazy eyes. We are a backdrop to Europeans lives, and often the backdrop to breaking European marriages.

Deep into his career, Mr. Naipaul, like Ganesh Ramsumair in The Mystique Masseur, adopted the identity of an Englishman with an Oxbridge accent that replaced his Caribbean intonation. Ganesh, the shape-shifting artist, remains an enigma in Naipaul’s oeuvre. Who is he? What does he mean? What indeed do these middling characters in Naipaul mean? They people his writing entirely, the Jimmy’s of Guerrillas, the characters upon whom instances are mounted? As if of necessity, the author is decidedly nasty to these sorts. They are de riguer (a la Naipaul), angry, pretentious, dangerous, always without fail, dark-skinned. Naipaul is afraid of them. He is also violent towards them.

Is understanding these mid-level characters key to understanding the politics of Naipaul? Why is Naipaul afraid of them? One clue, but no overall explainer, is that they have a politics. They are confronting Empire. They are the reverse of the Naipaul hero, if that is not an oxymoron. They are not enthusiastic about Oxbridge accents. They are not changing names from Ganesh Ramsumair to G. Ramsay Muir (a typical Naipaul joke of the earlier books). They are changing names from James to Haji or Ngugi.

But do we have a right to be brutal in our assessment of Mr. Naipaul? He was born at a time when Empire looked like extending and consolidating, rather than crushing. How deep did the psychology of that go? For him to have written as he did, to see the world through only one measure (Britain, Europe) – a measure in which other races failed to measure up, a measure in which being African (“bow and arrow people”), Arab (“Mr. Woggy”) was failure in itself, speaks of something other than penetrative insight. To not allow for the validity of a different world is to have been immensely delimited. But might Mr. Naipaul have escaped it? Was it necessary for him to have been the writer and the man he was in order for him to see with clarity?

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

It could be as simple as this: Mr. Naipaul was that all-too-typical, but special, victim of Empire, the favoured colonial subject. There was divide and rule – some colonised people were considered less savage than others, people who displayed almost-white qualities. These divisions marked the entire breadth of Empire, from the aristocrats of Buganda (convinced into collaboration by effusive British praise), to the Tutsi of Rwanda (whose position the Belgians tragically imperiled by calling them semi-white Africans), to the Singhala of Sri Lanka (treated more favourably than the black Tamils). In the Caribbean, the indentured Indian labourers were taken to the Atlantic, not as slaves, as the black Africans had been. It is very important to remember that. It was this thin substratum of Empire that tended to oppose liberation movements. They actively collaborated, often virulently, as in the case of Kenya, against fellow Africans, in the fight for independence.

It would be simplistic to say that the need, indeed, the entire undertaking of having to fight for liberation, was too much for Naipaul. His position on the most important movement of the 20th century (independence from colonial rule) might be described as ambivalent, except, if you are ambivalent about freedom, then what exactly are your values?

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis. We may want to describe Naipaul in elevated terms, but his own unease once in India (he finds the land of his forefathers too unhygienic) speaks of this. The elevated elite in Empire knew that once they accepted the bribe of racial elevation, they would become accomplices. It was hence in their interest to perpetuate colonial rule, for once it ended, their position would become terribly exposed. The liberation fighters whom Naipaul mocks were a threat against the collaborator class.

In Empire, this modicum of elevation from the bottom was very important and so when the British said you were not that dark, not that negroid, your status protected you against slavery and forced labour. This bred its own psychosis.

When the worst came, the bargain was to choose the racialist humiliation because the patronising treatment at least guaranteed some goods. Mr. Naipaul’s English reviewers perhaps understood this – a brown man acknowledging the hegemony, affirming that the Empire was appreciated by the middle races (hence at least intelligent) as civilisation. They praised his books at a time when they were fighting a losing battle against their black subjects.

You could understand the racism of Joseph Conrad. But Naipaul? The relationship of his narrators to Europeans is telling. It is always to prove how they are better than white people. There are the clueless young white people whom his narrators are proud to dominate intellectually. The white women in his books have to be degraded; the violence and contempt with which his characters treat them appears like the acting-out of suppressed rage. White people are his main audience and he must show them how he is neither Negroid nor Indian. These are the people who either granted or denied scholarships to the Eliases of Miguel Street.

It was thus easy to be bullied into calling V.S. Naipaul a brilliant writer. But you had to have occupied his very position – to have had an ambivalent position towards the colonial project – to have called him so.  What you needed was just that much politic education to see that the 20th century was changed by the men and women despised in Mr. Naipaul’s books. To understand the minds of those who imprisoned Nelson Mandela for 27 years, you have to absorb Naipaul. His was one of the attitudes that had to be defeated for people of colour to become free.

It was important for me to go through Mr. Naipaul’s books after his death. But the realisation that I was reading him the last time in this involved manner, with the heat with which I once did when the writing was not yet done, when he was still around, was hard.

Now Naipaul’s forced racism – for it feels like that – does not really feel like that. Rather, it appears to be transactional right-wingery by a certain savvy type who knew there was a cash-paying audience that loved that sound.

Continue Reading

Trending