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WADING INTO TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth

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WADE IN TROUBLED WATERS: A message to Kenya’s youth

*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.

An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.

The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.

Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.

In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy.  If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!

The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.

How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!

This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.

Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.

Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.

There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”

A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.

Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.

Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.

In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.

But can we rely on the youth to deliver?

Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:

The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.

Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing.  He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.

We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”

According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute,  Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi.  Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.

It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.

The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.

In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu.  But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.

Where Are Those Songs?  Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:

Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […]  Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.

Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?

And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:

Chilled body but not my soul… 

We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.

I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.

Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.

Let us demand the dreams of our children.

 

Cited works:

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.

Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA

Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.

Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337

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Rev. Francis Omondi is a priest at All Saints Cathedral Diocese, Nairobi. The views expressed here are his own.

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DOGS AND HAWKERS NOT ALLOWED: The brutal dictatorship of Nairobi’s predatory ‘kanjo’ askaris

Nairobi’s City Inspectorate has deviated little from its colonial roots and closely resembles 19th century London’s Metropolitan Police. By DAUTI KAHURA

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DOGS AND HAWKERS NOT ALLOWED: The brutal dictatorship of Nairobi’s predatory ‘kanjo’ askaris

In 2013, a university don was “arrested on suspicion of obstructing and assaulting (both emphasis mine) the police” by the Metropolitan Police in north-east London. Her real crime was “offering a 15-year-old boy a legal advice card”. Konstancja Duff, the “culprit”, then lectured at the University of Nottingham. The boy she had helped had been caught “in a stop and search sweep on the Wilton estate in Hackney”. When confronted by the Met police, Duff declined to reveal her identity, which caused the officers to order her into a police van and whisk her to the police station.

Miffed by her refusal to cooperate by refusing to speak to the police, the duty officer at the police station, Sergeant Kurtis Howard, commanded three female custody officers to strip search Duff, whose clothes were cut off with scissors. Reflecting on why she had been arrested, Duff would later record that “I felt like what I had been arrested for was for sticking up for somebody’s legal rights…I had been arrested for offering a-know-your-right card.”

If, for a moment, we were to remove the names of the towns, locations and police stations, the incident described above could as well have taken place in one of the sprawling suburbs of Kenya’s capital city Nairobi. And there would be no argument whatsoever that the behaviour of the Met officers captured here exactly mirror those of the predatory and primordial city askaris.

The similarities in the behaviour and modus operandi of the Met Police of greater London and the Nairobi City Inspectorate city askaris are not coincidental. The Met Police was formed in 1829 by Conservative Party politician Robert Peele primarily, according to the International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice, to “maintain order, without having to call the aid of the army. A police institution that would be trained to restore order without guns and sabres.”

Peele, who had served as a Home Secretary, may have felt there was a “desire for order and tidiness on the streets of the late 18th and early 19th century cities”. His vision was to have a police force that did not have jurisdiction over the square mile of the wealthy and powerful of the city London, but one that ensured safety and cleanliness around the greater metropolis. This arrangement has existed to date: “Even at the beginning of the 21st century, the city of London still has its own, independent police.”

The Nairobi City Inspectorate, whose askaris are charged with maintaining law and order in the greater metropolis, was modelled on the Met Police, a retired senior city askari reminisced to me recently. “Known by their other name, ‘enforcement officers’, the city askaris are supposed to enforce city by-laws,” he said. “The ‘manual’ on how the city askaris were to go about their duties was imported from London. But while London did away with many obnoxious by-laws, post-independence Nairobi retained many, if not all, colonial by-laws.”

The Met police, which in those early days recruited unruly young men to serve as officers – men who oftentimes reported to work drunk – would beat up Londoners for the flimsiest reasons, though it was professionalised and reformed later. But old habits die hard, as the incident above demonstrates.

The City Inspectorate is a creature of colonial Nairobi, which was made a city in 1904, more than 100 years ago. After World War II, the city askaris were deployed by the British colonial government largely to control the movement of the African male who was employed in the city as migrant labour. The “native” was considered too unsophisticated for the emerging township.

“It is therefore not out of context for the city askari during the colonial times and indeed even in the post-colony to have arrested a native for loitering or walking in a manner and intent to suggest that he was likely to commit a crime or commotion or even cause and create disaffection and disharmony,” the former askari told me. “A white man could stroll in the streets of Nairobi to window shop or walk his pet around, but a native with his dog wandering around the streets was considered a ‘nuisance’.”

The City Inspectorate is a creature of colonial Nairobi, which was made a city in 1904, more than 100 years ago. After World War II, the city askaris were deployed by the British colonial government largely to control the movement of the African male who was employed in the city as migrant labour. The “native” was considered too unsophisticated for the emerging township.

He went on : “The natives who walked around with their ‘mangy’ dogs risked being arrested and their animals confiscated. Many times such dogs would be killed and then dumped in the landfill in Dandora.”

Up to late 1980s, city askaris would be deployed from time to time into the estates in the eastern part of Nairobi armed with collared straps to ensnare and round up “stray” dogs that would be quarantined in the dogs’ section of the Nairobi City Council pound at City Park in the Parklands area. Many of them were put down.

Mercy Muendo, who lectures at the Mount Kenya University, points out that “variations of these rules remain on the books to date. The [Nairobi] County rules demand that dog owners must be licensed…This rule can be read as discriminatory because the vast majority of lower- income earners now find themselves unable to keep a dog in the city.”

After independence in 1963, the work of the Nairobi City Council askari (popularly known as “kanjo”, which is derived from the word Council) was clearly spelt out: stem the movements of the African man on the streets of major towns. Muendo notes that some of the archaic laws that these askaris enforce can be traced back to legal ordinances that were passed by the colonial government between 1923 and 1934. She says that these laws were used to curtail the freedom of movement of and the enjoyment of public spaces by the “native” Africans and to even hinder the growth of the economy.

“To curtail freedom of movement and enjoyment of public spaces by non-whites, the settlers created categories of persons known as ‘vagrants’, ‘vagabonds’, ‘barbarians’, ‘savages’ and ‘Asians’” she writes. An example she offers is the 1925 Vagrancy Ordinance, which after independence became the Vagrancy Act that wasn’t repealed until 1997. The Ordinance “restricted movement of the African after 6pm, especially if they did not have a registered address”.

The law lecturer observes that “anyone found loitering, anyone who was homeless or who was found in the wrong abode, making noise on the wrong streets, sleeping in public or hawking” risked arrest without warrant and imprisonment. The colonial city askari’s main mission, therefore, was to implement the British colonial government’s racial and segregationist policies in urban centres and towns.

However, his post-independence counterpart is a different creature altogether – he is crude and anachronistic and his role is poorly defined. He can be beastly and brutish. Like the Metropolitan Police of early 19th century London, he is unkempt and unruly, uneducated and uncouth, sadistic and savage.

With the vagrancy law gone, the city askari can no longer accost you for loitering on the streets of Nairobi, but he can prefer obstruction and assault charges against you – of course, with the connivance of the duty officer manning the occurrence book (OB) at any of the city’s frightening police stations. It is a story I know too well.

********

The year was 2016 and it was around 5.00pm. I had an appointment with Steve Owiti, a street vendor who has supplied me with books and magazine for close to two decades. His bookstand is located next to the Ambassadeur Hotel facing Tom Mboya Street. When I arrived at the bookstand, I found a commotion: street vendors and hawkers were running helter-skelter after they had been ambushed by the vicious city askaris.

With the vagrancy law gone, the city askari can no longer accost you for loitering on the streets of Nairobi, but he can prefer obstruction and assault charges against you – of course, with the connivance of the duty officer manning the occurrence book (OB) at any of the city’s frightening police stations. It is a story I know too well.

As fate would have it, one of the fruit vendors, a girl barely out of her teens who was carrying a baby strapped on her back, was cornered. She was violently shoved by one of the askaris. She fell backwards, pressing the baby on the ground. I could not believe what I was witnessing. So I lost my cool and turned on the askari. For heaven’s sake, I asked him, what on earth did he think he was doing? The young lady had a baby – why did he have to use so much violence arresting her?

Not used to being confronted or even questioned, the askari turned on me, angrily accusing me of meddling in his work. A crowd quickly built up where I was standing and the askari, losing confidence, took off promising to be back. Seconds later, four mean-faced city askaris surrounded me. The crowd had not yet dissipated but now the askaris had a quorum and would not be easily cowed. In the foulest language they could muster, and all four speaking at once, they harangued me: “Hata Uhuru Kenyatta mwenyewe hawezi kuingilia kazi yetu…wewe ndio nani?” (Even [President] Uhuru Kenyatta cannot interfere with our work…so, who do you think you are?) “Leo ndio utajua sisi ni akina nani.” (Today you’ll know who we are), they promised me.

Howling at the indignant crowd to scatter, one of the askaris unleashed a pair of handcuffs and with a show of force, handcuffed my hands and frog-marched me – the other three askaris in tow and swearing – to the waiting City Inspectorate van some 20 metres away. I was bundled into the rear of the van. Apparently, I was the first culprit arrested that evening by this particular squad. They locked me inside and off they went to catch other wajuaji (know-it-alls).

The city askaris that accosted me were part of the infamous gang of four – Brown (Alfred Marenya), Ochi (Julius Ochieng), Sarara (Protus Marigo) and Wasi Wasi (Ambani Akasi). These fearsome four askaris, then as now, were known to carry daggers. In January 2016, the quartet was charged in court with the murder of a street vendor. Street vendors I interviewed told me harrowing stories about the four beating up and knifing traders. Hawkers in Ngara, off Forest Lane, showed me dagger marks on their ribs, thighs and stomachs. They said Irungu Kamau, the hawker the gang of four were accused of murdering, was only one of several they had killed. One street vendor was stabbed right through his anus by one of the four, and for many months, he could not sit up or work. Feared and loathed, the gang of four have generated revulsion among street vendors and hawkers. This I found out when I spent the night at a Central Police Station cell.

Street vendors I interviewed told me harrowing stories about the four beating up and knifing traders. Hawkers in Ngara, off Forest Lane, showed me dagger marks on their ribs, thighs and stomachs.

By 6.30pm, the askaris had rounded up a number of street vendors who could not part with the bribe of between Sh500 and Sh1,000 (either because they could not raise the money or the askaris refused their money – sometimes they do that to punish the stubborn). These vendors were bundled and squeezed alongside me in the van. “Huyo jamaa ata kama yuko na pesa usichukue, lazima alale ndani,” (Even if that man has money, don’t take it, he must spend the night in the cells), said the city askaris. They were referring to me.

“Ofisa, tumekuletea mjuaji… Anaingilia kazi yetu na kujifanya anajua human rights sana. Vile amezuia tukamate mhalifu, wacha yeye sasa alale ndani” (Officer, we’ve brought you a know-it-all…He’s one of those human rights types who won’t let us go about our duties. So, now that he prevented us from arresting a criminal, let him spend the night instead). My name was entered in the OB and the duty officer asked me to remove all my valuables: money, mobile phone, wrist watch and leather belt.

At 7.15pm, we heard the clanking of the heavy padlock on our cell NO. 4. “Tuonane kesho asubuhi” (See you tomorrow morning), howled the policeman on the other side of the metal door as he sauntered away, his voice echoing in the corridor. My cell was packed with street vendors who talked the whole night. We became friends. They asked why I was in there with them. I told them what had happened. My story evoked much laughter – not directed at me but at the whole rigmarole of my arrest. “Hao makanjo unajua ni makreki – si watu wa poa. Ukiwaona unawatia zii” (City askaris are crazy, they are wicked people, avoid them when you see them), my new comrades counselled me.

It is from these street vendors that I learned of the callousness and viciousness of the archetypal city “kanjo” askari and the apparent impunity he exhibits as he forcefully demands bribes. Failure to pay up leads to a violent beating. One time, they narrated, Brown and Co. boasted to them that they could kill or maim without fear of the law. “Tungepewa bunduki ndio mungetutambua” (If only we were armed, we’d teach you [street vendors] a lesson), they had been warned.

I asked them why the askaris were such a reviled powerful force on the streets of Nairobi. “Wewe unafikiri mabigi wa Inspectorate wanamanga aje? Hawa makanjo si ndio wanawapelekea mkwanja” (How do you think the City Inspectorate bosses line their pockets? The askari is the conduit for the fat bribes). Apparently, the predatory networks run by askaris on the streets of Nairobi go all the way up to City Hall Annex, the main offices of the City Inspectorate.

The “kanjo” askaris have been accused of sexual assault and rape of female hawkers. To peddle their wares without harassment, some hawkers are even forced to have sex with the askaris; some of these women end up pregnant or infected with HIV. “The askaris don’t care that some of their victims could be married,” said the vendors, “and the women dare not report to anybody because the askaris are so dangerous”.

The vendors also had their own “triumphant” stories to share and laugh about. Kang’ethe had been a malevolent and nasty “kanjo” who used to beat up street vendors on the slightest provocation, rob them of their stuff, and strut around like a sheriff around town. So the street vendors bid their time, waiting for an opportune moment to strike back. When he was spotted walking alone on Mfangano Lane, the back street behind Njogu-ini Bar and Restaurant, the hawkers and vendors quickly set upon him, beating him to a pulp and leaving him for dead. “It is truly shocking that Kange’the didn’t die,” said the vendors.

The “kanjo” askaris have been accused of sexual assault and rape of female hawkers. To peddle their wares without harassment, some hawkers are even forced to have sex with the askaris; some of these women end up pregnant or infected with HIV.

Kang’ethe’s story, told inside the police cell, confirmed to me the dangerous relationship that exists between the city askari and the street trader. “Since Kang’ethe’s narrow escape from death, the askaris never walk alone and avoid the alleyways and backstreets where they can easily be waylaid,” the vendors surmised. Later, I learned that Kange’the had been rescued by fellow askaris and had a long stay in hospital where he nursed life-long injuries. When he was back on his feet, his bosses at City Hall Annex transferred him to Mombasa Road, far from the “murderous” vendors. He was lucky to have survived, but his face bears the scars of his ordeal.

At 9.00am the next morning, a police truck parked directly at the entrance of the station and all the “criminals” were asked to file past the OB office to collect their items before they entered the truck. At the City Hall magistrate’s court, we were sequestered in the basement, waiting to be read our charges. It is there that a court clerk, dressed in a City Inspectorate askari uniform, came to me. “My friend, why are you here?” It was obvious I was an oddity: I could not have been a hawker.

“I was arrested by the askaris.”

“What happened?”

“I was caught up in a street vendors’ melee.”

“Listen my brother, I’ve been an askari for more than 35 years and I’ll be retiring soon. But I want to give you a piece of advice. Please take it for your own good. I know what happened. – you must have challenged the askaris when they were arresting the vendors? Never ever get in their way. Those people are murderous; they are ill-educated and they have the instincts of a predator – the can easily kill you, especially a person like you, who takes them on their turf. Their poor education makes them dangerously bad. Please, I implore you, when next you see them, take a different vector. Avoid them completely.”

The magistrate came late, so we had time to chat in the basement. “You must understand this creature called the city askari,” opined the court clerk. “He is not a professionally trained security officer, neither is he exactly your normal City Council civil service employee. He has scant education, if any education at all. He got employed because he proved himself to be one of the baddest boys in a councillor’s campaign team. Oftentimes, he is himself is a criminal and has spent some time in police custody or even in jail.”

The court clerk said the city askaris became even more violent when the Inspectorate acquiesced to their demand to not wear uniforms, because, ostensibly, uniforms were hampering their work. The argument was simple: for them to successfully execute their mission – of arresting street vendors – they needed to be incognito. The uniform was giving them away. It was an irrationality that the City Inspectorate bosses quickly bought into.

“It was the gravest mistake that the City Inspectorate did: it now gave the askaris carte blanche to be even more ruthless, to murder and maim. And as if that was not bad enough, it becomes impossible for the Inspectorate to differentiate the criminal elements from the good askaris. At one time, the askaris even had the audacity to propose that they be afforded firearms, presumably because the street vendors were becoming increasingly rebellious and difficult to control and tame.” (The askaris, of course, were not be allowed to carry guns, but when they started carrying knives, the City Inspectorate looked the other way.)

The lady magistrate finally showed up. And when she called my name, she looked at me above the frame of her glasses to suggest: “Look, I am just doing my job”. I was charged with three offences: Obstructing, assaulting and fighting the askaris. I paid a total fine of Sh4,500 – Sh1,500 for each offence – and was released.

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has become a battleground in the longstanding global Sunni-Shia conflict. By PAUL GOLDSMITH

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SHIA VERSUS BIDHA’A: How the Seeds of Islamist Radicalisation Took Root on the Coast of Kenya

The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.

Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago

For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.

Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.

The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.

According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.

The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”

The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.

The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.

During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.

The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.

Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.

These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.

When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.

Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.

Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.

Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.

The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.

These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.

The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.

Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya

 The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.

One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.

Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.

The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”

It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.

The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.

Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.

Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.

During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.

Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.

A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.

During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.

The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.

In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.

When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.

The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.

East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.

The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.

The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.

Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.

Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.

When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.

The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.

For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.

The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.

“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.

“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.

“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”

That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.

Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.

The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.

Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.

Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back

At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.

The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.

The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.

We all know what came next.

The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.

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FIGHTING CORRUPTION THE QUEENSLAND WAY: Inculcating a culture of integrity among citizens and civil servants

If personal responsibility is cultivated as a shared civic virtue, there are higher chances of producing more honest leaders and law-abiding citizens. By ANTOINETTE KANKINDI

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FIGHTING CORRUPTION THE QUEENSLAND WAY: Inculcating a culture of integrity among citizens and civil servants

A visit to Brisbane, Queensland, in Australia, in February this year has provided my work with new insights regarding the fight against corruption. My experience in Queensland cannot be described in a short piece as I am still processing what I learned. If one day I do write about it, I will start by paying a tribute to Prof. Charles Sampford and his colleagues, first, for the role he and Griffith University have played in entrenching integrity in Queensland’s integrity institutions, and generally, because of his stature as a truly liberal mind. Indeed he is a rare academic mind who makes a link between liberty and dignity. It permeates his work and the dialogue he engages in to further integrity systems.

However, my admiration for Prof. Sampford and Queensland’s achievements in building integrity systems does not mean that everything is perfect. The professor is always careful to stress this point himself. Queensland’ experience of winning the war against corruption was not smooth-sailing; it nonetheless shows that corruption can be defeated. It was a war that was waged by building a culture of integrity.

Integrity is a trait that is visible among the citizens of Queensland, as well as among high-ranking civil servants running integrity institutions, ranging from the Supreme Court to the Ombudsman’s Office, the Anti-corruption Commission, the Integrity Commission, the Office of the Auditor General and the Treasury. There is a culture of integrity devoid of ostentatiousness and self-importance that is clearly observable among ordinary citizens and civil servants, whose law-abiding behaviour is something to behold. I will not forget meeting the President of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) while he was walking to his workplace without any bodyguard, waiting along with other citizens for the green light before he could cross the road. This was not the president of an insignificant or small organisation; the QCAT is a giant statutory organisation responsible for reviewing administrative law decisions of the Government of Queensland’s departments and agencies, and also for adjudicating civil law disputes.

The integrity reforms that have consolidated integrity systems and shown so much progress in Queensland are underpinned by four key principles: strong rules; strong culture; strong scrutiny; and strong enforcement. I am convinced that three of these principles would fail if there was no principle of a strong culture of integrity.

The point is that citizens’ culture is an important key to building integrity, which is important in fighting corruption. Citizens’ culture builds integrity when citizens as individuals and as members of their social groups behave following an unmistakable level of probity; if personal and group behaviour is honest, transparent and accountable.

The integrity reforms that have consolidated integrity systems and shown so much progress in Queensland are underpinned by four key principles: strong rules; strong culture; strong scrutiny; and strong enforcement. I am convinced that three of these principles would fail if there was no principle of a strong culture of integrity.

I believe that the best way of fighting corruption is by building integrity. Integrity cannot be built in a socio-cultural context where ordinary citizens have embraced practices, such as parents buying exam papers for their school-going children or paying someone to forge a university certificate. State systems’ corruption finds in such socio-cultural contexts a hugely enabling environment where there is nothing to pose a resistance to it.

Global opinion-makers like to consider corruption as a symptom of governance institutions’ failure, which results in poor services and goods delivery and mismanagement of revenue and resources. While this is generally true, solutions of a legal and policy nature are not sufficient to address this problem. Intensive campaigns, more laws and more policies, more commissions and more “watchdogs” will not end corruption.

These kinds of efforts, in my view, only strengthen what can be called a more insidious form of corruption – legal corruption – firstly because multiple laws to prevent corruption have largely been ineffective. Secondly, the more laws there are, the less ordinary people know or understand them, and hence the more opacity there is in navigating them, which makes it easier for corruption to thrive.

Lawyers and judges also collude in the obfuscation. According to Daniel Kaufmann, a non-resident senior fellow at the Global Economy and Development Program at the Brookings Institution, “Legal corruption refers to efforts by companies and individuals to shape law or policies to their advantage, often done quasi-legally, via campaign finance, lobbying or exchange of favors to politicians, regulators and other government officials. It is dealings between venal politicians and powerful financial and industrial executives. In its more extreme form, legal corruption can lead to control of entire states, through the phenomenon dubbed ‘state capture,’ and result in enormous losses for societies.”

“Legal corruption refers to efforts by companies and individuals to shape law or policies to their advantage, often done quasi-legally, via campaign finance, lobbying or exchange of favors to politicians, regulators and other government officials…”

However, when you examine the solution that Kaufmann proposes, you find that he reverts to the very laws that he believes have been ineffective. Here is part of his solution that can puzzle anyone: “This kind of corruption is a complex, multidimensional problem that needs to be confronted at every level. If we, as an international community, are going to get at its core, we need to recognize that improving governmental institutions is key. Good governance only starts with elections and higher levels of transparency. Elections cannot be effective unless they are free, fair and clean, and complemented by real freedom of expression. Transparency with impunity will not bring forth justice or make governments accountable. Broader governance reforms require serious progress in rule of law to make any real, lasting impact. Equally important is a free press.”

A multitude of questions arise: Can government institutions confront corruption if they are run by corrupt citizens? Can good governance, starting with free and fair elections, entrench integrity when electoral processes are affected by legal corruption? Can there be freedom of expression as a condition for integrity in governance if even media entities practice legal corruption?

Kaufmann is correct in stating that transparency with impunity will not bring forth justice, but one might ask: What is transparency with impunity if it is not a cover-up for corruption? If we assume that broader governance reforms require serious progress in the rule of law, can there be rule of law where at every level there is a dearth of law-abiding citizens? If we agree that the free press is important, how can we be sure that the press itself is not corrupt?

A multitude of questions arise: Can government institutions confront corruption if they are run by corrupt citizens? Can good governance, starting with free and fair elections, entrench integrity when electoral processes are affected by legal corruption? Can there be freedom of expression as a condition for integrity in governance if even media entities practise legal corruption?

These questions, and many more that the reader could formulate, only confirm the constant point in my conversation with my mentor Prof. Sampford – that personal integrity is a requirement if corruption is to be defeated. There is no blaming anyone here. The point is that if personal responsibility is cultivated as a shared civic virtue, there are higher chances of producing more honest leaders and law-abiding citizens and a citizenry capable of demanding accountability in a constructive manner.

However, personal integrity would be insufficient if it did not become the shared culture of citizens. Ultimately, all institutions are built by individuals and in a specific cultural context. In other words, overcoming corruption must be a complementary convergence of integrity efforts strategised from three different levels: personal, socio-cultural and public. Laws and policies become irrelevant in an environment where the majority of people lack integrity.

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