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Reading Our Ruins: Post-colonial stories that float from afar

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READING OUR RUINS: Post-colonial stories that float from afar
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Mea maxima culpa. I have not engaged with the idea of the post-colonial before. Not overtly. I didn’t notice it, you see. And that is the politest way of putting it. But I have heard about it in dribs and drabs, as one hears about people from a distant and fascinating culture that point at the moon before they start a meal. I wondered if I should amplify the retelling of the big stories you know so well: the 1884-5 Berlin Conference, a euphemism for a cynical collusion by the then-powerful nations to launch wars under banners to justify a violent land grab of a continent from its nations and people, the causal reality and root of an epoch that would eventually settle under the label of “post-colonial”. I wanted to understand how to tell post-colonial in a reality where narratives to explain the use of extreme and murderous violence on nations, cultures and peoples are still written without consequences by the same forces responsible for the long war and occupation season now known as the colonial period.

Yet for the most part, today we assert our “post-coloniality” and frolic in its imagined sounds, lyrics and images to the rhythm of assorted independence anthems. But independence from what precisely? What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed? The infrastructure and systems of the aberration in human relationships that is the accepted “colonial experience” have mostly remained intact. For the most part, in African countries, amidst the debris of the uneasy post-coloniality, the ancient and unassailable structures are those that channel Africa’s raw material (not its human) resources to leave nations; the diamonds and dying miners are African, the profits are unquestionably European and American to this day.

What distinguishes colonialities when the existential violence visited on entire peoples and nations remain unexorcised, unquestioned, unnamed?

This is a survey of ruins. It co-opts the ruin (paraphrasing Christopher Woodward) as a realm of “dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator/observer”. Ruins, created by acts of time and/or violence are, also, arguably, the material equivalent of that most compelling and equalising of human presences, a corpse. There is an oft-quoted sign in Latin installed in the doorway of many morgues: “Here is the place that death rejoices to teach the living.” The forensic pathology processes and options that invite such lessons begin with a word that I have become excessively fond of, and feel should have wider and wilder use: autopsy. Autopsy, means to see for oneself. It invites the human being to a humble inhabiting of a situation in order to speak from a place of experience, observation and encounter. Within “autopsy” are notions of a naked, visceral going deep to witness and access unseen perspectives that reveal another facet of the truth about the human condition.

There. That is my excuse for poking into intangible holes, including the holes of and in memory – to see for myself the unseen “post-colonial” story. To speak post-coloniality is to seek to address a corpse that has somehow managed to perpetuate its existence through an unending drawing out of its juices by assorted and mostly external parties. Those who have to inhabit its being are like those numerous creatures that make a corpse a thriving Cosmopolis. The ruins I explore with you include the embodied ones that pass down generations and cultures looking for a reckoning and acknowledgment—a witnessing. I scour these ruins in the hope of a more complete vocabulary of past, future, present, of me, of us, of other, of Kenya, of Africa, of the Commonwealth, of the world.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

The prevailing world lexicon is incapable of naming and bearing all our immense nows. We circle each other with old, small and weary words to speak to and about our realities, words that fall short of all our experiencing, our feeling, our hurting, and our hoping. The prevailing lexicon is also subject to ruin- making forces and is incapable of diagnosing its own inadequacies.

Fortunately, there are poets like Warsan Shire among us who point a way:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered
where does it hurt?
it answered
everywhere everywhere everywhere.”

And now an examination of a sliver from the results of an informal post-colonial autopsy session: I was born in post-independence Kenya. I was mostly formed by the season of the phase that Achille Mbembe, in his paper “Decolonizing Knowledge and the Question of the Archive” refers to as the post-colonial “negative moment”. My Kenya story (apart from a bleep of luminosity in the asylum in 2002) is that of an unending cycle of hoping for a glimpse of the proverbial Canaan followed by crushing disillusionment.

In 1969, I was a few months old when my parents had to flee at night from their first post-independence home in Limuru, in what is called the Central Province of Kenya, after all our lives were threatened by a state-sanctioned neo-Mau Mau gang who objected to our family’s ethnic origins following the state-anointed murder of the Minister of Economic Planning, Tom Mboya. My late father would only say very many years later that we were the lucky ones. He did not qualify his statement; it was sufficient to read the terrible bleakness in his eyes.

A baby probably holds the sensations and effects of a dangerous season. The story of my unease with Kenya’s post-colonial experiment started then, with an undercurrent of consciousness that the state could eradicate your family and culture and guarantee your non-belonging for spurious and intangible reasons that play out to this day. I grew up surrounded by the suppressed and whispered disappointments of my parents’ generation; they were the witnesses of the escalating betrayals of independence dreams, the refusal by leaders to lead new citizens to the promised land. Instead these leaders moved in to occupy the deserted palaces, acres, factories and farms that the colonial governorship had held, seizing for themselves mines and beach fronts and using the same forces of violence and alienation to achieve their purpose.

We children were privy to our parents’ private conversations of denial and heartbreak; we glimpsed the public happy face, the stiff upper lips, the wounded collective body, the private griefs of so many denials of excellence because someone in authority objected to their creed, their race, their tribe, their way of speaking, their history or their leader.

Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

My most abiding experience of the meaning of independence was when as a child, our house help, my sisters and I hid in fear, trembling under the living room sofas as outside, above the skies, Kenya Air Force planes screeched past and army tankers rolled by on roads, the independent state displaying its power and threatening its own citizens after the tortured and brutalised body of yet another luminous minister, J.M. Kariuki, had been found. This home-grown brutalisation of inconvenient bodies and behaviour continues to this day. It now targets the ordinary citizen. A lawyer named Willy Kimani, his taxi driver and his bicycle taxi-owning client walk out of court and turn up bound, gagged and drowned. In the post-colony it is an offence to dare to seek truth, justice and hope. You do not call the overlord’s exposed bum “nakedness”.

So where and when does colonial becomes post-colonial when the inheritors of a state who perform independence are of your race? When those who perpetuate offensive systems and refuse to unmake the violence are of your culture? When the ones who rob other peoples of their land and resources are of your creed? And when those who oppress, marginalise and socially and economically exclude amplify their monopoly of violence to legitimise control, and evolve ethno-chauvinistic supremacy narratives to excuse their plunder are your compatriots? What is the resolution of the story offered to the post-colonial citizen when those who offend and afflict are of her earth and hearth? Is it to make excuses for the disordered state of the nation because the chaos makers are our own?

We, the children of the immediate “post-colonial” have inherited our parents’ delusions and the ceaseless circling of the scene of the crime—this is not a metaphor; this is a metonym for “nation”. The Hobbesian mindscapes post-colonial frontline elders imagined they could conceal from us are ours now.

True, there are those among us who have been invested in to perpetuate the illusions, and are groomed to take over the seats at the lever of the ghastly “ancien régime”. Meanwhile, many more wrestle with and are bruised by the phantoms of our relationships with the imagination of sovereignty, nation, citizen and state. We are called to scream our defence of something that has no faith in us, no loyalty, no interest, and quite frankly, outside of the tourist brochure, no meaning. Our morally wounded post-colonial elders gingerly tread the silences of the ruins of so many nation-building dreams. There is no space within the fractures to whisper the names of their failures, the shame of betrayals, the rejection by one’s own people, the horrible realisation that the face of the demon that kills, maims, destroys and consumes is ours.

Meanwhile, the post-post-colonial, mostly technologically savvy generation – those post-independence parents’ grandchildren – have, for the most part, opted out and stopped believing in God or nation. Weary of waiting for nirvana, many post-post-colonials have fled the crime scene to restart lives elsewhere; and without a sense of irony, that elsewhere is more likely than not the country of the architects and designers of the-colony-that-became-a-nation – Great Britain, France, Belgium, or Canada, Australia, the United States, the lands of eternal alienation and occupation. Many post-post-colonials take steps to obtain a second passport. They know that when anthems have quieted, and fireworks fade, and patriotic noises accompanied by the prerequisite outrage at the numerous badness and madness of “former colonial masters” have been exhausted, more often than not, to be left to confront the reality of what is imagined as home is also to contend with compromise, disappointment and decay, a stasis of order, dreams, ambitions, imagination, future and community.

Many post-colonials leave “home” to seek and find the unrealised ideal of belonging. The home left behind can then becomes rosier, better, softer and prettier the further one is from it. You see, away, there are no genocidal bogeymen. Leaving is liberation from unrequited yearning for a country called home. Those of us who still stay do so with the knowledge that we breathe uneasy in the national wounds daily anaesthetised by a debilitating hope for a nation. Yet in our lunatic faith, we are made co-conspirators in a collective existential traumatic drama. We listen, paralysed, to puerile and stupid conversations that are painted with a nationalistic hue.

An example. A few months ago, in a narrative that was amplified during the last election season, this lot now entrusted with keeping Kenya’s national dreams alive occupied their private-school educated minds with contemplating how much more a man was rendered more male and more virile – and, therefore, properly anointed by God – for leadership by virtue of the existence or lack thereof of a foreskin. This mulling was done in a public arena and explored with immense emotion in both traditional and social media across generations. Is it a wonder that post-colonial women such as I must now wonder how and where to situate ourselves in a realm of such erudite musings? Moreover, who knew that when the Union Jack was lowered in Nairobi in 1963, almost sixty years later, the great post-independence Kenyan imagination would be exercised by a public contemplation of the state of men’s willies?

How many of our post-independence belongings here are forged by similar roilings?

I have no memory of halcyon days. Halcyon moments, yes: like reading Anne of Green Gables or reciting Wole Soyinka’s Telephone Conversation in Nairobi’s July cold. But I do not recall halcyon days. The undercurrent of unease and barely suppressed impending violence is the theme song of my post-colonial being. So where exactly is the line of delineation between colonial and post-colonial? It was certainly not drawn at that midnight point when the Union Jack was lowered and another flag was hoisted under fire-lit skies.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui.

In Kenya recently, the post-colonial project was placed under a microscope. On Saturday, March 26, 2016, a columnist’s heading pronounced: “Kenya is a Cruel Marriage; It’s Time We Talk Divorce.” Public intellectual and economist Dr. David Ndii’s type of questioning is taking place elsewhere in so many forms. The post-colonial hot soup in a world wounded by the omnipotence of global corporations and the rise of demagogues like Le Pen and Donald Trump, where the very odd Nigel Farage proclaims Brexit Day as Britain’s Independence Day. As an aside, it was in England that I was informed that to say “post-colonial” was to refer to the rest of us, not to Britain. It was in 2000 that I suggested, a bit mischievously, that Britain was a post-colonial state suffering from the pangs of having had, loved and lost its colonies/conquered states.

In Kenya, I suspect that our post-colonial discomforts are caused not only by unresolved antagonisms and competing myths about who has the right to rule a horribly incompetent but brutal deep state that evolved out of the cynical manipulation of post-independence hopes, but also by a most uninspiring emotion: ennui. The citizens’ riot for rights thing? Storming the Bastille? Done. Devolving power? Done. Democracy through ballot magic? Done. With new technology, the process is so hackable that the winner of the next election can be programmed in the year of a present election cycle. A revised, celestial constitution to save us from ourselves? Enshrined. Yet the threat of extreme violence and election-related deaths, like unholy ritual sacrifices, persists. The idea of nation and state in Kenya has turned into an albatross. And this, the previously unimaginable idea, has emerged. Ndii’s article offers us a consideration of the end of Project Kenya, as the historian Professor Ogot had previously suggested. Ndii uses this Gikuyu phrase: Reke tumwano: Let us divorce. In other words: let us unplug ourselves from this thing already.

The public reaction has been mostly that of catatonic shock, screeching, but also a sort of resignation. Ndii’s article is still being referenced in so many forums— including this one. Yet in that proposition, there is a hint of grief, the reality of having to abort the stillborn dreams of a nation. To be invited to contemplate the loss of the national project is terrifying. We have grown accustomed to the fiction of its life and prefer to confuse the frenzy of movement within it with progress.

Visiting Britain does not necessarily clarify post-coloniality: in its dazzling capacity for amnesia or re-patterning of memory, the mnemonics of the histories of our encounters and attempt to dialogue with it must fall away. The preferred conversations, if they happen, tend to be from within the lexicon of the fig leaf of “development”, “Third World” and “participatory paradigms” on the one hand, and the character of corruption or AIDS in “Africa”, on the other. For the ex-premier David Cameron, to be able to ingenuously tut-tut about Afghanistan’s and Nigeria’s corruption is case enough for a desperate requirement for the UK to undertake what Catholics would call “an examination of conscience”.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers.

Serendipitously, I came across a short article that is worth reading in full, in which Neil MacGregor, the former head of the British Museum now helping to create a German equivalent in Berlin, interviewed by the Guardian’s Tim Adams, spoke of memory, atrocity, history and remembering. He noted other important things, and I quote:

“The thing I find striking is that in the centre of Berlin you keep coming across monuments to national shame. I think that is unique in the world. … There is still no appetite to look hard at British behaviour in Ireland. What I find so painfully admirable about the German experience is that they are determined to find the historical truth and acknowledge it, however painful it is. You can’t be an informed adult – or an artist – in Germany without doing that.”

On drawing our attention to the deeds of Islamic State today and its connection with the habits of nations, he observes: “At one level, the IS destruction has been about just shocking the world and terror. But part of it has been the deliberate reordering of history that is common to all wars.”

I suggest that the real First World War did not occur in 1914, but in 1884-5 after the so-called Berlin Conference whose amphitheatres were the countries and peoples of the world upon whom war was declared under the guise of the export of civilisation and values — I think it is called the export of democracy these days— to independent peoples, the majority of whom fought back hard and were then defeated, occupied, and restructured. The lexicon of the reasons the National Socialists used to wage war on and conquer Europe is not dissimilar to that used to justify the war on nations facilitated by the Berlin conference; and is not dissimilar to the phrases and words that are used today to justify invasions of sovereign states: regime change, democracy, collateral damage, sharing our values, removal of dictators, saving the people, mission accomplished.

Given the blood and shadows among our nations that remain unacknowledged, the clattering of the bones of shared ghosts, it remains a puzzle how the architects of the trials in Nuremberg that put Germany and its World War II conscience on trial, are still unable to delve within and memorialise the horrid dimensions of their own engagement with the world.

The post-colonial state, for the most part, has merely systematised and perpetuated the long arc of violence on peoples, resources and nations. The habit of hagiography and whitewashing of grubby deeds by the state is entrenched in many of the nations represented here: concentration camps, detaining opponents, extra-judicial murders, arbitrary slaughters, mass displacement of peoples, cultural and religious impositions, disappearances. Does the post-colonial creature admit to being infused by a specific wounding linked to the character of the nation? Would the post-colonial confess to inheriting relationships with absences, loss, the missing, the unspoken, the defeated, and the dead? Given this, is to be post-colonial to live the fall-outs from century-old wars that have never really been acknowledged or called off?

Today, we humans are living in a season of frenzy for the control of diminishing resources in a progressively overheating world; we are witnessing the rise and rise of opaque and abhorrent transnationals who roam the world unfettered, like Satans looking for anything to devour. We are in a world that demands the diminution and commodification of humanity. We know the games of bloodthirsty gods of war turning our landscapes into infernos, all offered in slick messaging that shows how cool it is that humanity can destroy itself. We tolerate asymmetric wars and war-vulture enterprises — the idea that one set of humans justify the destruction of civilisations for the purposes of growing their home economies by, among other things, securing reconstruction contracts, is a scene that comes straight out of hell.

To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Few blink at the fact of a world that has turned human suffering into a complex economy. Instead we accept euphemisms: “Guantanamo Bay”, not American concentration camp crafted to incorporate elements from Auschwitz, including medical experiments on humans; “collateral damage”, not the wholesale slaughter of innocent people; “military contractors”, not predatory war scavengers. We are co-opted by media outlets who frame narratives to excuse intentional evil, like the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, and then squirm in silence at the abhorrent murders of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi under the banners of justice and democracy.

Regime Change is good, we tell ourselves and comfort ourselves with the assurance that the International Criminal Court is reserved for only brown, black and Eastern European villains. Even after the Chilcot report, it is unlikely that Tony Blair will be tried for extreme crimes against humanity. From there it is a small step to demonising migrants escaping wars created to feed flailing world economies. We now outsource murder to machines to appease putrid conscience. No one is responsible for the desecrated corpses of a hundred million nameless, mostly black- and brown-hued peoples stranded on far-away beaches. Our oppression of nature persists; the weather has changed and the large tuskers are facing extinction. We know that our human moral infrastructure is gutted, but treat those who demand a new ethical imagination as fruitcake heretics. As old certainties die, nobody seems to know what to say or do. Our lexicon is shattered by the weight of what we have become. But frankly, before the terrible witness of this epoch, silence is probably the most informed position.

A secondary character has now entered our post-colonial fray. The “Better Africa Future” set pieces are now being constructed in or by China. Given this reality, and I suspect the situation is not too dissimilar in other places of the world, the more accepted greeting is “Ni hao.” Please do not read me the wrong way; I am an awestruck admirer of China and the vision it has realised for itself. My concern is that a manual for becoming Sino-African has not yet been developed. Should we form a club where we can exchange confidences in Mandarin? Despite the reality of 1.5 million new influential African citizens of Chinese origin, which we are all still rather shy to talk about, if the future of Africa is written in Beijing skies what does this mean for the life of the Commonwealth in Africa? There is no point protesting: the bastion has been breached. No shots were fired.

China built the African Union headquarters. All they did was hand over the keys to our erstwhile kings. It is impressive, this Chinese phallic symbol piercing African skies. To misquote my new compatriots, “We live in interesting times.” But think about it; maybe in most of Africa, to be post-colonial is to be Chinese.

Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

A brief ode to Commonwealth-ness, especially after Brexit: I am from Nairobi. We do clubs. I am not an uninfluenced observer. We love clubs. The more Great Britain-connected, the better. Clubs are a community-creating process for us. We understand the indispensability of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. tea. Being Commonwealth is a secure space to soothe the occasional sweet anguish of nostalgia for might-have-been pasts and could-have-been futures. With the Commonwealth we can pretend that we are important to the world and our admonitions cause a pause in the flow of world history. We even observe other people’s elections draped in our Commonwealth mantles of dignified neutrality. To be Commonwealth is to set apart our Englishes from those of the United States of America. There we adjust to the how-now-brown-cow English variety in order to bewilder them. It amuses us when they ask us to translate “dustbin” or “pavement”. When they ask, as they invariably will, why you speak English as you do, it is the single time one admits with a touch of vanity that “we were colonised by the English”.

I know Boris Johnson had some illusion that by leaving the European Union, the Commonwealth glory may reassert itself, and those nations who call themselves Commonwealth shall bask in its restored gaze. Even though the old house is hollow and decaying, it is, however, a remarkable wreck. Old and new skeletons clutter its numerous sealed vaults, rusted pipes leak, some not-of-English-imperial-origin nations have been allowed in, the Booker Prize has been pawned to the rest of the world, the velvet is thin and frayed, and some members would like their crown jewels back, cobwebs gather amidst the bat dung and the butlers have not been paid their wages. Visits to the mother country are no longer free, and few in the world know why we exist.

I spoke earlier of crime scenes; our Commonwealth has not yet conversed with its ghosts, has it? At some point we will have to stand face to face and inhale each others’ fetid breaths and tolerate the stench and not flinch at our mutual suffering. At some point we will try again to hold each others’ gaze and struggle together to retrieve the human being from the debris of wars fought and lost, of unsigned armistices. We need to talk, really talk, about the things we need to talk about in a world failing with such violence to make sense of itself.

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in.

Perhaps, then, to be post-colonial is also to adhere to the notion of “place as palimpsest”, we are occupants of “multiple realities in one moment”. Ruins. These are palimpsests, matrices for imagining and re-imagining realities, I think.

I will start easy. From Kinshasa, DRC. Two people meet. Heads touch.

“Mbote,” They might say.

The history of this gesture comes from a legacy of ruins by the world’s most foremost genocidaire and architect of atrocities, with his sidekick Henry Morton Stanley, whose atrocities have not been recorded in our world. No memorials to a catastrophe. No literature by and of doomed descendants. No descriptions of how a great and beloved kingdom was turned into a demonic abyss by a man and his nation who went on to industrialise human exploitation, murder, horror, anguish and suffering in the quest for matter.

The German scholar Patrick Hoenig noted, in a conversation I shared with him, how the abiding monument to the apocalypse that became the Congo are systems built to lead outward; everything of the infinitely wealthy Congo is up for grabs and the infrastructure to send these out, come war or high water, remain intact. I suggested to a journalist in a fit of pique that the refusal of the world to respond with abhorrence and outrage to the witness of human evil that was Leopold’s and Belgium’s Congo, despite photographic evidence of such abhorrent and unrepeated evil, helped sow the seeds of Auschwitz and Birkenau. Unacknowledged evil perpetuates itself and extends its diabolic presence, sometimes in seemingly innocuous ways; ways that are not and would never have been accommodated if the desecrated, wounded and broken bodies had not been black.

The Antwerpse handjes (biscuits or chocolates made in the shape of a hand) are the only un-ironic memorials to thirty million still-nameless citizens of the Kongo Kingdom who were murdered, chopped, incinerated, petrified. Only these chocolate frivolities speak to what evil befell our humanity through them. Otherwise there is nothing else. Not even a placard in the DRC. I am not an academic, so forgive my question if it is foolish, but what is the point of knowledge sought and acquired if it cannot infuse transformation at the site of its engagement? The so-called plantation concessions from Leopold’s era are in the hands of multinationals like Canada’s Feronia. The attitudes and behaviour of the new landowners, we are informed, are a continuation of the past and remain, again, uninterrogated. I ask: Is this where one will find the line that demarcates the colonial from the post-colonial?

A final ruin. On March 2015, I was part of a group of residents of the Rockerfeller Centre in Bellagio, Northern Italy, who had taken a day out in the very wealthy city of Como. In the piazza, amidst the contented citizens and goggly-eyed tourists, were post-colonials from Pakistan selling shirts, post-colonials from India selling selfie sticks, post-colonials from Nigeria being pimped by UNICEF to hawk images of African children with flies in their eyes, and post-colonials from Senegal offering Hare Krishna pamphlets on one side and Jehovah Witness materials on another. There was a post-colonial from Ghana selling food in a stall and five other post-colonial brothers from West Africa begging—the only beggars in Como. As a fishmonger muttered to one in our group: “Before the Africans, no beggars.”

Here are the ruins of the post-colonial states scattered abroad – so many unwanted and destitute bodies, exports of the pathology of nations exposed for all to see. They are not far from the Mediterranean gravesite of many freely offered dark-skinned bodies that neither the Commonwealth nor the post-colonial African Union have bothered to mention, mourn or note, as if relieved that at least these have done themselves in. Or maybe it is far too soul-shattering to have to confront the question of why the liberated African citizens would rather endure the seventy per cent chance of death than go through another day living under the glow of an enlightened post-colonial leadership. It would lead to far too many uncomfortable acknowledgments, wouldn’t it? To be post-colonial is to fake it, no?

There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

Anyway, as we traversed the cobbled streets of Como, my armpits were wet, my head lowered as if at any point I might be asked to explain Africa, our people, or why our most beautiful men were crouched in European corners playing the monkey to get a few coins. I wanted to assert, I am Kenyan. We don’t leave home. We don’t do exile. As I crossed the city in my special little group made up of an Indian artist, four white American professionals, a South Africa-based German scholar, also white, I happened upon another able-bodied African male – dark, tall, dreadlocked and with the face and large, dark eyes of a tragic Bob Marley, accosting people on the street, begging with aggression. I hastened my feet to speed away faster than the others, my eyes averted. Until from behind me he howled: “Sister from Africa, look at me. Please. Sister, look at me. Sister from Africa, see me!”

What do you want me to say? That I stopped?

That I looked back and saw a man? I didn’t.

I hurried on.

I did glance at shop displays, the back of my neck burning. He annoyed me. I needed his cry to be for someone else, not me.

None of our group mentioned that moment or man again. Yet, as you can see now, the man and his voice remain unforgotten.

The ghosts pursued me back to the continent where his voice was born. His words remain fresh, a public witness-bearing, in spite of my refusal to acknowledge the vision of my post-colonial woundedness revealed in a European public square. In his cry is a harsh invitation to dare to see for oneself, to look beyond the surface performance, name the unnameable, find the human being. So here is a slide without words for him. It is in the colour (brown, I think), that dreams choose when they fall apart.

There are still far too many fragments in the telling of our being, gaps in the soul and in the reading of our lives. There is an excess of ideas received without re-interrogations. There are scattered pieces of a story that beg to be seen and gathered in order to offer us a word that can shelter our unseen, unstated, unnamed experiences. There are stories beneath the stories we have heard and assumed to be true even though they sit oddly with reality and truth. There are stories in and of the in-between.

In reading ruins in imitation of those who look into stars and entrails for prognostications, I strain to see these for myself — these small autopsies — so that I might hear the memory of a past releasing its real name to the present and in the sound, the echo that speaks forth a future that suggests the best of us.

Amidst these figurative ruins, “there be corpses that rejoice to teach the living”. “See me!” – that invitation from a man, a body, on a far-off street – is a good enough place for me to look in a way that I could not before.

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the 17th Triennial Association for Commonwealth Literature and Language Studies (ACLALS) Conference held in Stollenbosch, South Africa, in July 2016.  

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Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is a Kenyan writer and the author of the much-acclaimed novel Dust.

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Kibra: The Face of Kenyan Politics to Come?

4 min read. What does the Kibra by-election portend for the future of Kenya’s politics? Renowned photographer CARL ODERA captures the sights.

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“The most painful state of being is remembering the future, particularly the one you’ll never have.”― Søren Kierkegaard

Located about 6.6 kilometres from Nairobi city centre, Kibra is a sprawling informal settlement with an estimated population of about 200,000 people. Majority of Kibra residents live in extreme poverty. Unemployment rates are high, persons living with HIV/AIDS are many, and cases of assault and rape common. Clean water is scarce. Diseases caused by this lack of water are common. The majority living in the informal settlement lack access to basic services including electricity, running water, and medical care.

But this photo essay is not about the peddled quintessential cliché narrative depiction of Kibra as Africa’s biggest slum’ – itself a false assertion. Rather, Kibra has historically been Nairobi’s most vibrant political constituency; its residents often at the forefront of agitation for expansion of political space in Kenya; and, the most enthusiastic demonstrators at political meetings where the opposition is pitched against an apparently recalcitrant ruling elite. The Kibra by-election is also the political backyard of Raila Odinga, leader of the Orange Democratic Movement and the most enduring fixture in opposition leadership since the early 1990s. Currently, in an alliance with the President Uhuru Kenyatta, the Kibra by-election was occasioned by the death on the 26th of July 2019 of Ken Okoth, 41, the area’s dynamic, popular and highly effective MP.

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The demise of Ken Okoth left the seat open for a contest directly between Raila Odinga, whose family has dominated the area for decades and the Deputy President William S. Ruto who is determined to entrench himself as the only viable successor to Kenyatta who is currently serving his last constitutionally mandated term. As such the Kibra by-election of November 7 marked the unofficial commencement of the 2022 campaign season in Kenya with Ruto’s aggressive raid into Odinga’s ‘political bedroom’.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra's DC Grounds on Sunday.

Deputy President William Ruto and Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga in Kibra’s DC Grounds on Sunday.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

ODM leader Raila Odinga with party flag-bearer Bernard Imran Okoth (left) sings the national anthem at a rally on Kiambere Road.

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The by-election to fill the position left vacant following the death of the area MP, Okoth, attracted 24 candidates, ODM candidate Imran Okoth, Jubilee’s McDonald Mariga and Eliud Owalo of Amani National Congress, were the dominant players.

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

Endorsed football star McDonald Mariga

 Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM's candidate for Kibra by-election.

Rally to drum up support for Imran Okoth, ODM’s candidate for Kibra by-election.

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Days to the parliamentary by-election there were reports of fracas between warring factions. Rowdy residents, for instance, kicked former Kakamega senator Boni Khawale out of Kibra upon his arrival in Laini Saba ward, claiming it was ODM’s bedroom.

Destruction of property was also reported.

Milly Achieng, a tailor-resident of Kibra told the Elephant that supporters of an opposing candidate recently went and attacked one of her friends and fellow party member and demolished her house. She was forced to flee Kibra with her children.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

A family house demolished in a political violence encounter in Kibra.

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The Kibra by-election received wide support from leaders across the political divide. Governors Charity Ngilu, Alfred Mutua, Kivutha Kibwana and Anne Waiguru joined Raila Odinga and the ODM party in drumming up support for its candidate, Imran Okoth. The leaders announced that this by-election was the beginning of a new political movement that would drum up support for the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and ultimately forge an alliance for the 2022 General Election.

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Charity Ngilu campaigning in Kibra to get the vote for ODM candidate Imran Okoth within the Kamba community

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Governor Waiguru at Joseph Kangethe Grounds in Kibra on Sunday the 3rd of November to drum up support for the ODM candidate

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

Raila Odinga and Machakos Governor Alfred Mutua arriving for a rally organised to woo Kamba voters to rally behind ODM candidate for Kibra constituency.

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On November 7, 2019, the polling stations across the constituency were opened by 6 am to a smooth start of voting throughout the day amidst a reportedly low voter turnout. The voting stations were closed immediately after the voting exercise was concluded and voter tallying began thereafter. Residents stood in groups waiting for the results.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra's Laini Saba.

A man carries his disabled friend to a polling station in Kibra’s Laini Saba.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

ODM leader Raila Odinga at Old Kibera Primary school polling station to cast his vote.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party's candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

An election official marks an indelible ink stain on Amani Congress Party’s candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

Amani Party Congress party leader Musalia Mudavadi (right) accompanies party candidate Eliud Owalo at Old Kibera Primary school to cast his vote.

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

A man shows his finger marked with phosphorous ink after voting

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As counting of votes for Kibra by-election continued on the night of November the 7, Jubilee candidate McDonald Mariga conceded defeat to Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) party aspirant Imran Okoth.

In a Twitter post, Mariga called Okoth and congratulated him for his victory and promised to work together after the elections.

According to the results announced by the Independent Electoral Boundaries Commission (IEBC) on Friday, November 8, Imran Okoth garnered 24,636 votes beating Mariga by over half the total number of counted votes standing at 11,230 votes. ANC’s Eliud Owalo was a distant third, managing to garner a paltry 5,275 votes out of the 41,984 votes cast.

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

A child in Kibra celebrating Imran Okoth’s victory

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Though the Kibra by-election has been deemed a win for Raila Odinga and the handshake and a loss for Ruto and the “tanga tanga” movement, these political battles have yet to translate into tangible benefits for the ordinary mwananchi whom they purport to fight for.

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Nancy Akinyi, a resident of Sarang’ombe Ward, Kibra constituency

Written by Joe Kobuthi

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The Diplomatic Gaffe That Could Sour Relations Between Kenya and Somalia

10 min read. Have Kenya’s close ties with its “Man in Somalia”, Ahmed Madobe, created a rift between Mogadishu and Nairobi? RASNA WARAH explores the precarious relationship between the two neighbouring countries.

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The Diplomatic Gaffe That Could Sour Relations Between Kenya and Somalia
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On Saturday 12 October 2019, a plane carrying a high-level Kenyan delegation arrived in the Somali port city of Kismaayo for the inauguration of Ahmed Madobe as the president of Jubaland, a Somali federal state that borders Kenya. The delegation included Aden Duale, the Majority Leader in Kenya’s National Assembly, and Member of Parliament Yusuf Hassan Abdi, among others.

The arrival of Duale and his entourage of mainly Kenyan Somalis in Kismaayo broke several diplomatic protocols. The delegation did not make a courtesy call to Somali president Mohammed Abdullahi Farmaajo in Mogadishu before embarking on their journey to Kismaayo, and was, therefore, perceived as snubbing a sitting head of state. The visit reignited fears in Somalia that Kenya is trying to assert its authority in Somalia through puppet regional leaders such as Madobe who do Kenya’s bidding.

The visit also contravened a directive by President Farmaajo that all international flights to Kismaayo should first pass through Mogadishu’s Aden Adde international airport for inspection. By ignoring the directive, Duale and his delegation not only spurned an ally and a neighbour, but deepened fissures between Somalia and Kenya, two countries that already have tense relations due to an ongoing Indian Ocean maritime boundary dispute.

Farah Maalim, the former Deputy Speaker in Kenya’s National Assembly, had warned that the visit could damage Kenya’s diplomatic relations with Somalia and with other countries in the region. He advised Kenya to cut its ties with Madobe in order to foster a healthier and more amicable relationship with the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu and with President Farmaajo. (It should be noted that President Farmaajo did not support Madobe’s election in the Jubaland polls and had backed a candidate from his own Marehan clan for the state presidency.)

Kenya’s Man in Somalia

Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known by his nickname Madobe, is often viewed as “Kenya’s Man in Somalia” because of the critical role he and his Ras Kamboni militia played in helping the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to push out Al Shabaab from the port city of Kismaayo in September 2012. Yet, despite being viewed as an ally of Kenya in its war against terror, Madobe is a man who has himself been associated with terrorist activities and radical elements that wreaked havoc in Somalia after the fall of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) in 2006.

It is common knowledge that Madobe was a high-ranking official of the militant Islamic group Hizbul Islam, which was formed in 2009 by Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys – who has been designated as an international terrorist by the United States – before he joined the Kenyan forces. Madobe was the governor of Kismaayo in 2006 during the short and ill-fated rule of the ICU, a militant coalition of clan-based entities, businesspeople and Muslim clerics who sought to bring about a semblance of governance in Somalia, but which was ousted by US-backed Ethiopian forces because it was perceived as an Islamic fundamentalist group that would bring about the “Talibanisation” of Somalia.

Sheikh Ahmed Mohamed Islam, better known by his nickname Madobe, is often viewed as “Kenya’s Man in Somalia” because of the critical role he and his Ras Kamboni militia played in helping the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) to push out Al Shabaab from the port city of Kismaayo in September 2012.

Madobe later joined and then defected from Al Shabaab (formed after the collapse of the ICU), ostensibly after protesting against its brutal methods. He later formed the Ras Kamboni militia to fight his former allies and to regain control over the prized port of Kismaayo, which was under the control of Al Shabaab when his militia and the Kenyan forces entered Somalia. (This could have been his primary motive for collaborating with the Kenyans.)

In his book Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, American journalist Jeremy Scahill says that Madobe’s change of heart vis-à-vis Al Shabaab came about after he spent two years in an Ethiopian prison after he was captured while fleeing Ethiopian and American forces when the ICU fell. He then became “one of the new generation of US-backed warlords drawn from the rubble of the Islamic Courts Union”.

Some observers believe that because he already knew the lay of the land, and had similar objectives as the Kenyan forces – to gain control of Kismaayo, Al Shabaab’s economic base – Madobe was identified (and probably presented himself) as a natural ally of the Kenyans. That he belongs to the Ogaden clan, which has for years sought to control southern Somalia – one of the most heterogenous regions of Somalia that is home to several clans and which is also politically dominant in north-eastern Kenya – could also have worked to his advantage.

In the early part of 2011, prior to joining forces with Madobe’s militia, the Kenyan government had plans to support Mohamed Abdi Mohamed Gandhi, the former Minister of Defence and an Ogaden from the Jubaland region, to administer a potential Jubaland regional authority called “Azania” (also known as the Jubaland Initiative). It is believed that Ethiopia – Kenya’s “big brother” when it comes to regional military matters – opposed the creation of the Azania “buffer zone” between Kenya and Somalia as it was viewed as an Ogaden-dominated Kenyan project. It is likely that, because of its propensity to support warlords in Somalia, the Ethiopian government encouraged Kenya to work with the battle-hardened Madobe, whom they trusted more than the suave and cultured anthropologist Gandhi, who did not command any militia in Jubaland.

In May 2013, less than a year after Kismaayo fell to KDF (then re-hatted as AMISOM) and his militia, Madobe declared himself president of the self-styled state of Jubaland, which was not recognised by the central government in Mogadishu. It is believed that the Federal Government of Somalia had been supporting a rival group headed by Barre Aden Shire, who declared himself president of Jubaland moments after Modobe did.

Despite an Ethiopia-brokered agreement in August of the same year that stipulated that Madobe’s “interim administration” should hand over the port of Kismaayo to the central administration in Mogadishu within six months, there have been no signs of a handover to date. Somalia’s fragile “federalism” project to create semi-autonomous states also seems to be suffering from a lack of clarity or direction. Meanwhile, eleven years after Kenyan boots entered Somalia, there seems to be no stabilisation plan for the region, nor any exit strategy for the Kenyan forces.

Clan politics and fears of secession

Some Somali analysts and conspiracy theorists believe that Kenya does not want to see a strong and stable Somalia because the latter would pose a threat to its own national political and economic interests. They say that Kenya seeks a weak – but friendly – Somalia because Kenya believes that a strong Somali state may revive aspirations for a “Greater Somalia” that would include the ethnic Somali-dominated Ogaden region in Ethiopia and the north-eastern region of Kenya.

The Somali analyst Afyare Abdi Elmi believes that both Kenya and Ethiopia have been manipulating Somalia’s political leadership and could actually be fuelling conflict in Somalia to maintain an upper hand in the country. In his book Understanding the Somalia Conflagration: Identity, Political Islam and Peacebuilding, published in 2010, he writes:

“Ethiopia, and to a lesser extent Kenya, have important stakes in either installing their own proxy government in Somalia or in perpetuating the Somali conflict for as long as they can. The strategies that Somalia’s hostile neighbours adopt differ. At a time when the world would not allow an opportunistic invasion, Ethiopia sent weapons and created warlords from different clans. After 9/11 Ethiopia and Kenya capitalised on the ‘war on terror’ and used it to their advantage. As such, Ethiopia invaded Somalia [in 2006] as part of a ‘war on terror’ campaign, albeit in pursuance of its own geographical interests. Kenya has also facilitated this invasion. This leads me to conclude that these countries are determined to block a viable and strong Somali state for as long as they can as their perception is based on a zero-sum understanding of power.”

However, Kenya’s and Somalia’s fears that ethnic Somalis within their territories pose a threat to national unity are not completely unfounded and have historical roots. In the 1960s, Somalia’s first president Aden Abdullah Osman supported secessionist movements in both Kenya and Ethiopia. Although the Somali government eventually entered into a truce with both countries and restored diplomatic relations, the 1969 coup d’etat revived ambitions of a Greater Somalia in President Siad Barre. In 1977, Barre initiated a war with Ethiopia in a bid to regain the Ogaden region. Memories of Barre’s attempts to take over the Ogaden in 1977 are still fresh in many Ethiopians’ minds

The Kenyan government, on the other hand, has been antagonistic and suspicious of its own ethnic Somali population ever since the people of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District voted for secession prior to independence in 1962. This resulted in the so-called Shifta wars that led to the militarisation and marginalisation of the region by the Jomo Kenyatta and successive regimes.

“Taming” the Somalis in Kenya’s north-eastern region has been one of the Kenyan government’s objectives since the Shifta wars of the 1960s that saw this region become a terror zone. “Collective punishments” of the region’s people by the government were common. Until devolution “mainstreamed” Kenya’s northern territories, the region had remained largely neglected and devoid of any meaningful development.

Some Somali analysts and conspiracy theorists believe that Kenya does not want to see a strong and stable Somalia because the latter would pose a threat to its own national political and economic interests. They say that Kenya seeks a weak – but friendly – Somalia because Kenya believes that a strong Somali state may revive aspirations for a “Greater Somalia”…

In its efforts to control the seemingly uncontrollable population, the Kenyan government relied on ethnic Somalis to carry out atrocities against their own people. For instance, the brutal operation known as the “Wagalla Massacre”, which resulted in the death of between 3,000 and 5,000 men in Wajir, was carried out under the watch of General Mohamud Mohamed, the army chief of staff in Daniel arap Moi’s administration, and his brother Hussein Maalim Mohamed, the minister of state in charge of internal security, both of who belonged to the Somali Ogaden clan that controlled politics in the then Northeastern Province. They were among a small group of Kenyan Somalis who were in positions of power in the Moi government. General Mohamed had played a key role in thwarting the August 1982 coup attempt, and had thus contributed to saving the Moi presidency.

It is believed that Moi appointed ethnic Somalis in important positions as they were considered “neutral” in terms of their ethnic affiliation, and could, therefore, be trusted to be loyal. Incorporating ethnic Somalis in his government was also probably a strategy to defuse any “Greater Somalia” sentiments Kenyan Somalis might harbour – a strategy that the Jubilee government has also adopted by appointing or nominating Kenyan Somalis in important government positions.

Many Kenyan Somalis believe that the Mohamed brothers used their influential positions to punish and evict members of rival clans from the then Northeastern Province. Others say that in his hallmark Machiavellian style, Moi used ethnic Somalis in his government to carry out atrocities against their own people – who could easily be divided along clan lines. While it is unlikely that these powerful brothers sanctioned mass killings, they probably played into the clan politics of the area.

Clan politics is also what probably drove Aden Duale and his delegation to make the visit to Kismaayo; Kenya’s north-eastern region is dominated by the Ogaden – Madobe’s and Duale’s clan. The visit symbolised Ogaden authority in Jubaland and in Kenya’s north-eastern region.

And so, because many federal states in Somalia are run like personal or clan-based fiefdoms, decisions made by Madobe could be construed to be at the behest of Kenya. By aligning himself with Madobe, Duale – and by extension, the Kenyan government – has affirmed that Kenya is not interested in a united, democratic Somalia, and that it is using proxies to achieve its objectives in this fragmented country. The visit to Kismaayo was also a slap in the face of the Federal Government of Somalia in Mogadishu, which is now likely to have an even more antagonistic attitude towards Kenya.

Clan politics is also what probably drove Aden Duale and his delegation to make the visit to Kismaayo. Kenya’s north-eastern region is dominated by the Ogaden – Madobe’s and Duale’s clan. The visit symbolised Ogaden authority in Jubaland and in Kenya’s north-eastern region.

Although many question the legitimacy of the government in Mogadishu – which is propped up mostly by the international community, mainly Western and Arab donors – the deliberate disregard for its authority by the Kenyan delegation is bound to deepen fissures between Kenya and Somalia, which could have an impact on how the Somali government views the presence of Kenyan soldiers on its soil. The Somali government, although relying heavily on AMISOM for security, has recently been making calls to strengthen Somalia’s national army to replace AMISOM.

The Al Shabaab factor

It must be noted, however, that Somalia and Kenya enjoyed “live and let live” relations until the latter’s incursion into Somalia in October 2011, which muddied the waters and painted Kenya as an aggressor nation in the eyes of many Somalis, not least Al Shabaab, which then made Kenya a target for its terrorist activities. Up until then – hosting the largest Somali refugee population – Kenya was viewed as a generous neighbour that came to the aid of people fleeing conflict. The decision to undertake a military intervention in Somalia was probably one of the biggest blunders of the Mwai Kibaki administration.

But even if Kenya’s intention is to create a safe buffer zone between Kenya and Somalia, the fact remains that apart from controlling the city of Kismaayo and its immediate environs, Madobe has little control over the rest of Jubaland state where Al Shabaab is still very much in control. There have been reports of his administration and KDF making deals with Al Shabaab to gain access to the territories that the terrorist organisation controls. Some of these deals are said to involve the smuggling of contraband into Kenya, as has been reported severally by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea.

It must be noted, however, that Somalia and Kenya enjoyed “live and let live” relations until the latter’s incursion into Somalia in October 2011, which muddied the waters and painted Kenya as an aggressor nation in the eyes of many Somalis, not least Al Shabaab, which then made Kenya a target for its terrorist activities.

The reality in Jubaland and in much of the rest of Somalia is that the majority of the people have not experienced the benefits of a strong central or state government for more than 20 years. The concept of a government has remained a mirage for most residents living outside Mogadishu, especially in remote areas where the only system of governance is customary law or the Sharia. In fact, it has been argued that, with its strict codes and its hold over populations through systems of “tax collection” or “protection fees” combined with service delivery, Al Shabaab offers a semblance of governance in the regions that it controls.

Where AMISOM forces have liberated regions from the clutches of Al Shabaab, they have essentially left behind a power vacuum which neither the Federal Government of Somalia nor the emerging regional administrations can fill. This has rendered these regions more prone to clan-based conflicts, already apparent in Jubaland, where some members of the marginalised Bantu/Wagosha minority group have taken up arms in response to what they perceive to be a form of “ethnic cleansing” by both Al Shabaab and the new Ogaden-dominated administration of Ahmed Madobe.

All these developments do not augur well for peace-building efforts in the Horn, which have been made more precarious by Kenya’s relations with Madobe, who is not likely to cooperate with Mogadishu or cede control of a state characterised by clan-based feuds over resources.

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#FeesMustFall: Is the Makerere University Strike a Response to State Capture?

9 min read. Student protests in Uganda have highlighted a crisis in higher education and exposed the dark underbelly of a state struggling for legitimacy.

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#FeesMustFall: Is the Makerere University Strike a Response to State Capture?
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During the current lull in strike activity at Makerere University, it is possible to examine the root causes of sporadic strike action on the campus, both by staff and students. The strike was a student protest under the banner #FeesMustFall and was triggered by the proposed 15 per cent annual increase in fees for privately sponsored students (more than half of the student body).

It has been a tense two weeks, with the strike leader, one Siperia Saasirabo, reportedly abducted and held for a number of days, and the Guild President Julius Kateregga disappearing en route from an appearance on a morning television chat show and an extraordinary general meeting of the Guild. Both were reportedly dumped in public places, Kateregga with alleged soft tissue injuries.

An opposition MP told Parliament he was being held in a “safe house” run by the Special Forces Command (SFC) while the minister for higher education stated that he had information that Kateregga was merely taking time out from the pressure he had been undergoing. Kateregga says he made that statement at gunpoint.

The Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit (BMAU) at the Ministry of Finance summarised the problem at Makerere and other government universities: there simply isn’t enough money to run them. Apart from Makerere and Kyambogo universities, the Government of Uganda has established six other public universities and two degree-awarding institutions. Three came into existence as recently as 2016/17. The major source of funding is tuition fees followed by government/public funding – which includes tuition fees, external grants and internally generated funding. The cost of funding public universities leapt from Shs.167.94 billion ($45,215,553.00) in FY 2012/13 to Shs.606.09 billion ($163,220,340.00) in FY 2017/18. The Ministry of Finance is unequivocal in stating that the government is unable to provide for all the financial needs of public universities and that funds are insufficient to produce “good outputs”. In fact for the last five years, cash releases from the Treasury have been below budget (BMAU Policy Briefing Paper (24/18, 2018).

It is, therefore, safe to conclude that private students subsidise government-sponsored students. This may not have been a problem in principle or in practice if the economy was such that they could afford it. The fact is that most courses charge close to half of Uganda’s income per capita of about $800 or Shs.2,971,608. Assuming parents have more than one child, payment for university education is out of reach for the majority.

The Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit (BMAU) at the Ministry of Finance summarised the problem at Makerere and other government universities: there simply isn’t enough money to run them.

The major casualties of this are the quality of outcomes, staff development, and research. Because 59 per cent of Makerere’s budget goes towards payroll, and 11 per cent each on student costs and material supplies, less than 2 per cent is available for staff development. Research, a core function of the institution, is allocated under 1 per cent of the government budget (as distinct from external funding). Student welfare allowances can hardly compete and have been stagnant for over two decades. Research received Shs.30 billion ($8,079,015.00) against the expected Shs.50 billion ($13,465,025.00) in 2018/19. As a solution, the BMAU recommends diversification of income streams to reduce over-reliance on tuition fees. In the interim, financial brinksmanship has been the order of the day.

There are 20,091 government-sponsored students at Makerere of whom just over 4,000 are accommodated off-campus. An allowance of Shs.432,750 ($117) a semester was budgeted for each student to cater for their subsistence. The 2019/2020 allowances budget was reduced in order to rehabilitate the dental school whose dilapidated state and consequent interruption of admission of dentistry students made the news in 2017. According to The Observer of 17 July 2019, “285 million was diverted from the allowances vote and allocated to the Dental School. Another Shs.1.8 billion was allocated towards equipping the university library, while Shs.1.5 billion was allocated to the renovation of toilets in the halls of residence.” This was done in compliance with Parliament’s education and social services committee recommendations communicated on 18 June 2019.

During the current strike, there have been calls for Makerere to be managed by people with business skills as opposed to vice-chancellors elected from amongst academics. There is some merit in this argument; Makerere’s history of financial management does not inspire confidence. In 2016 the Auditor General qualified the university’s audit report, citing a number of significant anomalies that suggested sleight of hand in hiding income, debt, and payroll fraud. The report cited the following irregularities:

  • The budget itself was undermined by the fact that Shs.317,227,405 ($85,429.00) was charged against incorrect expenditure codes thereby misstating the balances in the financial statements.
  • Staff advances for various activities amounting to Shs.882,316,616 ($237,608.00) were not accounted for. “There is uncertainty as to whether the amount in question was properly utilised for the intended purposes.”
  • Revenues received from grants and investments were under-reported. Only revenue from 79 out of a total of 182 active grants was disclosed in the financial statements. The university administration also claimed it did not obtain any revenue from investments during the year under review. However its annual report for 2015 puts the cost of running projects from grants at US$50,000,000 in the year 2015. It also says that the university initiated an endowment fund in 2014 called the Makerere University Endowment Fund, whose investment activities and revenues to date have not been disclosed in the financial statements.
  • Fourteen retired members of staff were kept on the payroll, costing Shs.386,790 while overpayments to other staff cost a further Shs.172,560,
  • 2,494,991,040 ($671,902.00) in revenue was collected from short courses although this amount was not declared in the financial statements.
  • Revenue from tuition and functional fees was similarly misstated; the cash book showed 86,816,793,066 ($23,435,802) while the financial statements reported a figure of Shs.87,946,425,729 ($23,740,741.00). The Auditor-General stated: “I was not provided with a satisfactory explanation regarding this discrepancy. Under the circumstances, I am unable to establish the accuracy of the revenue reflected in the financial statements.”
  • Emphasis was placed on the under-statement of outstanding obligations. Out of 119,664,797,892 ($32,225,789.00) owed by Makerere by close of the financial year, “only Shs.47,167,283,674 ($12,702,173.00) was recognised in its Statement of Financial position and Statement of Outstanding Commitments, while the remaining Shs. 72,497,514,218 ($19,523,616.00) is only mentioned/disclosed in additional notes.”

The patronage economy

What is missing from the solutions proposed for Makerere by BMAU, such as the diversification of income and rationalisation of courses offered, is the elimination of waste. In addition to reducing waste and financial loss caused by sheer lack of capacity to run the business end of the university, the government needs urgently to address other areas of waste.

Shs.69 billion was lost to systemic waste across all spending entities in 2017/18. Some of the means by which this was achieved are examined here. Structurally, the ballooning number of administrative units – 134 districts and rising from the initial 29 in 1997 – is a huge drain on resources that doesn’t necessarily increase effectiveness (this writer has dealt elsewhere with the phenomenon of districts being unable to utilise funds for lack of skilled manpower). Each new district is entitled to three members of parliament, one a woman and one a youth. District leaders are elected but the president appoints a Resident District Commissioner (RDC) to each. The RDC wage bill is Shs. 15.8 billion ($4,259,292.00), 30 per cent more than Makerere’s annual development budget.

Similarly, ministries, departments and agencies (MDA) increase in number as service delivery becomes ever more inadequate. In 2016, 34 per cent of local governments were found to lack critical staff such as doctors. 116 were understaffed by up to 40 per cent. That year the most affected by understaffing were said to be public universities.

During the current strike, there have been calls for Makerere to be managed by people with business skills as opposed to vice-chancellors elected from amongst academics. There is some merit in this argument; Makerere’s history of financial management does not inspire confidence.

In order to lower the cost of public administration, a major restructuring was agreed by Cabinet in September 2018. Only four agencies (Kampala Capital City Authority, the Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Uganda National Bureau of Standards, and Uganda Communications Commission) and the National Medical Stores were either to be retained and the functions of the rest returned to their parent ministries or to be merged or disbanded. Over one-third of the government payroll is absorbed by the 10,000 employees of agencies, which have tended to duplicate work and serve mainly as sinecures for party apparatchiks. This would have freed up funds currently used for the higher salaries paid to agency executives as well as their pensions and gratuities. Since the announcement a year ago, there has not been a single closure; implementation modalities were reportedly still under review by August 2019. Furthermore, there are more agencies in the pipeline (i.e. the Skills Development Authority and Sector Skills Councils slated for 2021).

The lack of political will to conserve scarce resources is evident in other areas, as a recent review of the cost of political appointees by the Daily Monitor shows. There are now 170 presidential advisors – up from four in the 1990s – whose annual wage bill is Shs.29 billion ($7,817,689.00), with an additional Shs.24 billion ($6,469,812.00) for their ministerial vehicles (without fuel, drivers and guards). Again, the total exceeds Makerere’s research budget. The most recent appointees are musicians appointed to advise on Ghetto and Kampala Affairs. They join the relatively new Ministry for Kampala and the new position of Executive Director of Kampala Capital City Authority, both seen locally as political appointments.


Further savings could have been made by eliminating the Shs.30 billion spent every year on flying dignitaries abroad for medical treatment but they have been cancelled out by the inept procurement of a domestic specialised hospital that has left the country in debt.

The State House scholarships scheme could yield further savings. Under this scheme, students whose primary and/or secondary education has been paid for by the State are often sent overseas for post-graduate studies. Elections expense for the incumbent are another diversion of funds from productive expenditure. As with elections before them, the 2021 polls are being preceded by huge billboards, vinyl banners, cash and other handouts, such as Shs.80 billion ($21,544,040.00) worth of hoes for distribution – all paid for from the public purse. (Ugandan farmers clamour for much – seeds, fertilisers, herbicides, irrigation, information, advice, post-harvest technologies, feeder roads and access to markets – but there has been no shortage of hoes since the post-war period.)

The lack of political will to conserve scarce resources is evident in other areas, as a recent review of the cost of political appointees by the Daily Monitor shows. There are now 170 presidential advisors – up from four in the 1990s – whose annual wage bill is Shs.29 billion ($7,817,689.00)…

The unrest at Makerere is the fruit of the wider patronage economy and its untenable strictures. Public financial mismanagement and fraud lead to unforeseen and unnecessary austerity being visited on various sections of the community, including hospital patients, primary school children, farmers, road users etc. University students are in the best position to highlight this systemic injustice because unlike the general population at the receiving end of governance deficits, they are a homogenous group able to agree on a way forward, and the best equipped to analyse the issues. Striking Makerereans speak for all Ugandans.

State brutality

As is the norm, what began as a peaceful demonstration with perhaps a dozen women carrying placards immediately attracted the full retribution of the Uganda People’s Defence Forces, which had been camping on campus since late 2018 when the People Power movement gained national prominence. True to form, the method of work is to instill terror by attacking not only striking students but also firing tear gas canisters into the closed windows of halls of residence and hostels. There were night raids in which students were dragged out of their rooms, brutalised and their property vandalised. The partially sighted and deaf were not spared and their press conference was stopped by the Uganda Police, a de facto division of the army.

Initial reports on the night of 22nd October were from citizen journalists. The professional media was largely absent (which is understandable given recent threats of shut-downs to those covering “opposition” activities). Of those journalists that did attend, at least three have been hospitalised with injuries and a similar number have been arrested.

The most valiant efforts of government sympathisers to demoralise the students on chat shows and social media by branding them drug abusers were unable to stigmatise the students as “entitled” young people making a nuisance of themselves. Also new, a journalist accused of biased reporting (not for the first time) was heckled off campus by irate students.

The Uganda Journalist’s Association is boycotting all police pressers and other events, this time asking media house heads to join them, a major development in protest. Still, the repeated night raids amply demonstrated the extremes to which Uganda’s kleptocracy is willing to go to preserve itself. Student leaders continue to be suspended as they are identified. The police is visible everywhere on campus and Lumumba Hall was completely sealed off at the time of writing. The army is to be replaced on campus by 2,000 police officers.

If the military was predictable so was the president, his ministers and the diplomatic corps to whom Ugandans appeal during spates of state brutality. After the usual interval of a few days, the United States ambassador played her customary role, publicly expressing concern for the affront to freedoms of assembly, speech and expression guaranteed by Uganda’s constitution. After a further few days during which the public was fully appraised of his impunity, President Yoweri Museveni, the Commander-in-Chief, withdrew the army from the university, stating that he was unaware they were camped there (for a year) in the first place. He faulted the military approach to addressing the issue, saying the young people only needed guidance.

Initial reports on the night of 22nd October were from citizen journalists. The professional media was largely absent (which is understandable given recent threats of shut-downs to those covering “opposition” activities). Of those journalists that did attend, at least three have been hospitalised with injuries and a similar number have been arrested.

France’s ambassador remained focused on cementing relations with Gen. Kainerugaba, the president’s son who is responsible for the SFC, safe houses, #Arua33 and other atrocities. He hosted him at his residence at the height of the troubles. A French company is in negotiations for an oil concession. The European Union and other European members of the diplomatic corps then weighed in, saying much the same as the Americans, only to be contradicted hours later by the Minister for Security, General Tumwine, who advised students that strikers would be beaten and to ignore statements to the contrary.

The latest developments are that Gulu University’s peaceful march in solidarity with Makerere was intercepted by police and four students were arrested for the public order offences of illegal assembly and incitement to violence.

The Minister of Education and First Lady has not appeared before Parliament to make a statement on the unrest. Instead she wrote a long letter to “the children who call me Mama by choice” in which she compared Makerere’s fees with the higher fees charged by a private university. She then claimed that the strikers were mainly non-students hired to riot: “Next time you are tempted to point a finger at corrupt people, if you are guilty of any of the above, know that you too are corrupt; begin with yourself.” The minister finished with an elaborate exegesis of the Scriptures on the origin of authority and why we must submit to it.

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