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Raila Odinga and the Comrades

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Raila Odinga and the Comrades

Forgive me, comrades
If I say something apolitical
And shamefully emotional
But in the dark of night
It is as if my heart is clutched
By a giant iron hand:
“Treachery, treachery” I cry out
Thinking of you, comrades
And how you have betrayed
The things we suffered for 

– Dennis Brutus

During a 1998 visit to Uganda by US President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton was meant to have dinner with representatives of the Makerere University students’ guild. However, the Makerere students took the risk and liberty to invite an extra guest to the table, a Kenyan student from the University of Nairobi with whom they had built a comradeship. The Kenyan was part of a group campaigning for the reinstatement of the Students Organisation of Nairobi University (SONU), a historically radical organisation in Kenya’s largest and oldest university that had been banned in 1987. The body was reestablished in 1992, after which it was banned again.

Throughout this period, Kenya’s strongman, Daniel arap Moi, was eternally fearful that SONU would partake in an onslaught against his authoritarian regime. There was a history. In 1982, when Moi was barely half a decade into his 24-year reign of terror, tens of University of Nairobi students – seen as coup sympathisers of an attempted putsch by junior Kenya Air Force officers – got rounded up by the nudged state. The majority were released after brief detentions, while those identified as lead troublemakers, including SONU president Tito Adungosi, got locked up on trumped-up charges. Adungosi was jailed for five years, dying mysteriously barely days before his release date. Those who survived the reprimand from the paranoid regime, like future Kenyan ambassador to the US, Nicholas Rateng’ Oginga Ogego, who served a six-year jail term, remained living examples of the spirit of defiance SONU instilled in its cadres – the Comrades.

Kenya’s future Prime Minister Raila Odinga was similarly netted along with the University of Nairobi students in 1982, accused of working in cahoots with the coup plotters. Odinga was charged with treason, an accusation which was later dropped. He was detained without trial for six years. His co-accused, journalist Otieno Mak’Onyango and University of Nairobi lecturer Alfred Vincent Otieno, whose house was allegedly used as the coups nerve centre, were similarly detained. The twelve Kenya Air Force masterminds of the coup died by hanging after being repatriated from Tanzania, where they had sought refuge. No one could have predicted that almost four decades later, in 2018, it would be these University of Nairobi students from the 70s, 80s, 90s and even the 2000s who would anchor Odinga’s political project.

In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

At the Kampala dinner with Hillary Clinton, the Kenyan student presented the First Lady with a hurriedly prepared dossier documenting gross human rights violations in the country. The case the student sought to make was that as Kenya stood at the time, there was no single organisation or formation – including the parliamentary opposition to which Odinga belonged – that was bold enough to stand up to the state and challenge its excesses. Therefore, reinstating SONU was the only viable option in keeping the rogue state in check. It was an exaggeration to claim that only SONU could stand in the gap at a time when the civil society was greatly emboldened, but that embellishment did not take away from the historical centrality of SONU in the clamour for change, including when such activities meant death, torture, exile or imprisonment.

As it turned out, Hillary was sufficiently persuaded by the young man’s argument. Decisive phone calls were made across Kampala later that night, where Moi, who had gone to meet his US counterpart, was implored to unban SONU. It was that same night that the Kenyan president insisted on meeting Moses Oburu, the Kenyan student who had aired his country’s dirty laundry in Kampala. The two eventually met back in Nairobi, where SONU’s proscription was lifted.

It is this sort of mystique that has shrouded the University of Nairobi students’ organisation for decades. It now appeared that cross-generational radical figures who served within its ranks had finally found a point of convergence within the Kenyan body politic in the form of a shared national political project – the presidential candidacy of Raila Odinga, which morphed into a movement seeking more than the presidency – around which they coalesced and were reliving their days of youthful fervour, challenging a government they considered illegitimate.

As Odinga took the now infamous oath as “The People’s President” on January 30th 2018 at Nairobi’s largest public park, Uhuru Park – packed with tens of thousands of his supporters – one thing was conspicuous to the discerning observer. In his boldest challenge to Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy as President of Kenya, Odinga – who had disregarded warnings from the state, including one from the Attorney General who equated the oath to an act of treason punishable by death – lifted a green Bible with his right hand, surrounded by a trio that represented three generations of radical SONU student activists from the 70s, 80s and 90s. The three outspoken lawyers-turned-politicians formed a semi-circle ring around Odinga.

Standing on Odinga’s right was Miguna Miguna, who was expelled from the University of Nairobi in 1987 and exiled in Canada, where he completed his studies and practised law for fourteen years. Miguna briefly served as SONU’s Organising Secretary at a time when the state cracked down on him and his colleagues, led by Wafula Buke – a current Odinga confidant and strategist – for supposedly being funded by Libya to destabilise the Kenyan state. It was the clamping down on the likes of Miguna and Buke that led to SONU being banned in 1987. Prior to January 30th, Miguna had overtly admitted and boasted of being in the custody of “instruments of power” with which he intended to use to swear in Odinga as president, all along daring the police to arrest him.

In a dramatic dawn attack lasting at least an hour on February 2nd, the Friday after Odinga’s oath, a heavily armed police unit descended on Miguna’s residence in Nairobi and used explosives to blow his front door open. Apart from his role in administering the oath, the state claimed that Miguna’s residence housed weapons and subversive material meant to undermine the government. The former prime ministerial advisor to Odinga was driven away in a convoy of police vehicles and was clandestinely detained for days, with his lawyers and doctors prevented from accessing him despite successive court orders demanding his presentation in court or his immediate release.

In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar.

On Tuesday, February 6th , Miguna was deported back to Canada aboard a KLM flight. The state alleged that he renounced his Kenyan citizenship when he took up Canadian citizenship during his time in exile, an allegation Miguna continues to refute. On a layover in Amsterdam, Miguna gave interviews to international media, stating how he had been tortured by the state, not having taken a bath for five days. Speaking in Toronto, he continued issuing edicts to Odinga’s supporters, asking them to stay defiant. The judiciary has since invalidated the deportation.

Behind Odinga stood MP Tom Kajwang – dressed in a black robe and wearing a white judicial wig – who coincidentally served as SONU president in 1992 after the organisation was reinstated following the 1987 ban necessitated by the likes of Miguna Miguna. Kajwang’s elder brother, the deceased lawyer and MP Otieno Kajwang, like those of his ilk in the 80s, had been expelled from the University of Nairobi and forced to complete his studies at Uganda’s Makerere University. By standing next to Odinga, Tom Kajwang was living up to his own convictions as well as those of his deceased brother, a renowned longtime Odinga loyalist. On January 31st, the Wednesday after Odinga’s oath, Kajwang was briefly arrested for his role in the affair.

To complete the oath-administering troika was lawyer and Senator James Orengo, who stood on Odinga’s immediate left. Possibly Odinga’s current right-hand man, Orengo has travelled the long, turbulent liberation struggle journey together with Odinga, marked with intervals of falling out and making up. A Kenyan liberation stalwart, Orengo served as SONU president in 1972, later becoming a dependable protégé to Odinga’s deceased father and Kenya’s first Vice President Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. It was Orengo, a senior respected lawyer, who led a team of litigants in successfully arguing for the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election by Kenya’s Supreme Court. The team argued that Odinga’s victory had been stolen by the incumbent, Uhuru Kenyatta, in collaboration with a corrupted electoral commission whose head of technology, Chris Msando, was found gruesomely murdered a week before the elections.

As his two co-conspirators in administering the oath got picked up by the police, it became clear that the state was aware of James Orengo’s stature within the opposition ranks – possibly being Odinga’s Number Two in terms of struggle credentials – a fact that made the security agencies not pounce on him like they did on the other two. It was with the same logic – that such a high profile arrest might result in massive public unrest by opposition supporters across the country – that the state shelved any intention of arresting and charging Odinga with treason.

Constitutionally, the presidential oath is administered in public in front of the Chief Justice, in whose absence the Deputy Chief Justice does the onus. The Chief Registrar of the judiciary usually administers the oath. In the case of the event of January 30th, it appeared the three men manning Odinga’s oath-taking had assumed pseudo-constitutional roles for themselves, with Miguna Miguna, the tallest and loudest of the three, administering the oath, thereby taking the place of Chief Registrar. In their political role-playing, either Tom Kajwang or James Orengo must have been the Chief Justice. During opposition rallies later on, Kajwang referred to himself as Chief Justice of “The People’s Republic of Kenya”. The whole performance might have been sketchy and hurriedly put together – with Odinga’s only instrument of power being a piece of paper mounted on a clipboard, an inauguration certificate masquerade – but to the millions of opposition supporters, this symbolism rejuvenated their resolve for rebellion against the state.

Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary-General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.

This was not the first time Odinga was being pushed to take an oath either as president or as an alternative president of Kenya. In 2007, on realising that the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was probably interfering with election results in a bid to steal Odinga’s victory, members of Odinga’s inner circle, including James Orengo, rooted for their man to take an oath of office to preempt electoral fraud. But as they were still consulting, the electoral commission declared Mwai Kibaki as the winner of the election, which resulted in violence across the country. The chaos and bloodshed led to a coalition government, with Odinga as Prime Minister. A decade later, Odinga would have no choice but to succumb to the pressure from the Comrades to take the oath.

Following the nullification of the August 8th 2017 presidential election, the Supreme Court of Kenya ordered – based on a constitutional provision – that a fresh presidential election be held within 60 days. As they celebrated their victory on the steps of the Supreme Court, Odinga and his coalition’s lawyers immediately cautioned that unless massive electoral reforms took place before the fresh presidential election, the group would not participate. In keeping to his word, Odinga pulled out of the repeat election, which the defiant Uhuru Kenyatta won with an unprecedented 98.2% majority. Odinga then proceeded to mobilise his supporters across the country, forming the Peoples Assembly – which they argued was founded within the constitution as a direct way of Kenyans to exercise their sovereignty – whose climax was the oath of January 30th.

Like the three men surrounding Odinga on January 30th, the person appointed to chair the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly was Oduor Ongwen, who served as SONU Secretary General in 1982. Before assuming this role, which was pivotal in working towards Odinga’s eventual coronation as “The People’s President”, Oduor had been appointed executive director of Odinga’s party back in 2015, a development that had ushered in the proper entrenchment of former University of Nairobi radicals within Odinga’s official political machine.

Like a number of vocal University of Nairobi students in the early 80s, Oduor was first arrested and detained without trial for two months following the 1982 attempted coup. He was accused of being one of the coup plotters – a predicament that befell tens of University of Nairobi students at the time. He was later rearrested in 1986 and sentenced to four years in prison for sedition, getting released prematurely in 1988, after which he fled the country in 1990, escaping a police swoop targeted at agitators for pluralism. He was exiled in Sweden.

Before Oduor was appointed executive director of Odinga’s party, Wafula Buke, a fellow political prisoner who served as SONU president in 1987 – alongside Miguna Miguna, the man who administered Odinga’s oath – instigated an internal coup, declaring himself executive director of Odinga’s party. Buke was serving as deputy director in charge of strategy, and upon the unceremonious ejection of the previous executive director on suspicion of spying for Odinga’s opponents, Buke declared that it was only natural for him to take up the position.

Known for his militancy, Buke was among former University of Nairobi student activists who went as far as being trained in guerilla warfare in Uganda in an attempt to violently overthrow the one-party Moi state in the early 90s, a plan which was shelved when the state relaxed its repressive laws and agreed to multiparty democracy in 1991. It is not an openly discussed topic, but a larger group of dissidents, including some close to Odinga, were involved in seeking international support for the training exercise in Uganda. Other than being jailed for five years after being picked from his hostel room at the University of Nairobi, Buke was hunted down in the early 90s for being associated with the February Eighteenth Revolutionary Army (FERA), a ragtag militia that unsuccessfully attacked Kenya from Uganda in a frail coup attempt.

The person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto.

However, the person who became the public face of the intellectual and ideological wing of Odinga’s coalition was Oxford-educated economist David Ndii, who attended the University of Nairobi in the mid-80s and was similarly arrested and detained on suspicion of being involved in subversive activities. As the head of the coalition’s technical team, Ndii was seen as the father of Odinga’s political manifesto. Alongside his fellow University of Nairobi detainee Oduor Ongwen, he served as a member of the committee charged with organising the Peoples Assembly, which culminated in the January 30th oath. It is noteworthy that as lawyer Miguna Miguna defiantly administered the oath to Odinga, Ndii was standing right behind the tall bespectacled lawyer, witnessing part of the maturation of his intellectual labour.

On Tuesday, February 6th, the day Miguna Miguna was dramatically deported, the government issued a directive suspending Ndii’s passport. Ndii had earlier been arrested on the night of December 3rd, 2017, while on holiday with his family at the Kenyan coast. He was driven overnight to Nairobi and accused of incitement. Ndii had continuously articulated the idea of splitting Kenya into different republics if co-existence within the country’s current borders became untenable due to electoral fraud and unequal development, a view espoused by Odinga’s radical supporters. By close of business that Tuesday, the names of senior opposition figures on the list for passport revocations extended to 15, including that of James Orengo, who got stopped from leaving the country on Monday, February 19th, and spent the night at the airport alongside the opposition’s financier, Jimmy Wanjigi, before the judiciary issued orders against their illegal restriction.

The journey to this point where radical activists and intellectuals took centrestage in Kenya’s push for a proper democratic dispensation – the third liberation, as its proponents called it – started taking shape back in the late 80s and early 90s during the agitation for multiparty democracy, when the group coalesced around Odinga’s ageing father and deity of Kenyan opposition politics, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. The senior Odinga pushed for an alternative politics following his fallout with his independence struggle comrade and Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta. Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.

Among those working closely with the senior Odinga at the time were former University of Nairobi lecturer Prof. Anyang Nyong’o (father to Hollywood actor Lupita Nyong’o, who was born in Mexico where the family was exiled) who later became a confidant of the younger Odinga. Also present was the current United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Secretary General Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, who had been expelled from the University of Nairobi in the 80s and sought refuge at Makerere University in Uganda, before proceeding to Norway.

Some have viewed the Raila Odinga–Uhuru Kenyatta contest as a continuum of the duel between their respective father’s divergent visions for Kenya, the older Odinga seeking an egalitarian, left-leaning state while the older Kenyatta a conservative, capitalist one.

When Odinga’s father died in 1994 after failing to clinch the presidency during the 1992 general election, a split emerged between him and these intellectuals, which resulted in Odinga parting ways with the likes of Nyong’o, Kituyi, and the man who stood on his left as he took the oath on January 30th, lawyer James Orengo. During the burial of Mr. Odinga’s father, and in the presence of the then sitting President Daniel arap Moi, Orengo, in representing the youthful radicals, read a hard-hitting speech titled “Woe Unto You” targeted at the authoritarian head of state. There were murmurs of Orengo’s impending arrest after the funeral. Consensus was building that the fiery lawyer should inherit the senior Odinga’s political constituency, given that he had been nicknamed the senior Odinga’s first-born son.

After the dust had settled following the split, Nyong’o and the likes of Ndii coalesced around the left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SDP). The group was further strengthened by the coming on board of Prof. Nyong’o’s University of Nairobi political science contemporary, Apollo Njonjo. Later, the 1984 SONU chairman and political prisoner Mwandawiro Mghanga – who remains the leader of the Marxist-Leninist party to date, and is credited with spreading Marxism to political prisoners during their stints in detention in the 80s – joined the party. Orengo unsuccessfully contested for the Kenyan presidency under the party’s banner in 2002, protesting Odinga’s unilateral endorsement of the lukewarm Mwai Kibaki, who won the vote and turned against Odinga, leading to their bloody 2007 electoral contest.

From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired. But in the end, Odinga’s charisma, scheming and ability for mass mobilisation outshined everyone else’s, making him the closest the radicals could have to an ally with a real shot at Kenya’s presidency.

Much as he was Kenya’s longest detained political prisoner, Odinga made huge political compromises to get ahead, including merging his party in 2002 with that of Daniel arap Moi, the authoritarian who had jailed him and his colleagues. In the end, it is these alliances built for political expediency that saw Odinga appointed into cabinet for the first time, where many believe he expanded his business interests and accumulated substantial financial muscle to sustain his future political activities.

As he and his colleagues challenged Uhuru Kenyatta’s legitimacy, Odinga rode in bullet-proof SUVs with chase cars and armed security – this after the state declined to provide him with security and similar benefits that he is entitled to as a former prime minister due to his continued political agitations. He similarly ran a multilayered political machine headquartered in various Nairobi suburbs. This elaborate logistical infrastructure, coupled with Odinga’s fanatical following, contributed in setting him apart as the undisputed leader of the University of Nairobi grouping, himself having lectured at the institution’s Department of Engineering in the early 70s.

From the early 90s, when they operated under his father, there had been a shared feeling within the University of Nairobi grouping that the younger Odinga either lacked the ideological grounding and clarity to lead them, or that his intellectual firepower was not up to par with the kind of leader they desired.

In Odinga the radicals found a politically viable candidate around whom to erect an ideological scaffolding that could have seen them realise the dream of a radically progressive state. On the other hand, Odinga found himself in a position where he was not the most radical person in the room, a state of affairs that afforded him ideological sustenance.

On February 4th, during an opposition rally in Nairobi, Babu Owino, a youthful Nairobi MP who served as SONU president for four controversial consecutive terms since 2011, assumed his role as trash-talker-in-chief within Odinga’s party. Previously arrested for referring to Uhuru Kenyatta as a ‘‘child of a dog’’, the first-time MP requested Odinga to appoint him minister for interior once he formed “the people’s government” so that Babu could arrest Kenyatta’s security minister, who had been leading the onslaught against the opposition. Having single-handedly coined the captivating – if nonsensical – slogans used during Odinga’s presidential campaign rallies, the populist MP warned – to huge applause as is always the case whenever he speaks – that if more opposition leaders were targeted and arrested, then there would be smoke everywhere in Nairobi, hinting at violent protest action. The resounding message from the rally and subsequent ones was that the opposition would not take the state’s excesses lying down.

Then, on Friday March 9th, news broke indicating that Odinga and Kenyatta were having a meeting at the president’s office. When the two men emerged from the meeting, smiling and calling each other “my brother” – before staging the mandatory ceremonial handshake and brotherly public embrace to mark a cessation of hostilities between them – Kenya was thrown into a spin. The tens of protestors who had been shot dead by Kenyatta’s regime as they protested in support of Odinga – including a toddler and a nine-year-old – all seemed to have vanished into thin air, and all the claims by Odinga that Kenyatta was an illegitimate president seemed instantly buried. There appeared to be a new-found camaraderie between the son of Kenya’s first president and the son of Kenya’s first vice president; now the Kenyan masses were expected to fall in line and fully support the two leaders’ calls for national unity.

Neither Odinga nor Kenyatta had involved key leaders from their respective political parties in the talks, and only the two men, their very close functionaries and family members seemed to be in the know. No one in the media or political sphere had foreseen the meeting, and no one knew what to make of it. Anyone questioning the elite pact between the two families with a love-hate relationship was quickly shouted down by supporters of the two leaders.

However, as Odinga’s die-hard supporters bought into the handshake, questions abound as to what the meeting portends for the Comrades, who were not viewed as Odinga’s sycophants but as vanguards of a people’s revolution. Would they, in the words of South African poet Dennis Brutus, consider Odinga’s move to close ranks with Kenyatta to be a betrayal of the liberation aspirations of Kenyans to whom they sold a reformist political project, or would they join Odinga in reaching an elite pact with Kenyatta, who they previously called a despot?

Asked differently, could the Comrades break away from the man who provided them a political home and a real shot at taking over the state as its new ideological architects, or have they run out of time and steam to engineer a new revolt either within or outside Odinga’s party? Will they now have to work with whatever Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta hand them?

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Isaac Otidi Amuke is a Kenyan writer and journalist.

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

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BETRAYAL IN THE CITY: Kisumu’s residents grapple with a post-handshake future

Kisumu city’s landscape, like the bodies of some of its residents, bears the scars of recent political protests and state repression in the aftermath of the August 8 election that was annulled by the Supreme Court and the 26 October “Jubilee election” that was completely ignored by four counties in Kenya’s western region (Homa Bay, Kisumu, Migori and Siaya).

The visceral scars are a testimony to a cityscape whose residents are yearning for a total break from the politics of despondency and for a muting or re-writing of its political history, a history that will not be absolved or corrected by the Uhuru Kenyatta–Raila Odinga handshake that took place on March 9, 2018, its bewildering symbolism notwithstanding.

The fact that the city yearns for a fresh start is apparent to David Ndii, the National Super Alliance (NASA)’s economic advisor and strategist, but not to the Raila-led Orange Democratic Movement (ODM) MPs, whose narrow articulation of the Uhuru-Raila rapprochement simply calls for the compensation of life or limb lost during the protests.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape

Kisumu yearns for what Ndii refers to as Kenya’s kairos, but whether or not there is a consensus that this is the moment, and whether Kisumu’s scars equally constitute this moment, is debatable.

Crowds of protestors, some of whom are still nursing their injuries, may have dispersed, but their political aspirations are indelibly etched in the city’s landscape, especially along the highway road signage. Charcoal black powder from burnt car tyres pepper many intersections on Kisumu’s roads, despite the recent heavy rains. At the Kenya Commercial Bank’s T-junction, where the Jomo Kenyatta Highway and the Oginga Odinga Street meet, angry protestors scratched off Jomo Kenyatta’s name from the road sign. Like the silver surface of an airtime scratch card, this left a dull metallic gray centre on the white metallic arrows where the words Jomo Kenyatta had been.

Across the road, on the walls of the city park’s main building, also known as Od Mikai, the name JARAMOGI, Palimpsest-like, has been superimposed on KENYATTA’s name. Never in Kisumu city’s history have the residents expressed such a strong desire to re-write, mute or erase the Kenyattas from the city’s political history and to obliterate memories of the traumas inflicted by the city’s bloody encounters with state brutality.

Despite the 1969 political tragedies – the annus horribilis in Kisumu’s post- independence history when Argwings Kodhek, the Mau Mau lawyer, died mysteriously in a road accident, when Tom Mboya was shot dead in broad daylight in in Nairobi and when Jomo Kenyatta’s security forces massacred at least 100 unarmed citizens, including children, during the official launch of the Kisumu Hospital (Russia Hospital) – Jomo Kenyatta’s name has always held pride of place in Kisumu’s central business district. The biggest public park and the longest road in Kisumu are named after Kenya’s first president.

Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire.

Further afield, Kisumu city’s market, officially named Jubilee Market, was popularly and hurriedly re-named Orengo Market by protestors in honour of the Luo lawyer and opposition leader James Orengo. Locally known as Chiro Mbero, it’s the market where the Kenyan historian, the late E.S Atieno Odhiambo, tells us the independence-era women traders sang “dine onge Odinga, nyithiwa dine Jomo otho e jela” (without Odinga, Jomo would have died in prison). Protestors scratched the name JUBILEE off the market’s signpost, and in uneven uppercase letters, scribbled the name ORENGO on the signpost’s half-scratched surface.

It seems Kisumu residents want nothing do with the Kenyattas or the type of government they represent. A few months ago, they swore to fight to the last man and woman standing for electoral justice. Angered by the conduct of the August 8 general election, the repeat presidential poll on October 26 and the state-orchestrated violence against civilians, many turned up for successive street protests, shouting in Kiswahili “ua ua…kill…kill” as volleys of teargas canisters were thrown at them by paramilitary or regular police and in defiance of the blood-curdling sounds of bullets that pierced through clouds of teargas.

Undeterred, certainly not by the rising death toll, these unarmed protestors were unflinching, angry, and contemptuous of the Jubilee government’s deadly use of force, shouting “ong’e ringo,” (no relenting) as they courted martyrdom, drawing cold comfort in the fact that their resolve to press for electoral justice was stronger than the government’s resolve to violently quell the unceasing protests. “Ok gi bi nego wa te,” (Kill they will, but they will not kill all of us.) Some of us will live to tell the tales of this war, others will be killed, but all will bequeath the next the generation with a different political world, they shouted.

Then, just when Kisumu residents thought they were done and dusted with the Kenyattas, Raila sued for peace in the name of “national reconciliation and unity”, pulling them out of their absolute resolve to detach themselves from their debilitating history and pushing them right back to the doorsteps of Harambee House, the seat of Kenya’s oppressive state power.

Raila’s handshake with Uhuru has effectively revived Kisumu residents’ cruel memories (memories they had hoped they could erase) of Kenya’s contested and chequered political history, a history that can neither be re-written from below, ORENGO Market style, nor from above, in the style of the famous handshake between the two leaders.

In the street corners of Kisumu, sounds of grand betrayal reverberate. The reverberations feel more like a spirited protest movement rather than the promising beginning of a national dialogue. At Kisumu’s K-city market, a scowl-faced middle-aged woman rhetorically asks, “Kalonzo, Wakamba osetho kodwa didi? Waluhya to….Nyithindo mane otho ne?” (How many time has Kalonzo, Wakamba died with us in this cause? And how about the Luhya…the children or the youth who died for him [Raila]?)

It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

There is a feeling among Raila’s core constituency that he has betrayed his comrades and their support base for a brotherhood fellowship that is as confounding as it difficult to swallow. The net result has been the gradual disintegration of NASA, the once formidable opposition coalition.

“Wa chung Kanye?” (Where do we stand?), asks the woman at K-City market, as the news of the opposition NASA senator Moses Wetangula’s ouster and his replacement with James Orengo as the minority leader is broadcast in the car stereo next to the washing bay. It is now truly mindboggling to tell what either Raila Odinga or James Orengo now stand for after the handshake. Raila, it seems, has abandoned the resistance struggle for the woolly cause of “national reconciliation and unity”, a political process which, unlike the 2008 political pact, is bound neither by a deadline nor by a timeline, nor by a credible threat that can hold either the Jubilee party’s or President Uhuru’s feet to the fire. The handshake has left Raila’s political base utterly confused. It’s a covenant that recalls Thomas Hobbes’ pithy quip: “Covenants without the sword are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Currently, only David Ndii’s take resonates with the protest scars on Kisumu’s cityscape. The protest crowds want to rake up the past. The ODM MPs’ talk of compensation as opposed to the 12-point gamut of the Uhuru-Raila handshake agreement certainly misses the significance of the marks on Kisumu’s roads signs.

In an interview with Citizen TV, Ndii strenuously and variously suggested that the handshake signaled Kenya’s Kairos – that opportune moment when the tensions and contradictions of Kenya’s neocolonial state, laid bare by the bloody 2007 presidential election, must be resolved. It is an opportunity for Kenyans, on their own or led by Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta, to reconstitute the Kenyan nation and its moral underpinnings and to resolve its contradictions: It should be a moment when Kenyans decide whether we want to continue with dictatorship or want to embrace democracy. It should be a moment where we decide to do away with ethnic domination and consider ethnic inclusivity, through cross-party and cross-ethnic dialogues.

Ndii seems to suggests that the handshake signaled the end of ordinary times, times for everyday Kenyan political talk of “development,” “peace,” “unity,” “power-sharing or nusu-mkate”, the stock-in-trade phrases that the state and many reactionary Kenyans bandy around to silence dissent and to dismiss critics as unconstructive and unworthy interlocutors. For Ndii, Kairos is the moment for a markedly different kind of political conversation and action, which could rescue Kenya from its existential threat and ethnic implosion.

This moment underpins the desires of the Kisumu protest crowds, who have become cynical about both ODM and the Jubilee party.

Both the ODM and Jubilee’s disparate talks seem to be rewinding the historical clock, away from Ndii’s kairos, a historical watershed, and back to the Aden Duale–Fred Matiangi’s chronos, ordinary times, when and where evils still pays, and the soul of the men in charge of the government’s coercive powers is unrepentant. It’s ordinary times when one can use brute force and still talk about “development, peace and service delivery” while civil and political rights and the Judiciary – the last bastion of resistance against the Jubilee party’s quest for complete control of all the arms of government – are pulverised.

ODM MPs, having smelt state power, now have a spring in their steps as they arrogantly exert their powers within the now wobbly NASA coalition. Orengo, ensconced in his new position as the Senate’s minority chief whip, has now also come to symbolise betrayal. Increasingly, these MPs’ talk seems to be narrowing down people grievances to mostly to one type of injury: physical injury. They are also shifting towards the development/peace talk within the party’s core support base.

Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal.

At a newsstand in Nyalenda, one of Kisumu’s bustling ghettos, a young man quips, “Kalonzo odhi omos Ruto…wan waduaro kwe…wanwiwa ruko…mono jopinje moko keto mwandu gi Kisumu,” (Kalonzo should go and shake Ruto’s hands…we want peace…our penchant for protest discourages others from investing in Kisumu.) It a remarkable shift, a shift that echoes mostly ODM party officials’ and MPs’ views regarding the handshake and which also elevates Raila above his comrades-in-arm, Kalonzo Musyoka, Moses Wetangula and Musalia Mudavadi.

It is a disappointing end to a protracted struggle driven from below by fearless foot soldiers who had put their lives on the line for electoral justice and a Raila presidency. Kenya’s nascent broad-based opposition coalition has suffered a major setback. And the Jubilee Party has scored a major victory, albeit a momentary one.

The Jubilee securocrats believe that the opposition comprises dispensable actors in a liberal democracy, not insurgents who can defeat them through extralegal warfare. Uhuru and Raila’s widely reported handshake is still evoking mixed feelings: a sense of betrayal and confusion, but now giving way to a creeping and begrudging acceptance of the promise of the Harambee House deal. “Baba is always right,” say many, either as a way of expressing unquestioning loyalty to Raila Odinga or granting him the benefit of the doubt that he did not throw the opposition under the bus.

What will the two midwives of the Harambee House deal, Martin Kimani and Paul Mwangi, a counter-insurgent securocat and Raila’s everyday lawyer, respectively, deliver? Will they initiate a process to re-write the tragic history of the neocolonial Kenyan state? Or will they recast recent events as merely a glitch that temporarily halted the country’s relentless pursuit of “development”?

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OUR ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS: Reclaiming Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy

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OUR ANCESTORS’ WILDEST DREAMS: Reclaiming Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy

African traditions and cultures have always held an awareness of the life cycle, from birth to death and the afterlife. The life cycle made us aware of the transitions from birth, through initiations, to child-bearing and rearing, to old age, to death, and thereafter to the journeys to the spiritual worlds of the ancestors and spirits.

In the afterlife, ancestors held sway on the day-to-day life of every community in many ways. Ancestors were consulted, honoured, and venerated, and in moments of crisis, asked to intervene (or stop intervening), so that life could return to an even keel. In many ways, the ancestor was not just an idea, but also a part of daily living, part of the eldership. Interestingly, ancestors included both female and male persons who had lived and transitioned.

Scholarship is awash with various studies on the idea of the ancestor – a continuing member of society, an elder who has a say in the day-to-day life of the community. Growing up, we learned, some of us via folklore, and some via Geography, History and Civics (GHC) classes (and some of us, through both) that ancestors are an active part of spiritual life. In a sense, ancestors are an extension of God, the creator, the primordial ancestor, the source of all life, or at the very least, an active part of the pantheon of the spiritual life of the people, which included the Creator and the spirits.

“Civilised” Africans stopped the practice of venerating ancestors because of an internalised conflict that pitted these ancestors with a God that was a watered-down white variation, incapable of seeing the value of honouring those from whom we came, those that walked before us and prepared the way for us.

Of course, critical discourse on ancestors has waned over the years, in part due to what I call the colonio-patriarchal gaze, which introduced functionalism and structuralism as part of its anthropological and religious distortions of African culture. The “civilising” and “missionising” discourse that classified our understanding of ancestors as a pagan and primitive practice consigned the nuanced view of the afterlife to a fixed idea of worship. “Civilised” Africans stopped the practice of venerating ancestors because of an internalised conflict that pitted these ancestors with a God that was a watered-down white variation, incapable of seeing the value of honouring those from whom we came, those that walked before us and prepared the way for us.

Worse, the colonio-patriarchal gaze also consigned women to the margins, entrenching racist-patriarchy as the default position. While in Old Africa women held esteemed positions of honour and of power, post-colonial Africa conceptualised women on a Victorian model that needed women to be hapless and helpless before men. Nanjala Nyabola, in one of her op-eds in the Tana Forum, calls this the “patriarchal understanding of the role of women that merely exchanged European patriarchy for an invented African tradition that has all but erased the herstories of women”. This erasure was based on an invented African tradition extended to the continuum of the living and the afterlife, and worse, to the understanding of women’s being as only relevant where connected to men.

We see this in our storytelling, for example, where women are either Mama-so-and-so, or a wife/part of a harem of wives/ a saintly grandmother, full of wisdom, demure. Women’s needs must subscribe to a certain way of being, despite the many ways in which women have continued to resist from time immemorial. We only need to think of women like the late Prof. Wangari Maathai and the women who resisted the occupation of Uhuru Park alongside her to understand that women have historically resisted the proscriptions of colonio-patriarchy.

Which brings us to subject of the transition of Mama Winnie Madikizela As soon as news of Mama’s passing broke, the Kenyan dailies joined their international counterparts in weaving a tale deeply steeped in colonio-patriarchy. “Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife Winnie dies at 81”, the Standard newspaper announced, setting the tone that positioned Winnie as irreverently connected in a previous way, an ex to the great Nelson Mandela.

“Winnie Mandela: South Africa’s flawed heroine dies”, the Nation broke the news, further positioning this ex of a great man as fundamentally flawed. Three days later, the Nation would follow up with the headline: “Mandela and his 3 wives: Evelyn, Winnie and Graca”, diverting the story from Winnie’s transition from life to the afterlife to the male prowess of Mandela, who had three wives. In this article, quoted from AFP, Mandela’s first wife Evelyn, a “cousin of ANC stalwart Walter Sisulu”, was described as “a demure country girl in sharp contrast to…his feisty wife Winnie” – (of course, even the framing of Evelyn’s identity as also connected to the Walter Sisulu apart from being Mandela’s first wife cannot be missed).

To erase Mama Winnie’s herstory is to erase the injustices of apartheid. It is to condemn her for fighting during war. It is to ridicule her for not being a demure, village girl in the face of violence, rape, plunder and racism. It is to reward apartheid and its adherents.

The “contrast” is made deeper when we are told that while both women came from the same village, “Winnie took to the city”. Indeed, the idea that the city as a space that “unsanitises” women from demure to troublesome is as old as colonio-patriarchy itself. The city becomes the place where women are “urbanised” into becoming ungovernable, mainly through empowerment, education being the top of the list. While Evelyn “buried herself in religion”, Winnie would deliver incendiary speeches, get jailed, and even kept a “young lover”. These qualities, decidedly non-rural and non-religious, turning Winnie into a “flawed” phenomenon. These “flaws” became the sum total of her life, the distillation of all her life’s work, including keeping the fire of revolution burning in South Africa while her husband spent 27 years in jail.

Even her imprisonment is framed differently. For Mandela, prison life only served to turn him into a monkish sage who would preach forgiveness and win the Nobel Peace Prize. For Mama Winnie, prison only served to enrage her, morph her into a beast that would kill innocents such as Stompie, take young lovers, and create the football club that she used as a personal militia. Let us also not forget that while in prison, Winnie was subjected to the most humiliating torture.

While married to Nelson Mandela for about 38 years, it would emerge that the couple only spent a total of five years together. These five years would become the lynchpin of the reading of Winnie’s life – how she spent her solitary years being unfaithful and indiscrete towards her iconic husband, how she disgraced him by using her young lovers to kill innocents, and how she dared to “maintain” her young lover even after her larger-than-life husband came back to her from a 27 year-jail term.

Those who have advocated for a more nuanced reading of Winnie’s life have been vilified and asked to consider that Mama Winnie was not perfect, that she had her flaws. While a compelling argument, the point is not lost that those pointing at her “flaws” are doing it from the position of colonio-patriarchy.

The timbre of these reports is not just disturbing; they, for me, point to a deeper narrative where women who transition from life to the afterlife are not accorded the same dignity and veneration that men are. This is one of the lasting legacies of colonialism, where women were relegated to the margins of men’s lives, both when living and in death. The invention of a picture of “African womanhood” that does not work for the majority of African women who stand up to be counted becomes problematic because it does not work, period. To erase Mama Winnie’s herstory is to erase the injustices of apartheid. It is to condemn her for fighting during war. It is to ridicule her for not being a demure, village girl in the face of violence, rape, plunder and racism. It is to reward apartheid and its adherents.

Compare, for instance, the soft, even magnanimous, approach to the death of P.W Botha, who was actively opposed to anti-apartheid activities and was found guilty of human rights violations by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Or the rewarding of F.W. de Klerk with a Nobel Peace Prize despite his support of apartheid and state-sanctioned violence against South African blacks towards the end of apartheid when he was the president of South Africa.

For both men, apartheid is contextualised so that their crimes against blacks appear less abhorrent than those committed by their predecessors. For example, history is kind to Botha for not being as “brutal” as his predecessors. This kindness and nuanced reading is missing when Mama Winnie is dubbed a “flawed” ex-wife. In fact, her crimes take on a salacious character. The brutal murder of Stompie is often connected to her supposed “flings” with younger men. The story even subtracts from the horrible death of Stompie, and becomes firmly hinged on Winnie’s supposed and imagined sexual life.

Such salacious readings are mainly consigned to women throughout history. The great painter Frida Kahlo’s story has always been centred on her tumultuous marriage to Diego Rivera, and hinged on her imagined sexual life, rather than the breathtaking beauty of her work, and her incredible life story. Many pundits seek to remind us of the ways in which the late Prof. Wangari Maathai was divorced from her husband, and led a “nude protest” at Uhuru Park. Her hard-won Nobel Peace Prize becomes a footnote, as does her life’s work in education and the environment, which she began as a teenage girl.

Female ancestors, embodying the earth, were seen as giving the earth its fertility. Part of the pantheon of the spiritual, their names were evoked for blessing, fertility and the wellbeing of the earth.

So why then must we see these women who have transitioned as ancestors? Why must we honour them, and seek to vociferously end the erasure of their lives? Film-maker Ava Duvernay popularised the saying “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams” after breaking out as the first African-American woman to direct a big-budget film production. In subsequent interviews, she directly made reference to female ancestors, paying homage to them by saying that she would never had accomplished her life’s work if these female ancestors had not laid the groundwork.

For us in Kenya and in Africa, this is doubly true. Our female ancestors have continued to lay the groundwork for us, propelling us to become who we are today. Our departed grandmothers and mothers have left us with nuggets of wisdom, joy, and even pain, with which we have forged ahead into becoming. Our female elders and ancestors, from Queen Nzinga of Angola to Mekatilili wa Menza of the Mijikenda, Queen Lozikeyi of the Ndebele, Funmilayo Ransome Kuti of Nigeria, Miriam Makeba, Wangari Maathai, and now, Winnie Mandela, have all dug on rock to ensure we find footing in soft ground. They have led revolutions, won wars, led armies, and won countless, if unappreciated and erased, victories. Paying homage to them as elders and ancestors is the least we can do. Paying forward their labours is imperative. The soil they dug up from rock cannot be desecrated with erasures, and without action. We must resist erasures, and continue with the tasks of planting where they gave us soil, so that future generations will find rock-hewn forests.

Female ancestors, embodying the earth, were seen as giving the earth its fertility. Part of the pantheon of the spiritual, their names were evoked for blessing, fertility and the wellbeing of the earth.

There is also the belief that the state of the earth is commensurate with the status of women, both those that are alive and those that have transitioned. If we are to observe the state of the earth today, it is clear what the status of women is. The transition of Mama Winnie reminds us that we must resist and reclaim the spaces of our female ancestors from colonio-patriarchy. This is the urgent and imperative assignment of our generation.

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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election

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A NEGOTIATED DEMOCRACY: Factors that influenced Somaliland’s 2017 election

On 13 November 2017, the people of Somaliland went to the polls to choose their fifth president since breaking away from Somalia in May 1991. Despite a delay of 28 months, international and local observers described the election as credible and peaceful. The fact that the election finally took place, and did so in a calm and orderly manner, was welcomed with a tangible sigh of relief, at home and internationally, and with pride on the part of Somalilanders.

A number of “firsts” added to this sense of achievement. Voters were registered using iris recognition technology to preclude double voting, making Somaliland an early pioneer in embracing biometric technology in elections. Unlike in the past, the incumbent was not a candidate, paving the way for a more robust campaign that featured, for the first time, a televised debate between the three presidential candidates, and the three vice-presidential candidates. It was also the most inclusive election, with all six regions taking part. The government made its largest financial contribution to an election, underlining how seriously Somaliland was taking its political future. For the first time, the government agreed to a code of conduct with the media to ensure balanced coverage by the state-owned media.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance. The multiple delays in holding the presidential elections also led to the gradual erosion of public trust in government institutions and to diminishing international goodwill. By November 2017, there was a convergence between domestic dissatisfaction and international pressure, making the election a defining moment in Somaliland’s political trajectory.

From remote villages to big towns, everyone from nomadic pastoralists across Somaliland to the elites in the capital, Hargeisa and in the large Diaspora communities, followed the election closely even if they did not vote. While they had different views of what they hoped for, there was a strong consensus that the political landscape needed an overhaul after seven years of the same administration.

Voters’ priorities

Desire for tangible improvements in their living standards dominated voters’ expectations. In our conversations with both urban and rural voters, the provision of water and enhancing the quality and coverage of educational and health services was repeatedly emphasised. The urgency of tackling crippling inflation, which has increased food prices and made poor people feel even more impoverished, was underlined across the board. Employment among youth and the development of road networks, electricity and other public utilities were also high on the list of priorities for most people. Rural communities, reeling from the effects of a severe drought in which they lost most of their livestock, the main source of their livelihood, called for investment in agriculture.

The advances in the 2017 electoral process took place against a background of widespread and profound frustration within Somaliland with a hybrid system of government that combines clan-based representation with Western political institutions. Over time, the merger became a fusion of weaknesses, incorporating neither the integrity and clarity of the traditional system nor the institutions and levers of accountability that underpin Western norms of governance.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib). Consequently, the role of government in creating a fair and equitable environment for employment, business opportunities, economic investments, the distribution of resources, access to government services and political appointments, mattered to all voters. Fighting corruption, making the legal system work for everyone, curbing the powers of the police and putting an end to the arrest and detention of journalists also carried weight with voters.

However, these priorities did not, for the most part, shape the decisions made when voters actually cast their ballots.

Official party programmes and campaigns

To guarantee the formation of political associations with cross-clan representations, the Constitution of 2001 imposed a limit of three political parties. In addition to Kulmiye, the party of the sitting President, two other parties, Waddani and the Justice and Welfare party (UCID), joined the contest in 2017. While Kulmiye and UCID were participating in a presidential election for the third time, Waddani, registered in 2012, was a newcomer to the political arena. The leader of UCID had sought the presidency in earlier elections, but Waddani and Kulmiye fielded new candidates.

All three political parties had written programmes, popularly referred to as manifestos. Those of the opposition – Waddani and UCID – were largely a response to what were described as the shortcomings of the ruling party. They pledged major changes across all sectors. The party in power, Kulmiye, spelt out what it saw as its achievements and promised continuity while making further improvements.

Economic and social issues, international recognition and good governance all featured prominently in the manifestos. With the use of social media and increased media coverage, more voters than ever had access to party manifestos. Some of the parties held presentation sessions across all six regions to give voters the chance to question senior officials about their stated plans.

The manifestos, however, were not intended for all voters, especially given the high levels of illiteracy, particularly outside the main towns. Target audiences were the slim minority of educated voters, mainly young people, seen as independent of clan interests and who might, therefore, be swayed by a party’s stance and ideology. But they constituted an insignificant proportion of voters, their impact further undermined by the fact that they are scattered.

Illiteracy, reinforced by a strong oral culture, meant that a large percentage of voters were influenced by what they heard at rallies and in private meetings and what they witnessed on television. An official for Waddani said his party put at 65% the voters “who are not interested in the programme.” Their recruitment, he added, required using what he called traditional methods to get their support. This largely consisted of bringing party officials from their area “to show where their clan fits in the party hierarchy and probably in the next government”, as well as discussions about the sharing of power and resources.

One civil servant blamed constituents for letting politicians get away with making “blank statements about impossible deliverables which lack the how part.” People, she said, never asked the parties for concrete solutions and preferred instead to listen to speeches about “heavenly rivers flowing through their neighbourhoods.” At the same time, she acknowledged that voters know, from experience, that party programmes are not implemented after elections precisely because “parties are built on the foundation of clan interests and not ideologies.”

Yusuf Osman Abdulle, a poet known as Shaacir, said it was unrealistic to expect the population in Somaliland to choose between political parties based on written documents. “Given the low literacy rate and the very poor quality of our educational system, you don’t expect our society to be where they can choose parties based on what they are promising or what they have done in the past,” he explained. “The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

And that indeed was what mattered. The heartbeat, and heat, of the campaigns was not about policies.

Forging alliances

As happens with elections the world over, 2017 revealed the patronage system at work. In Somaliland, the politics of vote-seeking is directly tied to the clan-based social structure. Far more significant and decisive than the large public rallies held during the official 21-day campaign period were the numerous behind-the-scenes meetings between party leaders and traditional elders, politicians and businessmen, which had kicked off during the previous six months.

Voters in urban areas, particularly young people, view political favouritism as one of the major impediments to their employment prospects and the reason so many of them embark on the treacherous journey to Europe ((known as tahrib).

As in previous elections, parties found it easier to maximise votes by securing the loyalty of clan elders who then become responsible for bringing the vast majority of their constituents on board. The campaigns that mattered were outsourced to elders, often from the same clan as the candidates, to meet with other clan leaders and build coalitions. Historical relationships between their respective clans and forging new relationships going into the future became the focus of discussions.

At the same time, party leaders also met with the elites of clans – elders, politicians and businessmen – to give clan-specific assurances in exchange for garnering political support, including political posts and development projects. At times, these pledges were captured in written documents signed by the party leadership. Party officials from those clans were given centre stage to show how well they were represented in the party, photo opportunities which were then broadcast through the media.

An official involved in the youth wing of Kulmiye in Hargeisa was straightforward about the political calculations at play.” A key winning strategy both for the ruling party and the main opposition party [Waddani],” he said, “was to bring in as many known figures as possible in the party from a certain clan. You can then expect more votes from that clan.”

Saying it was too simplistic to argue that parties go out and seek votes from clans, he underlined the importance of “intermediaries” between the parties and the clans, or what others referred to as political brokers. These are men [always], close to both elders and the party leaders, who work hard to implement the elders’ decisions. Parties, he commented, make either personal or group promises to them in exchange for influencing their clan or constituency. “When we talk about political parties spending millions of dollars in election campaigns, this is where the bulk of it goes to. And perhaps these elites distribute a fraction of that money to their followers.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

His counterpart in the small town of Salahley, 60 kilometres from Hargeisa, said elders had more powers over the community. He conceded that they, and not he as a party official, attracted the most votes. He attributed their hold over people to the fact that “everyone knows they will need the elder at some point.”

In the small town of Abdaal, in Sahil region, a young Waddani supporter worked with other members of football teams to oppose the elders, most of whom were behind Kulmiye. He said people did not take the challenge of competing with elders for votes seriously and “they were right”. Asked about politicians and elders who were not strong advocates of clan solidarity, an elder in the same town, Abdaal, was quick in dismissing their relevance. “There were very few of them and they had almost no influence over voters since they had defied the position of their clans,” he said.

The task of the elders, supported by their politicians, is to persuade, or pressure, their clan members to fall in line with the party of their choice. The lure of public service jobs for the youth and commitments to develop the region are stressed. Financial contributions are made for ongoing activities in the area, such as the construction of roads, schools and clinics, and money and khat are liberally distributed to men during campaign periods. In rural areas, affected by the 2016/2017 drought, the distribution of water, food and non-food items made a crucial difference to the outcome.

The blend of the traditional clan structure with modern governance institutions is reflected in the fact that the clans of the three presidential candidates were the stable base of support for their parties. Success, therefore, depended on establishing as broad an array of partnerships as possible with other clans. This is demonstrated, for example, in the parties’ choice of their vice-presidential candidates.

Practical considerations deepen the dependence of parties on the political clout of elders. Political parties do not have permanent offices at the district or regional levels, as became apparent when we visited a number of regions in February and March. They are, instead, concentrated at their headquarters in Hargeisa. Without grassroots branches, there is little to bring parties close to communities and foster a sense of belonging to, and ownership of, the parties. By the time senior officials visit the districts, usually close to elections, elders have already laid the groundwork.

“The thing everyone understands is: Who are the candidates? What clans do they belong to? What is the relationship between his clan and my clan?”

The difficulties parties face in raising their own funds currently makes it nearly impossible for them to keep their distance from elders. The three parties are closely associated with their founders and/or individuals who occupy key positions. Consequently, they become dependent on businessmen and contributions from their clans, including households. One observer commented: “If they campaigned purely on policies, they will not generate funds.”

The political influence of clan elders

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The campaigns featured inflammatory speeches, ugly rhetoric and defamation of individuals and clans – messages that were spread by the traditional media and extensive use of social media. Since clans were the deciding factor, the messages were designed so as to attract a specific clan and unite some against others. Since clans tend to reside in the same localities, even in the same neighbourhoods in towns, it was easier to hone messages and target particular groups.

Having co-opted clan elders as their principal vote-gatherers, party leaders gave them unfettered power to guide voters. Elders did not mince their words or moderate their actions, threatening reprisals against those who did not toe the line. Several party offices for both Waddani and Kulmiye were attacked and vehicles stoned.

The fact that all three candidates came from the largest clan family in Somaliland, the Isaaq, amplified inter-clan dynamics, pushing people into further sub-sub-clan classifications. Small villages and towns, populated by the same clans or sub-clans, were divided into the smallest possible units, sometimes reaching household levels. A Kulmiye organiser in Salahley spoke of several sub-clan assemblies with each setting up meeting places for their party.

The media – print, television and websites – and especially the privately-owned outlets, contributed to the charged political atmosphere in countless ways, through selective reporting, fake news and endless reportage of elders and politicians insulting each other. The huge number of events hosted by parties, whereby people speaking in the name of a certain clan had deserted another party to join theirs, were given extensive exposure by virtually all news outlets. One TV network, in an effort to paint Waddani as a pro-Somalia party that planned to impose federalism on Somaliland, showed a false photo of the Waddani leader meeting with the current President of Somalia who was at the time a candidate for that office.

The toxic nature of these campaigns inevitably created a pernicious political environment that threatened Somaliland’s most treasured asset – a long reign of peace.

The moment of truth

Unfortunately, and to the detriment of Somaliland, the near exclusive emphasis on clan considerations, channelled through the media, social media and clan gatherings, swayed many voters, including the youth. Discussions with those who voted show they had, for the most part, positive expectations of candidates from their clan or the candidate supported by their clan, and voted to express support for the clan’s position. They also paint an entirely negative picture of the opposing candidates from other clans, out of fear and/or animosity. A young university student in Hargeisa spoke of her mindset when she voted: “I was influenced by what I saw as a threat that can personally affect me should the candidates from other clans win the election. It was a battle between clans.”

Underlining the extent to which voting along clan lines is inextricably linked with perceptions of self-interest and fairness, she added: “You have better chances of getting employed if the President or a Minister is from your clan. I know it is not a healthy feeling, but it is just a reality.”

Angry about what he saw as the political marginalisation of his clan, a young and educated employee of an NGO said resolving social and economic problems did not figure in his calculations. His sole aim was to see his candidate triumph even though he considered the other two candidates “way better on most issues.”

A party official in Borama, the capital of Awdal region, contrasted his “official” responsibilities and his true mission. As a regional official, he was charged with overseeing different offices and addressing crowds. But what he defined as the more important task “took place behind the scenes and it was to mobilise voters from my sub-clan.”

Some voters, while admitting they voted in line with their clan, believe this was in the broader interests of Somaliland. A man living in the small town of Dilla in Awdal region argued that voting in step with his clan “was for the good of Somaliland so as to prevent two clans establishing dominance.”

Amal said that politicians only come to her village of Tuli in Awdal during elections and she expects nothing in return. Nevertheless, she found herself vulnerable when politicians descended on Tuli in 2017 and “labelled us as sub-clan X and sub-clan Y.” Amal, along with her neighbours, succumbed to the messages the intensified as 13 November, the date of the election, approached. Speaking in late February, she said a united community had been torn apart and people no longer communicated as easily as in the past.

Bucking the trend

Not everyone, of course, bowed to the wishes of their elders and local politicians. Some voters made independent choices. But many of those who stood their ground, particularly women who were expected to vote as decreed by their menfolk, said they paid a heavy price for their position.

Many of those who did not vote, despite the insistence of close relatives relaying messages from elders, said they based their decision on what they regarded as the absence of realistic and feasible programmes by the parties. A staff member of a human rights group in Hargeisa said he failed to find “timelines or convincing details of exactly how they would carry out their commitments.” A long-term civil servant in Hargeisa said she had seen ministers come and go over the years without any attention paid to election manifestoes. So why, she asked, “should I spend my energy for nothing?”

Khadar, a driver in Dilla, said his income had doubled, and his life had become easier and safer since a tarmac road was built by the previous administration connecting Dilla, Borama and Hargeisa. When it came to the elections, the construction of this road, he said, and not the opinion of his elders, determined which party he voted for.

Maimuna in Dilla held out against intense pressure, including being labelled a traitor. Elders, her own children and her in-laws failed to convince her when she refused to support one of the opposition parties. Her customers boycotted her business but she would not budge. Calling her position “odd and 100% personal because women’s choices are strongly affected by their husbands and male community elders”, she cited an aversion to change as the reason she went with the ruling party. Describing 2017 as “a very divisive election”, she said “it ruined relationships between individuals and families.”

In Salahley, Rahma had initially agreed with her elders to back Waddani. But when the head of UCID announced the Quran would guide the actions of his party, she switched to UCID and refused to back down despite entreaties from her local elders.

Regardless of internal divisions, voters in Somaliland see elections as an important step towards the prospects of international recognition.

Aspirations for international recognition

Asked about the most vital issue at stake in November 2017, Mustafa Awad, who follows Somaliland’s political fortunes closely, did not hesitate to say it was “the same as every other election since the 2001 referendum – international recognition.” The pursuit of Somaliland’s recognition by the international community is of course intensely political, not only domestically, but also in the region and internationally. It is also a practical issue, in terms of greater diplomatic and commercial ties with the outside world, acceptance of Somaliland passports to ease the current nightmare of travel and an increase in foreign aid.

An academic in Hargeisa described the election as “a clan project run by elders, politicians and the economic class.” Despite its many encouraging aspects, the last election was seen as inimical to Somaliland’s future as a democracy. No election has been so openly clan-based and so visibly steered by elders.

The feeling of being a voiceless and invisible people, of not belonging to the community of nations, has left a deeply felt psychological wound. Commitment to the electoral process, and consolidating Somaliland’s position as a democratic oasis in a region not known for free, fair and peaceful elections, is regarded as “the gateway to this much-coveted recognition” in the words of Mustafa.

The aftermath

It is imperative for Somaliland to reflect collectively over the recent elections, particularly because elections for both parliamentary and local government councils will be held in less than a year. To move forward and capitalise on its achievements, every society needs self-analysis in order to correct mistakes, assess weaknesses and improve on its successes.

Some of the key challenges mentioned by voters, and those who abstained, include healing the rifts created or magnified by the elections. The extent to which relationships between clans, between communities living in close proximity and even within families were disrupted, entrenching old divides and creating new political and social fault lines, is uppermost in the minds of most people. The consequences of the unparalleled level of discord are still felt across Somaliland, especially because the animosity was intimate, between people who know each other and interact on a daily basis.

Other issues of common concern include how to hold the new government accountable from a non-political perspective and as ordinary citizens and the absence of opportunities for remaining politically engaged outside the existing parties. Dissatisfaction with the role and performance of parliamentarians and local councils, the absence of sufficient platforms for political debate and discussion and a host of problems related to the mechanics of voting were also mentioned repeatedly.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Safia, a civil servant, wants to see elders confined to their traditional role, and banned from speaking on behalf of voters, in the hope that people will then organise themselves into groupings of their choice. The difficulty of coaxing people to demand public action over a common cause, such as poor roads or the absence of water, underlines for many the dangerous and debilitating encroachment of clan politics in everyday life.

Focusing on the larger public interest, however, requires room for manoeuvre, which parties in Somaliland currently do not have, given their dependence on their clan constituencies. Cutting ties with elders and prominent clan figures risks loss of support and creates resistance, a prospect no politician with an eye on the next election is likely to welcome.

The transition of elders from politically neutral peacemakers to powerful politicians is an acute and widely shared source of disquiet. The pivotal role of elders in enabling Somaliland to overcome the internal conflicts of the 1990s, precisely because of their detachment from political squabbles and their prioritisation of peace above all else, has been well-documented. The loss of this neutrality has worrying implications for the resolution of future conflicts and for democratisation.

Unless voters can hold a government to account, it is impossible to compel a new administration to deliver on its election commitments. The space for accountability in Somaliland is already limited. This is further constrained by the low level of rights awareness among both the public and government officials, and by the nature of a system where most people voted out of clan allegiance. Successive governments have promoted a perception of demands for accountability as an opposition-fuelled process, leading to controversy and pitting pro-government and anti-government supporters against each other, often along clan lines. This situation will persist as long as politics is trapped in its current form.

The irony, as pointed out by Khaled Ismail Abdi, who works with media groups, is that people who voted for change then wait for the government to solve all their problems, imposing an unrealistic burden on an administration with few resources. When the hoped-for-changes fail to materialise, there are few avenues, outside of the clan, to seek redress. Addressing the government, as an expression of civic responsibility and a right, is not seen as an option.

Two decades is a very short period, particularly in the wake of war and conflict, to institutionalise the norms of a full-fledged democracy. In that time, Somaliland has indeed made strides that can be built upon to strengthen its political infrastructure and, for the sake of future generations, move away from being a clan-based polity. This requires an engaged citizenry to encourage the emergence of political leaders and parties independent of clan identity and committed to reinforcing Somaliland’s nascent democratic institutions.

Note: Pseudonyms have been used throughout this article.

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