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What Is Your Tribe? the Invention of Kenya’s Ethnic Communities

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Thus colonialism imposed its own version of order, superimposed its idea of tribes bounded within district boundaries on this ethnic patchwork, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees.

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WHAT IS YOUR TRIBE? The Invention Of Kenya’s Ethnic Communities
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David Ndii’s recent decision to publicly renounce Kikuyu ethnicity and adopt a “Jaluo” one may spark a long overdue debate about the nature of ethnicity in Kenya and in Africa. For many people, both on the continent and outside it, the idea of tribe – with its connotations of strong, primitive, primordial ethnicity and ancient cultural traditions – is an indispensable part of African identity. The makers of the blockbuster superhero movie, Black Panther, who imagined the fictional African state of Wakanda as the most technologically advanced nation in the world and one that retained its essential character, still felt constrained to organise that nation into tribes. Africans are first and foremost seen as tribesmen or tribeswomen and tribe is taken for granted as the best explanation for their actions. This idea is so deeply ingrained that few ever bother to question it.

Yet question it we should. For rather than something indelibly encoded into the African genetic make-up and over which one exercises little choice, tribe turns out to be largely an artificial construct. The fact is, there is a marked difference between how ordinary Africans, including Kenyans, think of tribe and its origins and what history and social science has to say about it.

Africans are first and foremost seen as tribesmen or tribeswomen and tribe is taken for granted as the best explanation for Africans’ actions. This idea is so deeply ingrained that few ever bother to question it.

To begin with, just what is a tribe? Even this question turns out to be not as straightforward as some would have us believe. “Tribe has no coherent meaning” wrote Dr. Christopher Lowe of Boston University in his 1997 paper “Talking about ‘Tribe’: Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis”. “If by tribe we mean a social group that shares a single territory, a single language, a single political unit, a shared religious tradition, a similar economic system, and common cultural practices, such a group is rarely found in the real world,” he wrote.

What? But people do identify as Kikuyus or Luos, no? And they have done this for ages, haven’t they? Well, yes and no. People have always banded together in groups in search of security. As they grew, such groups, initially defined by kinship relations, developed common ways of responding to and relating with the world around them, as well as systems to manage relations within the group. But since the world kept changing, so did these groups. Some were subsumed into others, some got separated and developed along different paths, others disappeared altogether. Customs and languages changed. The idea that our current ethnic communities have survived unchanged from ancient times is plainly false. As Prof. Scott MacEachern of Bowdoin College in the US says, “‘Tribal’ and/or ethnic identities have never been primordial and immutable, in Africa or elsewhere.”

The politicisation of ethnicity

In fact, our current ethnic formations – some of which did not even exist a century ago – and our understanding of how they relate to each other, are the products of much more recent events. “What is a tribe?” asks Mahmood Mamdani, the Executive Director of the Makerere Institute of Social Research. “It is very largely a creation of laws drawn up by a colonial state which imposes group identities on individual subjects and thereby institutionalises group life… Above all, tribe was a politically driven, totalising identity.”

“The politicisation of ethnic identity began with the colonial experience,” says Prof. Kimani Njogu in the recent Africa Uncensored documentary titled In Tribe We Trust. According to the book Ethnicity and African Politics by Crawford Young, “although the ethnic labels… have pre-colonial origins, they became comprehensive and rigidly ranked categories only in the colonial period; they were heavily influenced by imperial codifications and further transformed by politicised actions in the last half-century.”

In pre-colonial societies, as Young explains, ethnicity was a fungible cultural artefact, one that was not necessarily encoded into one’s genes, attached to particular homelands or imbued with ideas of political sovereignty. Individuals and even entire societies could navigate in and out of them.

Clearly, pre-colonial peoples had their ideas as to who they were and how they related to the world around them. But what we call tribes today bears little semblance to the ever-changing aboriginal identities they fashioned and would probably be completely unrecognisable to them. In any case, the idea that today’s ethnic communities necessarily grew out of kinship relations is bogus.

In pre-colonial societies, as Young explains, ethnicity was a fungible cultural artefact, one that was not necessarily encoded into one’s genes, attached to particular homelands or imbued with ideas of political sovereignty. Individuals and even entire societies could navigate in and out of them. In fact, even the ideas of kinship and shared ancestry were “notoriously malleable to serve contemporary social or ideological purposes. But once rooted in the social consciousness, mythology convincingly impersonates reality.” For example, a study by Timothy Parsons of Washington University details how the colonial government once urged Meru elders to accept anyone willing to bow to their authority as Meru. He further states that “Kikuyu” was more an expression of agricultural expertise than a coherent or bounded ethnic group.

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

However, for a colonial administration that required order and control in order to facilitate its extractive aim, such inexactitude was unacceptable. Confronted with the reality of the diversity on the African continent, the European colonisers tried to hammer it into compliance with their preconceived ideas. Much of this was accomplished using administrative measures and backed up by brute force. Young writes: “The task of the colonial state was to discover, codify, and map an ethnic geography for their newly conquered domains, according to the premise that the continent was inhabited by ‘tribal man.’ This ethnic template, as imagined by the coloniser, became the basis for administrative organisation.” Parsons adds that “faced with a confusing range of fluid ethnicities when they conquered Kenya, colonial officials sought to shift conquered populations into manageable administrative units.”

Thus colonialism imposed its own version of order, superimposed its idea of tribes bounded within district boundaries on this ethnic patchwork, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees. Young writes of “the illusion that colonial ethnic mappings were historically authentic”. In this way, the state created the tribe which, in turn, became, as Parsons states, “the basic unit of government, education, labour, law, and most importantly land tenure.”

The late Prof Terence Ranger, in his famous 1983 essay on The Invention Of Tradition in Colonial Africa, shows how invented traditions, both European and African, were a crucial plank in allowing colonial settlers and administrators to “define themselves as natural and undisputed masters of vast numbers of Africans.” Which meant reinventing colonials as feudalistic patriarchs and the African as the tribal savage. Though many “found themselves engaged in tasks which by definition would have been menial in Britain and which only the glamour of empire building made acceptable” they were still proud to belong to “an aristocracy of colour”. Echoes of this remain today in the deference with which European “expatriates” are treated.

Ranger also notes that “since so few connections could be made between British and African political, social and legal systems, British administrators set about inventing African traditions for Africans… transforming flexible custom into hard prescription.” So successful was this effort that “many African scholars as well as many European Africanists have found it difficult to free themselves from the false models of colonial codified African ‘tradition’.” As he would more recently summarize, the colonial period was marked “by systematic inventions of African traditions – ethnicity, customary law, ‘traditional’ religion. Before colonialism Africa was characterised by pluralism, flexibility, multiple identity; after it African identities of ‘tribe’, gender and generation were all bounded by the rigidities of invented tradition.”

Thus colonialism imposed its own version of order, superimposed its idea of tribes bounded within district boundaries on this ethnic patchwork, and even created an entirely new “traditional” administrative structure in the form of tribal chiefs who were actually state employees.

However, it is important to note that while tribe and tradition were built into the very foundation of the colonial state, the people were not just passive victims. Just as they had been doing for eons, they both resisted and reacted to the impositions, inventing and discarding identities and traditions of their own. At the outset of the colonialism, some identities, like Kikuyu, were already in the process of being created though, as described by Prof Bruce Berman, were not yet stable nor traditional; they hardened in response to the colonial state. Later, similar innovations like Gusii, Luhya, Kalenjin and Mijikenda appeared in the years between the two World Wars to essentially beef up numbers for the negotiation of status within the colonial state. What John Iliffe said of our neighbours to the south in his book, A Modern History of Tanganyika, was true in Kenya: “The British wrongly believed that Tanganyikans belonged to tribes; Tanganyikans created tribes to function within the colonial framework.” Such ethnic and cultural refashioning continues to this day.

The important takeaway is that rather than ancient “nations”, today’s ethnicities are a creation of the colonial era – “state-sponsored tribal ethnographies and romantic essentialised notions of tribal culture”, as Parsons describes them. Writing a decade ago as Kenya threatened to descend into ethnic carnage, American historian Caroline Elkins, author of Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, noted that “Britain’s famous imperial policy of ‘divide and rule’, playing one side off another, … often turned fluid groups of individuals into immutable ethnic units, much like Kenya’s Luo and Kikuyu today. In many former colonies, the British picked favourites from among these newly solidified ethnic groups and left others out in the cold. We are often told that age-old tribal hatreds drive today’s conflicts in Africa. In fact, both ethnic conflict and its attendant grievances are colonial phenomena.”

In addition to creating and freezing tribal identities, the colonial state discouraged and outrightly forbade political organisation across the district lines they had drawn up. This meant that tribes were not just administrative and geographical entities; they were also set up as units for political mobilisation. Tribes were, therefore, state-mandated political identities that substituted for authentic cultural expression. “The structure of tribal administration enabled the ruling British elite to deny any representative character to the troublesome urban nationalist, while claiming for itself just that,” wrote Talal Asad, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in his essay “Political Inequality in the Kababish Tribe.” “Thus ‘the tribe’ and the ‘tribal system’ from being a means of efficient administration became the justification for perpetuating colonial domination.”

The tribalisation of governance

During the bulk of the colonial era, competition for state power was conducted along racial lines (race being a similarly artificial construct) while resistance to it was channeled along the tribe. The Legislative Council, for example, had a racial make-up, with representatives of Europeans, Arabs, Indians and eventually Africans. However, as Barasa Nyukuri of the University of Nairobi observes, “The early political parties in Kenya that championed the nationalist struggle against colonial establishments were basically `distinct ethnic unions’.” As independence approached, feuds over the state that the British would leave behind were transferred to the tribal arena.

Sadly, despite their relatively recent colonial origins, tribal identities have proven to be all too enduring and ingrained. In the post-independence era, the ruling elites who inherited the colonial state from the British largely maintained its extractive nature and divide-and-rule character, even further entrenching ethnicity while paying lip service to the need to eradicate tribalism.

This understanding provides a different perspective to the essentialist arguments offered by David Ndii about Kenya being a marriage of tribes. The reverse is actually true. The reality is that Kenya created tribes and then based its governance arrangements around them. And this is the primary reason why tribalism continues to infect our politics – as the Kenyan investigative journalist John Allan Namu declared, “Kenyan politics, by design, was always meant to be tribal.”

Sadly, despite their relatively recent colonial origins, tribal identities have proven to be all too enduring and ingrained. In the post-independence era, the ruling elites who inherited the colonial state from the British largely maintained its extractive nature and divide-and-rule character, even further entrenching ethnicity while paying lip service to the need to eradicate tribalism. As noted by Professor Daniel Branch in his book Kenya: Between Hope and Despair, “elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources.”

The consequences have been predictable. Rather than tools for common advancement, the state and the resources it controls have become prizes in a bitter, no-holds-barred, ethnic contest for supremacy. The “totalising identity” of tribe has meant that Kenyans are unable to conceive of themselves otherwise, and thus are unable to imagine a different basis for political engagement. The zero-sum nature of the competition for power further reinforces and hardens tribal affiliations, engendering a with-us-or-against-us mentality with those who resist it branded as “ethnic traitors”. This all creates a vicious spiral at the bottom of which lie brutal conflagrations, death and displacement. Floating above the melee, just as the British did, is the political class that incites and is then able to continue its thieving ways with little fear of retribution.

Basing a state on the idea of tribe has also led to the perpetuation of regional inequalities as communities “not in government” are either neglected or, worse, treated as enemies of the state. It also drives corruption as public office is seen as an opportunity for tribal “eating”. Which is why the ethnic affiliation of the head of a public institution is always a good indicator of the ethnic composition of its employees. It is also the reason Members of Parliament feel constrained to defend public officials who suffer disciplinary action, as was the case recently when Lily Koros, the CEO of the Kenyatta National Hospital, was sent on compulsory leave after doctors at the hospital performed a brain surgery on the wrong patient. As Jerotich Seii observed on Twitter, “If Lily Koros was, say, Mjikenda, not a peep would have been heard from these Kalenjin MPs. Ok, perhaps from Mjikenda MPs. And therein lies the problem. We defend tribe and not competence.”

Social justice activists railing against “uthamaki” – the skewing of state appointments towards particular groups – and demanding “regional balance” seem incapable of comprehending that the construction of the state around the idea of tribe is itself the problem.

The tribalisation of governance also fosters development strategies based on false ideas of ethnic characteristics, such as the one that some groups are not as suited for modernisation as others. Further, as Mamdani explains, the idea of unchanging tribes leads to the deification of fake, colonially-articulated, “traditional” culture and values, as well as the externalisation of social progress as “Western”. That has real consequences for social policy, for example on gay rights.

Tribe is not destiny

It will be impossible to eradicate tribalism without undoing the colonial state on which our current ideas about ethnicity are founded and whose logic of extraction sustains them. As John Lonsdale puts it, “There are, then, two very different dynamics currently at work in Kenya: internal ethnic dissidence and external tribal rivalry. Neither can be disarmed without rewriting the rules of political competition for the power of a rather different (‘post-post-colonial’) state.” Tribes today exist primarily as vehicles for capturing the state rather than as celebrations of diversity – which they, in fact, try to rub out. They exist to safeguard elite extraction and to prevent us from imagining different ways of being.

Kenyans today have perfected the curious art of decrying tribalism even while accepting the validity of tribe. Following the colonial template, the 2010 constitution institutionalizes ethnic formulations as the basic unit of government via the creation of counties based on colonial administrative districts and the safeguarding of “ethnic diversity” in public jobs. Today’s social justice activists railing against “uthamaki” – the skewing of state appointments towards particular groups – and demanding “regional balance” seem incapable of comprehending that the construction of the state around the idea of tribe is itself the problem. In a recent article, for example, Boniface Mwangi seems unaware of the irony of establishing his Kikuyu bona fides – “I am as Gikuyu as Gikuyus come”- before launching into a screed against Kikuyu tribalism.

The only way to completely eliminate real and potential inter-tribal tensions is to eliminate tribes. And the only way to do that is to eliminate the colonial state that created and nourished them, and to construct a different identity, built on different foundations, in its place.

Recognising that the tribe was a colonial-era invention is empowering because it means it can be disinvented or reimagined; tribe is not destiny. Many look to Tanzania as an example of how the adverse effects of tribe can be ameliorated through public policy. Young also cites Kenya as an example where this has been attempted via constitutional design through devolution, the proscription of ethnically-based political parties and the requirement for presidential candidates to garner 25 per cent of the votes in a majority of the counties. However, this retains – rather than challenges – the idea of tribe and only seeks to manage relations between tribes, which means the potential for harmful political mobilisation of tribal affiliation remains. As Young acknowledges, “while constitutional engineering is of substantial value, it cannot alone respond to the challenge of accommodating cultural diversity”.

The only way to completely eliminate real and potential inter-tribal tensions is to eliminate tribes. And the only way to do that is to eliminate the colonial state that created and nourished them, and to construct a different state and identities, even a national identity, on different foundations in its place. The problem is less the politicisation of ethnicity and more the ethnicisation of politics – the assumption that ethnicity is destiny without interrogating how ethnicity was and still is manufactured.

Kenyan social and political scientists can and should lead this effort. For too long we have left it to the politicians who have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Many Kenyans will understandably be scared of the idea of letting go of the ethnic brands that have defined them their whole lives, regardless of how hollow or counterproductive that branding may actually be. Providing a language to deconstruct the state and the tribe, as well as developing a basket of alternative, homegrown and much more authentic and beneficial political identities, are the overriding challenges of our time.

There is no point in pretending that this is going to be either easy or straightforward. Or that such a project would not itself be vulnerable to capture by a ravenous and oppressive elite seeking to legitimise its rule, as has happened in Rwanda. But we can begin a national conversation about who we really are as people and how we build a Kenya for Kenyans and an Africa for Africans. That itself means beginning to see ourselves not as the “tribes” of Western imagination strait-jacketed by concocted traditions, but as free and thinking human beings with varied and ever-changing ways of being, and who are capable of imagining and bringing to life new worlds of our own.

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Mr. Gathara is a social and political commentator and cartoonist based in Nairobi.

Politics

China and Africa’s Debt Crisis

Ahead of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), Tim Zajontz looks at the immense amounts of debt African governments owe Chinese lenders. This debt is central to capitalist accumulation and financial extraction from the African continent. Zajontz argues that Chinese capital is now pivotal to the global circuit of capital and China, just like other creditors, uses debt for the conquest of Africa and its resources.

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China and Africa’s Debt Crisis
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From 29-30 November, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) gathered for the first time since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic at the ministerial level. While the official narrative around the 8th FOCAC meeting in Dakar reiterates ‘win-win cooperation’ (合作共赢) and promises to ‘Deepen China-Africa Partnership and Promote Sustainable Development to Build a China-Africa Community with a Shared Future in the New Era’, the unburdened enthusiasm that once surrounded high-level FOCAC meetings is long gone. Particularly, the immense amounts of debt that some African governments owe Chinese lenders have become a delicate issue affecting Africa-China relations. Several African governments are currently negotiating with creditors and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) how to restructure and manage their debts. It is clear now that, after a decade of unfettered lending from Chinese and non-Chinese creditors, the post-pandemic ‘payback period’ will come at immense social costs. Africa’s debt owed to China will therefore be high up on the agenda of in camera meetings between African and Chinese officials in Dakar.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic added urgency to the matter, China’s rise to become the world’s largest bilateral creditor, holding 57% of low-income countries’ bilateral debt in 2020, has caused controversies in African capitals and beyond. Chinese overseas lending has been infamously branded as ‘debt trap diplomacy’ and politically instrumentalised by the Trump administration and other hypocrites in the West. The latter have been quick to accuse China of leveraging its influence in Africa through loans, whilst they have usually remained entirely silent regarding the complicity of Western capital in the systematic underdevelopment of the continent. There have since been commendable research efforts to demystify the ‘debt trap’ narrative and to shed light (especially by means of more reliable data) on a topic that is complicated by the opacity pertaining to African debt exposure to China. Accordingly, the China-Africa Project, a news outlet covering Africa-China relations, has recently put to rest the narrative of a ‘Chinese debt trap diplomacy’.

In a recent article in ROAPE, I reflect on the scholarly debate on debt in the rapidly growing field of China-Africa studies and call for a critical research agenda which problematises the function of debt in late capitalism and calls into question dominant development paradigms and policies that have sustained Africa’s financial dependency. According to World Bank figures, the external debt stock of ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ has more than doubled throughout the 2010s, from $305 billion in 2010 to $705 billion in 2020.

After highly indebted African states had seen debt write-offs under multilateral debt relief initiatives in the 2000s, Africa’s current debt cycle commenced against the background of the ‘commodities super cycle’ and related ‘Africa rising’ narratives. African governments, now with relatively clean balance sheets, rushed onto global capital markets, and increasingly to Chinese policy banks, to sign bonds, loans and export credits. Debt accumulation in Africa has since been further fuelled by the now hegemonic paradigm of ‘infrastructure-led development’, which, as described by Seth Schindler and J. Miguel Kanai, is promoted by a ‘global growth coalition’ that advocates ‘financing and financializing infrastructure’ to get African ‘territories right’ for their seamless integration into global markets.

Much of the scholarly debate around African debt owed to China has been focused on providing an evidence-based corrective to the ‘debt trap narrative’ – doubtlessly a commendable effort. However, we must not risk reducing debt to its discourse but expose its centrality to capitalist accumulation generally and financial extraction from the African continent in particular. Just like capital, debt is a social relation marked by asymmetrical material relations and power differentials between debtor and lender. As Tim Di Muzio and Richard Robbins argue in Debt as Power, ‘debt within capitalist modernity is a social technology of power […]. In capitalism, the prevailing logic is the logic of differential accumulation, and given that debt instruments far outweigh equity instruments, we can safely claim that interest-bearing debt is the primary way in which economic inequality is generated as more money is redistributed to creditors.’ It is primarily the asymmetry inherent to the debt relationship and resultant power differentials – not only the politicised ‘debt trap’ narrative, flawed and problematic as it is – that have made it increasingly difficult for the Chinese government to sustain official narratives that suggest the horizontality of relations between China and the global South.

Chinese (state) capital is now pivotal to the global circuit of capital and, just like other creditors, employs the social technology of debt in Africa and elsewhere. The massive increase in Chinese overseas lending over the last two decades has been central to efforts to address chronic overaccumulation within the Chinese economy through what David Harvey called ‘spatio-temporal fixes’, the geographical expansion and temporal deferral (for instance by means of debt financing) of surplus capital. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has become the superstructure to organise a series of such ‘fixes’ and the African continent – in line with the logic of uneven geographical development that is inherent to capitalism – a welcome outlet for Chinese surplus materials and finance capital.

It is now clear that several African governments have overextended themselves by taking on unsustainable amounts of loan financing (both from Chinese and non-Chinese sources). While Chinese lenders have been lenient to reschedule debt payments amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, African governments cannot expect blanket debt forgiveness from Beijing. China’s current spatio-temporal fixes need to see returns eventually.

As the IMF is yet again visiting Addis Ababa, Lusaka, and Nairobi to resurrect fiscal discipline and to ensure debtor compliance for the post-pandemic payback period, it is high time to acknowledge that periodic cycles of debt financing, debt distress and structural adjustment are systemic features of Africa’s integration into the global capitalist economy. It seems apposite to remember Thomas Sankara who – three months before his assassination in 1987 – argued that, ‘controlled and dominated by imperialism, debt is a skilfully managed reconquest of Africa, intended to subjugate its growth and development’. At the time, several African countries had plunged into severe debt crises which paved the way for externally ‘prescribed’ structural adjustment programmes and heralded the era of disciplinary neoliberalism, long before the latter ravaged capitalist heartlands.

Today, three and a half decades after Sankara’s famous speech at the Summit of the Organisation of African Unity, history appears to repeat itself, as Africa is yet again grappling with ‘the issue of debt’. It remains to be seen whether this time around African leaders can form the ‘united front against debt’ that Sankara called for in 1987. The upcoming FOCAC ministerial meeting in Dakar will give a first indication to this effect.

This article was published in the Review of African political Economy (ROAPE).

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Politics

‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya’s Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy

The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. The litany of bureaucracy that it imposes on teachers must be abolished.

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‘Teach and Go Home’: Kenya's Teachers Service Commission and the Terrors of Bureaucracy
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On the afternoon of Friday, 12 November, Martha Omollo, a teacher in Nairobi County, was called to her school and served with a letter from the Teachers Service Commission, the government employer of teachers in public schools. The letter, which was dated that day, informed her that she had been transferred to a school in Trans Nzoia County, 400 kilometres away, and that she was to report ready to teach the following Monday, 15th November.

Earlier in the week, Omollo had been the spokesperson of the Teachers’ Pressure Group, which had called into question the loyalty of the union leaders to its members, and the opaque health insurance scheme into which teachers pay through involuntary salary deductions. Shortly after the press conference, Omollo received a call from the TSC Nairobi County office warning her not to publicly discuss issues facing teachers.

The idea that a teacher can pack her bags in the middle of the term and move 400 km away, ready to teach in three days, is nothing short of cruel. The move clearly disregards human nature, and the fact that teaching is, by its very essence, a profession of relationship. Teachers cannot take care of students’ minds and wellbeing when they themselves are anxious about their own wellbeing, and worse, when they are denied the freedom of thought and speech. The transfer communicates that the TSC does not care, and worse, it callously turns one teacher into a warning to other teachers.

Similar treatment of a teacher was witnessed in April this year. The media reported about a teacher, Magdalene Kimani, who trekked to a school 20km away for a number of days to administer national examinations. In reaction to this fairly innocent report, the county education office sent her a “show cause” letter, yet the report was initiated by the media rather than the other way round. The education officials were heartless to ignore the teacher’s 20km trek and then issue a threatening letter to her.

These two cases are just a microcosm of the harassment that Kenyan teachers endure under the TSC. For instance, the TSC has carried out massive transfers of teachers away from their home areas in a procedure called “delocalization”. In her appearance before the Senate, Nancy Macharia, the CEO of the TSC, justified the initiative affecting thousands of teachers as a move to encourage “national cohesion”. It is amazing that one can think that cohesion comes from displacing teachers, disrupting their families, and showing no care about what worried teachers mean for students. To make such moves that increase teachers’ anxiety during school unrest is insensitive and a symptom of bureaucratic hubris.

It should not surprise Kenyans, therefore, that this callousness is bound to show up in the schools and public spaces. Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals, and a seeming ignorance of the harm that their actions against juniors imply for the larger public. Teachers who are anxious and who feel disrespected cannot treat children with dignity and respond to the extra-ordinary circumstances of the children under their care. To expect otherwise, as the TSC seems to do, is the definition of either hubris or inhumanity.

Take, for instance, the forms that teachers have to fill in regularly. According to the TSC, teachers have to fill in 18 forms, but teachers say that the forms are more than that. The ludicrous CBC promise of paying attention to individual learners has meant that teachers fill in forms detailing the special learners in their class, the nature of the learners’ challenges, and the remedies that the teachers have taken to address those challenges. Teachers are also expected to file reports on how they have covered what KICD calls “strands” and “subs-strands”. Now that this is assessment season, teachers are also required by the Kenya National Examinations Council to assess students conducting group activities, but the assessments require the teacher to grade each individual student along six or seven measurements. This means that for one subject taught to one class of sixty students, a teacher is filling in 60 rows x 7 columns.

Senior government officials display an amazing lack of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to ordinary professionals.

The problem with this work is not simply the amount. It’s that the work is demeaning. Teachers are filling in paperwork about teaching rather than doing the actual teaching. In the language of the anthropologist David Graeber, this is the “bullshitization” of work caused by an increase in bureaucrats with nothing to do but supervise others. The point of these forms is not to improve teaching and learning, as the bureaucrats have deluded themselves. The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children, nor the fact that that beauty and mystery cannot be translated into numerical measurements. By some perverse psychology, Graeber explains, work in the neoliberal era has meant an exponential increase in administrators who subsequently use bureaucratic tools to terrorize the people doing the actual work.

I do not use the word “terrorize” lightly. The word has been used by education scholars in their assessments of performance appraisal for teachers, including by the eminent British education sociologist Stephen J. Ball, in his well-cited journal article The Teacher’s Soul and the Terrors of Performativity. The nature of terror is to plant shame and fear in the individual, make the individual feel isolated and therefore incapable of changing anything about their condition. Terror is also characterized by a lack of predictability. And because the system is always incoherent and inconsistent, teachers can never tell where the attack will come from. No matter what the teacher does, the teacher is never good enough.

One teacher told me that with TPAD, teachers are told to rate themselves but not too much, and then punished for not achieving 100 per cent performance. The teacher put it this way: “During the introduction of TPAD, we were directed that we should not rate ourselves more than 80 per cent even when you know you have met the ‘targets’. During the recent interviews, those without evidence of it were disqualified.”

The point is control by people who spend their days in offices and do not understand the beauty and mystery of the human connection between teachers and children.

​Another tragically hilarious story was recounted in a letter to the editor of the Nation newspaper some years back. The letter, titled “TSC should listen to teachers’ voice on appraisal row”, read:

Back in 2010, quality assurance and standards personnel from the Ministry of Education visited the school I was teaching in then.

As a routine, they demanded to inspect teachers’ ‘tools of trade’, as they called them. These included schemes of work, records of work books, lesson notes and lesson plans and files containing learners’ progress reports, amongst many others. We complied. Only one member of staff had all these. The rest of us, in a staff of 27, including the principal, had one or more documents missing.

After perusal, we were given a lengthy lecture on how ‘lazy’ we had become, and that only one of us merited a recognition in a public forum, notably, the school’s Annual General Meeting, and that the institution would be posting better results were we to emulate our colleague.

After the exit of the QASO personnel, the entire staffroom burst into laughter. Months later, the teacher in question was transferred following complaints from parents and learners over his below par delivery and alcoholism.

This is an egregious story of how bureaucrats confuse measures and tools of work with the actual work itself. Humiliating teachers for not having submitted complete records is similar to judging a carpenter’s work not by the furniture but by the carpenter’s hammer. For the teacher, part of the torture of performance appraisal comes from the consciousness that the work that one is doing is barely a reflection of the real work of teaching. As the story shows, a teacher actually teaching in the classroom is unlikely to achieve perfect record keeping, and yet, it is the lack of record keeping that is used to judge the teacher as lax and incompetent.

As Ball explains, the goal of teacher appraisals is not the improvement of teaching, as education bureaucrats claim. The real goal is to capture the teacher’s soul. The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are. It is a vicious power grab aimed at denying teachers the ability to make judgements based on their professional opinion, and at making the bureaucrats and managers, rather than the children in their classrooms, the main focus of teaching. This obsession is so acute in the TSC, that as the latest wave of school fires began a few weeks ago, teachers were simultaneously receiving text messages from their employer reminding them to meet the deadlines for their appraisals. In other words, our children are not a priority for the education bureaucrats. It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the “teach and go home” philosophy. It even has an acronym: TAGH.

The common sense of cruelty

How is this cruelty so easily enforced without public resistance?

Part of what makes appraisals so difficult to resist is that they sound like common sense. The argument of the managerialists and politicians in support of appraisals goes something like this: Public education is useless and is failing our children (the Kenyan version is that it produces incompetent graduates). The problem is the teachers. To improve our education and make teachers work better, teachers need to be policed with appraisals or performance contracts, where their performance is measured by a score.

This logic is devilishly convincing when one has no personal experience of teaching. I have been studying performance management in education for a decade, and to this day, I still struggle with explaining why the system is abusive. The common sense character comes from Anglo-American billionaires and politicians whose power and access to the media allows them to spread the narrative of truant and incompetent teachers who are overpaid by the state and protected by permanent and pensionable terms (called “tenure” in the US). Teachers in the US, UK and Australia, among other English-speaking countries have gallantly resisted this attack, but their struggle has been rendered longer and harder by the fact that politicians and billionaires have used the media to poison the public’s opinion of teachers.

The demand for performativity seeks to change not what teachers do, but who the teachers are.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”. To avoid the political mess of firing teachers en masse, these haters of teachers call for more measurement of teachers’ work. They also advocate for drastic measures like shaming and firing teachers, and closing schools that do not meet “standards”, standards that are solely determined by students’ examination scores. Appraisal management is a large-scale and sanitized form of “constructive dismissal”, which is the technical term for workplace bullying, where a worker is deliberately mistreated so that they can quit. The tactics are working, because many teachers tell me that they want to quit.

Microsoft seems to be preparing for such a scenario where the number of trained teachers will be so insufficient that technology will have to do the teachers’ work. Microsoft came on my radar when one teacher wrote to me that part of the TSC’s regime of form-filling includes teachers uploading their notes on Microsoft. It appears that when the president attended the Global Partners for Education conference in London in August 2021, one of the events was to sign a deal with Microsoft whose goal was vaguely defined as “to enable the best use of technology to dramatically enhance learning.”

The article gives no details of what Microsoft intends to do with those notes, but one can legitimately worry that the point is to eventually use those notes to create lessons for which Microsoft will charge Kenyans, and probably without honouring the copyright of teachers. If such is the case, then the teaching profession is essentially a plantation in which the TSC is the foreman that terrorizes teachers to extract materials for foreign companies to exploit.

There is yet another common sense narrative to make us accommodate this potential exploitation, and this narrative came with CBC. It is the narrative of “individual talent” and “personalized learning”. When Kenyans hear it, they think the discussion is about a human teacher giving loving and individual attention to each child, when in fact, the corporates are talking about children learning from tablets and without teachers.

This hatred for teachers is not about education. It’s a cruel contempt for society and especially for the poor whom, the rich think, do not deserve a good education, least of all at public expense. Others suggest that it comes from contempt for teachers as people with expertise, and as members of unions that are still standing up against the casualization of labour. Rev. William J. Barber also mentioned another logic of this attack: “The reason they want to privatize education is because a lot of people who are greedy know that they can’t make as much money out in other markets now. So they want to come in and siphon off money from the government for their own personal pockets. Some of them don’t hate government; they just hate government money going to anybody but them.”

Whatever the case, the war against teachers and public education, which has a peculiarly Anglo-American character, is a war that has been waged against Kenyan public school teachers since 2010, led by the current president who was Finance Minister and Acting Education Minister then, and with the help of the British Government. As Nimi Hoffman details in her article, the DfID engaged British academics who used unethical means to push for a project that undermined teachers’ unions through hiring contract teachers on low pay. The project was piloted in Kakamega County and was rigorously resisted by the teachers’ unions.

It is for this reason that many teachers have adopted the philosophy of “teach and go home”.

The relentless effort to casualize teaching continued in April 2015, when the TSC announced the replacement of the punitive performance management system with a more “encouraging” appraisal system. The pilot project was funded by the World Bank, and the British Council funded the implementation of appraisals. To anticipate the resistance of the union officials, the then TSC chief executive officer Gabriel Lengoiboni reminded them that they had implicitly accepted the project when they participated in the benchmarking trip to Britain in 2014.

Education policy in Africa has largely been influenced in this way. Foreign governments offer trips abroad for teachers, and the familiarity disempowers teachers from questioning or opposing the policy being subtly pushed through this informal networking. Even the Bologna Process, largely responsible for the bureaucratization of Kenyan higher education, was entrenched through sponsored trips to Europe for African vice-chancellors and senior academics.

Truth is exposure

The way to end this intricate system of decadence in the school system is through public exposure. But education leaders in Kenya are notoriously secretive, fanatically hostile to self-examination and ironically, steadfastly resistant to public interrogation. Learning institutions muzzle teaching professionals despite academic freedom being guaranteed by the constitution. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development replaced the education system with competency but avoided any debate in the media about their choice. The TSC terrorizes teachers in the shadows and punishes teachers for any publicity in the media. In the universities, public debate is discouraged through an insidious rebuke of disagreement as “attacking people personally” and with calls for intervention from a third party to lead in reconciliation. Being a teacher in Kenya’s colonial school system is like living in a bad version of the movie “Stepford Wives”, where people are supposed to ignore reality and humanity and live in a fictional utopia.

There is little difference between this scenario and witchcraft. The defining characteristic of witchcraft is that actions happen in the shadows, supposedly with no human actors, as if brought about by the wind, with nobody to hold accountable. There is no one to name, no one to be held responsible. Education institutions maintain a stoic silence in the delusion that because education bureaucrats have blocked their ears and cannot hear alternative voices and visions of education, those alternatives do not exist.

The demonization of teachers is, in reality, an effort to end job security for teachers and replace it with appraisals, or what American conservatives call “teacher accountability”.

This is why we need a Truth and Justice Commission for education. We need a public forum where Kenyans are forced to hear all the participants in education, especially those who are the most vulnerable. It is time for Kenyans to stop listening to the disjointed stories of the media, the propaganda of the private sector, and the silence of educational institutions, and to construct for themselves a complete story that connects the dots between the brutality suffered by our children, the terror experienced by teachers, the deaf ears of education bureaucrats and the sadism of the Kenyan public. Our faith in the colonial education system is a national delusion that can only be cured by the truth.

In the immediate, TPAD and the litany of bureaucracy which the TSC imposes on teachers needs to be abolished. The TSC has no mandate, and no qualification, to be peeping into the classrooms and making pedagogical decisions. Despite its “Commission”, tag the TSC’s role is mainly human resource clerical work. If the TSC officers want to enjoy the dignity of teaching, they are welcome to join us in the classroom. As they know, there are not enough teachers, and moving with their salaries to the classroom would save the country some money for hiring teachers. Likewise, the yearly assessments of the Kenya National Examination Council need to be done away with. With the introduction of CBC, the KICD promised Kenyans the end of exam obsession. It is ridiculous that CBC is now increasing yearly assessments all the way down to primary school. And Martha Omollo’s transfer should be reversed. The remedial measures should be guided by this simple principle: our children deserve to be taught by adults who are free in thinking, creative in teaching, and caring in interaction.

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Politics

Prebendal Politics and Transition to Democracy in Somalia

The Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

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Prebendal Politics and Transition to Democracy in Somalia
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Government should belong to the people, be for the people and by the people. This is the democratic ideal borne out of man’s innate desire for good governance, societal stability, and development. Credible elections are the hub around which the practice of ideal and sustainable democracy revolves.

As such, it is closely tied to the growth and development of democratic political order. To realise this democratic ideal, however, electing people to participate in government should be freely and fairly done to allow for the right choice of the electorates to emerge. The elections process is the only means of guaranteeing the credibility and sanctity of democratic practice. The election becomes a crucial point in the continuum of democratisation and an imperative means of giving voice to the people’s will, which is the basis of government authority.

Fundamentally, democratic development involves the practice and sustainability of regular, credible electoral conducts and processes. In fact, one of the cardinal features of democratic practice is the conduct of credible, free and fair elections. Therefore, the cardinal issue in a democratic polity could viewed as the method of selecting people who govern at any point in time.

Indirect election

Conducting elections in fragile countries like Somalia cannot be an easy task by any yardstick. Conducting free and fair elections in such a polity, that gives the victor free reign to grab resources, is a much more difficult assignment the success of which even angels cannot guarantee. This is in large part because of the insecurity, political infighting amongst the elites, endemic corruption and the threat from Al-Shabaab. The militant group has historically made it difficult to hold elections in Somalia by threatening to attack polling places.

To minimize concerns about Al-Shabaab disrupting elections, Somali political leaders and their international allies have supported a narrow voting process based on a power-sharing formula between clans, rather than a popular vote (universal suffrage is still a distant dream for the country) and adopted the electoral college model. In the model, elders are selected from across the diverse clans and they, in turn, nominate or elect parliamentarians, who in turn elect the president. Initially, one elder from each clan picked one member of parliament (MP), but this has now changed to an electoral college system. In this system, each clan still appoints one member of parliament, but instead of one person deciding, each clan picks 51 of its members to vote for that clan’s one representative in the lower house of parliament as happened in 2016/17 indirect election.

Since early 2000, Somalia has had four indirect national elections and witnessed a peaceful transfer of power from one civilian to another. In 2012, 135 traditional clan elders elected members of parliament, who in turn elected their speakers and the federal president. In 2016, elections were conducted in one location in each federal member state. The 135 traditional clan elders also selected the members of the 275 electoral colleges made up of 51 delegates per seat, constituting the total college of 14,025. On the other hand, the senate (upper house) members were nominated by the federal member state presidents, while the federal member state parliament selected the final members of the upper house.

The ongoing (2020/21) election mirrors the 2016 exercise but has expanded the number of delegates involved in the lower house (electoral collegeElectoral College) from 51 to 101 delegates. This expansion raised the number of participants in the lower house election from 14,025 to 27,775—a notable growth in suffrage. Furthermore, the September 2020 agreement increased the number of voting centres per member state from one to two. It also established federal and state election commissions to oversee the polls. However, elections in Somalia have lacked the basic ingredients of democratic elections as most Somalis are not included in the voting. The elections have also been characterised by pervasive corruption and widespread electoral fraud.

It is common knowledge in Somalia that running in an election and winning requires not only political clout but also a lot of money. An aspiring politician needs the help of a well-heeled or well-grounded politician or a money bag to bankroll their political campaign to see success in such an endeavour. This is mainly because taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

Somali elites and prospective parliamentarians receive campaign funding from both internal and external actors. External actors include neighbouring countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, Gulf countries and Western allies. On the other hand, internally, the key powerbrokers are the elites who have captured states and regions, and particularly those who had mastered the art of obtaining contracts during the war; they have built business empires in the import/export sectors, construction and rebuilding, clearance and customs and are now playing a critical role in politics.

The cost of democracy 

In the electoral collegeElectoral College system, the price of votes ranges from US$5,000 to US$30,000, with politics at the local and national levels recognised to have become increasingly monetised over time. Some candidates are said to have offered bribes of up to US$1.3 million to secure votes. Jeffrey Gentlemen reports that in 2012 former President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud gave several clan elders a US$5,000 bribe each to influence the choice of their clan’s representatives in Parliament.

The 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections that brought Hassan Sheikh to power had little legitimacy, and they were criticised as the most fraudulent in Somalia’s history. Hassan Sheikh was elected as President, backed by the Qatari Government with money brought to Mogadishu by Farah Abdulkadir (a former Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs), and business and political allies in Mogadishu. The various processes and elections to put together the leadership of the federal member states were also marred by high levels of corruption and intimidation.

Taking political office in Somalia has come to be seen primarily as a means of enrichment and of gaining influence, and not as an opportunity to serve the people.

The 2016/17 federal election involved a significant amount of money. Farmaajo’s win surprised most observers, and Somali analysts estimate that at least US$20 million changed hands during the parliamentary elections that culminated in the presidential election. Farmaajo’s supporters had hoped that he could be the answer to corruption and extremism in Somalia, but he too succumbed to corruption. He is believed to have influenced elections in the federal member states using money and coercion. During Farmaajo’s time in office corruption worsened and security deteriorated.

Between 2017 and 2021, elections were held across the federal member states that optimised the defining features of prebend, the salience of clan identity, and the pervasive use of violence and money. In Puntland, incumbent President Said Abdullahi Dani narrowly won the election after carefully crafting an alliance of two clan-based interests, The Saleban Clans.  An estimated US$15 million changed hands in the week before the election, with all candidates using money to buy support.

In Galmudug, FGS employed the Somalia National Army (SNA) and Ethiopian military support to restrict opposition figures and elders access to voting centres. The FGS was able to disarm Ahla Sunna Wal Jamma using financial incentives. Eventually, Ahmed Abdi Kaariye, also known as Qoor, won the election with the support of the federal government.

In the Hirshabelle election, the FGS spent more than US$1.2 million to secure the election of the Hirshabelle president. Former Al-Shabaab leader Mukhtar Robow was the running favourite in the South-West State elections. Robow is from an influential Leysan sub-clan (one of the largest in South-west State) with a loyal clan militia, and he was considered widely popular among the broader population. He reportedly refused a significant financial pay-off not to take part in the election and was duly arrested by Ethiopian forces acting on behalf of the federal government before the election itself.

The arrest of Mukhtar Robow and the blatant intervention of Ethiopian forces on behalf of the federal government led to a demonstration and a reported 15 deaths. A critical statement by Nicholas Haysom, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General, in which he raised questions over allegations of abuses by forces loyal to the federal government saw him declared persona non grata.

The long-delayed parliamentary and presidential election was supposed to offer Somalis universal suffrage. However, given the security and logistical challenges of conducting an election in Somalia, as mentioned previously, Somalis opted for indirect election, and so far, the election of members of the senate has been concluded. It is commendable that the majority of senators have been elected by the FMS state legislature in accordance with the electoral model adopted on 17 September. However, the senate election was marred by foul play where FMS presidents and elites pre-determined the winners of every seat, contrary to the agreements and the national interest. The cases of corruption were widely reported; bribes were given to the state legislatures by aspiring senators and their sponsors, including federal and regional executives.

The election for the lower house has just started. Each of the 275 members of the lower house will be elected by an electoral college of 101 clan elders and civil society, determined through the collaboration of the FMS authorities, clan elders and civil society. Nonetheless, the lack of criteria by which the members of civil society and clan elders will be selected has created great concern among the public. It is widely believed that the federal member state presidents have the upper hand in the process, as they also play a role in determining clan elders and civil society. Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

Abdi Malik Abdullahi tweeted, “2021 electoral process in Somalia is commercialised and sham.” On her part, Hodan Ali tweeted, “Somali politicians poised to spend 10s of millions of dollars on election rigging/buying while millions face killer drought conditions across the country.” Nadeef shared similar view. He noted, “I have realised that Somali leaders are not trying to fix any of our problems. They are trying to make enough money and get enough power so that problems that affect us don’t reach them.”

Given the foregoing, it is clear that taking political office is perceived more as a means to personal economic advancement. This, no doubt, intensifies the unhealthy rivalry and competition for political office that triggers corruption, election rigging, violent conflicts and even coups. In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket. Indeed, the Somali political space is a marketplace that does not allow for free and fair elections and diminishes the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process, hindering the emergence of democracy in Somalia.

External Influence 

In both Somalia and the West, these influences are believed to be coming from five or six Middle Eastern and African countries with various interests in Somalia. These countries include Turkey, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt, and Sudan. They have been increasingly involved in providing the political elites with campaign money to secure their specific objectives such as access to oil, port and airport development projects, and other business opportunities. Turkey has financial and infrastructure interests in Somalia, including significant investment in the Mogadishu airport. Qatar is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and wishes to see its regional influence expand in East Africa. The United Arab Emirates opposes the Muslim Brotherhood, and may therefore be acting to counteract Qatari influence in East Africa.

Corruption and vote buying are widespread in all regions; prospective parliamentarians are buying votes.

The Gulf crisis has made Somalia a proxy ground for strategic rivalries across the wider region. Qatar and Turkey have supported the last two presidents. Under Farmaajo’s presidency, the UAE supported federal member states and their oppositions, enhancing the bargaining power of federal member state elites in the political marketplace. The UAE is reported to have made payments to parliamentarians and has directed considerable investment towards Puntland, Somaliland and Galmudug. The UAE has also maintained its corporate interests in port development and strategic infrastructure in Berbera, Bossaso and Hobyo.

On the other hand, maritime disputes between Kenya and Somalia have raised Kenya’s involvement profile. FGS has accused Kenya of supporting Jubaland president Ahmed Madobe against the federal government. Ethiopia remains one of the most influential actors in Somalia and since the election of Abiy Ahmed in 2018, the country has taken a much stronger position in supporting the federal government.

Domestic dynamics

Internal actors including clan elders, political entrepreneurs, conglomerates and technocrats are entangled in a web of political clientelism, kickbacks and redistribution, and debt relations. The federal formula has shaped elite political competition around access to external rents in Somalia.

In recent years, those seeking power have included prominent scholars coming from all corners of the world to seek elective office on the strength of the size of their pocket.

These actors use territorial control, access to strategic infrastructure and foreign exchange to protect their ill-gotten assets and to secure new opportunities. These businesses cope with containing cost and risk by stashing wealth abroad and by avoiding growth to circumvent the attention of governance providers and armed actors who may wish to extract or take a stake in an expanding business.

Consequences of state capture by elites and external actors

The consequences of corruption will be far-reaching. Donors will expect to call the shots after an election. This will constitute a cog in the wheel of progress of such a political entity, with outside forces dictating the direction politics and development will take. It may become difficult for the Somali government to act in the interests of the Somali people rather than those of foreign capital since the occupants of political office will owe allegiance to the money bag (the godfather) rather than the state.

It has become increasingly clear that the main incentive for joining politics in Somalia has become prebendal as the issues of democratic ideals and political ideology are relegated to the background. Ideally, ideology serves as a guide to an individual politician and to a political party’s development initiatives, policies, programmes and actions. This is because a political leadership that emerges without ideology will lack development focus and discipline and not be subject to the rule of law.

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