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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise

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LOSING MY RELIGION: The cross, the lynching tree and Kenya’s post-colonial enterprise

“My kingdom is not of this world…” John 18:36

When we were children, our mother took us to St. Andrews Church in Nairobi every Sunday. A grand, cavernous cathedral-style building on the right side of Uhuru Highway, it was there that she and my father had had their wedding ceremony in 1983.

The Presbyterian Church of East Africa (PCEA) was founded by Scottish missionaries but would soon be known for what the Kikuyu called mutaratara – a liturgical style of worship that is composed, outwardly decorous and predictable. That was how my mother, Rose Wanjiku, had always done church. She was in charge of our spiritual formation; my father was largely irreligious – I now realise that this is not unusual, and perhaps the norm, in most Kenyan families.

In my teenage years, I met some cool kids who went to Nairobi Pentecostal Church, and I followed them there. The youth fellowship there was nicknamed Fortress, and for a 13-year-old raised to be a dignified mini-adult in church, the unbridled energy and chaotic emotionality of a Pentecostal service was enchanting. I loved Fortress. We had day (and night) concerts, youth camps, picnics and movies. I led praise and worship and preached on occasion. We went on “missions” where we proselytised to strangers, prayed in tongues and we baptised in the Holy Ghost.

My mother was not entirely pleased with my new spiritual commitments. I suspect that they seemed a little too ecstatic to her. She resisted my formation of a whole lifestyle that was outside her supervision or control. I would argue that at least I was spending my time in church, not “out there” like other girls. This would usually placate her.

I spent the rest of my teenage years being highly active “in the ministry” as we called it, both at my boarding school and at Fortress when I was home on vacation. And far from being a drag on my social life, church was actually fun. It was not only a sanctuary but also the place where I grew up, developed my own personality, and made deep and meaningful friendships, some of which remain to this day.

***

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The 1980s and 1990s were a time when Kenya’s Christian institutions were undergoing a profound change, whose effects remain with us today. Purportedly, Kenya is a Christian nation; census data indicates that nearly four in five Kenyans self-identify as Christian.

The tension between my mother and I was fuelled by teenage resentment and maternal anxieties, but – like our domestic strife – was located in the context of a country whose religious life had always been animated by its relationship with power.

The Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian churches accounted for 70 per cent of Christian congregations in Kenya by the time Daniel arap Moi became Kenya’s second president in 1978. Christianity was a colonial project in most of Africa. The missionaries may have been welcomed in individual communities, but the machinery of the colonial state followed very soon after, enforcing and accelerating the winning of (bodies and) souls.

In England, Lambeth Palace on the south bank of the River Thames is the official London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Houses of Parliament are less than 400 metres away, on the opposite bank. The British colonisers diligently replicated this spatial intimacy of church and state. In the capital cities of most former British colonies in Africa, the official residence of the Anglican archbishop was next to, or across the street from, the Governor’s Mansion.

In Nairobi, the Anglican archbishop’s residence, even today, is at the T-junction of State House Avenue and State House Road, right across the road from the official residence of the Head of State and Commander-in-Chief.

Because of their colonial roots, the mainstream churches had an uncritical relationship with the government, even after independence when both institutions were “Africanised”. The churches were firmly pro-establishment, preferring to “keep out of politics” and focusing on providing social services.

The Anglican and Presbyterian churches were formally organised under the National Council of Churches of Kenya (NCCK). Formed in 1966, NCCK was an umbrella of 37 church organisations affiliated to the Anglican and Presbyterian churches. In 1978 (the year that Moi became president) NCCK was commissioned to undertake a theological study of three words: “peace, love and unity”. Peace, Love and Unity was the slogan underlying President Moi’s new political philosophy of Nyayo, as he called it. But Moi’s regime would end up being anything but peaceful, loving or uniting.

***

Moi was vice president when Kenya’s first president, Jomo Kenyatta, died in 1978. The constitution directed that the vice president take office upon the death of the president, but in the years that Kenyatta’s health began to fail, politicians close to Mzee had tried to sideline Moi – ostensibly because he lacked the political clout of Kenyatta, and was ethnically Kalenjin, whereas those establishment politicians were mostly Kikuyu.

In fact, that group had tried to change the constitution to block the automatic succession of a president by his deputy. Though they failed in that regard, Moi nevertheless began his tenure with a deep sense of political insecurity.

By 1982 that insecurity had turned into a fully-fledged political crisis. In the early hours of August 1st of that year, a group of Air Force officers commandeered state radio and declared a coup. Within hours, forces loyal to the incumbent president had crushed the coup attempt, but it would be the pivotal point in the downward repressive spiral of the Moi regime, with increasing surveillance, detentions, arbitrary arrests and imprisonment intensifying in the mid- to late 1980s.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations. The study was published in 1983 as a book called A Christian View of Politics in Kenya: Love, Peace and Unity.

But as the political space became more constricted in the mid-80s, the NCCK became more vocal against the Moi regime. It must be said here that NCCK and the Catholic churches were ethnically disproportionately Kikuyu and Luo. This was possibly for historical reasons, as the early Christian missionaries were most active in areas dominated by Kikuyus and Luos.

The “Peace Love and Unity” study coordinated by David Gitari (who decades later became Kenya’s Anglican archbishop) was intended to provide a theological interpretation of the Nyayo philosophy. The ultimate goal was to get the Nyayo philosophy incorporated in religious education in schools and also among church congregations.

Possibly to counter the rising malcontent, Moi created an alliance with a number of Pentecostal and evangelical congregations who would come together under the Evangelical Fellowship of Kenya (EFK) – and whose ethnic composition happened to be closer to that of Moi and his allies. Congregations, such as the African Inland Church (AIC), the Reformed Church of East Africa, Kenya Assemblies of God and the African Gospel Church were part of this evangelical fellowship; Moi himself was said to be a very religious man, an AIC faithful, whose habit was to wake up at 5am for prayer and reading the Bible.

Because of their closeness to the seat of power, the evangelical churches now came to occupy a privileged place in 1980s and 1990s Kenya.

The position taken by the EFK during that time was one of consoling the State rather than confronting it; the image of the President as “God’s anointed” became a frequent one.

Meanwhile, NCCK and Catholic leaders continued to speak out against government excesses. The most vocal of these leaders were Rev. Timothy Njoya of PCEA (who for a time headed my mother’s congregation at St. Andrews), as well as Bishops Alexander Muge, David Gitari and Henry Okullu, all Anglican. Among the Catholics, the most outspoken was Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’Nzeki of the Nakuru Catholic diocese.

As the university community was harassed and diminished, especially after state repression, detentions and surveillance were ramped up in the 1980s, the NCCK became the major institutional challenge to Moi’s regime. The churches had the organisational network and national infrastructure to mount and sustain a form of protest politics in what was then a one-party state.

In turn, government politicians adopted a defensive stance and challenged the legitimacy of the church in discussing matters of politics. The evangelical fellowship, for its part, led by Bishop Ezekiel Birech of the AIC and Bishop Arthur Kitonga of Redeemed Gospel Church, often denounced NCCK in vehement Sunday sermons that were then printed in state-leaning newspapers. Kenyan churchgoers saw the acrimonous split along denominational lines, but few saw its ethnic and political dimension.

Moi won the 1992 election against a badly fractured opposition and on the back of state-sponsored gangs that suppressed the vote in much of the country. But by this time Kenya was in dire economic straits, with decay everywhere you looked – uncollected garbage, spiraling inflation and crumbling public services.

I was just a child at this time, but I remember the panic that seemed to seep into my parents’ conversations when they talked about money; the faint disgust with which my father handled the newly minted Ksh500 note (previously, Ksh200 was the biggest denomination). He said that this new note was a sure sign that Kenya was going to the dogs.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart. Like the Pentecostal congregation that I was a part of, they were radical, emotionally speaking, in terms of an ecstatic worship experience. But politically, they were solidly conservative – they offered a privatisation of solutions in the face of public dilapidation that seemed beyond hope. Claim your miracle. Reap your blessing. Accept Jesus as your personal saviour.

***

As I grew older and became more politically conscious and intellectually mature, my faith began to be a source of deep internal strife. I was increasingly uncomfortable with interpretations of Scripture that seemed to be obsessed with meticulous sexual policing, which of course was always directed at the girls (“be careful not to cause a brother to stumble!”) but made almost no demands on the boys.

This was also the time that the “prosperity gospel” began to explode in Kenya. With a roughly evangelical stance, the prosperity gospel churches offered a version of Christianity that was both appealing and logically consistent with the political mood of the day, one that presented spiritual practice as a site for claiming back some power in a country where things were falling apart.

Perhaps it wasn’t incidental that many of our fathers were disinterested in the church – except when they were looking for a good woman to marry. Church was a place women learned, practised and refined their marriageability. Men didn’t need to. We were discouraged from dating casually, unless the relationship was headed towards marriage. That produced an incentive to declare things more serious than they actually were, or needed to be. And then the power play began – it fell upon the boys to proclaim whether that relationship was indeed headed towards marriage and upon the girls to demonstrate how wifeable they were.

One of the major traits of wifeability was the maintainance of the “purity” in the relationship. So we (the girls, mostly) expended enormous amounts of energy discussing “how far is too far” in relating to the opposite sex (Holding hands? Kissing? Petting? Actually, what exactly is petting?). And then, it seemed the boys would adjudicate whether the girl had adequately maintained the collective purity of the relationship or had fallen short of the glory of God. It was a bizarre dance that rested upon the presumption that a woman’s body was a kind of blank slate with no innate desires of its own.

This was during Mwai Kibaki’s first term as president. In the course of just five years, Kenya’s political mood made a full about-turn – from the joy and optimism of the 2002 election in which democracy had triumphed to the violent aftermath of the 2007 election.

Kibaki’s first swearing-in ceremony was the first, and I believe the last, political meeting my mother attended in her life; she walked from our home in South B to Uhuru Park to join the celebratory throng and watch a new democratic government take power. (Throng is a word I like. It is dense and heaving, as though people’s bodies were compressing and purging themselves, and each other, of the weight of dictatorship and failed dreams.) By then I was in my early twenties, and the friction between my mother and I would increasingly shift from being a dispute over denomination into one over politics.

Kibaki quickly consolidated power around his own Kikuyu elite, which seemed to me an obvious betrayal of the multi-ethnic and popular mandate that had brought him to power. But at family meetings, funerals and weddings, I would hear my relatives proclaim quite categorically that Kenya was much better off under a Kikuyu president. In fact, Kibaki was God’s anointed. At home I would constantly challenge my mother on those kinds of declarations, my voice shrill and my manner emphatic. How do we know that whoever is in power is God’s anointed? What is godly about chauvinism? Are we now saying that Anglo Leasing is the will of God? She would only wearily listen to me and wave me off.

Just five years later, in the aftermath of a disputed 2007 election, I watched in horror the smouldering remains of a church in Kiambaa, where a mob shut dozens of people in a church, blocked the door with a mattress and set the sanctuary on fire. As the smoke billowed on the television screen, my mother turned to me and calmly said the most cutting words she had ever said to me. “Do you think that when they come for you they will ask you who you voted for?”

It was clear what she meant. Kenya was a country where your ethnicity was everything. It could be the difference between life and death. And I hated to admit it, but she was right.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

I spent the next eight years of my life vaguely describing myself as an agnostic, “spiritual but not religious”, or generally avoiding matters of faith. It increasingly seemed absurd to me that one could be an African and a Christian, and even less a self-respecting, or at least politically conscious African, with any kind of serious commitment to social justice. Christianity is a white man’s religion, I thought. I don’t really know any African religions, so I will have none.

That day I was unconvinced that the personal holiness that we were taught to aspire to as a mark of the Kingdom would save me from a political system that was so depraved and unjust that I could be summarily executed for having the wrong last name. My piety would not save my body. Thirty people died that day, and so did most of my faith.

***

First-century Judea was a colonial project. The land itself brought in little revenue to the Roman treasury, but by controlling it, Rome could control the land and sea routes to Egypt, which was the breadbasket of the empire.

Judea was also a border province against the Parthian Empire (in modern day Iraq and Iran), a rival of Rome in the east. The Bible records that the Jews had been taken into exile in Babylon some centuries before, and though they had returned to their homeland, the Jews were viewed as suspicious and potential fifth columnists by Rome, because of that lengthy exile to the east.

It was here that the New Testament records than God became incarnate into man. Jesus, as described in the Bible, was not only from Judea, but from a town in Galilee called Nazareth. Jesus of Nazareth. The Christian faith now reflexively associates Nazareth with the power, awe and authority of the Divine, but in the first century Nazareth was nowhere to be bragged about.

The historic Nazareth was an area of entrenched poverty in the ancient world. The people of Nazareth were on the bottom of society. When Herod the Great – the Jewish king who was little more than a Roman colonial administrator – died in 4 BC, the Roman armoury in Sepphoris, just outside Nazareth, was robbed. The Romans retaliated by crucifying 2,000 Jews as a public warning against such revolts. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants were sold into slavery.

Less than a decade later, there was another revolt, this time against paying taxes. Another Roman crackdown followed, with many more crucified. The place earned a reputation for being a hotbed of unrest; young Nazarenes were labelled gangsters and thugs.

The elite one percent in Jerusalem – the priests, teachers of the law and Sadducees – looked upon those from Nazareth as uneducated and uncultured; Nazarenes were subjected to slurs on their purported lax morals and were policed for their lack of manners. The people of Nazareth were considered a Problem People.

One can thus understand the disciple Nathaniel’s jaded statement when Philip excitedly tells him that he has met the Messiah: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” In fact, we ought to consider “Jesus of Nazareth” a politically loaded statement, akin to Jaymo kutoka ghetto. In the gospel of Luke, the birth of Jesus is spoken about in this metaphor of Empire.

The Mediterranean world called Caesar sôtêr (saviour of the world). Caesar was the one who brought Peace, Love and Unity, Pax Romana, to the ancient world. So when the gospel writers used the word sôtêr to announce the birth of Jesus: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord,” (Luke 2:11) they were essentially undermining the authority of the empire.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

The way the Roman State tortured and executed Jesus and his early followers was not incidental. It tells us who Jesus was in relation to the state – crucifixion was done publicly, as a warning, in response to a perceived offence against the authority of Caesar.

Crucifixion was a public execution that was carried out as a warning for those who rose up against the state, for those who refused to know their place. Jesus was executed for sedition, a political offence, and not blasphemy, a religious one – the inscription on the cross mockingly said “This Is The King Of The Jews”.

More than 4,000 black men, women and children were lynched in the American South between 1900 and 1950. Lynchings were public events, sometimes announced in advance. Photographs were taken and used as postcards. Bodies were dismembered and parts handed out as souvenirs.

Both the cross and the lynching tree were symbols of terror, instruments of torture and execution, reserved primarily for slaves, criminals and insurrectionists, writes American theologian James Cone, who passed away this April. According to Cone, Jesus and blacks in America suffered a similar fate: both were publicly humiliated, subjected to the utmost indignity, unfairly tried and quickly condemned, tortured and left to die as a public warning.

During colonialism, several Kenyans experienced similar indignities. Otenyo Nyamaterere was killed by a British firing squad in Kisii in western Kenya for resisting the advance of the colonial state in the early 20th century. He was beheaded and his headless body left on a bridge. Waiyaki wa Hinga, the Kikuyu chieftain who resisted harassment and forced taxation, was buried alive at a prison camp in 1890. Koitalel arap Samoei, the Nandi chief who fought British occupation for eleven years, mounting guerrilla attacks on the railway and colonial forts, was shot at point blank range by a colonial official who had asked him to meet and discuss peace; Koitalel’s skull was then carried off to Britain.

Then there was General Baimungi Marete of the Mau Mau, a leader of the armed rebellion of the 1950s that fought for Kenya’s self-rule. General Baimungi and his lieutenants held out in forest camps as Jomo Kenyatta, who would become Kenya’s first president, negotiated an independence treaty with the British. The colonial structures were left intact; Kenyatta would now head this new expropriating state.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

Kenyatta went on to publicly declare: “Mau Mau was a disease which was eradicated, and must never be remembered again.” The Mau Mau remained a banned organisation in Kenya until 2003. The colour of the administrators had changed, but the colonial logic remained intact.

After independence, Kenyatta sent word to the Mau Mau fighters that they would receive land and compensation if they surrendered their weapons. They emerged from the forest and waited for their promised land, only to be killed by government agents. The bodies of Baimungi and two lieutenants were displayed publicly in Chuka for three days by an independent Kenyan government, and the Mau Mau was declared a banned organisation.

The fact that white colonisers would use the symbol of a Nazarene anti-colonialist to enforce and entrench the very project of colonisation is a testament to the twisted genius of white supremacy. But Jesus of Nazareth was no coloniser.

***

There’s a difference between priests and prophets, as religious scholar Jonathan Walton describes in his book Watch This! The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. Priestly leaders believe that the structures of society are fundamentally good and that any political or social problems are the result of a few bad apples or degraded moral standards, as opposed to inherent flaws in the structures of society. Priests seek to nurture humility, patience and goodwill in their congregations in order to integrate them into the culture as productive and loyal citizens. By doing this, priests accommodate themselves and their parishioners to injustice without necessarily affirming it – at most, they encourage the congregation to endure those things that cannot be readily changed.

Priests generally seek to “stay out of politics”; whenever they do get involved in politics, it is usually to use their respectable social standing to have access to the ear of the powerful. Priests believe they can be a “good influence” to the ruling class, appealing to their moral goodwill to try and obtain justice. Pray for your leaders, they say. Touch not God’s anointed.

Priests are uncomfortable with social protest or real reform because it might lead to a loss of their social capital.

But the prophet is different. “The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

The prophet is social reformer with no moral middle ground. No form of oppression is consistent with God’s will, the prophetic witness declares, and is actually in opposition to the very physical form that God chose to be incarnated in first-century Judea. Turn around! the prophet declares. You’re going the wrong way! It seems to me that Christianity’s prophetic roots were never fully formed; they were prematurely twisted into an entwining conformity with colonial and neo-colonial states – Rome, Britain, America, Kenya.

“The prophet views society as neither fundamentally good nor bad, but as fundamentally flawed,” Walton writes. Prophets have a clear theological and political conception of what those flaws are and an uncompromising declaration that if the injustice is not uprooted, the society will be destroyed.

I now see that the focus on personal piety and private redemption that energised my formative years ended up obscuring calls for social justice. The uncritical embrace of society’s unjust structures – especially the capitalist economy that has its colonial logic intact and the obsession with morals and manners – reflects the non-confrontational stance of the priest rather than the radical reform of the prophet.

The prophet is never neutral in the face of oppression. The prophet doesn’t want to “hear both sides”, doesn’t want to be “fair and balanced”, cannot be “objective”. The prophet is on the side of justice.

It is time for Kenyan Christians to live out their ministry for those caught on the underside of power today, for the “least of these”. In the words of James Cone, we cannot find liberating joy in the cross by spiritualising it, by taking away its message of justice in the midst of powerlessness, suffering and death.

The cross, as a locus of divine revelation, is not good news for the powerful, for those who are comfortable with the way things are, or for anyone whose understanding of religion is aligned with power.

Author’s note:
Many thanks to Jeremy L. Williams for the many conversations that helped clarify my thinking for this article, and to Jonathan Walton for his ministry, and insightful books Watch This! and the forthcoming A Lens of Love.

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Christine Mungai is a Kenyan writer, journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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THE WALKING POOR: Nairobi Privileges the Motor Vehicle, Not the People

Fifty-five years after independence, Nairobi’s urban planning still privileges the high-heeled motorists over the walking poor. This, as PATRICK GATHARA explains, is rooted in colonial policy.

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To make our roads safer, we need to make them feel less safe

The return of the “Michuki Rules” (the stringent rules established by John Michuki, the former Transport Minister in Mwai Kibaki’s government) that targeted public transport operators has precipitated days of traffic chaos as matatus, the backbone of what passes for the city’s public transport system, declared a strike in protest. Newspaper headlines bemoaned the agony visited on drivers and commuters, with some decrying the traffic gridlock that ensued as private cars flooded the roads. The Daily Nation describing it as a “day of walking”.

It is a telling description and speaks to the low regard with which pedestrians in Nairobi are held. This despite the fact that even when matatus are on the roads, most Nairobians leg it to wherever they are going. According to the World Bank, more than 8 out of every 10 commutes involve walking as the primary or secondary mode of travel. Half of those trips are made completely on foot. The 2010 draft Sessional Paper on Integrated National Transport Policy states that nearly two-thirds of the city’s residents meet their daily travel needs by walking or cycling.

Despite this, the focus on motorised transport is understandable given the truly terrible state of transport infrastructure and traffic congestion. The Traffic Index 2018, a composite index published by the Serbia-based website numbeo.com (which claims to be “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries”) rates Nairobi as having the 12th worst traffic in the world, with one-way journeys averaging just under an hour. The World Bank says that Nairobi has “one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times” with commuting speeds of just 14 kilometers per hour.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the needs of pedestrians are mostly kicked to the kerb. In fact, as New York-based CityLab notes, “The ongoing battle for the roads of Nairobi is an extension of the city’s broader class segregation: Cars, a transit option for the city’s upper classes, command the road with superiority. Pedestrians, many of whom belong to Nairobi’s lower class of informal laborers, are funneled into dangerous and uncomfortable walking environments”.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile and the classist segregation of public spaces it represents has a long history. The article “Politics, policy and paratransit by Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of the University of Nairobi states that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalised transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility”. By 1928, just over two decades after it became the official capital of Kenya, the city had 5,000 cars “making it the city with the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world”. Thus traffic was a major concern even then. But it was still a city more concerned with the problems of a wealthy motoring few rather than those of the majority of its citizens. Europeans and Asians drove. Poor Africans have always walked.

Just as there was little planning in place to cater for the residential needs of the African majority (which resulted in the mushrooming of slums across the city) so there was little thought given to how they would move around. “The colonial, segregationist urban economy failed to cater for people who were not formally employed by the colonial government,” Klopp and Mitullah note.

When the Nairobi Town Bus, the precursor to Kenya Bus Services, was inaugurated in the 1930s, it was largely for the benefit of Europeans and Asians, as Isaiah Gibson Aduwo noted in 1990. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Kenya Bus Services “served the Eastern parts of the city [where Africans lived] using vehicles built on lorry chassis” according to the paper “The Metamorphosis of Kenya Bus Services Limited in the Provision of Urban Transport in Nairobi” by Tom Opiyo of the Department of Civil Engineering.

In fact, the growth of the matatu industry, which is the source of so much grief nowadays, is a direct result of Africans entrepreneuring their way around the public transport problems that the city government had failed to resolve given that the bus service remained out of reach for all but a minority of city residents. Still, nearly a century after it received its charter as a city, the only major change in the character of Nairobi has been the replacement of the colour bar with one based on class.

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital. The walking poor have to struggle daily for this constricted space on the street with the very perpetrators whose theft of public land has created this situation.

The privileging of the automobile has had a detrimental effect on the community life of the city. “Increased traffic has adverse impacts on public activities which once crowded the streets, such as markets, agoras, parades and processions, games, and community interactions. These have gradually disappeared to be replaced by automobiles,” notes the authors of the book The Geography of Transport Systems. “In many cases, these activities have shifted to shopping malls while in other cases, they have been abandoned altogether.” 

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital.

Few stop to ask about who ends up sacrificing the most at the altar of the vehicle and whether it is fair. After all, the vast majority of the walking poor do not hang out at the new swanky malls popping up across the city. Regardless, it is they who end up paying the highest price, both in lives and treasure, for Nairobi’s dysfunctional system, even when they benefit least from it. According to the National Transport Safety Authority, 60 per cent of fatal accidents on the city’s roads involve pedestrians. They also suffer a much higher rate of injury than other road users. Even the introduction of bodaboda (motorcycle taxis), which have brought motorised transport closer to the poor, has been quickly followed by a spike in accidents and deaths involving them.

Further, the street network is ultimately funded by public taxes, and it is the poor who contribute most of that. The rich and the middle classes may have a higher share of income tax but the poor, by sheer force of numbers, more than make up for it in the taxes they pay for accessing goods and services – the government’s largest single source of tax revenue. They basically subsidise car-owning residents’ travel on roads from which they themselves are actively excluded. And this has real implications for their ability to escape poverty as, according to the World Bank, for the average household, only 2 out of every 10 formal jobs are accessible within an hour of either walking or using public transport. In a car, however, that number rises to 9 out of every 10 jobs.

Today, the walking poor are mostly still treated as an after-thought when designing, building and repairing streets. The expansion of roads may be popular but it also generates huge inconveniences and dangers. Pedestrians are forced to either take long detours to find the nearest safe bridge to cross or to risk their lives trying to dash across six or eight lanes of road. The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

But that is an exception. Even when it comes to patching up streets, pedestrians are still left with the short end of the stick. It is common to find smooth roads lined with cratered pavements, which are peppered with open manholes or have been turned into parking spaces.

The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

As we increase the city acreage devoted to cars, there is little corresponding increase in land devoted to people. Within the city’s Central Business District, only two streets (Mama Ngina Drive and Aga Khan Walk) are devoted to pedestrian and non-motorised traffic. Hawkers are actively barred from accessing the CBD while matatus and buses can occupy streets (and pavements) for hours on end. In many city estates as well, home owners have grabbed sections of kerbs bordering their properties and converted them into parking spaces or flower gardens.

The county government has been making noises about introducing car-free days to encourage people to leave their vehicles at home but that will not happen as long as the city continues to be organised as it is. “[T]he default in Nairobi for the proper road user is the car,” notes Amiel Bize, a Columbia PhD candidate who has been studying pedestrian safety in Kenya since 2010.

Undoubtedly, the capital needs a sane motorised public transport system. It also needs to take care of its congestion problem. However, none of these objectives can be achieved if it does not take care of its walkability problem. The goal of re-engineering and reinventing Nairobi as a city for people, rather than a city for vehicles, will remain elusive as long as it does not cater to the needs of the majority of its population. It is this that led to Nairobi being ranked a lowly 186 out of 231 global cities in the New York-based consultancy Mercer’s 2018 quality of living survey.

Much of this will involve undoing a century of misconceptions about the desirability of walking. These misconceptions are captured in the Business Daily headline that read: “Traffic congestion slows down Nairobi to a walking city.” Yet the idea of “a walking city” is not a lamentable consequence of a failure of motorised transport but rather should be the desired outcome of effective policies to decongest roads. In fact, as The Geography of Transport Systems notes, “people tend to walk and cycle less when traffic is heavy”. The book emphasises that “traffic flows influence the life and interactions of residents and their usage of street space. More traffic impedes social interactions and street activities.” With the introduction of modern light rail, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, demonstrates how a combination of policies to improve public transport and a consistent commitment to investing in pedestrian infrastructure can help regenerate cities.

Rather than implementing separate policies, such as the Michuki Rules, to tame matatus and beating Kidero drums to tackle congestion, Nairobi should adopt an integrated plan whose aim should be to make the city a more humane and walkable place to live – a city where the streets are transformed from theatres of conflict and exclusion to arenas of interaction that welcome all people regardless of class.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

CLAUDIO BUTTICÈ examines the factors that influence internet freedom in Africa.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

With the possible exception of Kenya and South Africa, Internet freedom is constantly under attack in most African countries. Ethiopia has suffered a dramatic decline in Internet freedom over the past few years, the Ugandan government has imposed a tax on social media, and the Tanzanian government has taken down many websites – a pattern that closely mimics what happens in China and Korea. In a continent where Internet penetration stands at just 31.2 per cent, less than one-third of the population has access to the World Wide Web. Such restrictions on connectivity, as well as a lack of security, online manipulation and disinformation tactics, play a significant role in keeping many countries undeveloped.

Why online manipulation tactics are a threat to freedom

When the Internet started becoming a mainstream technology, many praised it as a liberating force that was helping millions of people to know the truth about the world they lived in. It didn’t take much for governments of the less democratic countries to understand the threat it posed to their power. Today, however, even many so-called “democracies” have learned how dangerous Internet freedom can be to their entrenched interests and privileges, and have taken action to disrupt it.

Between 2016 and 2018, Internet freedom was widely abused by many governments to distort the truth in their favour. Massive online manipulation tactics have been employed in countries such as China, Russia, Syria and Ethiopia. Even Western nations historically known for the independence of their media, such as the United States and Italy, have seen disinformation used to manipulate elections results. Information about many global events, such as the migratory flows from South America and Africa to the United States and Europe, have been distorted to fuel scare-mongering tactics. Governments in all the corners of the world use political and security reasons as excuses to restrict mobile Internet services, especially in areas populated by religious or ethnic minorities. Online dissent has been suppressed by altering, filtering or removing information on social media, and human rights defenders have often been threatened, attacked, or even killed to silence the few independent voices left. For instance, in March 2018, Rwandan blogger Joseph Nkusi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for incitement to civil disobedience and spreading rumours just because he offered a different perspective on the official narrative of the 1994 genocide.

Bots and fake news have been created and deployed to shape the opinion of countless numbers of people. Surreptitious grassroots support for government policies have been fabricated to justify even the most blatant violation of human rights. Many anti-democratic changes have been condoned by building social media bubbles where citizens falsely stand with regimes that are essentially endorsing themselves. And when online news media suffer the same level of restrictions and propaganda that plague the remaining traditional media, any hope for objectivity is lost forever.

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In a nutshell, when people have no access to the truth, or, at least, a different side of the truth, their freedom is stolen, and democracy dies. State-led interventions to restrict Internet freedom ensure that our eyes are open to one thing, and one thing only. Governments that resort to these tactics are scared by the idea of people knowing what is really happening because they have something to hide.

The Chinese influence

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”. Similar seminars have been held in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as in many African countries, including Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania, and Uganda. Unsurprisingly enough, these conferences are often followed by the implementation in those countries of some of the most restrictive and controversial cybercrime and social media laws.

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”.

The Chinese are also the same people who provided all those governments with high-tech surveillance tools to monitor people with no respect for their privacy or human rights. With the excuse of “maintaining public order,” autocrats and dictators started employing Artificial Intelligence-powered facial recognition software developed by Chinese companies such as Hikvision and CloudWalk. The latter signed a strategic partnership with the government of Zimbabwe to develop AI that can recognise African faces. Needless to say, the millions of Zimbabwean citizens who saw their personal data sold by the Zimbabwean government to a foreign agency had no say in the deal.

Much of the most important telecommunications infrastructure in these countries is built by China, which apparently doesn’t shun any opportunity to collect additional intelligence. In January 2018, much to their dismay, security staff at the African Union found that the computer system in the headquarters that the Chinese government had gifted the organisation was likely a Trojan horse for cyberespionage. Though China officially denied the reports, it appears that the system had been secretly sending data back to Shanghai servers every day for five years. It is not hard to see that there’s an agenda behind the Asian giant’s digital generosity towards smaller and poorer nations.

Social and blogging media taxes

The Ugandan “social media tax” is a glaring indication that something is wrong. After 32 years of entrenched power held with brutal strength, President Yoweri Museveni found in the Chinese seminars a flawless idea to rule out political opposition without any violence. The Ugandan government imposed an apparently harmless social media tax of 5 cents per day to put an end to “gossip”. Citizens who fail to pay the tax will be cut off from social media by their Internet service provider (ISP). In a country where 80 per cent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, five cents a day is no small deal. And since the tax is applied to all social media platforms and online messenger services, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, Line, and Skype, it quickly adds up. It has been estimated that it could drive up the Internet connection prices to an unacceptable 40 per cent of the average Ugandan’s monthly income.

To further enforce this policy, Uganda’s Communications Commission Executive Director, Godfrey Mutabazi, suggested telecom companies subject virtual private networks (VPNs) to the tax. In the meantime, ISPs have been ordered to block and switch off VPNs one by one. Banning VPNs is a move that China already tested as a successful tactic to stop those who found a rather simple method to circumvent Internet censorship. It would be a terribly effective way for Museveni to maintain his authoritarian regime without facing the international condemnation that comes with the use of tear gas and live rounds fired at demonstrators. And it could have similar effects as in Cameroon, which restricted Internet access for at least 150 days in 2017.

In 2017, neighbouring Tanzania praised the Chinese government’s efforts to replace social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter with “homegrown sites that are safe, constructive, and popular”. Shortly afterwards, in July 2018, several popular websites had to be shut down to avoid hefty fines imposed by a new troubling law that restricts criticism of the government. In an effort to “curb moral decadence” the government passed a provision that forces bloggers, online streaming platforms, YouTube TV channels, online radio stations, online forums, social media users and Internet cafes to pay a $930 fee to publish online. Bloggers are required to also provide a lengthy list of details and information, while Internet cafés must install surveillance cameras. Violating these new rules or posting anti-government statements on social media may lead to imprisonment for a minimum of 12 months or a fine of at least $2,200, or both. Once again, free expression in Africa was muzzled and curtailed through Internet censorship.

Surveillance and interception of communication

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Malawi, the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) – what Malawians call the “Spy Machine” – will allegedly monitor mobile phone service providers to ensure fair pricing and quality of service. Note that “allegedly” here is the key word. Its implementation was initially challenged in the High Court by civil rights movements but the Supreme Court eventually allowed it. Bottom line: the Spy Machine now allows Malawian government officers to listen to subscribers’ private conversations with no restriction. To ensure “quality of service”, of course.

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Kenya, in January 2017, the Communications Authority (CA) wanted to install a link at the data centre or mobile switching room of mobile operators to identify counterfeit or stolen phones. The purpose of this was supposedly to prevent terrorism in accordance with the provisions of the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, it was later alleged that this system could also intercept phone calls and its implementation was, therefore, blocked by the courts. It was also later alleged that middle boxes may be present on the Safaricom network and that law enforcement officers are allowed to extract private information before seeking a warrant. Other reports purportedly found that the CA procured the Israeli HIWIRE technology to capture, monitor, and analyse private activities on social media. Although all of these allegations are still just allegations and nothing else, it’s not hard to understand what the narrative is in this case.

The economic impact of Internet disruptions

Internet shutdowns have become common in sub-Saharan Africa, especially during elections or when public anti-government protests occur. Internet disruptions in the region have occurred in a total combined period of 236 days since 2015. But even if security agencies work with national communications regulators to order the disruptions for purported “national security reasons”, many African governments do not even realise how high the cost of these shutdowns is.

In Africa, the information communications technology (ICT) sector is thriving. Over the past two years, smartphone connections have doubled to almost 200 million, especially in countries such as South Africa, DR Congo, Cameroon, and Kenya. Broadband subscriptions, smartphone purchases, and the mobile money sector are expected to grow exponentially, providing unique opportunities for productivity gains to enterprises and governments. The ICT sector is a potent catalyst of economic growth since it provides the opportunity to overcome Africa’s logistical limitations, such as poor road networks and cumbersome bureaucracy. ICTs also allow for a reduction in organisational costs; they speed up the circulation of money, and contribute directly to the economy of many African countries in the form of fees and taxes paid by local and foreign ICT companies. The value added by the ICT ecosystem has been estimated at $10.5 billion in 2016, with an indirect productivity impact worth up to $62 billion.

It is hard to precisely estimate the economic cost of Internet disruptions because every shutdown of communication services affects countless services. Secondary economic damages are suffered by sectors affected by shutdowns, such as call centres, tourism and hospitality services and e-commerce. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa estimates that African governments have suffered a deficit of at least $235 million due to lost tax revenues caused by blocked digital access and reduced worker productivity – a significant sum as the African Union’s combined GDP amounts to only $1.5 trillion. Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Positive news

Africa’s Internet freedom is constantly under attack, but democratic forces are fighting back, and in some instances, were able to score some critical victories.

In May 2018, the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crime Act passed in Kenya provided authorities with the discretion of prosecuting individuals who were found guilty of “subverting national security” while interacting online. While the law purported to protect Internet users from things like cyber harassment, it was clearly created with the sole purpose of muzzling dissenting political views and freedom of expression. But on May 29, the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) sued the Attorney-General, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Inspector-General of Police and the Director of Public Prosecution, claiming the Act was unconstitutional. The High Court ruled in favour of the bloggers, suspending 22 provision of the law for further review.

Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Ethiopia, a nation which spearheaded censorship in Africa, is also slowly freeing itself from the draconian restrictions imposed by the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Although strong repressive measures are still present, the newly appointed Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has already started moving towards a more progressive agenda. A gender-balanced cabinet has been appointed, thousands of prisoners, including some prominent bloggers, have been released, dissidents have been allowed to return home, and hundreds of TV channels and websites have been unblocked. Ethiopians are now enjoying an unexpected new age of free expression, which other so-called democracies in the rest of Africa should emulate.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

CHRISTINE MUNGAI explores Kenya’s new prison industrial complex and unearths the fundamental flaws in Jubilee’s plan to make jails profitable.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

“When I first became involved in anti-prison activism dur­ing the late 1960s, I was astounded to learn that there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had anyone told me that in three decades, ten times as many peo­ple would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous.” ~ Angela Davis

In the one hundred years between the mid-1850s and 1980s – a period of nearly 130 years – the state of California constructed a total of nine prisons and two prison camps. But in the five years between 1984 and 1989, nine more prisons were constructed. It had taken more than a century to build the first nine prisons in California, and less than a decade for that number to double. Today, there are 34 state prisons in California, and this is not counting federal prisons or county jails – the equivalent of Kenya’s police cells. The state of California also has 43 prison “conservation” camps, whose inmates are procured to fight wildfires and respond to other public emergencies.

That the US is running a Prison Industrial Complex has been well documented. America accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Ava DuVernay’s gripping 2016 documentary, 13th, expertly tracks the policies, systems and forces that have pressed more than 2.3 million Americans – overwhelmingly black and Latino – into the prison system, so much so that in some neighbourhoods, going to prison is almost a normal rite of passage.

But what the figures above from California reveal is that the processes that produce mass incarceration of an entire demographic can be astonishingly rapid and diabolically efficient.

***

“The first thing that happened when we got there is we were told to strip. In the open. All wardens sitting there watching. I think this was the worst thing to happen to us. We were many. The indignity of standing naked in front of strangers…” ~ Anonymous submission to #PrisonDiaries (courtesy of @MarigaThoithi)

 In early October, a press statement from the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) revealed a plan to establish the Kenya Prison Enterprise Corporation, a “state enterprise” that would reportedly expand the scope of prison work programmes “with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry, and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.”

The new corporation will also contribute to the realisation of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, particularly food security, affordable housing, and manufacturing,” a statement from State House said. The corporation will be mandated to “organise and manage” the assets of the Prisons Department, including 86 prison farms with a total of over 18,200 acres of land. The corporation will, at some point, “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector on different spheres” – a vague statement that could include private contracting of anything from construction of prison facilities to full operations.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

However, it is horrifying to think that the way to kill two birds – job creation and industrialisation – is by the deadly stone of expanding the prison sector, corralling people into a pool of cheap labour with almost no rights. Granted, there are many different privatisation models. Private firms can be contracted to build prisons, to manage them, or both. Countries such as the US, UK and Australia have privatised the entire chain of operations from construction to day-to-day operations, while in Europe the trend is to outsource specific functions, such as catering, administration, healthcare and security. In many Asian prisons, the private sector is more directly involved in the prison industry by contracting inmates to work in for-profit factories or firms. Kenya seems to be leaning towards a mixed model, where the corporation, for now, remains fully state-owned but is run with a private sector ethos.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

Kenya’s prisons house nearly 50,000 people in facilities designed to hold 14,000. Stories of horrific conditions of disease, vermin and lack of food are common.

Most of the support for the privatisation of prisons is in the form of two arguments: one, that the private sector can run prisons better than governments can; and two, and that prisons ought to support themselves financially.

The evidence is mixed on the first claim; privatisation does not always save money or improve efficiency. A 2011 investigative report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that private prisons “do not save money, cannot be demonstrated to save money in meaningful amounts, or may even cost more than government prisons.”

A value-for-money study commissioned by the Dutch government found that while operational costs in private prisons were reduced by 2-13%, savings disappeared once transaction and other financial costs were taken into account.

Some countries have rejected proposals to privatise prisons. In Costa Rica, although the government had signed a pre-contract to build a private prison with a capacity for 1,200 inmates at $73 million, it did not proceed with the deal, instead opting to build facilities at its own expense for 2,600 inmates at $10million. The Costa Rican government realised that going along with the deal would mean being locked into a contract that would spend $37 daily per inmate for 20 years, while in the state prisons the amount was $11. (Inmates in state facilities made up 80% of the prison population.) The government cancelled the contract, and opted instead to improve the situation of all inmates, raising the daily per capita amount to $16 for all those under confinement.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The second claim – that private prisons should be able to support themselves financially – is deeply rooted in a neoliberal ethos that judges the value of everything through the logic of the market. We see this in the announcement of the plan by PSCU, which stated that unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry would ultimately turn it into “a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity”.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The framing of this proposal is curious, particularly in the way it connects reformation with financial independence. It is neoliberalism offering rehabilitation through success in the market. (No wonder that the phrase “prominent Nairobi businessman/ woman” is often used to sanitise the reputation of people mired in scandal.)

Moreover, in a place like Kenya, where government contracts are often irregularly awarded and where corruption is endemic, privatisation can actually result in degraded services. Already, detectives are investigating a Sh6.2 billion scandal at the Prisons Department. A senior detective revealed a few weeks ago that investigators from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the anti-graft commission were closing in on suspects behind the suspicious spending on prisoners’ food, which was cleared last year although it is still marked as a pending bill.

Now, by linking the prisons sector with President Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, we are likely to see the emergence of a “hard-working performer” at the helm of the prison corporation who will point to the profits at the end of the prison pipeline as evidence of “cleaning up” the ailing penal system.

***

“The perpetrator is a product of criminal discourse and a victim of institutions that claim to deter crime, but are actually invested in perpetrating a police state where everyone is under surveillance and on the border of falling into criminality.” ~ Michel Foucault

All this is happening in a worrying context of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets the young, the poor and the urban. Last year, a damning audit by the National Council on the Administration of Justice revealed that the Kenyan state is essentially at war with informality. In practical terms, poverty is a crime.

Not only that, colonial laws against offences like vagrancy and loitering remain on our statute books and are vigorously enforced – as Carey Baraka articulated on the perils of being a young man on the streets of Nairobi and being forced to prove your existence by producing an ID card on demand. In fact, demands for ID documents assume that the black body in the city is not legitimate and must be accounted for.

“It’s an assumption that Africans can never be urban,” says city planner Constant Cap. “If you are urban, then you are not a real African, and you must explain your presence in the city to the powers that be. Our cities are actually not planned with us in mind – it is like they are not expecting permanent residents, just itinerant workers who trade their labour.”

This means that nearly 70% of court cases in our criminal judicial system are criminally petty, nuisance offences, or economically-driven (such as being drunk and disorderly, trading without a licence, loitering, causing a disturbance, or “preparing to commit a felony”). The dragnet is so large and indiscriminate that a Kenyan adult has a 1 in 10 chance of spending some time in police custody over the course of a year, although these figures skew heavily towards those who are young, male and poor.

In some ways, it is a logic that leans towards universal punishment rather than supporting universal prosperity – even for the small street trader who is really not doing anyone any harm, and certainly does not deserve jail time. As the economy continues to be depressed, we are likely to see more people who are unable to secure formal employment and who turn to informal trading on the street. This will make them more vulnerable to police harassment and arbitrary arrest.

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary is reeling from huge budget cuts this year. It had requested Sh31 billion to fund its operations for the current financial year but it was allocated Sh17 billion by the National Treasury. The latter figure was further reduced by Parliament to Sh14 billion. This means that judicial officers will likely be under more pressure to arrest and fine, as a prosecutor in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told me. “Petty offences are prosecuted vigorously in the judicial system because they are quick and easy to prove – the only witness needed in most cases is a police officer,” she said. “And the fines are now an even important source of money for the Judiciary.”

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

It doesn’t help that the key performance indicators (KPIs) for judicial officers are convictions. The gravity of the case doesn’t matter because “a conviction is a conviction, and magistrates get promoted on the basis of the number, not the type, of convictions,” the prosecutor told me, “even if the charges are just trespassing, hawking, illegal grazing, and the like.”

How might the profit incentive in the prisons change the trends in convictions and sentencing? “I definitely see a possibility for it to be more profitable to send people to jail than to fine them,” the prosecutor said. “Remandees are often given work to do things like sweep the governor’s compound – a profit motive in prisons will escalate this, and it will be framed as a favour to prisoners.”

***

But this is not all. The Kenyan education system is undergoing two major changes. On the one hand, the new curriculum has an increased focus on technical and vocational skills, and less of an emphasis on academic subjects. On the other hand, there is increased surveillance and militarisation of the school system, with authorities, including the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, issuing threats of a criminal record and jail time for students who protest or who are implicated in anti-social behaviour.

“This is to warn every student from primary school, secondary school, college and university that the DCI is archiving and profiling every criminal act and consolidating charges that may be preferred to each and every student involved in any crime,” the DCI tweeted in June.

A school-to-prison pipeline is therefore not far-fetched. With the new curriculum putting students on individual “talent” pathways, it will be easy to explain student failures on their lack of talent, thereby obscuring the bigger structural issues that might be at play. And now, students cannot complain, or they risk jail time.

“[The] negative characterization of poor and largely nonwhite youth is in sync with the broader push to replace social services with criminalization,” Alex Vitale writes in “The Criminalization of Youth”, an article in Jacobin magazine. “As more and more deprived neighborhoods are denied access to decent jobs and schools, their young people are criminalized as ‘the worst of the worst’ to ensure that the problems in these communities are understood as individual and group moral failures, rather than the result of rapacious market forces and a hollowed-out state.”

***

“Companies that service the criminal sys­tem need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long-term growth . . . In the criminal jus­tice field, the raw material is prisoners and indus­try will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply. For the supply of prisoners to grow, criminal justice policies must ensure a sufficient number of incarcerated [people] regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.” Steven Donziger

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This should worry us all because mere contact with the system leaves “a stain of criminality”, my prosecutor friend told me. “I’ve seen children and young people enter the criminal justice system for a small reason that could have been handled at home or in the community – and by the time the system is done with them, they are into proper crime: hardened, disillusioned and angry.”

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This is not a feature of a broken state apparatus; on the contrary, the state is acting just as it was designed to act, as Keguro Macharia reminds us:

One reads Kenyans demanding colonial systems work better, and weeps. 

– “we need police to do their work properly”

– “we need the laws implemented properly”

– “we need the judicial systems to work properly”

If you are being unhumaned, those systems are working properly.

If you are being executed, those systems are working properly.

If you are feeling frustrated and humiliated, those systems are working properly.

The demand cannot be that systems designed to unhuman Africans work properly.

The demand is abolition.

And as for Uhuru Kenyatta achieving the Big 4 agenda through prison “reform”, it would be worth looking at how the US government systematically and cynically deprived its black and brown citizens of liberty at a huge cost even to itself. Instead of building good public housing like the Housing Acts of 1949/65/68 mandated, the US rapidly built prisons. So in an evil kind of way, the US did end up investing in public housing – in jail.

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