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MOVING BOUNDARIES: Building bridges in a Kardashian world

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MOVING BOUNDARIES: Building bridges in a Kardashian world

We live in a world where our certainties, including lines in the sand, the imagination of our boundaries, are crumbling. We are in a season where one of the most significant struggles is that of giving a name to the realities of our now. You know the landscape through which our metaphorical boundaries intend to creep: the rise and re-entrenchment of global tribalism—euphemised as alt-right (isn’t that the new non-word being bandied about?), nationalism, Brexit, regionalism, partisanship, supremacy, tribalism, and its evil sister, the extensive, thorough, strategic demonisation of “the other”. Naturally, history repeatedly tells us how this will end – a human frenzy that accelerates into an unstoppable, diabolic rage that will result in some horrendous mass bloodletting that will lead survivors to another round of shame, guilt, regret, outrage and the promise (again) of “oh no, never again”.

Here is a world where an unrepentant sound-bitey demagogue has taken the seat of authority in the world’s most powerful nation, his pointing finger just a breath away from an Armageddon nuclear holocaust button. He got there through a democratic process, a free and fair election fairy tale. In this we can read how the boundaries of “civilisational” paradigms now reveal themselves. This, friends, is supposed to be the apex of democracy, the great adventure our nations are walking towards.

Watching The Donald gloat and heckle his way across the United States to the roaring approval of enraptured masses beggars one’s previous notions about America. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Adolf Hitler would have been impressed. For an African person from Africa, the scenes unfolding are uncomfortably familiar. As much as I enjoy (yes, I admit, it is petty) the discomfort of a few American acquaintances struggling to embrace the consequences of choosing that orange-hued leader of their free world, I am forced to contend with a Trump-led earth. (Mind you, there are also Teresa May and Marie le Pen on the sidelines.)

What the American election process points to is the reality of our limits. It indicates how dogmatic insincerity couched under political correctness and glossy branding will collapse under the pressure of the actual choices of the human heart. The fact that a tribal supremacist wins precisely because he is a tribal supremacist implies that there are far more hidden worlds within the imagined, idealised America, and indeed within our world and within the African continent. The questions that traverse the heart find answers one way or another, whether we want to hear the truth or not, even if, in the USA’s case, the truthful answer is Mr. Donald Trump.

Watching The Donald gloat and heckle his way across the United States to the roaring approval of enraptured masses beggars one’s previous notions about America. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Adolf Hitler would have been impressed.

Let us gesture to some of the questions that may be lurking within these present boundaries of the human heart. None of these questions are ever likely to be answered because to do so would demand that the myths and brands by which we insist on defining our worlds would have to be dismantled. Few are ready to do this. Here are some of those questions:

Would there have been an immigration surge and an ISIS if the United States had not moved boundaries, defied international protocol, manufactured lies to invade and destroy Iraq and Afghanistan and then continued blithely with the annihilation of Libya? Why is there such a massive build-up of war tools right now in so many corners of the world, including Eastern Europe? Is the world preparing for a gigantic-scale war? Why is Russia being turned into a global pariah using the same format that was created to justify the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria (which failed)? To what purpose? Who benefits the most from the wars in the world? Since all weapons carry serial numbers and if the United Nations is truly desirous of ending wars, why has the UN not been able to sanction the sources of these borderless weapons? Is it because the countries that manufacture these weapons are the UN’s main funders?

Instead of confronting such questions, what we as a human race prefer to do is to bury these questions with our hysterical laughter at the antics of the gruesome Kardashians, who have been turned into a signal icon for human regeneration, aspiration and forgetfulness. We prefer Pollyanna-ish and Orwellian newspeak, with Tinker Bell descriptions, such as “collateral damage”, to disguise and deny the reality of our fears, discontent, terror and confusion. Meanwhile, the earth is reeling. If it is not from angry persons plotting doomsday scenarios, then it is a climate woundedness that sees a never-before-experienced scenario of the melting of the North and South Poles. The seas are rising.

As a response to such existential global uncertainty, the UN, in its wisdom, appointed Wonder Woman – the pneumatic-bosomed illusory white female caricature with a wasp’s waist who wears the American flag as underwear – as the honorary Goodwill Ambassador for something called the Empowerment of Women and Girls. It was a solemn ceremony. When this happened, the world should have realised that our world was truly and royally…buggered (if I may use this most satisfyingly descriptive Anglo-Saxon expression).

Instead of confronting such questions, what we as a human race prefer to do is to bury these questions with our hysterical laughter at the antics of the gruesome Kardashians, who have been turned into a signal icon for human regeneration, aspiration and forgetfulness.

We are living in the eye of the storm of that popularised curse/blessing wrongly attributed to China: May you live in interesting times. The closest Cantonese expression refers to a clown in and of current time. Clowns. Rather apt. Still, the forces of nature, space, time and whatever else seem to have unleashed a whirlwind that is driving the world as flotsam and jetsam. We feel it, we see it, we read the signs, but do not dare to construct a lexicon for this.

In a season of such terrifying flux, borders are a moot point. Frontiers will have to be re-imagined and probably called something else. The human person will also have to reconsider who or what it is. Pope Francis has dared to call this time as that of a piecemeal World War III. We freak out. Yet the possibility that an apocalypse has erupted beneath our living room couches while we keep up with the Kardashians is real.

Boundaries are already in movement; the future is in a state of uncertainty. You have already witnessed (the edited versions of) millions of humans escaping historical homes out of existential distress; they walk deserts, they cross boundaries, crash through frontiers, tear down electric wire fences and sail across wild seas in rubber dinghies seeking safety, hope and a home. The last mass movement of this kind – human journeys into harbours that throw up gates against them – was during World War II. But they keep moving. To what? Where? Transcending boundaries? You have seen the pictures of some of our Africans who have sought to leave for the imagined nirvana of elsewhere now turning the Mediterranean Sea into a cemetery. Meanwhile the African Union, among other African institutions, sustain their impeccable record for profound silences about matters that truly matter to their citizens.

There are other boundary movements that slip off the radar. I am not sure why this is the case, considering that these are bigger than any other migrations taking place in the world right now. I refer to the massive Chinese influx into Africa—official figures are one million, unofficial figures double that – persons now spread throughout the African continent. Mandarin is now a factor of African social and linguistic realities. The blend of cultures and the fruits of such a union through Sino-African children is more apparent now. I ask you then, is the next African decade a Chinese one? If you want to explore African boundaries, look to China. (I am being facetious.)

Great resource finds on our continent, coupled with an awareness of a lack of these resources in other parts of the world, have also increased the populations of persons of Caucasian descent living in Africa. The numbers are always disputed and minimised (the International Organisation for Migration has no figures for current European migration into Africa) because this sort of human movement does not subscribe to a favoured mythology. The figures for these are also in excess of a million, with Angola and Mozambique (in the time of the European economic crisis) receiving together over 700,000 young European economic migrants who settled there to start new lives. Migrant crisis, anyone?

Back to this season of wordlessness.

We feel, see, and hide from what we are most uneasy about. We prefer to draw a line across what does not conform to our delusion or brand of the world. We are silent before the unceasing bloodletting. We skip past the news of the slaughters in Uganda, Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and entire communities living within the Amazon. We ignore the water wars in the US and the soul-destruction in detention camps worldwide, including that generated by Australia’s own Faustian pact with Nauru, and more significantly, in the Auschwitz-like American concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay – that grotesque giant stain on the human conscience that many of us who proclaim, study and articulate human rights choose to ignore.

How is this even possible?

What is the reality of lines drawn out in a world where the best resources available are dedicated to renewing, reinventing and valorising tools of human violence and destruction to which we have acceded power, and now, with reference to drone warfare, handed over a moral impetus to? A boundary-less machine can be directed to choose whether a human being anywhere in the world lives or dies. Is this the pinnacle of civilisation?

We feel, see, and hide from what we are most uneasy about. We prefer to draw a line across what does not conform to our delusion or brand of the world. We are silent before the unceasing bloodletting.

For a long time, the greatest threat to civilisation was imagined as an invasion from a powerful galactic force: aliens. Yet all this time the alien was us – a strange race that both cannibalises and worships itself. The only ones capable of and willing to and particularly invested in destroying the earth in a cataclysm is us…. And we are willing to do so for the most spurious of reasons: to prove the primacy of our pitiful ideologies so that we can be emperors of a swamp.

Exceptional? Ha!

The world’s latest atavistic impulse is one that is imbued by a virulent Islamophobia. It is unbelievable and unconscionable that the same world that not too long ago learned that an abhorrent depiction and dehumanisation of a peoples could lead to the slaughter of the human soul, the bestial behaviour of human beings and the destruction of the core of human decency can now regurgitate that evil to visit it anew upon others.

If 45 per cent of our African population is linked to Islamic mores, how can we allow this repugnant paradigm to take root unquestioned by our individual and collective sensibilities? Africans, with your endless silences as still as yoghurt, do you even comprehend what this means for your cultures and identities? What happens to being and belonging when by virtue of your facing Mecca in prayer you become defined as a “terrorist-in-waiting” by a culture and paradigm that prefers and perpetuates a most idiotic and ignorant lens to explain away an actual human and existential crisis, the primary purpose of which is the sustenance of a lucrative war and suffering ecosystem?

You and I have experienced the progressive and strategic framing of this horrible lie until it has acquired the semblance of truth—a post-truth that becomes a post-reality reality. And in this matter, not once have I heard an African reframing an African reactiveness. Not once. Africans, your boundaries of existence are receding and you are blind, deaf, dumb and stupid to it. Your governments have even designated your own soldiers to blow up a portion of your own population and to hold them in suspicion because they proclaim “Allahu Akbar”.

The consequences of such extremes of human foolishness manifest in weird new cultural practices. Allow me to be regale you with the tale of a rather senior World Bank official who upon arriving in Johannesburg – her first visit to Africa – showed up surrounded by six, giant, heavily- armed and helmeted security guards who looked like pumped-up black beetles on steroids. The guards had been hired to protect her from the violence of her vivid imagination. I would have done anything to enter into her senses as her plane door opened to a view of the South African city. She proceeded to painstakingly sustain her delusions even as she trip-tropped, trip-tropped all over Sandton Mall like billy goat gruff, needing to justify the expenses of a psychosis created by a cultural commitment to wallow in profound benightedness. What is the language for these new modes of human strangeness?

This, our amputation from both reality and humanity, are the consequences of an investment in an unsustainable idea of the world and its humanity. It is a gross alienation from what should bond, bind and build. You speak of boundaries and bridges, tell me, what types of structures have you called forth to overcome a refusal to experience, even in difference, the humanity of another? What kind of boundaries are you proposing to transcend the now embedded human fear of other humans? We are pleased to invest in propaganda infrastructure to peddle disinformation. We define phrases like “collateral damage” to sanitise and conceal the reality of millions of wilful, innocent murders and the destruction of hospitals and homes for which there are no Nuremberg trials.

Donald Trump appointed the head of the Pentagon a man, who if the principles of Nuremberg were to be applied, should be hanging at the end of noose, until dead. But this man is to oversee the largest war arsenal in the history of humanity under the leadership of an erratic being. Behold your world.

This, our amputation from both reality and humanity, are the consequences of an investment in an unsustainable idea of the world and its humanity. It is a gross alienation from what should bond, bind and build.

With this in mind, what does it mean for you and me to be a human being now? Even with enhanced consciousness of the cosmos and the universe, why are some more still more human than others? Nothing speaks so much to this than the visa application process to which most Africans are subjected. Name of grandmother? Bank account details? Are these people insane?

Even with new revelations shared with us by those seekers, in say, the world of quantum physics or cosmology, why is the prevalent operating mythology still epitomised by the vacuous Kardashians? Why do we prefer that? Even with what we have heard about the awesome wonders of human possibility, why is the inclination that of a willingness to be hypnotised into forgetting reality, to persist in the visiting of such gross wounds on an already suffering world today?

It is no secret that “human rights” are enforced by one set of people and directed at select others. Interpretations vary, of course. They do not stand a chance when confronted by the phrase “extraordinary renditions”. In October 2016, a woman-crushing, human-beheading, Yemen- invading Saudi Arabia was voted into the UN Human Rights Council to replace the newly designated pariah of the Occident, Russia. All I will say about that is that it is only a matter of time before the collective human soul gets weary of its own hypocrisy and calls a time out. Wither your boundaries now? To you who live in these extraordinarily conflictual times, what language have you created to match its demands? What does “boundary” actually mean for a time such as this?

Language is a road map and a blueprint, a provider of impetus, a prophetic vessel. Yet we seem to be either too paralysed or far too implicated to be able to generate an intimately truthful lexicon that might transfigure this present, or at least allow us all to cross out of our present limits. Without language how do we intend to enter the depths of our present reality in order to even understand it?

The Kardashians are a colourful and hypnotic screen that shield us from reality. They are not alone. The latest poster child for our condition is poor Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. In October 2016, he declared that “Africa (the country) could do with some British values” so that the country Africa might join the league of humanity as structured by the vacuum of his imagination. I emphasise this, for in the delusional man’s version of the story of English incursions into other lives and cultures, there are no shadow, no demons, no hollows, no genocides, really no messy bits. His eternal soundtrack is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstances No 1 in D minor.

He no doubt keeps up with the Kardashians.

Against this backdrop, now let me touch on aspects of my literary life. I am a citizen of an imagined space called Kenya, whose frontiers were created by an English cartographer when Kenya, the colony, was a British project. What changed in 1963, the day those who became “Kenyans” call independence day? I stated in a different forum how my experiences of the nation only assert to me that the infrastructure and edifices of the colonial state established after the genocidal invasion designed in 1884-5 in Berlin (purists get irritated when I persist in referring to this as the First World War) are still intact. The colour of the skins of the taskmasters may have changed but everything else progresses as it has for over a hundred and fifty years. For example, there is no day that trains stop taking Congo’s mineral resources towards the sea to the waiting ships of many foreign nations; not once have these trains stopped moving, even in the throes of serious bloodletting. Remarkable, isn’t it?

The people who receive the money are in former colonial capitals, while we waste time and energy asserting… what? Independence? From what?

I live in an Africa experiencing a second-wave invasion – a massive resource grab enabled by our amoral leaders who are mortgaging bounteous landscapes and signing up to massive unpayable loans with strangers. It is likely that within fifty years the great underclass on the continent will be, again, Africans themselves, newly bankrupted vassals of a new set of foreign masters deliberately invited in under our bemused gaze. It is said that history repeats itself especially when lessons first offered remain unacknowledged, unlearned and unresolved. The problem is not with the stranger. It is with us.

Anyway, given this, what moves storytellers of Africa? I don’t know about the others, but I shall tell you something of my own compulsion to search dimly lit places of the world and my continent; to live and then walk through the valleys of peoples’ shadows in order to try to make sense of the time in which I find myself; our framing, our place, our future in the face of so much.

I live in an Africa experiencing a second-wave invasion – a massive resource grab enabled by our amoral leaders who are mortgaging bounteous landscapes and signing up to massive unpayable loans with strangers. It is likely that within fifty years the great underclass on the continent will be, again, Africans themselves, newly bankrupted vassals of a new set of foreign masters deliberately invited in under our bemused gaze.

I love the gift of being human and sharing life. I love humanity. I love ideas that challenge, invite, inspire and grow life. I also wonder about, worry and want to fix life’s fragile and broken places, because something of this time inhabits me and sheds pieces of its ghosts upon my own story. I have a very Catholic urge to name demons, and stare at faces of the enemies without and within before seeking, as part of a collective, to exorcise these. I love the earth. It is a privilege to be here. I love the continent of my heritage. I love my country. The bigger arc of my literary life is a love story that craves a “happily ever after”.

So I roam the disciplines, a bit like a pickpocket. I eavesdrop into the thinking from everywhere; silos bore me. I work with words like a mechanic tinkering with leaky places in a marvellous machine. I am a bit of a pathologist, diagnosing a corpse for its cause of death, imagining that I might prevent a similar fate for myself and for what I love. I have wondered why post-colonial Africa became stunned and inarticulate about its world and stopped writing itself into the world with pens of fire. I try to witness those silences. I want the silences to give up ghosts and names so that I can write them as stories and offer them to light, and then with them find the treasure of peace.

My works also interrogate the notion of the nation. I do not believe it exists. In this post-truth world does that even matter, given the reality of the march of super companies and the fetishisation of money? More seriously, I also often wonder if a nation like Kenya and its people suffer a grievous moral injury in their core and memory. Do societies experience collective post- traumatic stress that is not yet framed in a socio-political lexicon? Some of the frameworks of Holocaust studies profoundly resonate with me as they explain much of Africans’ secret angst, all the things of shame, guilt and grief that remain unspoken.

I have wondered why post-colonial Africa became stunned and inarticulate about its world and stopped writing itself into the world with pens of fire.

My book Dust set me on that path when, after Kenya’s descent into hell in 2007-8, I needed to kick open painted-over tombs where we had nurtured our demons. It led me to wonder if ancestral trauma caused by a violence inflicted on the humanity of another lives out its irresolution by haunting succeeding generations. For most African nations, a horrible war was consolidated in 1885 in Berlin, and imposed itself upon them. It has never really stopped, despite the theatre of changing flags.

How do you move when all your energies are expended in circling, hiding and avoiding a grievous and existence-questioning wound? Do we imagine that the resonance of horror embedded in memory simply fades away? What do you imagine was and is the state of the soul of a man of old Africa experiencing the crushing deceptions and the betrayal of his hospitality by strangers? Who watches his known world disappear and experiences the total powerlessness and betrayal-by-silence of once favoured deities? I see no archiving about this by our people. This absence, I imagine, damages all parties. We have held no memorials for the destroyed. We use our boundaries to shield us from the past and its unrequited ghosts – people who are our brothers, mothers, fathers, ancestors, accusers. There is no “long ago” in the consequences of human deeds.

As a world and as a continent we have never grieved our excesses or our losses of self, families, community, worldview, gods, goods, stories, time, spaces, lands, archetypes and imagination in word, deed and thought. I posit that these live out their lack of resolution to the present. Is it from these too that we seek to escape through our boundaries? What does the now mean to a continent that was massively defeated in an undeclared brutal and genocidal war; a place where defeated men and women could do nothing when their wives, husbands, parents, lovers, sons, and daughters were seized, raped, sodomised, brutalised, mutilated and hunted in their presence?

Linked to this was the economics woven into intricate trade networks. Global monsoon networks reached into the continent’s own heart before reaching into China and Azerbaijan where an African diaspora has long existed. There was the trans-Saharan trade, the southern circuit that moved gold, ivory, gemstones to the coast. The space that is Africa has largely been made up of a people and culture in and of movement as a path to wealth, adventure, humanity and encounter.

What is the impact and implications of such losses of economic wherewithal that offered so many African cultures an access to the world on their own terms? These cultures were violently taken over way by assorted European trading companies that are the parents of the conglomerates we are familiar with today, who own, manage and control the resources of a continent that keep the world afloat. We do not talk often about this; if the conversations occur, I have not been a party to them. The responsibility for this lack of questioning rests squarely at our assorted African doors.

I wonder why in most cases, after fifty years of supposed independence, it is easier and cheaper for me travel to Paris and live there for two months than it is for me to travel to Ouagadougou from Nairobi. Why? We are a people who seem to have not only lost agency over our resources, but have also lost the endless scope of their actual and imagined existence in the basic of ways. For example, most Africans today have no idea that coffee is not all about Starbucks or Colombia and that the coffee culture – its identification and its use and consumption as a beverage, medicine and ritual substance – was originally, intrinsically and creatively African (Ethiopian, to be precise). Again, when I define the African milieu as encompassing all our seas and discuss African maritime imaginaries, many gawk at me as if I am speaking to them in hieroglyphics.

What bothers me the most as an artist is our wilful African unknowing, our wilful constraints – boundaries – to imagining, thinking, hearing and seeing. Are we then to move from ignorance to ignorance, a floating people disconnected from our own humus and unable to speak of it, not only to the world, but more painfully, to ourselves? A people whose story is limited, constrained framed and only retold by others, a story so small that ours becomes an existential battle of making our lives miniscule enough to enter into the categories created in order to not again suffer a brutal fate worse than death. Hovering above our psychic heads is the real fear of a return to the diabolic violence that can be unleashed at the whims of one culture that for the most part—apart from the Germans – has declined to examine its conscience and review its consciousness of life and humanity in the face of its impulse to atrocities and the denial of these.

I do worry about a post-independence Africa that lost its voice so much so that it is inarticulate before the realities of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, Colombia Ukraine, Brexit or Trump. Only bystanders, or victims of fate, have nothing to say about their destiny. Only the long-dead have a right to such silence. How do we proceed to traverse into the present and future through the unknown territories of our being where there are neither bridge builders nor bridges?

What bothers me the most as an artist is our wilful African unknowing, our wilful constraints – boundaries – to imagining, thinking, hearing and seeing. Are we then to move from ignorance to ignorance, a floating people disconnected from our own humus and unable to speak of it, not only to the world, but more painfully, to ourselves?

There is a phrase we popularised in Kenya during election 2013: “Accept and Move On.” Moving on. It was assumed that the diabolic violence of the post-election violence of 2007-2008 could be commanded into silence. But the violence and its ghosts keep interfering with our present and feeding from it; we have known no psychological peace. We are caught in a death-roll of a putrefying form of corruption; we are consuming ourselves and are subject to a disgusting inner corrosion that emanates from a refusal to give a name to our horrors. You who speak of movement and boundaries, do you ever imagine that one of the keys to the future is buried in our many darknesses that require courage and humility to excavate in order to extract roots embedded in the past? Given that movement points to two directions, do we dare step into deep truth-telling in order to repopulate the present with what will set the future free?

Now, on a more optimistic note. The African continent plays host to the youngest of the world’s populations. It is called the youth bulge, or the demographic dividend. This lot looks at the world through other eyes. They host each other in their rooms. They travel fearlessly. They set up online literary platforms like Jalada.com—look it up – that think beyond boundaries and have, for example, translated a story by Ngugi wa Thiong’o into over a hundred languages, including Urdu. They code. They regenerate vocabularies. They milk sacred cows. They live, for the most part, an expansive imagination that has no lexicon attached to it yet.

The influx of new souls and cultures into a continent that thrives on variety is a great portent in more ways than it is challenging. Unlike the popularised consensus – not necessarily articulated by Africans themselves – I can also read the influx of the Chinese people into Africa through hopeful lenses. Cultural renewal through the intermingling and exchange of people has always been a force of transformation in the world. These combined forces – the youth and migrants – present an atypical movement impetus on the continent that perhaps promises a transformative idea of place that just may be able to bear the weight of this agitated world and guide it, maybe, into a more wholesome future.

This essay is adapted from a keynote address by the author at the 39th AFSSAP conference in Perth, Australia, on the theme “Africa: Moving the Boundaries” in December 2016.

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

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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.

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“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.

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“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.”

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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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