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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods

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EAST OF UHURU HIGHWAY: Inside Nairobi’s most iconic (and much-maligned) neighbourhoods

Ismael Kulubi is a 66-years-old radio production guru with a scintillating voice that is still in great demand even after retirement. Advertising executives in need of an experienced voice hire him to do radio promos. By all measurable standards, Ismail has had a fulfilling career – he is a widely travelled man who has enjoyed life’s successes as a professional media man.

But his advertising and media professional friends have been always been puzzled by Ismael. With all the riches he made over the years and his ascribed social status, Ismael has lived all his life in Eastlands area, the eastern part of Nairobi that every Eastlander seeks to run away from at the slightest hint of money and success.

Eastlands: “No pretensions here”

A practicing Muslim, Ismael grew up in Majengo, the sprawling slum sandwiched between the famous Kamukunji Grounds and Eastleigh, the inner-city neighbourhood that is often referred to as “Little Mogadishu” Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived. Women living there were believed to be sex workers who met the sexual needs of the black immigrant labourers employed in Nairobi who were not allowed to bring their families to the city.

After every Friday afternoon prayers, which he religiously observes at Jamia Mosque in central Nairobi, Ismael heads straight to Majengo in his gleaming beige metallic Mercedes Benz, something he has done for many years. His vintage German engineering marvel is still a spectacle to be behold among the ghetto dwellers. But Ismael is considered one of them and his posh car parked outside on Majengo’s main street is as safe as the Kenyan currency locked at the Central Bank building’s underground vaults in Nairobi city centre.

Majengo has always been infamous for its variety of sex workers, some of whom come from as far as Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania. The slum dates back to the British colonial era when it was seen as place where prostitution thrived.

“Majengo has the best pilau you can find anywhere in Nairobi,” Ismael tells me matter-of- factly. Every Friday afternoon, his hot pilau, specially catered to his culinary tastes, awaits him. “Majengo made me and it is a place that gives me immense joy, helps me stay firmly grounded and connects me with the people.” For Ismael, the Friday afternoon sumptuous meal served on large dishes called sinia is a social affair: He has his usual group who he eats with that ranges anywhere from five to ten people.

At one time, Ismael earned a salary that was commensurate with what is paid to top executives of blue chip companies. But that never stopped him from driving from the Karen and Lavington suburbs, where his offices used to be, to enjoy a meal cooked in the ramshackle kitchens and restaurants of Majengo. “Good food is a social engagement, it is not so much about how much money you spend on it,” says Ismael. And he can spend a lot. On any given Friday afternoon, Ismael can spend an upward of Ksh5000, depending on the number of people he is eating with. They will eat from the same sinia with their hands, seated on the floor. “There are no pretensions here, we eat together the way we eat in our respective houses,” says Ismael.

As they eat, Ismael’s Mercedes Benz will be attended to by between three to five young men who give it a clean shine like no other. This is another ritual in Majengo. “My car is never washed anywhere else – the boys know it, they have cleaned it for many years, it is like going to the same barber for many years. You do not want to change him because he has learned the nooks and crannies of your bumpy head.” The young men know that every Friday, some good money will come their way. “Ismael ni boy wetu… yuko chonjo…ua anatucheki kitu poa,” (Ismael is our man…he’s cool and pays us real well), say the young men.

After the sumptuous meal, drowned by the freshest of unadulterated juice, Ismael does not leave Kije (Majengo’s popular name). He has his spot outside where he sits with other men to chew gomba (also known as khat or miraa) that is specially delivered to him by his supplier of many years. He will then chew gombahandas and veve are variants of the same thing – accompanied by copious amounts of black coffee throughout the evening, after which he will drive back home to his house in Buru Buru estate.

“People who live in the so-called leafy suburbs have ghettoised Eastlands,” quips Ismael. “They live in a make-believe world that has blinded them to real-life happenings outside their presumed safe cocoons. They think Eastlands is one huge criminal world. You can imagine what they think of my hood Kije: we are all sons of harlots. That young people here neither have ambitions nor dreams. They are so wrong.” Ismael, whose long dead parents came from Saba Saba location in Maragua, Muranga County, says, “In Kije, the people are real, they have what it takes to live comfortably and decently and they are as informed with local and global current news as the Kenyans of Karen and Lavington.”

If you fly over Majengo slum, you would be amazed by the satellite TV dishes that adorn iron sheet rooftops. Inside some of these mud-plastered houses are some of the latest and funkiest hi-fi equipment and exotic furniture that one can only imagine in a Kileleshwa high- rise flat or in Loresho’s leafy suburbs. These dishes beam news outlets from such channels as Al Jazeera TV, BBC, CNN and France 24 English TV.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area.

“If you entered some of the houses here in Kije, you would literally be taken aback,” says Ismael. “There are houses that have 42-inch smart cable TV and Persian Bukhara rags and Turkish carpets that can only be a dream for many of the pretenders to middle class tastes. You know those houses where you have to remove your shoes to enter?” Many of these items are imported from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Yemen.

The traditional suspicion about Eastlands as an area where “dreams are made” and once those dreams are actualised you flee from the area to go and live those dreams elsewhere is a long-held stereotype that persists to date. Indeed some of the Nairobians who started life in the Eastlands estates, dingy or otherwise, comprise a big chunk of the most successful Kenyans who now live on the west side of the city’s spatial suburbs. Their pastime is nostalgically recounting how they are wasee wa mtaa (estate mates). Yet many, having bought into the Eastlands narrative themselves, are publicly embarrassed to be associated with the area.

My recent encounter with a high school chum of many years convinced me that the Eastlands narrative is not fading away in a hurry. Steve Ngotho, who has lived in Pretoria, South Africa, for a long time was in town recently. When he gave me a shout, we met at a restaurant in central Nairobi. After the usual pleasantries, Ngotho, who I had always known to shoot straight, asked where I lived…nowadays. “I live in Buru Buru,” I told him. “Ah, you mean you still live in Eastlands?” he asked. What he really meant was: What in God’s name would you still be doing in Eastlands?

Ngotho grew up in the western side of Nairobi, the general area that is west of Uhuru Highway. Uhuru Highway is the trunk road that cuts across the city centre and links the city to the highways that lead to Uganda, Rwanda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the port city of Mombasa.

I was born and bred in Eastlands, but Eastlands is often viewed as a place – if you were “unfortunate” enough to be brought up there – where you finished school and once you were done, you quickly left the area. Ngotho, you can bet, is not the only former Nairobian to still harbour the “Eastlands narrative” (even when he lives abroad) – a place for people with failed ambitions and aspirations, where dreams did not take off.

The Eastlands narrative has its roots in the colonial era when some “African” areas were associated with congestion and crime. Hence, Eastlands to date is viewed as a place that does not have the attraction and aura of suburban “posh living”. For Eastlanders, the “leafy suburbs” imply breezy air, lots of jacaranda and pine trees, bungalows and maisonettes with compounds and open spaces that can only be found across Uhuru Highway.

Dr. Mosley Owino, a consultant dentist, likes to remind me that East London, where he trained as a dental surgeon, has many of the same characteristics and reputation as the Eastlands area of Nairobi: It is a place riven with deep poverty and overcrowding and which is not immune from the social problems that afflict such areas – the existence of rival gangs, loafers, social misfits and petty and hardcore criminals.

Buru Buru: “Like a suburban British hood”

Buru Buru estate, where Ismael bought his house in the 1980s, is one of the iconic estates that sometimes still salvages the Eastlands reputation, even as the estate itself, which has five phases, struggles against ghettoisation. Largely built in the 1970s, with the last phase five completed in 1982, Buru Buru was the estate where newly graduated architects, accountants, lawyers, physicians, quantity surveyors, among other graduates, aspired to live and start out because it captured their upward mobility aspirational lifestyle, its Eastlands location notwithstanding.

Construction magnate John Mburu has lived in Buru Buru ever since he graduated from the University of Nairobi in the early 1990s. With a yearly turnover of hundreds of millions of shillings, Mburu’s friends in the industry cannot understand why he still lives in the same house he started out in. A shilling billionaire, Mburu says Buru Buru is a suitable place to live in – it does not have the wannabe pretentious suburban lifestyle like many of the new estates that have come up: “It still retains decent, respectable and habitable estate characteristics that represents the lifestyles of people who have progressively grown their incomes.”

Buru Buru is among most famous suburban estates in East and Central Africa. When I first went to Tanzania, a quarter of a century ago, my newly acquired Tanzanian friends would ask me which part of Nairobi I came from. “Ule mtaa ambao unaishi mawaziri na wakuu wa serekali, unaufahamu?” (Do you know the estate that Kenyan ministers and top civil servants live in?) It was amusing to learn that my Tanzanians friends considered Buru Buru to be such a posh estate that only elite government people lived there.

“Buru Buru is very much like a British suburban hood,” says Stacy Wanjiku, who lived and studied at the London School of Economics (LSE), University of London. “Even the way people park outside their houses on the roadside is so British.” Wanjiku, who herself lives in Buru Buru, says the picket fencing may have long gone, but Buru Buru still retain its stand-out character with its shopping centres and it semi-detached architectural design uniformity.

Woodley and Kimathi: Civil servant estates

The estate that comes closer to once being a residential area for senior government civil servants is Woodley, which is located in the south-east of Nairobi, adjacent to Moi Nairobi Girls on Joseph Kang’ethe Road. Woodley is a fashionable estate made of a mixture of high-rise flats and bungalow houses with huge compounds and while it was not largely inhabited by cabinet ministers – at least certainly not in the 1980s – for some reason, Woodley was the residence of the senior-most Luo civil servants.

Alex Oduor, who lives in the estate, which is owned by Nairobi County, tells me that Woodley has all the trappings of a proper middle class neighbourhood: his house is in a safe secluded area, has a big compound for kids to romp about and to host a barbeque and is big enough to entertain guests and host visiting relatives from rural areas. Oduor himself lives in the three-bedroomed house once owned by Washington Okumu, the humongous jolly professor who brokered peace between Nelson Mandela of the African National Party (ANC) and Gatsha Buthelezi, the leader of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), in Johannesburg, South Africa in the 1990s.

The estate closest in resemblance to Woodley in terms of design and layout is Kimathi estate in Eastlands. It is ensconced between Bahati and Jerusalem estates. Built in the early 1970s, Kimathi is your archetypal middle class neighbourhood that has a family ring to it: an “enclosed” estate with modest houses and little compounds. Mwai Kibaki, the third President of Kenya, kept a house there for the longest time. Up to 1974, he represented Bahati constituency which Kimathi estate was a part of. Hudson Mwangi, a businessman who has lived in Kimathi estate for many years, says the estate is unpretentious and allows him to operate “below the radar”, without attracting too much attention from the prying eyes of gossipers and nosy people.

Kilimani and Kileleshwa: “Lonely jungles”

The estates that were truly classical middle class neighbourhoods were the adjoining suburban areas of Kileleshwa and Kilimani located in the west of Nairobi. They were your conventional neighbourhoods for senior civil servants from 1963 to early 2000s. “But today, these areas have become concrete jungles; the high-rise flats that are coming up daily have completely erased the beautiful memory of the semi-detached bungalow and maisonette residential houses that adorned the area,” says print journalist Oyunga Pala, who grew up in the Kilimani area. “In the days that I grew up in Kilimani, the area was attractive and scenic, the houses had huge compounds for children to safely play and run around in, and the neighbourhood had lots of trees and kaiyaba (Kei apple) fences.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts. Lilian Rice, a British national who lives in one of these flats, told me there is a “fake friendliness” among flat mates living in Kileleshwa. “Every time I visit my friend and workmate in Donholm in Eastlands, I notice the stark differences: the place is bubbly and full of life. The children are running helter-skelter, playing football or hide-and-seek. The neighbours pop in (unannounced) to share a funny anecdote or to enjoy a cup of tea together… I tell you the camaraderie is real and unpretentious.”

Rice says that the corner kiosks and green grocery vibandas (sheds) of Donholm really enchant her. “They serve as meeting points for people to banter and chat.” Rice concludes that Kileleshwa is “a lonely jungle” and Eastlands, with all its “dirt and disorder”, has “variety and vivacity.”

The gentrification of Kileleshwa and Kilimani occasioned by the new money of the nouveaux riches and the recently minted millennial millionaires have transformed these areas into impersonal, “cold flats” where next-door neighbours live like total strangers, meeting only on the staircases and in lifts.

This variety of life was best captured for me by Rhoda Mbaya, who was brought up in an old Kileleshwa neighbourhood. When their father, a senior civil servant, died suddenly, the family had to move out of their five-bedroomed government house and relocate to Uthiru, a peri-urban and semi-rural area on the outskirts of Nairobi, 12km west of the city centre, in a place called 87. “Of course, it was at first traumatising, but we quickly adjusted,” said Rhoda. “The thing about living in the old Kileleshwa was that we led a secluded and shielded life, so when we had to move to Uthiru, it was obviously a scale-down, but we soon realised that Uthiru had its own advantages.”

Used to a subsidised life all her life, Rhoda was gratified to find that Uthiru had a cheaper and affordable lifestyle that was commensurate with her middle class tastes and which did not compromise her family’s social upward mobility. Her five siblings still rent out a five-bedroomed bungalow there, which is much more affordable than a house around the Kileleshwa/Kilimani “posh” areas.

“The vegetables are fresh and cheap, we get the milk straight from the cow, fresh and unskimmed and kienyeji (indigenous) chicken and eggs. The crux of the matter is that you can’t have your cake and eat it,” said Rhoda. “Uthiru is teeming with people, we weren’t used to that, but yet again, the people are cosmopolitan, friendly and hospitable…but you know what? We discovered mutura (a sausage-like delicacy made out of stuffed offal) and pork. Uthiru has the best pork place in town.”

The rapid gentrifications of the city’s better known neighbourhoods, says Oyunga, are robbing the city of its iconic suburbs and traditional beautiful look. Kilimani’s expanding gentrification is already encountering opposition. The Kilimani Residents Association is up in arms against Cytonn Investment Company, a real estate private equity firm that intends to mobilise funds and put up a multi-storeyed building in the area.

Eastleigh: “Where dreams are incubated”

Gentrification in Nairobi has not been confined to the western side of the city. The Somali people’s influx in Eastleigh has led to a rapid and haphazard gentrification of the area. High- rise buildings have risen: some magnificent, some ugly and an eyesore. The buildings are both commercial and residential. A couple of years ago, a former powerful cabinet minister was persuaded to visit Eastleigh – a place he himself had confessed he had not visited for “donkey years”. The minister was astounded beyond belief when he found the area was home to two- and three-star hotels, complete with deluxe suites for accommodation and a la carte three-course menus.

Amid Eastleigh’s chaos, confusion, grime, mounting garbage, open sewers and systemic failure of services, there are Somali residents who live like Arab sheikhs in some of the most crowded and ugly flats. When Abdulrahman let me into his house on the top floor of a flat facing Pumwani Maternity Hospital, I was taken aback by the apparent affluence: The large sitting room was bedecked with jewelry and Arabian Nights-like ornaments, an imported sofa and a thick Afghanistan carpet. His prayer room was a wall-to-wall carpet affair. His expensive cutlery was like that of an emir. It was only after I came out of the house that I realised that indeed I was in the shambolic Eastleigh neighbourhood. Inside Abdulrahman’s house, it felt like I was in an affluent flat somewhere in Qatar or Yemen.

One of the areas that has been under perpetual threat of gentrification is Eastlands itself. The vast estates of Bahati, Hamza-Makadara, Jericho, (Lumumba and Ofafa) Jerusalem, Kaloleni, Makongeni, Maringo, Mbotela and Uhuru that make up the “real” greater Eastlands area and whose fame has rested on council houses belonging to the now defunct Nairobi City Council, are being targeted by “private developers” who have been marking them for a long time to bring them down in the name of constructing “better” and more spacious accommodation for the residents.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies”

It is true that many of these houses could be past their building life cycle. Their average lifespan is 60 years – Maringo estate was built in 1958, for example.The Kaloleni “bungalows” were built in the 1940s. During the 1960s, this was one of the poshest African quarters. Jericho Lumumba was built in 1962, a year before Kenya got its independence from the British. A beautiful, well-designed and laid-out estate, with ample open spaces for recreation, it still retains its shine despite obvious neglect that includes peeling paintwork that no one remembers when it was last undertaken, uncollected garbage, dilapidated plumbing and open sewers.

Peter Mugo, who is a resident here, allowed me into his “humble abode” for a cup of African tea that has the milk, tea leaves and sugar all boiled together. Mugo’s humble abode is a two-roomed affair but the house is nonetheless as middle class as they come: it has all the gadgets and trappings of modern urban living. He has the latest Samsung smart TV, Sony Hi-Fi music system complete with woofers, stylish settees and an expensive carpet to boot. “My subsidised rent allows me to save enough money to send my kids to quality private schools,” Mugo told me. His youngest 10-year-old son is busy with his play-station, while his second born daughter is on her laptop googling her school homework on the Wi-Fi that her dad has installed in the house.

“Eastlands maybe the place where dreams are incubated and people are not pretentious, but it can be also a place that drains and sucks up your energies,” says Victor Ochieng. Before moving to the west of Nairobi, Victor lived in Donholm for several years. “I used Jogoo Road (the trunk road that runs through the major Eastlands estates). All the time I lived in Doni I can tell you the traffic snarl-ups on Jogoo Road used to give me incessant headaches. Doni was also not an easy estate to live in: if it’s not water shortages, its garbage strewn all over. And when it rains, it floods. That was enough stress for me.”

Still, after moving to the west side of Nairobi, he now appreciates that people in Eastlands at least live within their means. “There’s a lot of flush money in places like Kileleshwa and the majority of lifestyles are sustained by credit cards. In essence, people here live beyond their means, all in the name of maintaining class and status.”

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

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WHO IS RUTO? The handshakes and the fear it is spreading

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WHO IS RUTO? The handshakes and the fear it is spreading

The now (in) famous March 9, 2018 “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and the opposition coalition supremo Raila Odinga has ushered in a season of political “handshakes” between presumed antagonists.

After Uhuru, Raila shook hands with former Presidents Daniel Toroitich arap Moi and Mwai Kibaki, on April 12 and April 20, when he went calling on them at their homes in Kabarak, Nakuru County and Muthaiga, Nairobi County respectively.

Weeks later, during his annual State of the Nation address to Parliament, the President in a live-and-let-live gesture asked the House members to “cross-over” and greet each other, supposedly signaling the end of electoral hostilities and the beginning of a political détente and healing through an overplayed public act of penance.

Leading the way, Uhuru shook hands with the youthful Babu Owino, the vociferous MP for Embakasi East, who, during the electioneering period in 2017, is supposed to have epitomized the opposition’s collective hatred of him.

The spin-off effect of this publicized “presidential pardon” was a cacophony of contrite pleas from and between politicians, led by Deputy President William Ruto, who took to Twitter to seek forgiveness from those he may have “sinned” against, even as he forgave those who had “sinned” against him.

However, beneath the feigned efforts of the political class to ingratiate themselves to a discerning but disengaged electorate, the undercurrents of the 2022 presidential succession are raging.

Since that first handshake on the steps of the Harambee House, which took him by complete surprise, Ruto has not been resting easy. Raila’s meetings with Uhuru, and subsequently with Moi and Kibaki, have re-calibrated and re-oriented his political program for the next 4 years.

However, beneath the feigned efforts of the political class to ingratiate themselves to a discerning but disengaged electorate, the undercurrents of the 2022 presidential succession are raging.

Attuned to brinkmanship and sabre rattling, Ruto’s initial attempt to respond may have boomeranged on him. If the stories swirling around are to be believed, he was denied an audience with Moi after arriving unannounced and uninvited at the Kabarak home of the man whose tutelage paved his path to political prominence. He and his entourage that included his close confidante, Charles Keter, the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, were nonetheless served with hot lunch, in the truest African tradition of welcoming even your presumed enemies, when they drop by suddenly.

Moi, through his interlocutors, was magnanimous in acknowledging the visit by the Deputy President of the Republic and assured Ruto that at an appropriate and properly arranged time, he would indeed meet with him. The DP was nevertheless flustered by the apparent public rebuff. In an effort to deflect from the missed opportunity, he blamed his woes on Moi’s son, the Senator of Baringo, Gideon Moi, who he accused of shielding his father from him.

Had the DP imagined himself in this situation so soon after the elections?

“The gloves are off,” said a member of the Mt Kenya Foundation, an influential lobby group that consists of some of the richest Kikuyu barons in Kenya and which helped bankroll Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidential campaigns in 2013, as well as 2017. We were at Sagret Hotel, in Nairobi, drinking bone soup, accompanied with sizzling hot mutura (traditional sausages stuffed with offal). Sagret Hotel, which has existed since the 1960s, has been the haunt for old Kikuyu money, patronized by some of the richest Kikuyu men and who’s who in Kikuyu society.

“Who is Ruto?” asked the mzee, a typical Kikuyu ethnic chauvinist: arrogant, contemptuous, entitled and moneyed. The loaded question presupposed, Ruto was a non-entity in Kenya’s dynastic politics. “Who was his father?” he mused aloud. “Bururi ni wa andu atatu: njamba, gitonga na muthamaki (A country belongs to three types of people: the brave, the rich and the anointed leader). It is true Ruto could be a brave man … Yet, that alone does not qualify him to rule over us. Raila is [also] a njamba, but we Kikuyus did not give him the presidency.”

The tycoon said the country’s influential political families had rejected Ruto. “Who are we to say he can lead us? Ikienda guthejuo, ndionagio kahiu (if you decide to slaughter an animal, you do not make it obvious by dangling a knife in front of it). Ruto should read the sign on the wall”, he said.

That the question of “who is Ruto”, now openly being asked by the Kikuyu elites, was also quickly gaining currency among the Kikuyu rank and file, dawned on me when I bumped into my long-time friend, Njuguna Gatheca, in the city centre recently. A city of Nairobi political operative since the inaugural days of plural politics in the early 1990s, Njuguna pulled me aside and animatedly told me: “giothi ni githaruranie” – the game had changed. “Who is Ruto?” It was a rhetorical question and he was not expecting an answer from me.

A country belongs to three types of people: the brave, the rich and the anointed leader). It is true Ruto could be a brave man … Yet, that alone does not qualify him to rule over us. Raila is [also] a njamba, but we Kikuyus did not give him the presidency.

“This country cannot be left to a person whose political pedigree is questionable,” said Njuguna. “Who knows, there might not even be an election in 2022. You keep abreast with global politics…you know what happened in Russia with Putin when his term was coming to end? Let me whisper something to you: Uhuru is not going anywhere, he must stay around to guard his family’s empire”.

Vladimir Putin was inaugurated on May 7, 2018, for his fourth term as president and has ruled Russia for 18 years, save for a brief period when he served as the Prime Minister in 2008. My friend was telling me that the Kikuyu would not vote for Ruto. He described Ruto as a man who really itched to be president – a familiar label previously attached to Raila in his effort to wrestle the presidency from Kibaki and later Uhuru. Now it had conveniently shifted to Ruto. “We know Ruto’s plan: he wants the presidency so much, so that he can gleefully bring down Kikuyus’ riches. We will not give him the pleasure of doing that,” said Njuguna.

“Ruto should not think we have forgotten, what he did in the North Rift and especially at Burnt Forest church,” said the old man at Sagret Hotel. He was referring to the violence that followed the bungled 2007 presidential election, much of it targeting Kikuyus in the expansive Rift Valley region, for which Ruto was prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. Three dozen of them were killed in a single incident, when a mob set fire to a church they were sheltering in.

I began openly hearing the “Burnt Forest church fire” narrative after the repeat October presidential election. But the fact is, the narrative had all along been there, but more muted after Uhuru and Ruto teamed up in 2012 to run for the presidency. “We are not foolish and we are not forgetful,” said the businessman. “We had to be tactical not to torpedo Uhuru’s presidency – but now we are free, we owe no one any apology or debt.”

He described Ruto as a man who really itched to be president – a familiar label previously attached to Raila in his effort to wrestle the presidency from Kibaki and later Uhuru. Now it had conveniently shifted to Ruto.

The mogul told me that as a Christian, he had forgiven Ruto for what he did to Kikuyus in the North Rift, but that did not mean he was welcome to be the nation’s president. He reminded me of the Hungarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz’s famous aphorism: “The stupid neither forgive nor forget, the naïve forgive and forget, but the wise forgive, but don’t forget.”

He continued: “If Ruto is not tamed, his plan is to dethrone the dynastic families of Kenyatta, Moi and Jaramogi in that order, from future political participation.” To do that, “he must of necessity first destroy their business empires. For him to survive as a president and consolidate his powers, he must bring down the Kenyatta and Moi families down. That is the only way he will be president.” The mzee saw Ruto’s hand everywhere in the government, and thought it did not portend well for the nation if he became president: “He will finish the country.”

The old man was buoyed by the fact that in Kenya’s chequered political history, “vice presidents traditionally have not succeeded the president save for Moi only. Moi was a special case because President Mzee Jomo Kenyatta died in office, hence allowing for a smooth transition,” He did not find it necessary to mention that the Kikuyu Mafia had opposed Moi’s ascension to power from 1969 (when Kenyatta suffered a stroke) and increasingly from 1974, when it was evident that Kenyatta’s death was imminent because of his frailty. Kenyatta died in 1978.

“Even Kibaki, who was at one time Moi’s Vice President did not succeed him directly: He had to find another route. (Kibaki was dropped as VP following the disastrous mlolongo (queue-voting) elections of 1988 and left Kanu in 1991 to found the Democratic Party). The others, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Dr Josephat Karanja, Prof George Saitoti, Musalia Mudavadi, Stephen Kalonzo Musyoka, Moody Awori, fell by the way side.” Kibaki’s first deputy, Michael Kijana Wamalwa, died after just eight months into the job. 36 years before, Joseph Murumbi had also lasted less than a year when he resigned in 1967. “Ruto will not be the first,” opined the businessman.

The old man told me Ruto is both feared and reviled by many Kikuyu MPs and politicians. “They are too afraid to come out and oppose him. All they can muster to say in their safe confines is that ‘Ruto is bad because he is not good’”. In April 2013, the Mt Kenya Foundation members hosted some of Ruto’s bosom buddies at Blue Post Hotel off Thika Superhighway, 40km from Nairobi. “We wanted to find out from them, what exactly was Ruto’s political ambition,” confided the tycoon. He claimed that one of Ruto’s men told them: “Ruto anajua Wakikuyu hawawezi kumchagua…anataka kutengeneza pesa tu.” (Ruto knows Kikuyus cannot vote for him; he just wants to make money). But it was now evident that Ruto wants to be a powerful president like Daniel arap Moi was.

“The handshake had obviously disrupted Ruto’s post-October 26, 2017 election program,” said a Kalenjin friend, who worked closely with Ruto’s campaign team. We were sitting at a popular pub in Langata, south-west of Nairobi city centre. “His program was time specific: on Jubilee Party assuming state power, he would begin by dismantling the NASA coalition, in whichever way he could – separating and scattering the four principals, by the first half of the year. In the second half, he was to clean and revamp his image, by sprucing it up as a development conscious leader.” He said Ruto has had to reorder his priorities after he was taken by the handshake surprise.

“It is now a matter of urgency for Ruto to rebrand as a development conscious leader – far from his rabble rousing and cantankerous image, having spent nearly the whole of his first term in office hurling insults at the Opposition and especially at Raila Odinga,” said the friend. “He is also now vigorously pushing for the “hustler narrative” to repackage himself as this struggling, humble man who is now seeking the presidency against all political odds. If you were keen, you would have noticed the cap Ruto was wearing during the April 23, Kamagut chicken auction was branded ‘Jamaa wa Kuku’. The branding project had to be fast forwarded and will increase its tempo as Ruto combats the notion that he is perpetually in campaign mode.”

The “hustler narrative” is assiduously being propagated by Mutahi G. Ngunyi, the chief architect of “Tyranny of Numbers” myth that in 2013 fanatically excited scores of Jubilee Coalition supporters. In the new narrative that Mutahi is fashioning, Ruto is being cast as the underdog who, after a long and arduous political journey, is ready to be crowned the “peasant president”. In crafting the “Dynasty vs Hustler Nation” message for Ruto, Mutahi is targeting the voluble millennial generation, which constitutes a significant part of the Kenyan electorate. Still, more specifically, Mutahi’s new assignment is largely informed more by the emerging realization that the GEMA (Gikuyu Embu Meru Association) nation may, after all, not vote for William Ruto as a bloc. The question therefore that Mutahi is posing to the millenials is this: “In Ruto’s battle royal with the dynastic families that have controlled the politics of Kenya since 1963, who best captures your political imagination and who in your estimation mirrors your daily struggles?”

“We wanted to find out from them, what exactly was Ruto’s political ambition,” confided the tycoon. He claimed that one of Ruto’s men told them: “Ruto anajua Wakikuyu hawawezi kumchagua…anataka kutengeneza pesa tu.”

The other person who is pushing the “peasant president” agenda is the easily-provoked and provocative city lawyer, Ahmednasir Abdullahi. He has several times, through his Twitter handle, falsified Kenya political history, in his impressionistic efforts to portray Ruto as the first son of a peasant to contend for the country’s top seat.

The Kalenjin millennial who patronize the Langata pub I met my friend in are mostly the children of the Kalenjin elite who thrived during Moi’s 24-year-old reign. They are completely sold on Ruto’s presidential ambitions and his impending take-over in 2022. “Ruto’s a go-getter and that’s the kind of person, we want,” said one to me. “This talk about Ruto’s wanton corruption and enriching himself is just bull talk – who in this country among his accusers can hold a candle against Ruto? We know how the political dynasty families made their riches. You do not help to form a government then be expected not reap from it. If Ruto has a found his way of making money, why begrudge him?”

According to this group, Ruto has proven that he can deliver what he promises: “He delivered Langata constituency to us – for the first time in the history of Nairobi politics, we have a Kalenjin MP – Nixon Korir in Nairobi County. We believe Ruto is the person who will hold our hands after he gets the presidency in 2022, just like Moi held our fathers’ hands, when he became the president in 1978.”

Like Jomo Kenyatta before him and Kibaki and Uhuru after him, Moi rewarded his ethnic base with government jobs. One of the parastatals that came to be identified with Kalenjins was the then Kenya Posts and Telecommunications. “There was a time when Kalenjin dialects were the languages of instruction; nearly everyone from the Managing Director to the tea-girl and the corridor sweeper was a Kalenjin,” said a retired engineer to me.

The Kalenjin population resident in the greater Langata is neither accidental nor coincidental: many of the Kalenjin who came to Nairobi in the 1980s and 1990s from the largely rural Rift Valley, came as government employees. As it were, they were the beneficiaries of the government houses in Langata and elsewhere in the city.

If the Nairobi Kalenjins are of the view that Ruto is the man who will carry their collective aspirations, the rural Kalenjin is even more wedded to the view that Ruto should be the next president. Sila, a friend from Kapseret, in Eldoret, told me the issue is non-negotiable. “Tunataka kura millioni nne kutoka kwa hawa Wakikuyu.” We want four million votes from these Kikuyus. Kapseret is 20km from Eldoret town, near the Edoret International Airport on the Eldoret-Mosoriot Road. Some of the richest Kikuyus in Eldoret live in this general area. They have hotel businesses, hardware shops and restaurants.

The question therefore that Mutahi is posing to the millenials is this: “In Ruto’s battle royal with the dynastic families that have controlled the politics of Kenya since 1963, who best captures your political imagination and who in your estimation mirrors your daily struggles?”

Said Sila, “tunajua Wakikuyu wote pale wanaishi Uasin Gishu County, tutaenda kwa nyumba zao kuwaitisha kura…kuna watu watahama hii counti wakileta kujua.” (We know where all the Kikuyus in Uasin Gishu live. We will move home to home, asking for their vote … there are people who will vacate this county if they try to be too clever). To test Sila’s assertion, I talked to some of the Kikuyu residents from Kapseret and Mosoriot. “Look at these houses, are they made of mud?” one Kikuyu man asked me. “We will vote with the people here. We do not want to court trouble. We have lived in relative peace since 2013. Kikuyus from the central region do not speak on our behalf.”

At West Indies, a middle class suburb, I talked to Grace Gathoni. She emigrated to Eldoret in 1980, from Nairobi, but is originally from Warubaga, in Elburgon. “The new post-election narratives being formed by the political elites within the Jubilee fraternity are being closely watched by Kikuyu resident in Uasin Gishu County and elsewhere in the Rift Valley region,” said Gathoni. “I will tell you this: the Kikuyus in Rift Valley will vote for Ruto. It is not a question of whether we like him or not – we don’t. It will be a question of peace and survival.”

“There are some brutal facts to be faced,” said Gathoni. She blames Ruto for the brutality Kikuyus suffered in Uasin Gishu. “But he also teamed up with Uhuru Kenyatta and did what they did to form the government. Uhuru in 2013 and 2017 could not have formed the government without Ruto’s help. If you cohabited with an ogre, you don’t one day wake up and just walk away from it, it will certainly devour you. You must cleverly device a system to disengage yourself from it.” Gathoni told me that surprisingly, despite the 2008 violence, more Kikuyus had moved to Uasin Gishu, especially after 2013. “Today, many are engaged more in business and less in farming. And unlike pre-2007 and post-election violence, majority of them live in urban centres – Eldoret, Kitale, Moi’s Bridge, Matunda, Turbo. Those in farming nowadays just lease the land. They also became the wiser: not many of them live with their nuclear families. The men returned, but their families are in Juja, Kajiado, Kitengela, Ngong and Rongai.”

The outbreak of handshakes in Nairobi has startled Kikuyus in the Rift Valley where they thought they were safest. Meeting some wazees from Ng’ombe Imwe in Bahati constituency, Nakuru County, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) elders told me word was already quietly being subtly spread around that “it is paramount that Kikuyus wherever they are in the Rift Valley seek to live peacefully like they have been doing for the last couple of years.” Ng’ombe Imwe is one kilometre from Tabuga, where the Deputy President was hosted by the PCEA Church for a Sunday service on April 23. Listening to these wazees and Gathoni, it sounded to me like peace had been commodified in the greater Rift Valley region.

Another mzee, from Elburgon, told me how some Kalenjin men pointedly told him: “It is true the Kalenjins terrorized the Kikuyus in the North Rift during the post-election violence in 2007, but I hope you people, as we approach 2022, will appreciate the cost of peace. You’ve lived well with us for the last five years. It is important we continue living peacefully.” It was a chilling warning. “People have built permanent houses here,” he said. “They have crops in the farms and animals in the fields; the last thing they want is disruption, death and destruction. I will tell you this: Kikuyus from this area and the adjoining areas of Kuresoi, Molo, Mauche, Njoro and Solai will vote for Ruto, come 2022.”

It was Heinrich Himmler, one of Nazi’s most influential and powerful cadre who best captured the power of political terror: Said Himmler, “the best political weapon is terror. Cruelty commands respect. Men may hate us. But we do not ask of their love, only for their fear.” Talking to the 70-year-old from Elburgon, I could see terror in his eyes. The horror of the 2007 post-election violence in his area and the fear that filled his family and relatives, all were coming back to him. “I’m old now, I want to live the rest of my life here on earth in peace and watch the growth of my grandchildren,” he says.

“I will tell you this: the Kikuyus in Rift Valley will vote for Ruto. It is not a question of whether we like him or not – we don’t. It will be a question of peace and survival.”

The post-handshake fear and panic has also spread to the top echelons of Ruto’s squad. An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission official stationed in Kitale whispered to me that the triple resignations in April of IEBC commissioners, Paul Kurgat, Margaret Mwachanya and Connie Maina, were a choreographed event allegedly orchestrated by Ruto himself. “This was done with the intention of ostensibly disabling he IEBC and buying time, in case the push for a referendum catches momentum,” said the official.

Ruto’s middle name is Kipchirchir. Chirchir in Kalenjin etymology, means “too quick”. When in a seemingly political crisis, Ruto supposedly does too many thing too quickly. When in the storm of the International Criminal Court in November 2010, he took the bold and risky step of travelling to The Hague in the Netherlands and spent 30 hours at the Court. He met everyone except the ICC’s then Chief Prosecutor Louis Moreno Ocampo. His mission flopped. When he came back, he took up a verbal war with everyone, blaming his woes on everybody but himself.

My Kalenjin friends like reminding me that the traditional symbol of Kalenjin leadership – the Sambut – a traditional cloak, has always remained with Moi and therefore never been transferred to anyone. In 2007, months before the controversial general election, in what came to be known as the Eldama Ravine Declaration, Ruto was enthroned as the Kalenjin leader, “but that was not the true enthronement,” say the friends. “Until and unless he hands over the Sambut, Moi will remain the true Kalenjin leader. When the apparently impulsive decision to fly to Kabarak for a photo-op backfired, Ruto again blamed everyone and everything save himself.

If he stays true to form, there may be tough times ahead for Kenya, regardless of all the handshakes.

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THE BLACK PANTHER PHENOMENON: Bridging the rift between Continental Africans and Black Americans

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THE BLACK PANTHER PHENOMENON: Bridging the rift between Continental Africans and Black Americans

The peering into that deep void never quite stops. I’m talking about that troublesome, discomforting place that separates the global black family, the rift between Continental Africans and Blacks who are descended from slaves. It’s a rift created by forces and events too painful and shameful for many to want to talk about, yet one that often feels over-hyped, a conversation that stays at the tip of the tongue and never concludes. Is there anything more to explore beyond what you will find in abundance on YouTube and the blogosphere?

There is no shortage of sensational clatter that plugs a hunger for instant gratification when it comes to discussing that eternal antagonism between Africans and Blacks. It is the proverbial tale of sibling rivalry – Essau and Jacob, Sendeyo and Lenana, Thor and Loki, Wuriri and Mabemba… I lost you on the last one. There’s an arresting tale from the Taita people about a rivalry between two sisters that takes one of them through death and mystical destruction, and the redemptive re-membering of body and bond until their relationship is newly restored.

It often seems pointless to rehash an emotive break-up for the sake of resolving it, especially one that has grown larger than life and seems to demand the very institutionalisation of the rivalry that defines it. After all, such a rivalry gave birth to the story that recently took the world by storm – the Black Panther movie – and got people talking all over again about this very rift between the global Black family.

However, beyond the trivial endless beefing – the derogatory name-calling and the beliefs and stereotypes we hold against each other, there is still a sincere hunger for peeling off layers of masks from each other’s faces in the hope that we shall find the long-lost sibling and reach full acceptance at the final unmasking.

There is no urgency on the personal level for a momentous kumbaya between Blacks and Africans; otherwise we would be seeing a lot more inter-marriages between the two by now. The urgency is at the global level. Yet the dissection of this rift towards a global unity of the Black family cannot be done without exploring the trivial nuances that contribute the most to the daily rancor. This also comes with the danger of generalisations, a process that takes one right back to the place of rancor when an argument does not apply to the singular. Having lived, schooled and worked in the United States as an African, now married to an African-American, I will claim the privilege of making informed generalisations on this issue. A reminder that I will use “Blacks” to refer to African-Americans and “Africans” to refer to Continental Africans.

Generalization 1:

Blacks and Africans do not like revisiting the past. This is a trait that has kept both groups numb to their own pain. They fail to appreciate each other’s past from the point of separation. Blacks have not had a powerful movement dedicated to the demand for reparations, neither have Africans dedicated any significant effort towards reparations for colonisation.

Blacks and Africans do not like revisiting the past. This is a trait that has kept both groups numb to their own pain.

In Kenya, a lawsuit against the British was a low-key process spearheaded by human rights lawyers without the forceful wind of national activism. Reparation is an integral part of healing the past, in this case, repaying a people who went through Maafa – the entire gamut of the African Holocaust. Black people are still going through this targeted catastrophe, only now redesigned as mass incarceration, violent racism and economic subjugation.

Other people have received reparations – the Japanese for the suffering that America put them through when they corralled them into concentration camps; the Jewish people for the Holocaust; groups of Native Americans for massacres that occured across the Americas; Aboriginal people for the great suffering as a Stolen Generation.

For the descendants of slaves, no amount of literature, song or grioting can ever truly capture the impact of their holocaust. It is tragic that a history of two-and-a-half centuries of official slavery has not pricked the conscience of any American administration enough to legislate reparations. It is a necessary step towards removing the poison of racism that still courses through America’s veins and reconciling historical injustices. Equally tragic is the fact that there has not been a collective effort by African nations to confront their colonial masters. This neglect of the past has exacerbated the rift between Blacks and Africans whose knowledge of each other is generally superficial and lacks comradeship.

Generalization 2:

The post-Civil Rights generation of Black people do not want anything to do with Africa, and Africans remind them of an identity they are embarrassed about. This statement is bound to raise consternation among Blacks who have taken pilgrimages to the Door of No Return, those who have actually settled in Africa, and those who have married Africans.

But I’d argue that the Blacks who have embraced the African identity have little to no clout to shift the whole Black awareness centre towards a Pan-African awakening. They are too few. Many young Black people will say Africa is as strange to them as Mongolia, their African ancestry notwithstanding. Very few who take holidays ever consider Africa as a destination. Why should they, when all they see through American mainstream media’s keyhole is a continent in continuous throes of devastation? Oprah Winfrey said it, as did Dr Henry Loui Gates, that growing up, to be called “African” was an insult deeper than the N-word.

Africans who come to the United States soon learn that they are a notch below the African-American on the social strata. Naturally, it is the person right above your head that gets to step on you the most. The rift between Blacks and Africans is widened by the fact that a lot of the put-downs Africans suffer while abroad come directly from Black people.

It is easy to forget that the weight of oppression that comes from the top is suffered by both Blacks and Africans. By no means does this excuse Black people who find Africans easy targets to deposit long-seated anger and frustration. Indeed, one of the most emotional debates following the debut of Black Panther was on a thread where Africans confronted Blacks for suddenly feeling proud of African costumes and accents. Black Panther made it cool to have an African accent, yet many times Blacks have told Africans to stop speaking “African” when they speak English with heavy African accents. All the direct racist taunts I’ve received in America have come from Black people, mainly for my accent and my style of dressing. Black people’s fear and shame of their African identity is not difficult to understand, and not at all difficult to forgive.

Africans who come to the United States soon learn that they are a notch below the African-American on the social strata. Naturally, it is the person right above your head that gets to step on you the most.

Sadly, the same fear and shame is being reciprocated by Africans against Blacks. This wasn’t the case with Africans who came into the US before the turn of the century, I being one of them. At least in Kenya we were never exposed to derogatory media about Black people in America. This was a new phenomenon, one that followed the rise of hip-hop in African countries. Older generation Africans who now have kids born in the US do not want anything to do with African-Americans. They have also been poisoned by negative keyhole perspectives of Black people.

While finding their place in America, Africans are unwilling to understand the struggles of Black people and choose to either keep to themselves or marry white. A Kenyan-American teenager said to me that he dislikes it when his parents tell him that if he wants to make it, he should not mix with losers, meaning Black people. This young man identifies himself more as African-American than as Kenyan-American. This myopic view of Black people causes Continental Africans in the diaspora to miss out on the gains they could make if they joined hands with their Black brethren in the countries where they now reside. They become insular in their immigration woes, choosing to hide rather than fight.

The Kenyan diaspora community, for instance, has lost its unity and has become an each-one-for-themselves society, at best uniting around ethnic identities. This kind of unity is weak and ineffective when it comes to moving legislation in the diaspora’s favour. Only recently, the self-styled “General” Miguna Miguna, who has aligned himself with the National Resistance Movement in Kenya, toured the US and became a major magnet for diaspora Kenyans; only it was mainly one ethnic group that showed up for these rallies.

These ethnic-driven passions do nothing to solve the needs of the diaspora. Continental Africans in the diaspora have completely ignored the power and resourcefulness that could come with aligning themselves with Blacks. Fortunately, the young second-generation Africans align themselves more with Blacks than with Africans, and that might spell the realisation of a much needed Pan-Africanism.

Cultural appropriation:

Cultural appropriation is a concept that should not be given room to flourish. Black movements have always come with some form of African pride expressed through fashion or re-invented nuggets of African traditions. Black people who have arrived at a point of reconciliation with their African identity also pick and choose what, when, where and how much of this identity they can add on to give authenticity to who they are. A dashiki here, an African name there – one with just the right phonaesthetics.

Whether the declared African meaning is real or imagined is inconsequential, and that’s just fine. A black model named Roshumba once said on national television that her name meant “beautiful” in Swahili. At the time, I was flabbergasted, and that’s because I was still newly arrived from the motherland and had not learnt the intricacies of lost identities that are the burden of brothers and sisters shipped here hundreds of years ago.

As a descendant of a people violently separated from their culture and identities centuries ago, a people who have lost track of where on the continent they came from, Roshumba has every right to arbitrarily attach semantic value to a name that she or her parents decided is Swahili. Forget that no such word exists in the Swahili language. It does not become a corruption of the language; it becomes a creative addition to a language, not by a colonial force but by a fellow African long separated from her unknown language by tragic circumstance.

My journey as an African in the diaspora who has had a close and personal connection to African-Americans has stamped in me a fierce responsibility to defend the right of Black people to find their own African identity, as long as that process does not diminish African people. While Africans can and should provide a correction to a cultural misnomer, they also do not have a monopoly to decide what is African. For example, naming a child “Mwizi” and declaring that it means “king” in Swahili when it actually means “thief” is something a Swahili speaker can correct. At the same time, such corrections should not come with an expectation that “Mwizi” should always mean “thief”.

My journey as an African in the diaspora who has had a close and personal connection to African-Americans has stamped in me a fierce responsibility to defend the right of Black people to find their own African identity, as long as that process does not diminish African people.

A lesson I learnt in my linguistics class many years ago is that the relationship between a morpheme and its semantic value is arbitrary. In other words, a word can mean anything its speaker wants it to mean, and that is how language evolves. If the person who named their child “Mwizi” was misinformed, and the child has grown to believe it means “king” and no one questioned it because no one else knows the original meaning, then the semantic value of “king” becomes valid among those found within that region.

I take pains to unpack this identity repurposing because it’s a conversation we Africans have had often concerning strange “Swahili” names that Black people acquire and their equally odd meanings. Granted, the current generation of Blacks has adopted a trend of creating names based purely on stylish phonetics devoid of semantic value, such as De’Quisha. That too is valid cultural dynamism that is both unique and self-affirming. My own ethnic community has names whose meanings have been completely lost to time and traversing.

Continental Africans should also remember that those who were captured into slavery as late as the eighteenth century preserved African traditions that retain an ancient authenticity. The Gulla-Geechee people of North Carolina and Georgia maintain the highest concentration of African customs brought in from Sierra Leone where their ancestors were captured in the 1700s. Some have migrated up north and carried with them these authentic African traditions. They are much like the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia who have maintained some of the oldest Jewish traditions as a result of thousands of years of separation from other Jews.

The sudden spike in African pride, thanks to Black Panther, could be a flash in the pan. It could also potentially enhance the rift between Blacks and Continental Africans in the diaspora by the latter claiming to be the authentic custodians of everything African, especially the good stuff. Let us not forget that one of the greatest gifts, in my opinion, that Black people have given to the world is the Kwanzaa festival, a non-religious ceremony that uses African language, symbols and consciousness. The value in Kwanzaa transcends race, religion and nationality and could easily become as universal as Christmas.

Black people should embrace active custody and practice of all good things African, be they real, reimagined or repurposed for the greater good. This points to a socio-cultural diplomacy where African conscience becomes a lifestyle and an aspiration on a global scale. It would be an equivalent to the spread of the American Dream, which played a major role in boosting America’s economy and stature in the world. It is mind vibranium, a soft power for launching a 21st century Pan-Africanism that young people can buy into.

The Old Pan-Africanism

A young generation now lives out its life largely through social media. Africa has the world’s largest young population, which the United Nations estimates at 200 million aged between 15 and 24. They have time and again shifted centres through social media activism, using platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. Kenyans On Twitter, for example, got CNN to retract and apologise to Kenyans for calling the country a “hot-bed of terror”.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a famed writer and speaker from Botswana, makes the case for a Social Pan-Africanism led by the digital revolution. She is young, she has roused up globally trending hashtags such as #IfAfricaWasABar, and she understands the bee-hive effect of social media platforms that can be used to usher in a new Pan-Africanism. She calls it Social Pan-Africanism, an idea that would allow Africans to communicate and solve the issues of their times unencumbered by borders or nationality, untouched by oppressive governments or censorship. It also easily bridges this great void made worse by African peoples’ unwillingness to think beyond nationalistic, ethnic or diasporic enclaves.

Siyanda Mohutsiwa, a famed writer and speaker from Botswana, makes the case for a Social Pan-Africanism led by the digital revolution.

But I see a crater that could swallow all the efforts towards a youth-led social Pan-Africanism if they don’t sustain it through a merger with the foundations of political Pan-Africanism that established freedoms for African peoples across the globe. Political Pan-Africanism is rooted in the painful place that young Continental Africans and Blacks do not want to revisit. They do not need to dwell in the past, but they need to tether themselves to the anchors of the past in order to create a mind-blowing future.

This is a lesson Black Panther communicates well for those familiar with Africa’s history. Wakandan Afrofuturism was a reality somewhere in the past, albeit without the sci-fi gizmos. For a stretch of 700 years, economic Afrocentricism ruled the world when African kingdoms controlled global trade. The last powerful monarch, Mansa Musa of the Kingdom of Mali, saw the construction of a global university and an empire so advanced that Europeans, then in the dark ages, might have looked upon it as we did when Wakanda technology flashed before us.

Let us remember that before slavery and colonisation there were African kingdoms across the continent in various stages of political and economic power, well before the United States rose to be a superpower. If there was one thing that led to the fall of Africa’s “Wakanda” past, it was the Europeans’ discovery of trade routes through the Atlantic that erased the powerful Trans-Sahara trade routes. The cheaper and more efficient sea routes controlled by Europeans opened the doors to shipping more merchandise from Africa, including humans, which became easier after African kingdoms began to weaken in the 16th century.

The last powerful monarch, Mansa Musa of the Kingdom of Mali, saw the construction of a global university and an empire so advanced that Europeans, then in the dark ages, might have looked upon it as we did when Wakanda technology flashed before us.

Reconstructing an African people united by common past and common destiny started during slavery with the abolitionists who also advocated a return-to-Africa movement, and continued through the Civil Rights movement and into the African independence struggles. The fact is that the Black diaspora that descended from slaves has always been an active participant in seeking the liberation of colonised Africans. Marcus Garvey, W.E.B DuBois, the Congressional Black Caucus, the TransAfrica Forum, the Nation of Islam and the Rastafari Movement all held a Pan-Africanist soul at their core, a belief in the common struggle and destiny of the Black race that drove them to reach across oceans to save fellow Africans suffering under colonisation and apartheid. They did this through activism, legislation, art and scholarship. There should be a monument of African-American Pan-Africanists in African countries. It is fitting that Ghana recognized W.E.B Du Bois’s role and built a Centre for Pan-African Culture in his name.

While celebrating Venezuela’s Independence Day at their embassy in Washington DC, I ran into a now elderly Harry Belafonte, and he told me about the time he, together with Miriam Makeba, sang at Kenya’s independence celebrations. He spoke of Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau movement with pride. Belafonte has blended art, diplomacy and activism for the Black cause with power and dignity. As his tall frame faded off towards his car, it struck me that there is a fading generation of Black diaspora Pan-Africanist giants that have been bridging this Black divide for a long time. Organised Pan-Africanism started soon after the First World War when the 1st Pan-African Congress met in 1919 expressly to demand that Africans be granted home rule by their colonial masters, a demand Du Bois revised to self-rule at the second Pan-African Congress.

Black Noah

Kwame Nkrumah drank from the fountain of Garveyism. Marcus Garvey was a Pan-African purist who believed in the segregation of the races and preached an Africa-for-Africans philosophy. His faith was made true by his works, evidenced not only by his founding of the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) early in the twentieth century, but more significantly by the Black Star Line he started for the purpose of shipping Black people back to Africa. He was the black Noah that built a boat to save the African race from the deluge of Maafa and its drowning effects. He believed it was the responsibility of the diaspora African descended from slaves to save the African in Africa from the oppression of colonisation. Only his plan for salvation did not quite work out the way he envisioned, and the floods of imperialism in Africa and Jim Crow in the United States remained regional catastrophes the Black race overcame without the global unity he had purposed.

Politically, African countries were moving farther away from any form of Pan-Africanism as the formation of successful independent nations became a greater priority. The formation of the Organisation of African Unity did not foster much of a shared responsibility towards Africa’s common destiny. Many founding leaders of newly independent African nations turned to their colonial masters instead of building an Africa that could depend on itself. African nations became pawns on the neo-imperial chessboard of their former colonial masters. For a continent as endowed in natural wealth as Africa, it is tragic that the plausible dream of Pan-Africanists like Garvey failed to take root. But it is not all together dead. Garvey left a dream of the rise of Africa that one can glean from restless young and awakened Black activists. Erik Killmonger picks up where Garvey left off. Where the Black Star Lines failed, the Killmonger attitude will step in to usurp power from insular African leaders who have failed to use their resources for the good of the African people.

I have met Erik Killmonger, and he is a Republican. I have met him in the minds of Black Republican friends in Washington DC longing for the rise and liberation of the Black race from the high rates of poverty, neglected neighbourhoods, incarceration and political powerlessness. In conversations whispered in shared car rides, a Republican friend narrates to me the vicious circle of need in inner city black neighborhoods, and how Democrats are to blame because they’ve been in leadership in these cities far too long. My friend says she has spoken to many Black single mothers who do not want welfare hand-outs. They want opportunities, and Republicans want to instill in that get-it-at-all-cost attitude. It’s the Killmonger drive – grab fearlessly what is due to you, fight for it and do not expect entitlements.

I’m a Democrat. And a Kenyan. I’m not too religious about party politics. I agree with what she is telling me, and on any good day, she might have converted me. Except that when I zoom out and take in the Republican view of global politics, I cannot buy into it. I find it to be one that seeks domination as opposed to cooperation. Doctrines such as with-us-or-against-us, as espoused by former President George Bush, have justified preemptive attacks and wars that have killed too many in foreign countries. African countries have become battlefields in a global war against terror that they never started, one that benefits a corporate world that runs the world’s economy. That is also the Killmonger hunger for domination.

For a continent as endowed in natural wealth as Africa, it is tragic that the plausible dream of Pan-Africanists like Garvey failed to take root.

It is tempting to buy into the rise of Africa as a dominant power, knowing we have been there before, but this time around, Africa would have the advantage of new technology. But that would mean nothing short of an arms race and wars. Nations have thrived better through cooperation than through exclusivism and domination. If there was a Killmonger in real life, perhaps Muammar Gadaffi could have fit the bill. He was a Pan-Africanist who believed in an African currency that could easily dominate the world economy. After all, Africa’s natural resources, such as coltan, are still the “vibranium” that drives new technology.

Bridge To Kibera

“I was in Kenya last year,” my Republican friend continues.

“Oh?” I want to hear this. It’s always a pleasant surprise to know an African-American has travelled to an African country. I hold my breath, hoping she will say something good about Kenya. During my last trip to Kenya, I had been robbed at gun-point. I was not ready for a guest’s sh*thole testimony about my country.

“And I stayed in Kibera during my entire stay!” My heart sunk. Couldn’t she have stayed in a hotel? For heaven’s sake, Kibera? What was she thinking? She has money, a lot of it, and she is someone who has held advisory positions with several Republican White House administrations. So why does she sound excited about having stayed in Kibera for… what? Did she just say three months?!

“My Kenyan friend welcomed me to her home in Kibera!” She truly was excited about it. The way she said it, as if there was nothing to it but someone’s hospitality in its purest form. I will never doubt a Black Republican’s down-to-earth passion for the well-being of Black people anywhere in the world. No matter one’s political leaning, true Pan-Africanism has to have the heart to extend from the White House to Kibera.

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THE NEW SCRAMBLE FOR EAST AFRICA: How rising debt and IMF loans have shielded kleptocrats and stunted human development in the region

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THE NEW SCRAMBLE FOR EAST AFRICA: How rising debt and IMF loans have shielded kleptocrats and stunted human development in the region

“National liberation, the struggle against colonialism, the construction of peace, progress and independence are hollow words devoid of any significance unless they can be translated into a real improvement of living conditions.”
Amilcar Cabral, African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde

Given the disparity between Uganda’s economic growth and the increasingly precarious existence of most of her citizens, Ugandan economists need to devise a measure of economic growth that reflects the needs and aspirations of the indigenous population.

Economic growth, as measured by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Uganda, is not synonymous with access to life-supporting conditions. GDP is primarily used as an indicator for aid decision-making by investors. Investors – whether charter companies, venture capital funds or multinational companies – have served to create employment and to raise living standards in their countries of domicile. Debt is the means by which net outflows of wealth from developing countries is achieved.

Human development indicators stand outside GDP and may or may not be considered (and are usually not considered) in the measurement of progress. What is required is an indicator of economic growth that is linked to the health, well-being, education and general prosperity of Ugandans. To have any real use, the measure would also have to factor in the impact public debt repayments have on household access to basic requirements, such as water, food and useful education.

Insisting, as the government and international lending agencies do now, that debt repayments are sustainable as long as they remain under 50% of GDP masks the fact that even with that debt-to-GDP ratio, the prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda remains high and access to improved water and sanitation remains low. Uganda’s debt repayments stand at 38% of GDP and between 26% and 36% of the population is undernourished. Now that public debt has risen to 50% of GDP, it is misleading to paint a rosy picture of the economy.

The IMF’s World Economic Outlook of April 2018 reported Uganda’s annual economic growth rate to be 5.2%, compared to 5.5% for Kenya, 6.4% for Tanzania and 7.2% for Rwanda. The East African Community’s other members, Burundi and South Sudan, were reported to have low or negative economic growth rates (0.1% for Burundi and a negative rate of -3.8% for South Sudan), the result no doubt of the ongoing internal conflicts in these countries.

Insisting, as the government and international lending agencies do now, that debt repayments are sustainable as long as they remain under 50% of GDP masks the fact that even with that debt-to-GDP ratio, the prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda remains high and access to improved water and sanitation remains low.

However, growth statistics reported for Uganda and the East Africa region may really be a reflection of the activities of and benefits enjoyed by multinational corporations, other investors and political elites and could have little relation to the average Ugandan or East African. An East African or Ugandan Economic Statistics Review Group could usefully be set up to find more meaningful measures, including non-monetary factors, that would reflect the improvement, deterioration or stagnation of the standard of living. It is a major in-built weakness in governance to rely on external entities (whose priorities are not necessarily our priorities) to manage and report on the economy.

Against the background of inadequate human development, Roger Nord, the deputy head of the IMF, approved the findings of Uganda’s Debt Sustainability Analysis of December 2016. As is now known, that report stated erroneously that Uganda was at low risk of debt distress and that there was no risk of domestic debt undermining the country’s ability to meet debt repayments.

Adam Mugume, the executive director for research at the Bank of Uganda, thought differently. He warned that falling commodity prices and the sliding value of the shilling had the potential to worsen an already precarious debt position. More recently, the Central Bank has warned that sovereign default remains a real danger. The Auditor General weighed in with a warning that interest payments on domestic debt are pushing the country towards debt distress. However, the IMF’s opinion prevailed for reasons that go back to the 1884-1885 Berlin ‘Scramble for Africa’ Conference and all that came after it.

The IMF followed up its misleading assurances in April 2017 when Mr Nord said on KTN that although the economic outlook for Africa was generally subdued, the one bright spot was East Africa where regional integration was progressing. He cited the flow of goods, services and people without indicating how IMF policies have impacted those flows since 1986/7 when the structural adjustment programme (SAP) began. Integration in to one economic bloc, Nord said, would make East Africa an even more attractive destination for foreign investment in much needed but expensive infrastructural development – a message of encouragement to investors that took no account of human development.

Federation has clear advantages connected to economies of scale in developing infrastructure. What is argued here is that integration could also consolidate corruption and the accompanying means of repression. Loans already spent have not always yielded value for money, a fact the IMF does not acknowledge. As it is, there is a need to be hypervigilant at the national level in monitoring debt and the terms and conditions under which it is incurred. Uganda would have done better to strengthen her own governance before embarking on ever closer union with other countries.

Foreign direct investment is often financed by credit made available to investors under government schemes in their own countries for projects that they propose to the target countries. Recently, the UK launched the Export Finance (UKEF) line of credit under which the government of Uganda borrowed €270 million to build an airport. The condition is that British companies are to be used to do the work.

Federation has clear advantages connected to economies of scale in developing infrastructure. What is argued here is that integration could also consolidate corruption and the accompanying means of repression. Loans already spent have not always yielded value for money, a fact the IMF does not acknowledge.

Britain now produces 60% of her food requirements and imports 30% of the rest from the European Union. Her emergency reserve is good for five days. Britain has a perpetual balance of payments deficit which will only be made worse after Brexit when imports from the EU will become more costly. It made sense therefore to offer British companies credit and so far, in addition to an airport, from which GBP100 million worth of exports to Uganda is expected to result, the UK won contracts in Uganda worth over US$2 billion in 2017 alone.

Whether Ugandan leaders looked beyond the easy availability of the credit and considered with enough rigour the prioritisation of an airport, the strength of the technical proposals or the relative cost remain to be seen. What is almost certain is that no effort was made to ensure that Ugandan businesses and professionals participated in those development projects and that there was a transference of skills.

The history and purpose of federation

Britain’s reasonable interest is to maintain employment to enable her workers to purchase food. One MP summed up the situation up as: “We have to buy our food from outside, and in order to buy our food we have to exchange manufactured articles, but before we can exchange manufactured articles we have also to buy from outside the raw materials from which to manufacture them.”

East African federation has always been seen as a solution to Britain’s economic challenges. During the slump of the 1920s, UK’s parliament considered possible solutions. These included encouraging the three million unemployed to migrate to the Dominions and to the colonies and creating more jobs in the textile industry by creating a larger source of cheap cotton to substitute the more costly American variety. This was to be done by investing in a railway and harbour through which to export the cotton from Uganda and Kenya. The beauty of it was that it would be paid for out of cotton taxes and native poll tax paid by the growers.

Federation was first formally considered for East and Central Africa by parliament in 1925. An early triumph or regional cooperation was the co-financing of the Mombasa port and the Uganda Railway. The benefits were not evenly distributed – Kenyan customs collected and retained the duties paid for Uganda’s trade through Mombasa for the first ten years. The Uganda Railway itself began and ended in Kenya from where a steamer completed the journey.

Later there was a movement in colonial Kenya to break away from Britain and form an autonomous state similar to the Union of South Africa. Kenyan settlers who dominated the Legislative Council proposed that Kenya be allowed to spend GBP80,000 (roughly the equivalent to the annual budget of the Colonial Office) to build the East African High Commission as the future administrative building for an expanded Kenya.

The anticipated self-governing federal state was to incorporate Uganda and Tanganyika. There was talk of uniting a future East African Federation with the Central African Union (of Rhodesia and Nyasaland). From Uganda’s point of view, this was undesirable because European settlers in Kenya had already planted the seeds of apartheid-style economic domination; they were exempt from income tax; they had exclusive rights to the cultivation of profitable crops like maize and coffee granted by British government ordinances (thereafter claiming entitlement to privileges because they carried the economy); they were entitled to use forced labour and the pay scales were lower for Africans than for Europeans and Asians. Salaries were usually calculated on the basis of a single man living in a hostel near a mine or a farm. In this way, poverty became entrenched as families left behind on Native Reserves tried to eke out a living on the increasingly over-populated Reserves.

The cost of Kenya’s colonial administration was much higher than anywhere else in the region because, as explained at Whitehall, the administration had to be predominantly European to service the settler community. An example given was that a European suspect could not be expected to submit to arrest by an African policeman, therefore expatriate policemen paid on an expatriate pay scale were needed.

Some high-cost social services for use by the Kenyan settler population were paid for with ‘loans’ from the Ugandan treasury. Examples include Hill School, Eldoret, a boarding school for European pupils from the region and the Mombasa Municipality water supply financed in 1959 by a 15-18 year loan to Kenya of GBP1 million. In Uganda there were already segregated educational, medical and recreational facilities for Europeans, Indians and Goans.

To attract more settlers to Kenya, especially from among the unemployed, the Imperial government offered them an existence in which their interests took precedence over those of the indigenous population. Collateral damage to Africans included involuntary population transfers as commercial farms were established, compulsory labour, child labour, flogging, exploitation of women and abandonment of their children and venereal disease.

In 1932 the parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Closer Union in East Africa was set up to examine the issue. The opposition argued that settlers could not be entrusted with the welfare of the Africans and that Britain should continue to play their self-arrogated role of trustee. As in 1925, the committee recommended that the prevailing model in the region be maintained i.e. that the British government through the Colonial Secretary maintain the authority to intervene directly in the affairs of the East African colonies.

Post-independence African leaders entrusted with the welfare of the indigenous population act as middle-men, receiving support for their elections and monetary benefits in return for serving external economic interests. Investors need only secure physical access to leaders or their relatives before emerging with tax-holidays, waivers of environmental law, hectares of free land and permission to displace any local communities in their way.

How different is the subjugation of the interests of the general population by those pre-independence elites from the current situation in which potential investors are offered incentives that are ruinous to the local economy? The only difference between pre- and post-independence multinational corporations is that instead of dealing with colonial administrators they now deal with African kleptocrats.

The East African Legislative Assembly will be able to approve loans. East African federation makes the region more attractive to investors because larger collateral spanning the entire region can be extracted. Having failed to reign in a national parliament that consistently fails to keep public debt at manageable levels and on reasonable terms, there is little reason to expect the East African Legislative Assembly to act any more prudently.

How different is the subjugation of the interests of the general population by those pre-independence elites from the current situation in which potential investors are offered incentives that are ruinous to the local economy? The only difference between pre- and post-independence multinational corporations is that instead of dealing with colonial administrators they now deal with African kleptocrats.

In pushing for regional integration to boost foreign direct investment without paying at least as much attention to raising living standards, the IMF is carrying on from where the Imperial government left off.

The evidence of deepening regional cooperation cited by Mr Nord was “growth remaining quite high and investment proceeding” and regional integration evidenced in the launch of the single passport for East African citizens. Regarding the criteria countries are required to meet before joining the Union, Mr Nord said, “Debt levels are all within – uh – limits. Fiscal deficits remain still on the high side but in most countries are heading down.” He expects a monetary union by 2024. Meanwhile, Uganda’s fiscal deficit is growing.

What the IMF omits from its glowing investment portfolio for East Africa is the fact that all debts incurred by corrupt leaders are likely to be audited. Wherever it is found that they led to abuse of civil rights or that they yielded insufficient value for money, they are liable to be repudiated. Non-ethical investment no longer makes financial sense.

Mr Nord’s condescendingly vague remarks offer little justification for his optimism. (He is often referred to as the ‘Super Minister of Finance of Uganda’.) Civil unrest is constantly simmering in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Burundi. Sudan reverted to all-out war after a hiatus of only two years. The fact is that post-independence East Africa is being set up for exploitation on a new level by foreign corporations and vampire investors aided and abetted by its leaders.

Civil unrest and state brutality

As in colonial times, the current social unrest is symptomatic of underlying problems, chief among which is the lack of economic advancement of the vast majority of East Africa’s population. Civil unrest and state violence are critical economic indicators. This was understood in the past by some British MPs, two of whom are quoted below:

Why is it that the Colonial Office still permits in new ordinances, restrictions on the civil and industrial rights of the peoples of the Colonial Empire? In Sierra Leone, there has been a new spate of legislation designed to increase the powers of the Government in regard to the literature that may be read, in respect to deportation orders and trade union organisation. Recently, there was a new Sedition Law in Trinidad. If these Colonies have been able to get on for scores of years without this legislation being necessary, what new factors are there in the situation which require that these new ordinances of a repressive and restrictive kind should now be passed? Is it that at last the people are demanding that justice should be done, and therefore, it is necessary to put further checks on their powers of expression?

Arthur Creech Jones MP, contributing to the Colonial Office debate in the House of Commons on 7 June 1939

 

I ask any hon. Member opposite if he thinks millions of people engaged under conditions like that, having to work for miserably low wages like that, including sometimes some amount of food, can be expected to be in a state of contentment with affairs as they are? Does any hon. Member opposite blame them if occasionally they are inclined to break the law to try to make things better? If the Colonial Secretary tried to look at those problems in that way, instead of bringing down on these people, with all his might and main, every possible policeman, he would be a success.

–Wilfred Paling, MP during the Affairs in Africa debate, 16 December 1953

 

Sixty years later, failure to gain access to the most basic requirements of decent living, while others live in fear of losing the access they enjoy, it is no wonder there is disaffection among the population. Where there is disaffection, repression is to be expected because Kenya and Uganda retained repressive colonial laws enacted as a response to agitation for independence.

That the IMF deems this state of affairs ‘progress’ is sad but not surprising. Illicit transfers of wealth on the current scale can only be continued by force. From the point of view of an organisation whose primary aim is to secure the signatures of African leaders on contracts committing the region to debt regardless of its sustainability, East Africa is a success. The five strongmen leaders and President Nkurunziza of Burundi are kept in power by foreign aid, which is used to provide the services for which the government should be responsible.

As in colonial times, the current social unrest is symptomatic of underlying problems, chief among which is the lack of economic advancement of the vast majority of East Africa’s population.

The IMF’s campaign of disinformation provides the façade of ethical investment while foreign corporations siphon out the wealth of the African continent.

Beyond austerity to destitution

The latest available figures show that, on average, one third of the population of East Africa is undernourished. (This figure excludes Burundi and South Sudan for which no figures are available but reliable refugee sources have spoken about feeding stations in the towns in both countries.) Despite having the highest economic growth rate in East Africa, nearly half of Rwanda’s population is undernourished. (Rwanda succeeded Uganda as the exemplar of the rightness of structural adjustment.)

The prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda rose by 13% to the current 39% of the population between 2006 and 2015. In addition, Uganda has pockets of prevalent stunting, a high primary school drop-out rate, and low access to improved sanitation facilities (19% for Uganda, 30% for Kenya, and 15% for Tanzania. These three countries, the original East African Community, have been applying IMF-prescribed economic policies for much longer than Rwanda and Burundi where access to improved water and sanitation stands at 61% and 41%, respectively.)

Prevalence of undernourishment (% of population)

Fig. 1

Source: World Bank Health Nutrition and Population Statistics. No undernourishment data on Burundi. Last Updated: 12/18/2017

The prevalence of undernourishment in Uganda rose by 13% to the current 39% of the population between 2006 and 2015. In addition, Uganda has pockets of prevalent stunting, a high primary school drop-out rate, and low access to improved sanitation facilities (19% for Uganda, 30% for Kenya, and 15% for Tanzania.)

Hunger is endemic in parts of the East and Karamoja and the population there is fed and watered by the World Food Programme. Periodic influxes of refugees from South Sudan only serve to exacerbate the problem. At the current growth rate, coupled with the downward spiral in commodity prices and the fall of the shilling to half its 1990s value, it is unlikely that the level of undernourishment or the lack of access to safe water will be significantly reduced.

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