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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world

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RETURNING THE GAZE: Representing poverty and precarity in a post-colonial world
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To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

~ Marco the Lombard’s counsel, from Dante’s Divine Comedy

Novelist Pankaj Mishra, referring to “the history of modernisation”, observes how despite pretentions to rationality and order described by the American originators of the term in the 1950s and 1960s, modernisation’s history “is largely one of carnage and bedlam” that disproportionately afflicts a targeted,othered”, dehumanised, inferiorised population invariably classified as poor, who by implication are also made responsible for the pathetic state in which they find themselves.

A polarisation of conscience means that little solidarity can be extended to those who suffer the greatest burden of the consequences of the worst of human impulses and choices. Do we imagine that the gaze infected by the paradigm in which it thrives can refocus its witnessing lens from a place of profound empathy for and with humanity, and see itself in the suffering of the other?

There is nothing objective in the human gaze. We know this. Yet we collude with this post-Enlightenment, neoliberal hubristic production system that even proposes its own transcendence and omniscience— and does so while denying or erasing the reality of the shared experience of suffering so that it can lay claim to transcendent objectivity. How can a corrupted witness purport to offer a truthful testament to human experience? How unbiased is the evidence (images, stories) that such a witness brings forth?

Humanity now thrashes about in a chasm of the absence of a real vocabulary of beingness today, while at the same time, makes excuses for a parasitic ideological structure that requires the stories of others’ vulnerabilities in order to shore up itself and its peculiar myths. An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

Against such a backdrop, what does our own articulation of post-coloniality, social development, vulnerability and poverty actually mean here and now? What does “representation” become when forged through an epistemological structure that fragments the world so that it can elevate itself as the “universal” and the standard by which the human race measures its progress. In referring to this dilemma, the thinker Santiago Castro-Gomes calls it the problem of the “hubris of point zero”.

This is the epistemology that, despite its, yes, many virtues, treasures, and achievements on behalf of its select, could also declare those on the right of the screen as virtuous and righteous in their actions against those on the left, who are consistently classified as soulless, valueless, ungovernable and unmournable savages, barbarians, terrorists and heathens— not entirely human and, therefore, exploitable and dispensable. The mostly Euro-American collective societal imagination, in particular, was co-opted into this belief. The paradigm deliberately enlisted science and academia to develop a literature and theory to absolve itself from this, its public evil. The desecrated bodies on the left of the screen are rendered undignified and nameless even in their ancestral homes—and there are no plaques to commemorate their histories, achievements, their existence – while museums are built to enshrine the so-called exploits of those on the right.

An obsessive and pornographic preoccupation with the wounds of others serves two key purposes: one, it enables the observers to feel, what is that imbecilic word…superior, and two, it helps the observers to avoid engaging with their own internal contradictions and pathologies, it buries their fears.

What we see and hear now has a history and a template. Given this, what then should a person do with an array of stories and images embedded in a diminished, diminishing and disordered framing of life, that from its origins, and despite the evidence of its horrid impulses, has never been forensically interrogated?

In a 1999 New York Times article, Nigerian author Wole Soyinka reminded us how “the great philosophical minds of Europe, like Hume, Hegel and Kant, bent their prodigious talents to separating the species into those with rights and those with none, founded on the convenient theory that some people were human and others less so. The Encyclopedists of France, products of the so-called Age of Reason, remain the most prolific codifiers of the human (and other) species on an ambitiously comprehensive scale, and their scholarly industry conferred a scientific benediction on a purely commercial project that saw millions of souls dragged across the ocean to serve as beasts of burden. Religion and commerce … were reinforced by the authority of new scientific theories to divide humanity into higher and lower manifestations of the species. The dichotomy of the world was complete.”

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia. We are enduring a season of an unprecedented crisis of being and vision – and the devastation of lives we see and label as “precarious” are symptomatic of this.

Reality, they say, is relational, not representational. I retreat once more to Marco the Lombard’s counsel from Dante’s Divine Comedy for guidance:

To a greater power and a better nature you, free, are subject, and these create the mind in you
that the heavens have not in their charge.
Therefore, if the world around you goes astray, in you is the cause and in you let it be sought.

Do we really have the adequate tools of analysis that will lead us into an immersive experience of the realities to which we refer? We live a lie-laden un-reality where communities of the most resource-rich territories of the world are interpenetrated by the most devastating forms of poverty while those of the resource-consuming lands are lauded as the most advanced, the wealthiest, the best, when the questions that should be asked are: How does the world’s wealth get to be transferred, from where, by whom, for whom and at what price? Who sets the rates? To what obscene extent are precarity, marginalisation and poverty in themselves a profitable by-product of a way of being in the world? How are these accepted by-products of an accepted global industrial ideology? Will we explore poverty in its multiple designs and constructions in Bretton Wood cults, in the numerous multinational boardrooms, and in all those resource-hunting, territory-scouring Trojan horses that first appear as non-governmentals and then collude with emasculated, lobotomised post-colonial governors masquerading as leaders of so many nations?

We find ourselves entangled in and by a culture that, for example, knowing there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, still allowed its privileged liars, those contemporary high priests of baal, a gateway to create and launch a grotesque unending war fifteen years ago that has since devoured an ancient civilisation and pushed our earth into the cusp of a human-caused apocalypse. This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices have visited upon millions and millions of innocents.

I am compelled to ask how truthfully a person of this epoch can speak to precarity, poverty or marginalisation without making incisions into the profound moral and existential vacuum that are their sources and causes, which the human collective treats with amnesia.

The abomination is today visited on Yemen for no real reason other than Saudi Arabia, this paradigm’s favourite pimp, wishes to test its war chops and spread its particular version of self-rightousness. Saudi Arabia is spending trillions of dollars on weapons sold to it by nations, that offer themselves as ‘paragons of human values’ weapons that are sometimes procured through second or third parties. Money gratefully received without question. Later, when the images of devastating Yemeni starvation hits your Christmas screens, some scrawny Englishman will compose a “Do they know it’s Christmas?” dirge so that we can all send our one pound to help the poor, the starving and the helpless. Meanwhile, it is Christmas every day in our weapon-manufacturing communities; the war in Yemen is a ceaseless bounty.

I ask you, are there any stories today, any images of the full Yemeni reality? Of course not. We will neither reveal the images of the generals overseeing the devastation of an already weak land, nor will we show what bullets and grenades do to human bodies. Why should the truth of what sustains our economies and guarantees our lifestyles interfere with the pleasure of our morning cappuccino? But God help the ones who emerge from the inferno of our making. They become our revenants. Their bodies and haunted lives are fingers pointing at us, which without a single word, mock our presumed innocence.

Here is our world now, this massive entangled bruise of traumatised, alienated, marginalised, terrorised, impoverished hundreds of millions, a world offering itself to the possibility of self-annihilation as entertainment.

This epistemological framing by which we live has won for its adherents entire territories that are relabelled as, for example, the United States of America, Australia, Canada, and then elevated as “universal” beacons of high human values that also confirm the hegemonic paradigm’s transcendent delusions, those mythologies that are adorned with titles such as “civilisation”, “democracy”, “scientific”, “advancement”, “philanthropy” and “human rights”, so many gilded fig leaves positioned to conceal the wound and its questions, which may include:

What is the origin of this nation?

How did the current governance structure evolve? Who and how many had to die to invent this “country”? How did they die?

Who atones? Who does not atone?

This dominant system, including its knowledge systems, generates and reinforces a malignant Military Industrial Complex upon which entire economies depend. And it seduces us with amnesia. Forget! it suggests. In exchange we may frolic carefreely amidst the flowers of Orwellian doublespeak – collateral damage, for example, a euphemism for lies, transference, prevarications, perception management, propaganda, erasure and rewriting and rebranding of horrors. Meanwhile, in a world of abundance, how is it even possible that eight men from the same cultural paradigm have gained control of 80 per cent of the earth’s wealth? Is this the culmination of the so-called Age of Reason?

Today we accuse Kim-Jong-Un of impoverishing North Koreans, but do we also reflect on the meaning (today) of the American war in Korea (1950-3)? The wilful carpet bombing of a country by one set of humans until everything is rubble, as the generals casually cited that 20 per cent (a conservative estimate) population death rate? Why do we act shocked when grieving, starving, devastated, traumatised people turn their backs on a world that turned its backs on them? And we suddenly have something to say about…what?

Please don’t get me wrong; I am not excusing insanity. What I ask is if the prevailing global paradigm and its tributaries—-modernism, post-modernism, post-post-modernism…with their penchant for laundering their darkness – are what can gainfully articulate the dimensions, meaning and language of profound human suffering. In the end, after we have described, or gazed upon, the poverty- stricken, the marginalised, the oppressed, the dehumanised, in whatever forms these take, what actually changes for the common good as a consequence?

A different point.

We neither see nor imagine the same thing when we say “poverty” or “precarity”, do we? Despite our preferred assumptions, there is no uber-state of poverty or precarity that is the universal template. Yet so very rarely do we allow an exploration of the varieties of consciousness that imbue human seeing, recognising, describing and attending; or the reality of philosophical and cultural divergences.

This alleged “war on terror”, an abominable act, co-opted forty other nations, all of which fly the banner of democracy and human rights, and who have wilfully and continuously committed atrocities before slithering away to reconstruct a narrative of righteousness by evolving new euphemisms that deny the horror that their choices visited upon millions of innocents.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured. As long as weapons can be sold and jobs created, a necessary magic happens—these economies are rich and stable again and can hold themselves up as beacons of world development and order, right? But the blood-price that designated scapegoats have paid remain obscured and untold.

Precarity does, however, explain how humanity has turned vampire to humanity, feeding on its own lifeblood, its harrowing collective gaze always turned outward and elsewhere. Precarity (or what some might refer to as precariousness, which is a less enduring/permanent condition) – a word that was apparently coined by the Catholic monk and anarcho-communist Léonce Crenier (1888-1963) – has been defined as “the politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks…becoming exposed to injury, violence and death”. Precarity is a condition that is often associated with neoliberal capitalism and its perverted logic of blaming the victim for his or her suffering, rather than examining the skewed power and economic relations that might have contributed to that suffering – a logic that relies on scapegoating to absolve the inflicter of suffering from any blame.

What the scapegoater’s target (the poor, the starving, the helpless, the victims) may have to give up is the power to name themselves. If they survive the struggle, they will be doomed to be spoken for, depicted, analysed and approached with the delicious frisson of Freud’s unheimlich — the uncanny. But sometimes, sometimes, it is true, that the monstered being growls back using the tools and technology of the paradigm against itself.

We, the inhabitants of this earth, are caught up in the matrix of a dark drama that services our fears, our violence, our silences, our looking away, and in some cases, our approval. This grotesque dance is justified with epic headers: Age of Discovery, War on Terror, Humanitarian Interventions. Weapons of Mass Destruction. Mother of All Bombs. Later, imagine our surprise when survivors from such expeditions flee their homes seeking refuge and peace in our midst. Having even been robbed of their names, we are now able to label them poor, marginalised, migrants, refugees, precarious, as if what befell them happened through their own fault. We negotiate encounters so that their suffering is kept as far away from our lives as possible.

Their courageous odyssey, their spirit and strength in the face of overwhelming intimate losses are rarely voiced, lest they expose our cowardice. Their desperation is often criminalised, as if it is infectious. We may safely look at their drowned bodies on television, but having seen enough of these, no longer notice them. We engineer them into concentration camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Kenya, Uganda, Jordan, Greece and Libya. Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

To some, poverty is an asset in a world where shareholder profit is the Holy Grail, where consumption is the measure of nirvana. So valuable it is that should the economies of certain nations decline, wars must be manufactured.

In April last year, the American military dropped what they christened the “Mother of All Bombs” over the Achin district in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, a public display of the same casual evil that created the Nagasaki and Hiroshima slaughter, a prelude of what is to come, perhaps? There is still to this day a terrible silence over the actual number of Afghani casualties, which have already been pre-stigmatised as ISIS, not to speak of the devastation of the landscape and environment. There are no independent verifications, no counter-checks, no accountability, no display of bodies other than those of living American soldiers standing in caves that are still intact and whose locations cannot be verified.

So, when a surge of humans in deep distress whose environment has been poisoned and shattered will flee Afghanistan trying to find new homes, will they be returned to the source? Will we try and find the reason for their fleeing and hold to account the responsible nation? Of course not. That would require what seems to have been leached out of the human collective: a will to truth and courage. Indifference has been made cool. “Post-truth” has been invented. When the desperate immigrant carrying his remaining child peers through a fence, won’t we line our words and images to articulate a preferred trope that reinforces our framing of poverty, powerlessness, and precarity regarding him and his country?

Shall I go on?

Weeks before the bombing and Donald Trump’s foray into Syria, American soldiers and their Saudi friends were implicated in the mass slaughter of a boat filled with innocent people escaping Yemen. After the announcement of the mistake, nothing. There was also the horrible and mistaken slaughter of innocents in Mosul involving the so-called coalition forces. After the initial alarm, nothing. You who study representation, have you heard anything more of these crimes against the earth, decency, morality and humanity that sink without a trace, without a second bleep? The silence, though, does make it simpler to rationalise the sacrifice of humans to tomahawk missiles while the enabler eats chocolate cake—or was it vanilla?

It is to specific and targeted realms of anguish that we send our image capturers and story makers. The consistency of the ideology calls for the permitted symbols of doomed desires: the sacrificeable, the pitied and – despite the pathos – the unmournable body (preferably in a particular melanin shade and from a particular culture). This paradigm allows the media to use and expose them as the poor, the less fortunate, the marginalised, the victims. So the advantaged—and that is the adjective always used – might make meaning by pressing a forefinger on the donate button and dispatch two euros fifty to support one of a hundred thousand non-governmentals who promise the miracle of turning coins into medicine and water for the ones, who, fortunately, are not us. These days it is accompanied with a hashtag. But no questions.

So what do we have to show, we humans speaking about poverty and precarious lives lived in ineffable margins? What do we have to show that amplifies our abysmal and wilful unknowing of the actual and inner lives of those whose histories we choose to condense into a single, transient thumbprint, captured, edited, and distributed by a thinned-out imagination? In the academy’s retelling of precarity, poverty and their representation, what room exists for a multidimensionality and multiperspectivity that breathes fresh knowledge and insight that might actually transfigure our humanity?

Let us change track and look at some art, okay?

The cover image of Job’s Friends by Lenny Caccio is inspired by the biblical Book of Job. It features three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite – who show up to supposedly console a terribly afflicted Job. Encountering the extreme suffering and wounded spirit and body of their friend, they first choose to sit in shock. After a suitable interlude, now accustomed to the spectacle of suffering, they proceed to diagnose the disease from a safe space that does not require them to touch Job. They also evolve a branding plan in which they excuse everything but Job, who is somehow made responsible for his fate. They offer a scholarly treatise on meaning, suffering and Job’s responsibility. They wonder why Job is not more like them, they who are favoured by God. If he were, such suffering would not be his fate. Nay indeed, since they know the mind of God, actually, in a way, this makes them, like God…if not God Himself.

Meanwhile, we neglect to act on the reality that we know that their powerless bodies are minute by minute being brutalised, experimented with and traded. Their organs are being auctioned, their children are being raped, their women are being violated, their men are emasculated, humanity is being brutalised by humanity using its most insidious weapons: human absence and human silence.

Suddenly, certain of their transcendence, they authoritatively proceed to make decisions for Job. They go on and on until Job became a scientific and social development project. They discuss the alleviation of Job’s poverty, precarity and disease. Dear Job is sucked into the eye of the cyclone of stupidity and is compelled to reclaim a semblance of humanity by trying to explain the inexplicability of his existential harrowing.

In the eyes of the three idiots, Job, the scapegoat, must not be perceived as innocent, for through this judgment he is designated as the carrier of the pathologies and terrors that afflict the human journey; upon him rests the entire mystery of human suffering. Now Job is the heathen. The savage. The pagan. The terrorist. The infidel. The Third World hordes…or was it swarms (David Cameron). The extreme other from whom our lives are detached, whose suffering is alien to our righteous ease. Behold this, the detached collective observing human suffering, not as witnesses, but as judges and gossips. They fail to see that Job is a mirror and witness to the reality of life. These idiots (yes, I am judging them) look and look and turn blind.

It does end rather well, with a schadenfreude twist. The mysterious Source of Existence in whose name much was suggested by the trio shows up from out of the whirlwind, the storm, the chaos, and is in a very bad mood. He stormily affirms and underlines the truth of human unknowing before the immensity of life. Some paraphrased bullet points from within the storm: You are not the authors of nature or life. You are all subject to the mystery of suffering, pain, death, and the unknowing. In other words, as a millennial friend once put it to me, you know shit about life.

The three self-appointed dunderheads get their knuckles thoroughly rapped by a God who makes them dependent on Job for a dramatic gesture of forgiveness and sacrifice that will release them from the hell their presumptuous babblings have driven them into, thus demonstrating another useful point: You need one another other in order to get yourselves out of your self-created hell.

Back to earth.

On January 24, 2017, a 22-year-old human being, a man named Pateh Sabally, either jumped into or slipped into Venice’s Grand Canal. Witnessing this were about two hundred men and women. They were cited as cursing, mocking and abusing him as he flailed and cried.

What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal?

A dying man entered the doorway of death with the sound of over two hundred apparently “sane” human beings mocking his life, urging him to annihilation, amused by his suffering. What did Pateh see? What did he experience as he started to die? To know that the last human gaze Pateh experienced was the gaze of hatred is such a weight on a sensitive human conscience. What looks out of the gaze of this mob in Venice, finding satisfaction in the slow death of an ebony-bodied stranger in a canal? And death and dying are such a private, intimate happening, even among creatures. So, what has become of a people and their interior values who seek and find intense porno-visual satisfaction in the death of a stranger? What turns these people into a howling beast, a mob that has lost access to the grammar of life? What is in the gaze of the human in the canal looking at his audience?

We have been here before, haven’t we?

I was surprised, and then not surprised, that the horror did not generate greater contemplation in the media or in societal reflections and that the only images published were those of the drowning Pateh, with the mob offered as a faceless mass without a shape that melts into the day when invited to account for their manner of witnessing. I am struck by the length of time that the mob spent observing, archiving, recording and commenting on Pateh’s dying, and the eerie idea of profound satisfaction in the experience. The mob is so preoccupied with their perception of Pateh’s otherness, his immigrant-being, that nothing of his humanity penetrates their gaze. What is this epistemology of life that makes of human beings a thing that finds pleasure in the dying and death of a man? Why has it not been hacked to pieces yet? Unless, of course, its diminished conceptualisation of who a human being is has its worshippers. In this event, who in our epistemological structuring would be the subject of our reflections on poverty, precarity and pity? Pateh or his mob?

Second case: On September 8, 2015, a woman who had veiled her face, protecting herself from the contagion of encounter, filmed the flow of human sufferers crossing into her country, Hungary. She would at some point drop her camera to focus on extending her foot to kick two children and their father, a former Syrian football coach, Osama Abdul Mohsen, who carrying one son, stumbled to the ground. It is not possible to list the many ways that this man, travelling without his wife, was humiliated. A man has lost his home through no fault of his own, has lost his country, is compelled to impoverishment, and struggles with life in ways that not many in the world can. He traverses unknown worlds, deserts, storms, wars, water, death, displaying the noblest human spirit and its will to live and hope.

This human seeks refuge among other humans, strangers. Reduced to scrambling across a man-caused frontier, he runs in the direction of a camerawoman, who is masked to preserve herself from the diseases he purportedly carries. Let us think carefully about the gesture as she pauses her filming and puts out a leg to trip a man carrying his son, who flails and falls. That fall, friends, is a wounded gong in the deepest soul. A warning. This episode is enshrined as the Petra László incident. It travelled as a cold slithering shiver across the world. In our house in Nairobi, when we saw it, no one could speak. But it was recognised for what it was.

I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them.

My own gaze stays on the camerawoman Petra László. I want to meet her. I have questions to ask. What drives a human being to this place of cruelty? I have traced her narrative of defence. Her first explanation: “I just snapped.” The second: “The man lied.” The third: “I am in danger.” The fourth: “I shall sue Facebook, I shall sue the witnesses.” It goes on.

The discomfort for us is this, the reason for our unspeaking witnessing: Here is the public revelation of the disintegration of humanity, the evidence of the wound. And no, this is not about privilege. Petra is a mirror, you see. Here also is my emptiness. Here is my terror of the mysteriousness of another. Here is a symbol of my impoverished humanity. Here is the sign of the unspoken wound that tears through my own soul, that if unattended for much longer will turn septic and evil—for here precisely is what I do not wish to be.

So who are these people? And why does society and popular media collude in an act of amnesia and erasure, not of the dead or suffering, but of the agents who amplify the suffering of others? It is not labelled as anything, is it? There is no name offered for this precarious condition. Why? There is the gaze. But what is heard? What is told and repeated? What gets muted so that an image can be explained differently?

In August 2016, police in Rome received a phone call from a stranger asking them to investigate a situation. An 84-year old woman and her 94-year old husband were in their apartment. They had been wailing so loudly for a good part of the day and their cries were now disturbing their neighbours. When the police entered the house, they found an elderly couple who were so overwhelmed by an existential loneliness, who having watched the news were horrified by the state of the world, that all they could do was wail, and wail, and wail. The media story slides quickly to the part where the police cook pasta for them. But I am interested in the spaces of silence and absences of neighbours, of family, of community. I am interested in the gaps occupied by this profound human keening, the sensitivity of a man and woman who feel the wounds of the world so profoundly.

But I am mostly struck by the communal unhearing and unseeing and unfeeling and unregarding. The story is not only about the police and pasta, but also about the meaning of that human cry, and the reactions of those who heard it. I am struck by the blank in the place where people have absented themselves from, or even worse, have become so paralysed by human uncertainty that they do not know how to be hospitable to and receive, perhaps through an embrace, the wounded among and within them. Yet here are the kind of people who would press the contribute button on the computer to send one euro to pay for a borehole in Timbuktu.

The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people.

What has happened? Do you know? I don’t. But does our lexicon for poverty and precarity encompass this, the marginalisation of persons from themselves? The meaning of lives no longer at ease with embracing, holding, comforting, or mourning each other?

For the Bretton Woods and United Nations indices on global well-being, this scene scores high on the wealth index. It shows evidence of the consumption of pasta. Poverty or precarity, under the dominant paradigm does not figure, does it?

There is an adjunct to this that often skips our global headlines: The state of the elderly in European and American societies, evidenced in excessive winter mortalities, is a reality that is carefully left out of developmental indices and global conversations about precarity. Yet the paradigm to which our world has pledged its visioning will implode before it admits that its mythology is erasing the top end of its generations. It would be cynical to imagine, I guess, that the wild reaping of a generation judged as no longer productive is a desired outcome for a worldview obsessed with human usefulness, wouldn’t it?

What I am trying to say, perhaps not too eloquently, is that perhaps, primarily, for me, this conversation we are having about ‘precarity’ is about humanity and its choices, this is an examination of a communal consciences in an attempt to see a way to engage that is transformative to our humanity and its dignity.

Allow me to make brief references to two key aspects in the global value chain of the misery economy that have a role in informing our constructions and perceptions of poverty and precarity:

First, the matter of forced philanthropy, one of the studios and markets for the representational images of poverty and devastation that social development paradigms offer. The business of imposed philanthropy is a fascinating study of human delusion to omniscience, the exercise of power through the mask of pity and the subversion of genuine human compassion for the purposes of profit and personal glory. It too has a history that reaches deep in the roots of the alleged Age of Discovery that I do not need to go into now. Its patterns are the same. The designated beneficiaries are always rendered choiceless, voiceless and nameless and subject to the character profile the philanthropist imposes upon them. Their most intimate lives are exposed to an irresistible gaze. The philanthropists have the power to speak for and represent an entire people and their experience. It is like the ventriloquist who seeks dummies into which he can throw his voice and reiterate his agenda.

Deus ex machina. I will not names.

Caught up in a devastating existential struggle, the targets rarely fight this denudation of their humanity—because, admittedly, some coins to alleviate immediate suffering are made available. Those who object to this business model are often labelled as out of touch, people who are denying or manufacturing reality. For the patron society must always reaffirm its intrinsic goodness. Its people are good. Its intentions are good. And the vulnerable are a blank canvas upon which stories can be repackaged. And if the images are from the imagined African milieu, I promise you a fly on the face shot, even if it has to be photo-shopped in. But this imposed philanthropy serves its most potent purpose: it offers the paradigm a messiah, or many messiahs.

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria.

An overview of this ecology of suffering would be dishonest if it did not refer, at least once, to the role played by the useful idiots, those too-numerous colonial (they pretend to be “post-independent”) governments – those impotent venal agents of collaborative coloniality, betrayers of hopes, repellant homeguards. The worst of these are the leaders of nations whose people are compelled to flee to find life elsewhere, despite the wealth and treasures of home. Each of these leaders, through their incompetence, cowardice and collusion, are culpable and accountable for the extremes of suffering experienced by their people. Entangled in a grammar of violence and oppression, they have woven their individual lives into a life-destroying global economic paradigm at the expense of a vision for the world and their own people; they create new demons and excel in the creation and sustenance of a hell that destroys even the future of their land and generations of people. They engineer displacement, and do so in the name of social development. Yet their governments spend twenty times the resources allotted to national development to buy weapons abroad for incompetent armies trained to turn their weapons inward. These caretakers of disaster have nothing to say about a reality that has turned their people’s bodies into the most tradeable and the most disposable, mere containers for other people’s organs. (Many of their people now lie on the bed of the Mediterranean as undersea ghosts.) What a wreckage. What an abysmal poverty of spirit and imagination.

Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

We lament the body of Aylan but immediately censor our awareness about the link between his sea-washed body and that of the CEO of the weapon-making factory that supplied the manufactured rebels with the guns and bombs that destroyed the Kurdi family life in Kobani, Syria. In the representation of poverty, precarity and alienation, where are the images and stories of the weapon factories and the military or prison industrial complexes? We side-eye bodies that have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea but block our ears to the reality of a multi-billion-dollar human trafficking/slavery network owned by an amoral global elite for whom business has never been better, certainly in the supply of human organs that had been a problem before but is no longer an issue in most of the world now.

How can one enter the soul of this theme without a life-giving mythology of presence so that when we speak of human poverty and precarity we do so justly, and in a way that shelters all that is shamed, broken, unjust, flawed, deaf, blind, lost, wounded or sad? What framework do we have that can call out the normalisation of unmitigated evil and our human dalliance with a violence that excuses itself and erases the voices of the most vulnerable?

Is there a way to interrogate the entrenchment of a seemingly omnipotent economic complex that mocks humanity by calling itself not only humanitarian but also just? What do we do with processes and ideologies with which we cohabit that glorify hatred, injustice, fear and violence that turn others into bogeymen? What ideologies of being exist that are capable or brave enough to hold perpetrator predatory systems and cultures accountable for their wilful desecration of life and meaning? Is there a repository of more profound ideas, values, and words that can engender transformative human relationships so that we do not have to bear the burden of human anguish and injustice alone?

Paraphrasing Mignolo, it must be possible for our humanity to imagine “institutions at the service of life rather than life at the service of institutions.” There has to be a way of being and seeing that deepens the witness’s gaze, a daring to first love—yes, I said it, love – and, therefore, make representation a true gift, a grace of human encounter, of human discovery, dignity, enchantment and knowing.

 

This essay is adapted from a speech by the author at the Gesellschaft für Anglophone Postkoloniale Studien / Association for Anglophone Postcolonial Studies (GAPS)Annual Conference on the theme, ‘Representing Poverty and Precarity in a Postcolonial World’, held from May 25 – 27, 2017 – at the University of Bonn, Germany.

Author’s preamble:

The ideas this essay puts forward are mined from many disciplinary spaces and are especially energised by proposals from thinkers like Enrique Dussel, W.D. Mignolo, Santiago Castro-Gomes, Arturo Escobar, among others, who dare to interrogate the reality of the extended and always-morphing life-cycle of coloniality existing in a dominant historical framework that informs the state of the world today. My intention is to exhume a few sacred graves, particularly those masked in silences. This is a basic exploration of, to borrow from Dussel, “negated alterities”.

I want to now confess to you that writing this was a struggle for so many reasons, some not too clear. For one, what really is an adequate analytical framework through which to enter a thorough exploration of the contemporary iconography of profound human suffering? In considering this question, I was forced to recoil before the dominant post-Enlightenment, modernistic ideology and paradigm that fakes its break with its myriad pasts, while embedding and consolidating its humanity-displacing values and intentions To pretend that the paradigm—modernism, post-modernism, post-colonial, neo-liberal, whatever – is not also a violence-based, suffering-denying, scarcity-inducing, wound-causing, human-dividing, difference-criminalising, consumption-adoring, crisis-creating, self-aggrandising, disordered belief system, with its prosperity gospel, slaughtering priests, elaborate infrastructure, instruments, and institutions that favour a pre-selected few would be ingenuous of me.

In which case, how then does one truly speak about representation, for example, within the framework of this overarching epistemological ecology? How does one address its systemic propensity for blood-letting, dependency on the commodification of life, a habit that is soothed by an instinct to euphemise atrocities that include presiding over a protocol that governs which images and narratives are allowed, sought, desired, derived, edited, distributed, sold and pre-explained? This essay is my attempt to deconstruct the representations and present a life- and human-affirming mirror to those doing the gazing.

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

Politics

Daniel arap Moi and the Politics of Kenya’s Reorganisation

8 min read. The backward looking accounts, the-good-Moi-bad-Moi debate being waged on social media, and the yaliyopita ni ndwele nostalgia of television talk shows are peripheral to the new challenges of the reorganisation phase. Kenya’s reorganization is at an early stage. It will subsume a new set of challenges and opportunities that will require not only updated political skills, but also a sophisticated understanding awareness of the forces in play.

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Moi and the Simplification of the Kenyan Mind
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Release phase dynamics force ecological and human systems to adapt and evolve. The process inscribes a conflictive and often violent pathway as developments across Kenya’s rural landscape confirmed. The assault on the environment suggested that the right to life ranked low in the Kenya’s political elite’s hierarchy of needs. The eruption of violence across the Rift Valley confirmed this hypothesis.

Grievances over land and access to economic resources had been fermenting for several generations. The unrelenting encroachment presented an opportunity for Kanu hawks to curry favour within their marginalised minority communities. The escalation of the conflict was a dilemma for Moi because during the early years of independence he played an instrumental role facilitating the movement of outsiders into the Rift Valley and the acquisition of land on a willing buyer-willing seller basis.

Like many of Moi’s other sins of omission, the executive looked the other way in exchange for their continued support for the Kanu political machine.

The cynical, red in tooth and claw strategy was repeated on a smaller scale when Digo raiders attacked a police post in Likoni during the run up to the 1997 polls. In this case, the raiders were reportedly mobilised but then abandoned by a Mombasa tycoon entrusted with overseeing the Kanu electoral campaign on the coast. Although the Likoni raiders claimed as many coastal lives as upcountry Kenyan fatalities, this time the government launched a paramilitary operation on the pro-Kanu south coast that resulted in multiple cases of rape and other human rights abuses.

A colleague summed up the contradiction when he opined, “when these upcountry people disagree they slaughter each other, but when they are here they come together to grab our land and clobber us.”

The coastal people and pastoralists of northern Kenya would play a crucial role within Kanu by preventing the usual suspects from derailing the constitutional movement as a foreign-backed, opposition tactic to seize power.

The politics of the release phase falsified the hypothesis that Kenyan ethnicity is a function of deep-rooted primordial loyalties. Moi proved this by manipulating the personal ambitions and greed of Kanu opportunists, and then by using the same methods to exploit the shallow loyalties of opposition Members of Parliament. Jomo Kenyatta’s advice was finally sinking in: ‘Moi knows Kenyans’, Mzee had told his kitchen cabinet, ‘you only know Nairobi’.

In 1992 Kanu prevailed with a thin majority parliamentary majority. Moi responded by encouraging opposition member of parliament to defect to Kanu in turn for some material reward, typically a plot allocation. This served two purposes: it filled out the government benches while putting the hollow principles of opposition politicians on public display. The President pranked one particularly greedy Central Province MP who crossed the floor only to find that his reward was a public urinal on Accra Rd.

The politics of the release phase falsified the hypothesis that Kenyan ethnicity is a function of deep-rooted primordial loyalties. Moi proved this by manipulating the personal ambitions and greed of Kanu opportunists, and then by using the same methods to exploit the shallow loyalties of opposition Members of Parliament

Moi had played the role of reluctant agent of reform following the donor mandated return to multi-party politics, grudgingly agreed to the Inter-Parties Parliamentary Group reforms and the formation of an independent electoral commission before the 1997 polls, and assented to a people-driven constitution makeover after securing his final term in office.

Moi was a lousy dictator, but his final term in office turned out to be his finest moment as a politician. Over two decades Moi perfected the art of disorder as a political instrument. Now it was show time.

No longer weighed down with the burden of political survival, The Professor of Politics glided across the Kenya landscape repeating his epistles of unity and home-grown solutions to African problems. When Kanu and opposition MPs turned the constitution-making exercise into a battle over the positions at the top of the pyramid, Moi introduced Wanjiku, the eponymous working mother selling vegetables on the roadside, as the focus of the new dispensation.

Wanjiku became a permanent meme in Kenyan political discourse. Even many of his most committed opponents were conceding, ‘We can’t beat this guy’. Although the probability of a post-Moi Kanu victory in 2002 loomed large—it also depended on who would succeed the President. Moi saved his greatest feat of escapology for his final act.

Moi was a lousy dictator, but his final term in office turned out to be his finest moment as a politician. Over two decades Moi perfected the art of disorder as a political instrument. Now it was show time.

I have personally never witnessed a case of mass hypnosis that comes close to the public obsession generated by the Moi succession.

The drama began with the dismissal of his faithful Vice President, Professor George Saitoti, who was forced to hail a ride after leaving State House because his government car had been confiscated. Moi latter reappointed him, announcing the restoration during one of his roadside palavers. He whetted the appetite the state’s long time nemesis, Raila Odinga, by enticing his party to ‘partner’ with the government, then surprised everyone by dropping his loyal Kanu Secretary-General and selecting four Kanu vice chairmen to serve in his place. This effectively sent Raila to the back of the queue, at least for the time being.

Speculation about the successor dominated conversation in the nation’s bars, miraa sessions, offices, matatus, and private parlours. Unlike the ‘the msaliti affair’, which dragged out for several months, for the better part of three years Kenyans scrutinised every news broadcast, studied Moi’s body language, deconstructed the statements of Kanu functionaries, and subjected every clue and rumour to forensic analysis. Every possible scenario was debated.

In the end, Moi wrong-footed everyone again by choosing Uhuru Kenyatta as Kanu’s 2002 presidential candidate. Dubbed ‘The Project’ by Kanu insiders, the son of the founding father was a political novice whose electoral prospects faced formidable headwinds. Raila had already decamped to the opposition and three of the four vice-chairmen followed him.

The Project united the opposition at a moment when they were still struggling to do so among themselves. They finally prevailed on their third time around.

Reorganisation and Its Challenges

True to his promise, Daniel arap Moi retired to his farm. Before leaving office he declared that he had forgiven those who wronged him, and hoped that those whom he had wronged would do the same. His endgame earned him a large measure of redemption in the eyes of the public.

The overlapping nature of the system phases impart a fuzzy edged quality to the model used to frame this narrative. The reorganization phase was underway by the time Moi left office even though it would take another six years to complete and ratify the new constitution. Smouldering passions of the release phase fuelled the 2007-2008 post-electoral bonfire.

But it does help us extract some lessons about the dynamics of change in Kenya.

When I first started driving in Nairobi, I found that in on certain roads one had to go in the opposite direction to more efficiently reach the destination. The same contradiction applied during the Moi regime. Decentralisation in the form of the Rural Distract Focus, for example, actually strengthened control in the centre. The assault on forests, on the other hand, triggered the environmental movement and forced communities to actively monitor and assume greater ownership of their natural resource base. This idea was a hard sell before the 1990s.

Much of the praise for Moi was expressed as negatives: he kept the military out of politics, he avoided the very real possibility of civil war, and he did not meddle in the affairs of neighbouring countries. One counterfactual corollary of this pattern is the hypothesis that a well-managed post-Kenyatta Kanu would have supported a process of incremental reform, avoiding the slash and burn release politics of the Moi era.

When Kanu and opposition MPs turned the constitution-making exercise into a battle over the positions at the top of the pyramid, Moi introduced Wanjiku, the eponymous working mother selling vegetables on the roadside, as the focus of the new dispensation.

This may have resulted in either a lower threshold for change resulting in an extended conservation phase, giving way to a considerably harsher process of release, as has been the case in other eastern African countries. Even knowing what we know now, many would still choose Moi over a release phase Mbiyu Koinange, Oginga Odinga, or Charles Njonjo Presidency.

Moi left an ambivalent legacy. His public persona was a composite of Paretto’s political elite dialectic. The persuasive Swahili speaking Fox who connected with the masses contrasted with the populist and xenophobic English speaking Lion who provide a soft target for Western critics. The regime’s excesses generated the equal and opposite reaction resulting in the push for the comprehensive constitutional makeover. He also fostered the political culture of tricksters and masks that contributed to the electoral trauma overtaking the 2007, 2013, and 2018 national polls.

During the days following Moi’s departure, Kenyan journalists have produced a body of reportage, personal vignettes, opinion pieces, recapitulations of the human rights carnage, and Moi era historical perspectives. The revisionism of some elders reopened many wounds.

These backward looking accounts, the-good-Moi-bad-Moi debate being waged on social media, and the yaliyopita ni ndwele nostalgia of television talk shows are peripheral to the new challenges of the reorganisation phase.

John Ilife’s short book, The Emergence of African Capitalism, ends with a useful comment on the role of agency in Africa’s transition to a distinctively Indigenous capitalism. It is certain,” he states,” that in determining whether or not African capitalism can establish itself as a creative force, political skill on both sides will be crucial.”

Because the private sector was dominated by the Gikuyu and the small Asian community, Moi’s policies effectively inhibited the private sector’s growth until liberalisation forced him to make a choice in 1989. He chose the Asians, a choice that reinforced the Gospel According to Saint Mark primitive accumulation, inhibiting Schumpeter’s creative destruction of capitalism now emergent across the region.

Much of the purloined assets and rent-seeking that took place after independence has not contributed to formal sector progress, leaving the more adaptive informal sector to absorb most of the unprecedented numbers of young Kenyans entering the economy.

The current phase of regional capitalist penetration comes with a new cast of international actors with the Chinese in the front rank of a new array of regional states that include the UAE, Turkey, India and other new actors establishing a foothold in the Horn of Africa’s political economy. The “both sides” equation is changing, and it will take more than Illife’s creative indigenous capitalism to unlock Africa’s potential.

Reorganisation and the Case for Game Change

Release can lead to diverse outcomes from socioeconomic transformation to collapse, or retreat back into the conservative order. Kenya’s reorganization is at an early stage. It will subsume a new set of challenges and opportunities that will require not only updated political skills, but also a sophisticated understanding awareness of the forces in play.

The world appears to be undergoing a release phase across system scales that is raising questions about the civilisational order generated by win-lose capitalism. There are deep conversations taking place around the world focusing on the array of post capitalist concepts and tools for addressing a range of contemporary issues.

Examples include market based valuations of ecological services, endemic racism and right wing populism, artificial intelligence, profit seeking health care, climate change and resource scarcities, the impact of social media impacts on political processes, and our conflict sustaining security frameworks. There are many others feeding into the new values-based narratives emerging across the planet.

The diagnoses of Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, and other anti-imperialists of that era were not so much incorrect as they were limited by neo-Marxist dirigisme of the exploitation-conservation phase overlap.

Kenya’s transitional incoherence is too complex to support an equally dirigiste Dubai or Chinese style developmental template. But it’s size, organisational diversity, and a resilience bred out of chronic uncertainty gives it an advantage over the large polities that for generations have dominated the world. Rwanda’s progress is a case in point.

The diagnoses of Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Julius Nyerere, Amilcar Cabral, and other anti-imperialists of that era were not so much incorrect as they were limited by neo-Marxist dirigisme of the exploitation-conservation phase overlap.

Moreover, Kenya’s demographic structure comes with a forward-looking orientation that can support a localised variation on this discourse of collaborative creativity and its problem solving applications. To do so, however, our millennials will have to broaden their intellectual horizons and adopt the game-changing mind-set needed to hack the instrumentalities driving the quasi-reorganizational thinking behind debt magnets like LAPSSET and Vision 2030 centralised planning.

Several months after the 1997 elections I was crossing Harrambee Avenue when the President popped up in a land rover. I will never forget his spontaneous address to the small crowd that gathered: “Hiyo katiba tutarakebisha, lakini nataka nyinyi wananchi mukumbuke kwamba hata katiba haiwezi kuzuia shari ndani ya moyo wa binadamu.

“We will overhaul the constitution, but I urge you Kenyans to remember that even a new constitution cannot restrain the evil in men’s hearts.” Game on.

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Politics

Daniel arap Moi and the Politics of Kenya’s Release

14 min read. Much has been written about Daniel arap Moi, and his death has uncorked a litany of previously hidden details and insights into the Shakespearian drama he presided over while in office. But how do we evaluate the legacy of Moi’s agency during his time in office?

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Daniel arap Moi and the Politics of Kenya’s Release
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The death of Daniel Toroitich arap Moi on 4 February triggered a predictable avalanche of contradictory responses. The national media has led the canonisation campaign while a range of other Kenyans sniped at the “Professor’s” poor human rights record and state corruption. BBC correspondent Dickens Olewe reported that Moi left a legacy that will be vigorously debated in the wake of his death, underscoring that “Kenya has changed a lot since Mr Moi left office but his influence will continue to be felt for a long time”.

The resurrection of the Kenya African National Union has already proved to be one of the former President’s most durable achievements. Moi revived the moribund party that brought Kenya independence as the vehicle for his patrimonial rule. The observation that KANU is still ruling the nation is one of the truisms of Kenyan political exegesis. The names and slogans have changed, but the political monoculture that was seeded by Jomo Kenyatta and watered by Moi has held sway over each successive government.

Moi himself was a more elusive phenomenon. His generous and magnanimous persona masked his political acumen. Moi’s two terms under the multi-party regime complicated the enigmatic leader’s profile considerably, adding another decade to the President’s long conversation with the nation. Most of this conversation occurred on the stump where for decades he reiterated his mantra of peace, love and unity with metronomic consistency.

Heavy-handed and despotic after the chaotic 1982 coup attempt, his two terms under the multi-party system allowed the President to sharpen his skills and play the political trickster exposing the opposition’s motivations as no different from those of his own KANU sycophants.

The political monoculture that was seeded by Jomo Kenyatta and watered by Moi has held sway over each successive government

“You Kenyans,” he once berated a large assembly of wananchi, “you Kenyans are a very difficult people to govern!”

The constant succession of schemes, gambits, and political gimmicks served up by his cronies and opponents alike validated his credentials as a mariner in a turbulent ocean. Moi kept the ship of state moving forward at a time when a mix of internal and external forces deemed African governance to be more a case of good seamanship than the neoliberal navigation advocated by the country’s Western partners.

All of this makes sorting out the Moi legacy a highly cautionary exercise. People who were not around for the grand political trope Moi set in motion may not understand what the fuss is about. He was a corrupt and long-serving autocrat who cracked heads. But it is nevertheless important to recognise how the death of a leader serves to crystallize a nation’s perception of itself, and how it got to where it is now.

Political History as System Cycles: Exploitation and Conservation

History comes in different packages. Sometimes it tells the story of empires and civilisations, other times it focuses on the life of great individuals. In recent times, scholars have focused on the social and cultural life of communities and nations to fill out the frame. Scientists have produced works of history detailing how soils, climate, and epidemics have molded life on earth across the eons.

More recently, the study of system dynamics has seen the ecological concepts reproduced across various disciplines, leading in turn to the rise of trans-disciplinary analyses of complex systems. The science of complexity defines decision-makers influencing how a given system behaves as agents—actors subject to larger forces that determine how the games they play are decided.

It is important to recognize how the death of a leader serves to crystallize a nation’s perception of itself, and how it got to where it is now

It follows that systemic influences shaped the landscape that Daniel arap Moi in turn shaped over the course of his 95 years. Much has been written about the man, and his death uncorked a litany of previously hidden details and insights into the Shakespearian drama he presided over while in office. But how do we evaluate the legacy of Moi’s agency during his time in office?

Kenya has undergone several transitions beginning in the run-up to European intervention. Models of ecological cycles provide one method for analysing the developmental dynamics underlying these transitions. Sanderson and Hollings, scholars associated with the resilience movement, have proposed that their model of ecological succession cycles is applicable to social systems.

The cycle encompasses four phases: exploitation, conservation, creative destruction or release, and renewal and reorganisation. These phases are best regarded as ideal types that unfold in an uneven manner with significant overlap. They nevertheless provide a useful backdrop for assessing the evolution of a given system, which in this instance is Moi’s Kenya.

The exploitation phase corresponds to the decades bookending the colonial interlude. Imperial intervention created a new political economy in Kenya based on large-scale agriculture and its state-based support structure dominated by a small ethnic elite. Kenya was both redesigned and reimagined from above as an aggregation of communities distinguished by linguistic and cultural markers and separated by territorial boundaries.

Colonialism instigated a new cycle of far-reaching change for the now politically and spatially bounded territory. In another historical iteration, the region’s borders could have followed different criteria. Left to its own devices, for example, the regional process may have lumped the decentralised societies of the Kenya highlands together with other Bantu speakers to the south and east, or a greater Cushitic nation could have emerged out of the vast rangelands of the Horn of Africa.

This may still happen over time. But the fact of the matter is that history conspired to merge an amalgamation of communities into a nation more variegated and diverse than the population of Europe. These communities share a space the size of France. The mix of ecologies and economies the new colony encapsulated made Kenya unique, even by the standards of this culturally diverse region. The British colonisers controlled the territory by simplifying the equation.

Exploitation was consolidated through the importation of institutions of governance and protocols adapted to the European experience. For the colonial administrators who found indigenous production systems in varying states of crisis and recovery following the disasters of the 1890s, the practical issue was generating the economic output necessary to finance the protectorate and soon-to-be colony. They built the railroad to Uganda, and most of the investment and change over the next eight decades occurred in the agricultural highlands it served.

The inhabitants of these areas bore the brunt of European occupation, which is not to say that the neglect of other communities was not exploitative. The incorporation of the indigenous population into the capitalist economy accelerated with the Swynnerton Plan of 1954, which shifted the role of the indigenous households from labourers to semi-autonomous producers.

This, and the inevitability of political independence, marked the beginning of the conservation phase. Jomo Kenyatta’s agency focused on the preservation of the post-colonial status quo, presided over by his ethnic cohorts with an element of power sharing incorporating a new caste of tribal power brokers into the ranks of the new elite.

Exploitation was consolidated through the importation of institutions of governance and protocols adapted to the European experience

Where other African leaders sought to move directly into the release phase and liberate their people from the political and mental dominance of external hegemonies, President Kenyatta opted to conserve the country’s economic configuration. “I cannot experiment with the lives of my people,” he told his fellow East African heads of State, the socialists Julius Nyerere and Milton Obote.

Conservation also involved expanding new avenues of accumulation within the post-independence economy. For over a decade Kenya achieved a combination of diversified economic growth and political stability. But the template remained the same: in 1975 coffee, tea, and petroleum products still provided 75 per cent of Kenya’s export earnings. Most Kenyans still derived their livelihoods from agriculture.

The development of the conservation phase reached its apogee during the coffee boom of 1977-78, prompting displays of conspicuous consumption. Ordinary Kenyans were treated to the spectacle of the highly publicised shopping trip to London of a group of coffee planters and their wives; they chartered an extra Boeing 747 to convey their purchases back to Kenya.

The country’s state capitalism reinforced large-scale production, formal sector enterprises, exchange controls and import substitution, a provincial administration controlling preferential access to resources and services, and an elitist education model. Although Kenya was a paragon of stability, there were cracks in the façade. Corruption was increasing and the one-party state had become a no-party state run by Kenyatta’s Kiambu kitchen cabinet.

Coffee came to symbolise the pinnacle of the development of the conservation phase. The industry’s subsequent decline is an interesting exemplar of release phase transitional dynamics. The shift from Kenyatta to the Moi regime described a similar arc of boom and decline. Kenya’s colonial blueprint had reached its natural limit as a small ethnic cabal controlled the government, and large swaths of the country were ruled as an internal colony.

Land ownership was a volatile manifestation of Kenya’s dual economy and structural inequality. In the 1979 census Kenya registered a 3.6 per cent population growth rate, and jumped to an unprecedented 4.1 in the 1989 census, guaranteeing decades of increasing pressure on the already hard-pressed economy and land resources. This configuration could not be sustained.

The transition from conservation to release was already underway when Moi took office in August of 1978. The vice president’s limited ability to grow his wealth despite his privileged position in Kenyatta’s government set him apart from Kenyatta’s inner circle. They regarded him as, “a passing cloud” although Mzee Kenyatta had rejected their assessment. They believed that Kenya needed a hard-nosed capitalist who could keep in check the unruly masses and the Marxist agitators who made a point of drinking their beer out of cow horns.

Two plots to remove Moi from the line of succession brought the fault lines into clear view. One involved amending the constitution, the other was the Ngoroko Squad, ostensibly an anti-poaching unit clandestinely created to remove the vice president and his key allies in the event of the death of the ailing Kenyatta.

The former failed following the intervention of the Attorney General, Charles Njonjo, and the other backfired when President Kenyatta died in Mombasa, allowing the Coast Provincial Commissioner to set in motion the swearing-in process before the Ngoroko Squad could intervene. Moi was to face many other threats over the course of his tenure.

Kenya’s Release Phase Political Dynamics

Forest succession is a commonly cited example of the ecological model featured here. The establishment of tree species corresponds to the exploitation phase, the maturing of trees supporting the greater arboreal ecology corresponds to the conservation phase, and destruction, usually by fire, triggers the release phase, which eventually gives way to reorganisation in the form of whatever similar or new ecological system follows in its place.

Ecological release is similar to the creative destruction of capitalism, a concept derived from Marx and popularised by the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter. The impact of ecological release, however, considerably exceeds the influence of Schumpeterian innovation in the business cycle. Release, in contrast, proceeds by breaking up the rigid conservative order, which takes the system into the more liquid, chaotic regime of complexity science.

Kenya needed a hard-nosed capitalist who could keep in check the unruly masses and the Marxist agitators who made a point of drinking their beer out of cow horns

Release rearranges established linkages, leading to a more fluid but turbulent state system, facilitating what Robert Kaufmann refers to as spontaneous internal organisation, a process strongly influenced by the system’s initial conditions. Reorganisation inevitably generates varying degrees of violence. Conflict, in the context of this case study, is a function of agents within the system pursuing different strategic objectives.

This is an important caveat qualifying the role of human agents, especially in a complex system like Kenya where the potential for political violence is always close to the surface. The criteria in this context is not based on ethical or moral considerations, but on how conflict affects the capacity to adapt and to navigate the system from release to the reorganisational phase.

When Kenya’s release cycle began to erode the post-independence order, most Kenyans attributed it to disruptive developments reverberating within the political arena. At the time, no one was able to anticipate the directionality of these developments and the trajectory that was set in motion. Most Kenyans hoped a blend of continuity and incremental change would prevail over the radical agenda of the Kenyatta state’s critics.

The new president was well aware of his vulnerable position when he took over. Kenyatta’s death generated a temporary mood of political reflection similar to the one we are currently witnessing. Moi took advantage of this by declaring he would fuata nyayo za Mzee, follow in the footsteps of Kenyatta. Most Kenyans were not familiar with the Swahili term for footstep (nyayo) when he made the declaration tethering the new regime to the conservative policies of the first government.

The idealistic goals of the post-independence neo-Marxists were fading across the continent. Nyayo governance became a form of adhocracy predicated on Moi’s vision of national unity, but otherwise unencumbered by any ideological orientation. The missionary Christianity of Moi’s upbringing only partially filled the space that it shared with the anti-intellectual biases and suspicion of external blueprints Moi displayed once he was in the chair. His intimate familiarity with the Kenya landscape and the behavioural proclivities of its inhabitants became the theory behind the trial and error process that characterised most of Moi’s time in office.

The prospects of a fresh start—Moi famously stated that sleeping in a bed of gold will not guarantee a good night’s sleep—reassured the body politic. But the sponsors of the change-the-constitution plot were unrepentant. They saw Moi as a soft target, an unsophisticated church-going country lackey who could be dealt with in due course.

Moi quickly adapted his low profile modus operandi to deal with the threat. The new Moi emerged as a master of ambiguity and unpredictability, sowing uncertainty to offset his weak power base. He began by instigating the pro-Nyayo and anti-Nyayo debate, which allowed him to cull his opponents in the Kenyatta network of high-ranking administrators and regional power barons.

This was the first in a series of often theatrical ploys played out in the public sphere. These tactics required no small amount of public acrobatics and reverse spin by the new coalition of political travellers and opportunists hitched to the Moi caravan. It was later extended to high-ranking civil servants, cabinet ministers, ambassadors, and other members of the Moi nomenklatura in the form of unexpected announcements on the state broadcaster’s 1 pm news bulletins.

Most Kenyans hoped a blend of continuity and incremental change would prevail over the radical agenda of the Kenyatta state’s critics

The 1977 spike in world Arabica prices had boosted Kenya’s domestic income by 14 per cent. The boom gave way to a precipitous reversal of the sector’s fortunes, exacerbated by widespread use of counterfeit agro-chemicals in 1979 that resulted in catastrophic crop failures.

The problems affecting coffee production soon spread to other areas of the estate sector such as sisal, maize and wheat, and livestock farming. But Kenya’s commercial smallholders absorbed most of the pain. Moi used their marginalisation to increase small-scale producer cooperatives’ representation in institutions like the Kenya Producers Cooperative Union (KPCU) and otherwise exploited smallholder grievances to further counter the influence of the estate sector’s entrenched elites.

The financial buffer protecting the Kenyatta elite planters concentrated around Thika and Nakuru was wearing thin, decreasing the clout of another set of anti-Nyayo actors. But the powerful kingmaker behind the Moi succession, Charles Njonjo, was the real threat. Njonjo tipped his hand when he attended a Kiambu church where the pastor’s sermon referred to “the lead sheep who cannot lead his flock to good pasture.”

Moi outflanked him by announcing that Western governments were grooming “a traitor in our midst”. Kenyans added another previously obscure Swahili term, to their vocabulary as speculation over the unnamed msaliti mounted over the days, sending an array of possible saboteur candidates running for cover.

One of the president’s allies eventually named Njonjo. Parliament shouted him down when he tried to defend himself. Removed from office and isolated, a commission of enquiry that was high on entertainment but low on hard evidence finished the job, sending the pardoned but disgraced Njonjo into retirement in 1983.

The institutional entropy overtaking Kenya’s public sector was less amenable to political quick fixes. The endemic discontent in Luo Nyanza spread to other communities, encouraging a cabal of non-commissioned Air Force officers to plot a Samuel Doe-style military coup on 1 August 1982. The poorly executed takeover was symptomatic of the creeping disorder underpinning popular opposition to the Moi state. This coup redirected the subsequent course of events. Moi called snap elections, trusting the electorate to undertake another culling operation.

Some of the problems fueling the decomposition of the old status quo were internal and some were external, such as the donor-dictated structural adjustment policies and the privatisation of state assets that followed in their wake. Others were a mix of environmental factors and the government’s limited capacity to manage contingency arrangements, like the maintenance of strategic grain reserves during the boom-bust maize production cycle of the early 1980s.

They saw Moi as a soft target, an unsophisticated church-going country lackey who could be dealt with in due course

The food security problem became a full-blown national crisis when the 1984 long rains failed. Even though the government response to the famine was efficient, the narrative from below blamed the government for the stomach cramps and diarrhoea caused by the American yellow maize distributed as relief food.

The redistributive logic behind Moi’s patrimonial politics fed the spreading corruption of the post-1982 period. Where Kenyatta’s corruption was elitist, Moi presided over a more inclusive government that partially mitigated the backlash against his populist gravy train. Regardless of the motive and the contribution of the collinear neoliberal policies to the public sector meltdown, the corrosive impact on social services was the same.

In the meantime, Kenya’s reputation for stability was now more a function of the growing chaos raging across the greater region than of the nation’s internal equilibria. The consensus abroad focused on the need for programmatic policy-based solutions to address Kenya’s faltering progress. If Moi’s gospel of peace, love, and unity appeared homespun and quaint, his by-the-seat-of-his-pants governance style came across as reactionary in contrast.

Moi had, by that point, no patience with any form of political critique however constructive or patriotic. When the government massacred several thousand ethnic Somalis quarantined without food and water at the Wagalla airstrip in Wajir in February 1984, the opposition remained silent. The double standard applied to Kenya’s minority communities provides a backdrop for the number of brave and principled critics of the government who also paid a heavy price over the years.

The fire that started as a bush-clearing exercise was raging out of control.

Razing the Forests

In 1989 I returned to Kenya to undertake a PhD on the commercialisation of small-scale agriculture, and all was not well. The Ministry of Agriculture’s Land Rovers were running out of fuel by mid-month, cooperatives and local authorities went into remission. The purchasing power of civil service salaries continued to decline, agricultural output stagnated, the new American Ambassador ratcheted up the criticism, and Kenya’s traditional allies diverted their developmental funding to the country’s emergent civil society.

Disenchantment with the government had increased apace with the impact of donor conditionalities. For KANU’s primitive accumulators, the Bretton Woods policy reforms turned out to be very good news. The political machine had to be fed, and the privatisation policies provided a new entry point. Kenya’s public lands became a source of new fuel. Privatisation released Moi’s State House to unleash a wave of environmental degradation.

The narrative from below blamed the government for the stomach cramps and diarrhea caused by the American yellow maize distributed as relief food

The Nyayo tea zones carved out of the margins of highland forests had signalled the Moi government’s position on Kenya’s dwindling forest cover. Forested areas of the Rift Valley like the Enosoopukia watershed and the Mau escarpment were opened to smallholder settlement. Local compradors used their State House connections to target other local forests, urban real estate, riparian border zones, and communal land reserves. Excisions in Nairobi’s Karura forest, a stone’s throw from the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters, became the stuff Nobel Prizes are made of.

A 1990 profile published in the New Yorker portrayed Moi as a paragon of Africa’s Big Man syndrome. Previous to this, one of my former students had published a similar exposé in the International Herald Tribune. However correct these critiques may have been on the surface, they did not factor in the larger dynamics at work, including the effects of International Financial Institutions’ policies on African policy.

Privatisation in Kenya reminded me of Victor Borges’ short story, The Gospel According to Mark. A Christian missionary goes off to a remote atoll to share the good news with its primitive inhabitants. He spends the better part of a year preaching in a simple wooden church. The natives duly attend, but remain dull-eyed and show no sign that they comprehend the import of his sermons. Then, early one Friday morning in April, his pupils come to his house en masse. They are uncharacteristically excited and babbling in their language, which the missionary has yet to master. He only recognises some localised words from the scriptures. Their joy and enthusiasm increase as they escort him to the church. Perplexed, the missionary turns the corner where, with smiles and gesticulations, they point to the cross and the nails they have prepared especially for him, their foreign saviour.

Local compradors used their State House connections to target other local forests, urban real estate, riparian border zones, and communal land reserves

Cannibalising parastatals and running down other state corporations and using the purloined resources to buy the assets back at throw-away price became standard procedure. Prime land was privatised only to be sold back to the government at inflated prices. The plot-grabbing mania snowballed until schools, churches, private property, and even the dead in their cemeteries were fair game for the grabbers and their accomplices in the hallways of the Ministry of Lands. Like the bodyguard who stole the President’s gold KANU cockerel from the bedroom of his Kabarak farm, one especially bold privateer obtained a title for a Nairobi plot that actually belonged to Moi.

While politicians and activists incited their constituents against the Moi government, angry peasants targeted their local patrons, co-op officials, and corrupt civil servants. The seizure of cooperative factories, the burning of tea and cane fields, and the revolt of rice growers forced state marketing bodies to raise producer prices and in some cases cancel farmers’ loans. Smallholder producers launched lawsuits against managers of cooperatives, others attacked officials or burnt down their houses. The reform of the Cooperatives Act side-lined the front-line ministry of rural development, leaving producers at the mercy of local mafias and a new class of brokers and middlemen usurping their role.

Powerless to stop the forces they had set in motion, the IMF mandarins turned off the taps and left capitalism in Kenya to sort itself out without them. Elsewhere in Africa the turbulence released by their neoliberal medicine was claiming many of Africa’s Big Men: how was Moi to avoid the same fate?

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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President

15 min read. DAUTI KAHURA recalls what it was like living in the Moi era.

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Moi’s Theatre of the Absurd: Reflections on My Generation’s President
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On a sunny Saturday afternoon, sometime in 1987, I was taking a stroll from Section 19 into Kitale town, then an agricultural, sleepy, settler town. I did not pay much attention to the beige VW Kombi that passed by me until after it had gone like 20 metres before it started reversing. I kept walking, and the Kombi reversed past me to stop near some school girls who were walking behind me. I had not noticed the girls either. They were in green uniforms and were from Kitale Girls, the school that was later to be renamed St Monica.

I stopped to watch as the passenger in the Kombi van rolled down the window and started talking to the girls. As he talked to them, his right hand reached to the glove compartment and removed a wad of neat Kenya currency notes, which he gave to one of the girls. No sooner had he given the money to the girls, who were by then giggling with excitement, the van zoomed past me, the passenger rolling up the window. I had heard that President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi was a man who was besotted with school girls, but until then, I had never taken it seriously.

I will always remember this act of spontaneous magnanimity – of a president going about his business in an unmarked nondescript van (the Kombi became associated with Moi’s tours across the country) and stopping to chat up some students and hand them some cash. I went away thinking, what a kind man, a president who stops to engage with students along a road. That scene stayed in mind for a very long time.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

Three years after my close encounter with Moi, in 1990, I was a barman in Ukunda, which lies along Kenya’s south coast, five kilometres from the famous Diani beach. I had some special clients who worked at the Kwale Law Courts who patronised the club nearly every day. They were clerks, lawyers, magistrates and civil servants. I liked discussing politics with them. Many of them were from the Luo community.

But as I was to learn later, Moi was a man with many faces, someone who could evince deep feelings of empathy as he simultaneously schemed to inflict deep pain on his adversaries – real or imagined. He transitioned effortlessly from one face to the other, leaving many people aghast and confused.

On February 12, 1990, the daily newspapers reported that Dr Robert Ouko, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, had gone missing. That evening, when the patrons came for their drinks, the point of discussion was the missing minister. I remember telling them that there was no way a minister could go missing, I do not know where I had gotten that information, but I recall telling them a president must always know where his cabinet ministers are on a daily basis. A minister must report to the president wherever he is, more so a foreign affairs minister. I told them the minister was long dead.

“Young man,” shot back one of the Luo civil servants, “what are you talking about? You are too young to know these things.” We left it at that. The following day, the papers reported that the minister’s body had been found at Got Alila village in Koru in Kisumu by a herdsboy. That day, my Luo patrons did not work, so they came straight to the bar at about 10.00am, carrying their newspapers. They ordered for their drinks, but could not drink them. They were very distraught. Conversing in Dholuo, one of them, overcome by emotions, broke down and wept. It was my first time ever to see a man weep uncontrollably.

“Oh God”, mourned the man, “they have done it again. Kenyatta killed [Tom] Mboya and now Moi has killed Ouko. Why, why, why, nobody likes us…we’ll always be on our own.” One could feel the indescribable pain the man was undergoing. As writer James Baldwin would write, my dungeons shook. Mboya was the mercurial Minister of Economic Planning and Development when on July 5, 1969, he was shot by an assailant, Isaac Njenga, at around 1.00pm as he stepped out of Chhani’s Pharmacy on Government Road (today’s Moi Avenue).

Close encounters

In 1991, I was back in Kitale. My friend, an architect, asked me to accompany him to go and see his client. His client was a well-heeled politician, as connected as they come. He owned a merchandise shop on Kenyatta St. On the day we went to see him at the shop, he was in a foul mood.

“Hawa waKikuyu wanafikiri hao ndio akina nani? Sisi tulialika hawa hapa Rift Valley tukawapatia mashamba ya kulima…sasa wanasema wanataka multiparty politics. Juzi mimi nilikua na mzee na amekasirika sana…ametuambia lazima tuonyeshe hawa waKikuyu Rift Valley ni ya kina nani. Wewe ngoja tu, baada ya miezi sita utasikia maneno – tutachoma na kufukuza hao kabisa.” Who do these Kikuyus think they are? We gave them farms to till here in Rift Valley…now they are saying they want multiparty politics. You know the other day I was with President Moi and he was very angry…he has said we must show these Kikuyus who owns Rift Valley. Just wait, in six months time, you’ll hear for yourself – we’ll burn their properties and chase them out of Rift Valley.

The politician assumed that I was a Bukusu from Trans Nzoia.

As sure as night follows day, six months after, ethnic violence – sometimes referred to as ethnic cleansing – started sporadically all over the Rift Valley. Moi and his cohorts called them tribal clashes.

I had gone to school in Kitale, so I had made many friends across the ethnic divide. One of them was from a Kikuyu family that lived up in the Cherangani hills scheme, where his parents were crop and livestock farmers on a 10-acre piece of land. As “ethnic cleansing” sprouted all over Kitale and other places, my friend narrated to me how one night his family was attacked by Kalenjin warriors armed with bows and arrows. My friend said that that night, the family thought they would meet their maker. But when morning came, they emerged from their hiding places alive. But their livestock was gone – their cows were doused in petrol and burned alive. “We could smell the burning of raw meat…you can imagine the torture the poor animals underwent,” he told me.

Moi had instigated the ethnic cleansing of the Kikuyus in the greater Rift Valley province because he had been forced by the West to reintroduce multiparty politics. In 1989, the Berlin Wall had collapsed and two years later glasnost and perestroika has set in in the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as nation-states broke away to claim independence. Kenya had been a darling of the US and UK – barely four years before, in 1987, Margaret Thatcher had praised Moi as an African statesman when he went calling at Downing St. The West had turned its back on Moi by tightening the purse and asking him to conform to the new political dispensation. The Cold War had come to end and the US was now the unchallenged superpower.

“Moi’s double-faced beguiling character is something many Kenyans did not know,” said journalist Ken Opala. “Moi was a master manipulator of emotions, he could charm you out of your socks.” Sometime in 1996, Opala had an encounter with Moi at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA)’s state pavilion. Opala, then reporting for the Daily Nation newspaper, had gone to cover the state visit of Jiang Zemin, the President of the Communist Republic of China.

As he, Kipkoech Tanui (today the group executive editor at the Standard Group but then a rookie reporter, also working for the Daily Nation) and Manoah Esipisu (now Kenya’s High Commissioner in the UK but then working for Reuters), stood metres away from the state pavilion, President Moi leisurely walked towards them, his left hand in his pocket. When he approached Opala, he asked him:

“Eehe na wewe ni nani?” What’s your name?

“Ken Opala wa Nation”

“Juzi mlikuwa na pullout, mbona hamukutaja Moi na kazi ile serikali inafanya?” Moi queried Opala.

It was just after May 1st that Zemin was visiting and President Moi remembered that the Daily Nation had carried a pullout on Labour Day and apparently he was not happy with it.

“Nyinyi ni watu wabaya sana, munaandika tu mambo yenu…si ya kutengeneza nchi…kama vile serikali yangu inafanya,” Moi lamented.

“Lakini siyo hivyo mzee,” It isn’t that way sir, Opala interjected.

“Lakini nini?” Moi turned on the hapless Opala.

“Wacha flattery.” Stop the flattery retorted a stern Moi, poking Opala on the chest with his index finger.

Taken aback by Moi’s brash harshness, Opala knew he had annoyed the president by defending his employer. But Moi suddenly changed tact and moved closer to him:

“Opala wewe ni mzuri, Kwendo Opango ndio mbaya.” Opala you’re the good one, Kwendo Opanga is the bad one, said a demure Moi, almost cooing into the journalist’s ear. (Kwendo Opanga used to write a hard-hitting Sunday Nation column, which Moi disliked.)

As the Zemin’s plane taxied closer to the apron, where Moi was waiting to receive his guest, his security inched closer to him, signalling him to move away from the journalist.

“Wewe wacha, mimi na ongea na mtu yangu,” You stop, can’t you see I’m talking to my friend, said Moi to the security men. Vice President George Saitoti, who died in a helicopter crash in June 2012 in Kibiko, off Ngong town, seemed uneasy as Moi insisted on talking to the journalist.

Sisi ni wazuri, hao ndio wabaya, twende, twende tukapokee mgeni. Huyu rais ni mzuri anatuletea pesa, wachana na watu ambao wanaadika mambo ya fitina tu.” We are the good people, let’s go and receive the president, he’s a good man, he’s bringing goodies for us. Leave those people whose only work is to pen malicious stories.

Much later, Opala, humbled by the fact that the most powerful man in the country had taken time to engage with him, marvelled at the simplicity of Moi. He believed that the president was a good man who was misunderstood by people who did not know him well. The journalist began doubting whether all those bad stories about Moi were true after all.

Several weeks later, Opala had another chance encounter with the president. Thinking that they were already friends, and that Moi would remember him (apparently, Moi’s memory was legendary), Opala was surprised when the president ignored him and behaved as if he had never met him. “I couldn’t believe Moi, who had talked to me like his son, sharing with me some juicy anecdotes, would behave so coldly towards me like that: I almost wondered what I had done this time,” said Opala. That little experience nearly traumatised the journalist.

Kabarak School: Moi’s backyard  

A master of the game, Moi political life enacted such plays all the time in his political life. He conjured up schemes to keep his political friends and foes alike busy fighting each other as he continually plotted to antagonise them by creating mutual suspicions among them. “Sometimes we think that’s why he built Kabarak School,” said a top notch medical doctor, who is an alumni of the school Moi built.

Kabarak received its first Kenya Advanced Certificate of Education (KACE) “A” level students in 1979, four months after Moi ascended to the presidency. “That’s how powerful a Kenyan president is,” said my medic friend. The medic was in the second lot of the 1980/1981 “A” level lot. “I’d been called to Mangu High School to pursue Maths, Chemistry and Biology, but I got a letter from Kabarak and my father, looking at the fee structure, said the school had been built to save his meagre savings… the fees were rock bottom.”

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School in Baringo County, which is 25km from Kabarak and which is in his ancestral village of Sacho and Sunshine School, which is in Nairobi West, Nairobi County. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them. Sunshine School was even built on grabbed land – the land on which Sunshine School sits once belonged to the Prisons Department.

Kabarak began by poaching all the best students from other schools around the country. To start off “A” level class, it poached Kenya Certificate of Education “O” level students who had been called to both Alliance High Schools (Boys and Girls), Highlands Girls, (today Moi Girls Eldoret), Kagumo High School, Kangaru High school, Kenya High, Lenana School, Limuru Girls, Loreto Girls, Nairobi School, Nyeri High, Thika High, Maseno School – basically the top schools in the country then, as now. Moi also did the same with teachers. He picked the best teachers from these schools, and populated Kabarak with them.

Although the school was built with taxpayers’ money, Moi privatised it, as he would Sacho High School and Sunshine School. All three schools enjoy exceptional facilities and the teachers from the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) are all funded by the public. Yet it was Moi who decided who would attend them.

Esther Koimett was among the first students of the “A” level class of 1979/1980. She is the daughter of Nicholas Biwott, one of Moi’s most powerful henchmen who later acquired the nickname “The Bull of Auckland”. Koimett is now the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure, Urban Development and Public Works.

Other better known Kenyans who passed through Kabarak include Mary Ijaya Mudavadi, sister to Musalia, Chepchumba Kandie, the daughter of Aaron Kandie, the former solicitor general, Sam Mwamburi Mwale, the former Permanent Secretary in Mwai Kibaki’s government, Orlando Lyomu, the Chief Executive Officer at the Standard Group, and Samson Chepkairor, aka Sam Shollei, also a former Standard Group CEO. (Chepkairor’s classmates of the 1980/1981 “A” level class cannot remember when he changed his name to Shollei.) Others were Robert Matano’s two daughters, Nick Salat’s two sisters and Margaret Nderi, the daughter of Ignatius Nderi, the powerful boss at the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) during Mzee Jomo Kenyatta’s rule.

Sometime in January 2005, I went to talk to Geoffrey Griffins, the Director of Starehe Boys Centre and School. Over and above everything else we talked about that afternoon, I remember him telling me about Moi, which he told me in strict confidence. When Moi become president, he approached Griffins and asked him to accept Kalenjin students. The director said that was not a problem, as long as they met the minimum qualifications. “This apparently did not please Moi because he expected me to say ‘yes, yes, Mr President’,” recalled Griffins.

Moi also wondered loudly why Mwai Kibaki remained the patron of Starehe Boys Centre, while Moi was now the president. “I told Moi, Kibaki remained the patron because the school’s management board, which included members of the British royalty, had settled on the former Minister of Finance and it was for them to decide who was to be the patron.” Soon after, Moi started Kabarak, where he became his own patron, and where one class each out of the four streams from Form I to Form IV was reserved solely for Kalenjin kids.

At Kabarak School, which was just a few metres from Moi’s house, he would invite Kanu political honchos and pit them against each other, right there in the school. “We witnessed many such incidents in which Moi would host two sets of warring Kanu factions and make them believe that each had his ear and exclusivity. One time, on a Saturday, he invited both Matu Wamae and Davidson Ngibuini Kuguru, the Mathira constituency (in Nyeri) titans, each not knowing that the other was also present,” said the ex-Kabarak medic. “Kabarak had many holding rooms where visitors to Moi’s house would be entertained. As Moi entertained Ngibuini in the house, Matu was kept busy at the school by Henry Cheboiwo, the first Baringo North MP and Moi’s confidant, Abraham Kiptanui, a former State House Comptroller and Aaron Kandie.”

Those who have been to Kabarak know that the home and school have two entrances on the Nakuru-Elgeyo Marakwet Road. Both entrances are guarded by the General Service Unit (GSU) Recce squad. Inside the school there is also a tarmacked road connecting the school to Moi’s house. As Ngibuini was being seen off by Moi’s handlers inside the house through the road leading directly from Moi’s house to the main road, Wamae was being ushered in through the link road between the school and the house.

Later both groups, Ngibuini’s and Wamae’s, would congregate at Stagshead Hotel (today known as Merica and owned by the Moi family) in Nakuru town. “Each confident that they had Moi’s ear and each having been given money to run the affairs of the Nyeri Kanu branch, they would begin their quarrels right there and Moi and his henchmen would be left in the house laughing their heads off,” opined the medical doctor. “We also witnessed Moi playing James Njiru against his perennial foe, Nahason Njunu from Kirinyaga.”

The semi-illiterate Njiru was the MP for Ndia, while Njunu was the MP for Gichugu. Njiru imagined himself to be very close to Moi, to the extent that when the president made him the Minister of National Guidance and Political Affairs, he knew he had the upper hand over Njunu. Njiru thought that he was so powerful that he could summon “errant” Kanu members and question them, which led the Anglican archbishop David Gitari, who hailed from Kirinyaga, to describe his ministry as the “Ministry of Misguidance and Political Thuggery”. The tall and slender Njiru and the short and stocky Njunu’s rivalry culminated in them once squaring it out in the precincts of Parliament in 1988.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd. “One Friday morning, Moi came to the school (he was always hovering around it), when we were on parade and raising the flag. His Kombi van stood some distance away and Moi disembarked. He walked briskly past the principal, Mr Joseph Kimetto, straight to his office. When Kimetto saw that Moi did not stop to talk to him, he abandoned the parade and ran after Moi. He found Moi in his office. The next thing we saw was Mr Kimetto running fast towards his house,” narrated the doctor.

“Mr Githongo, you’re now the principal and you Mr Kajwang, you’re the deputy principal,” announced Moi. Githongo was an elderly teacher who had been poached from Kagumo High School in Nyeri and taught Biology, while Kajwang was from Maseno, and taught Chemistry. “Moi made the prompt appointments just like that,” recalled the doctor.

Divide and rule: that is how Moi governed Kenya and that is how he managed to stay afloat for 24 years as he turned Kabarak into a theatre of the absurd.

Kabarak was also a place that helped Moi avert loneliness, said the Kabarak alumni. “We’d see Moi in the dining hall, around the swimming area, in the playing field, walking past the classrooms, oftentimes stopping to listen to and watch momentarily as teachers went about their teaching. He was always at the school. He would order the school to pay school fees for respective classes. ‘This year Form I B, Form II D, Form III A and Form IV C will not pay school fees,’ it would be announced in the parade, courtesy of Moi, but of course this was taxpayers money.” He would do the same for Form V and Form VI.

The lonely kingmaker

Many years later, John Keen, his former Assistant Minister in the Office of the President, talked to me about Moi’s loneliness. In 2015, I was invited to his Karen home to attend a naming ceremony, an important occasion in the Maasai culture and tradition. One of his many grandsons was being named after him. I had gone to school with one of his sons and therefore I had known the senior Keen from the late 1980s. On that day, I spent the entire day talking to John Keen, until late into the night.

He narrated to me how some months before, Moi had sent an emissary to him: “Nimetumwa na Mzee Moi, anataka kukuona.” I’ve been sent by Moi, he would like to see you, said the envoy.

“I wondered what Moi would be summoning me for. I had not seen or talked to him for many years,” recounted Keen. Moi has asked that he go and see him at his home in Kabarnet Gardens, in the Kibera area. “When I reached there, I was ushered in to where he was. It was going to 2.00 pm and the hot sun was up, but guess what? I found Moi huddled next to the fireplace, warming himself next to the low-burning log fire.”

“I presumed he had an agenda for me, that there was something he wanted us to discuss…wapi, Moi couldn’t even recognise me, he didn’t even know that he had asked for me. He ordered that I be given some tea and then on and off, he would doze off. After three hours I left.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP), an opposition outfit that was once led by his long time friend Mwai Kibaki in the 1990s. “But also, when you grow old, you need a young wife to keep your fire burning and keep you warm too,” said Keenly cheekly.

Folklore has it that Moi kept The Prince, Nicolo Machiavelli’s little bible of political brutality, by his bedside. “Moi was brutal,” some of the people who suffered his wrath told me. Mirugi Kariuki, the Nakuru lawyer who later became the MP for Nakuru town in the Narc government of President Kibaki, told me that Moi was “a brutal incarnate”. He was detained alongside his longtime friend Koigi wa Wamwere during Moi’s regime. Moi ordered that he be tortured by the prison warders at Naivasha Maximum Prison because “I was recalcitrant and unrepentant”.

When Moi released him in 1991, “he found me to be even more unrepentant. He was furious with me because I refused to beg for mercy from him. He wanted me acknowledge the detention without trial and be grateful to him that he had released me – for that I was supposed to go and genuflect before him. My answer to him was: he hadn’t done me any favours.”

Moi suffered from acute paranoia, said Mirugi, who died in a plane crash in April 2006, “and an inferiority complex, especially from people who stood up to him. But over and above he covered his brutality with his supposed love for children.”

After that visit, Keen concluded that Moi had been terribly lonely, especially after he left office in 2002. “He doesn’t have any grandchildren with him to keep him busy,” observed the one time Secretary-General of the Democratic Party of Kenya (DP)…

After the 1997 general elections, Moi started scheming about how to bring the neophyte Uhuru Kenyatta into the political fold. When Moi, in the presence of Peter Mboya (the late son of Tom Mboya who died in a motorcycle crash in 2004) told Uhuru Kenyatta “nataka ungie siasa,” (I want you to get into politics proper),“Uhuru almost jumped out of his skin,” said a Moi relative who was present at the scene. “Hapana, hapana mzee,” No, no, protested Uhuru.

In 1998, after Uhuru was thrashed by a nondescript greenhorn, one Moses Mwihia, Moi asked some Kanu hawks to persuade him to vacate the seat for Uhuru. Mwhia refused. “So they turned to Mark Too, who was a nominated MP. After haggling for several weeks, Too acquiesced,” a Moi relative said to me. “Immediately Too agreed, they went straight to Kabarnet Gardens at 10.30pm. Moi came out from the bedroom in his pyjamas.”

“Mumekubaliana?” Have you agreed? Moi asked.

“Ndio mzee.” Yes sir.

“Haya sign hiyo makaratasi mara moja, hakuna mambo ya kungojea kesho.” OK, then sign those papers at once, there’s no need to wait until tomorrow. And that is how Uhuru become a nominated MP. The rest is history as they say.

When in 2006 William Ruto announced for the first time that he would run for the presidency, Moi was livid: “Ambia hiyo kijana awaje mbio,” Tell the young man to be patient, Moi told a close Ruto confidant. “Yeye bado kijana mdogo sana, kwa nini anakimbia namna hiyo? Mimi niko na mpango yake ya huko mbele.” He still very young, why is he in a hurry? I’ve got some plans for him for the future.

The truth was that Moi could not believe that Ruto had the audacity to declare an interest in the presidency. That was supposed to be the preserve of his favourite child, Gideon Moi.

Moi’s contradictions went beyond raw politics. When in 1989, he famously, alongside Richard Leakey, the then head of Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), lit the “ivory fire” at the Nairobi National Park, he sent a powerful message to the conservation world that Kenya was not going to tolerate the selling of contraband ivory. Ironically, he lit the mountain of 12 tonnes of ivory while holding his signature fimbo ya Nyayo rungu, his symbol of authority, which was made of pure ivory.

In December 2002, I went to vote at Uhuru Primary School in Uhuru estate. The person in front of me was humming, “yote yawezekana bila Moi” lyrics. All is possible without Moi.

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