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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

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EASY COME, EASY GO: The online borrowing craze among Kenyan youth

In the past, opening a bank account in Kenya was an elaborate and tedious affair. It was akin to applying for a job: you presented your “curriculum vitae” to bank officials who would determine your fitness as a financially serviceable client. There were forms to be filled (in duplicate) that captured details such as date of birth, schools attended, employment history, reasons for choosing that particular bank and referees to vouch for your suitability. Some banks even asked whether you had spent nights in a police cell and whether you had a criminal record. It was like joining an exclusive members’ club – the odious scrutiny made it look like it was a privilege to be allowed to join the “banking club”.

The procedure for getting a loan was even more stringent and punitive: you would be asked to deposit a valuable item, such as a log book, jewellery or a title deed, as collateral. Money matters were serious business.

That was then. Today technology, particularly smartphones, has revolutionised the financial sector, so much so that traditional banks must be ruing the day smartphones became second nature to humanity. These days getting a personal loan online is easier and faster than calling your nearest bank or micro-finance lending facility. Thanks to mobile banking, a smartphone owner can borrow from as little as Sh500 to as much as Sh70,000 without breaking into a sweat. All he or she needs is to be social media savvy. Having a social media account, such as a Facebook account, is understood by both the online loan apps and the borrowers to be an unstated primary requirement for accessing a loan. There are at least 50 mobile phone lending apps operating in Kenya.

A FinAcess (financial access) survey done in 2016 by the Central Bank of Kenya, the Kenyan National of Bureau of Statistics, FSD-Kenya and the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor found out that 77.5 per cent of Kenyans own a mobile phone. Out of this group, according to a 2018 digital credit survey, 35 per cent, or roughly six million people, have taken at least one digital loan. In essence, the survey found that digital credit had become a leading source of credit in Kenya. Using a sample size of 3,000 Kenyans, the survey showed that digital credit appeals to younger customers, out of which 55 per cent are male and from urban areas. The study also found that by far the most common reason for taking a loan is to meeting day-to-day needs. Financing education also drives use of credit while just over a quarter of users take loans to support their business and agricultural activities.

However, many of these borrowers struggle to pay back their loans. According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200. (CRB is the body charged with the task of flagging or blacklisting all loan defaulters and ensuring that they are barred from borrowing from or transacting with any financial and legal entity, including the government.)

Eliud Njoroge, a financial risk management and private equity fund consultant, told me that mobile phone lending firms financed by venture capitalists were taking advantage of the vulnerability of impressionable youth. “The youth of today want instant gratification – they want it now and here. The notion of delayed gratification, that is, the idea of being patient and thinking through your financial needs, wants, opportunity costs and apparent risk considerations are alien concepts to them,” said Njoroge. “The ‘Java’ generation lives for the moment and developers of these digital apps are exploiting this social phenomenon in the epoch of social media, where the imagined reality of life is being played instantly.” (By Java generation the private equity fund manager, who himself is a millennial, was alluding to the Java restaurants in Nairobi that are popular among the city’s slick young urbanites.)

According to a survey by Microsave, a financial services consultancy, 2.7 million borrowers have been negatively listed by the Credit Reference Bureau (CRB) in the last three years, 15 percent of them for amounts of less than Sh200.

“The crux of the matter is that today the aggressive marketing gimmicks by the owners of these apps are singularly directed at the post-millennials – guys barely out of their teens and who have zilch idea of what constitutes a financial budget, leave alone a plan,” notes Njoroge. “Because they still solely rely on their parents, guardians, benefactors, relatives and friends for their upkeep, they have no qualms misusing and squandering money. Hence, the apps have specifically been developed largely with this group of people in mind. They are ready and willing to spend, but most importantly, borrow money to feed their peer-driven lifestyle habits.”

Njoroge’s opinion is based on his wide experience in advising multinational banks and international financial corporations and, more specifically, financial start-up companies that are being funded to loan cash to young people (read anybody below 33 years of age). Njoroge has worked as a financial risk management consultant in Ethiopia, Rwanda and the United Kingdom. Now based in Kenya, he currently works with start-up companies on the look-out for potential big and small loan risk takers. “I will tell you for free that these online apps will explicitly not come out to state that they are targeting these young adults, but I know it from experience and interactions with today’s bankers and venture capitalists that this is the case.”

However, the 2018 digital credit survey found that “digital borrowers are more likely than average to run their own business or be employed” and “less likely to be … dependent on family or government transfers”.

Njoroge says that the apps make young people believe that they can both save and borrow money, but this is not the case. “There is no saving. The apps exist solely for ensuring that you borrow endlessly.” He says another lie being perpetrated by these apps is that they promote small business enterprises. “A complete lie. These apps would like to masquerade as micro-finance entities. They like to market themselves as tools that reduce the cost of borrowing through technology. But I can tell you for a fact that micro-financing is a different financial ball game, technology or no technology. If indeed there are times when they will provide loans for micro-financing, it is because they must be seen to do so, and therefore, it will be incidental and not the primary intended goal.”

The tragedy of these apps, says the financial consultant, is that the cost of repaying these loans can be very punitive. “Firstly, their interest rates are way above the rates charged by banks. The Java generation is impervious to these high interest rates – they borrow and spend money that they have not sweated for. The developers of these apps figured this a long time ago.”

In addition, “if today you default, your name is immediately forwarded to the CRB. If that happens, trust me, you will not even be allowed to borrow from Okoa Jahazi (a platform for borrowing airtime from Safaricom, the biggest mobile network provider in Kenya).”

CRB has to date blacklisted half a million people, according to the Transunion Credit Bureau’s CEO, Billy Owino, Just three years ago, there were only 150,000 loan defaulters in Kenya. Woe unto you if you are ever blacklisted. You are not off the hook even after you have repaid your loan. CRB still considers you a credit risk for seven years. What this means is that for seven years financial institutions will be wary of you when you approach them for a loan. “Most of the borrowers don’t know that they got blacklisted. We get 200 calls daily from individuals in this category, asking how they ended up in the blacklist.”

Twenty-year-old Charles, a University of Nairobi student, says that he took the trouble to compare the interest rates of the various online money lending apps. He eventually settled for KCB-M-Pesa because it had the best rates.” He says that on average he borrows between Sh2,000 and 3,000 twice a month.

“What do you borrow the money for?” I asked him. “I use the money to finance my Sport-Pesa (gambling) expeditions. I bet for big matches.” Although Charles is a college student, he has not yet outgrown indulging in play-station games. “Apart from betting, I also borrow money to afford my play-station games escapades.”

The digital credit survey found that only 3 per cent of borrowers get a loan in order to gamble. It is possible that this number is an underestimate given the finding that “digital borrowers are almost twice as likely to have tried mobile betting at least once in their lifetime”.

Sports betting

Sports betting has become big business in Kenya and ensnared an entire generation. A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

Read also: BETTING THEIR LIVES AWAY: How online gambling is ruining Kenyan youth

SportPesa, a sports gaming company that was established about five years ago, is today the biggest sports betting platform in Kenya. It is among the dozen or so sports gaming companies that have sprouted in the country recently. These sports gaming companies have developed an impassioned craze among millennials and zillennials (the post-millennial teenage youth born after 2000) who have taken to betting as a way of life. The GeoPoll survey found that Kenyans gambled more frequently than their fellow Africans, spending an average of Sh5,000 a month. Charles has yet to win big cash (most people have never won more than Sh5,000) but feels that he has to keep on feeding his craving, which started as a hobby.

A GeoPoll survey done in March 2017 found that 76 percent of young people in Kenya are into betting and that these youth spend more money on betting than their Ugandan and Tanzanian counterparts. The survey also identified mobile phones as the preferred tool for sports betting among young people.

According to Banker Awards held in the UK in December 2017, Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) is the largest bank countrywide in terms of asset size and has 12 million customers registered for the KCB-M-Pesa mobile service. The KCB M-Pesa loan app, which started in 2015 as a savings account, charges between 4 per cent and 6 per cent interest rate. Its phone loan service rose from 35 per cent between January and March 2016 to 41 per cent in the same quarter in 2017. Because of the success of mobile money borrowing, financial transactions at the branch level fell to 20 per cent from 31 per cent previously. Said KCB Group CEO and Managing Director, Joshua Oigara, in an in-house 2017 KCB newsletter: “We’ve seen a sharp rise in loan requests on all our mobile loans following the decrease in interest rates.” The newsletter stated that the average value of loans per customer was Sh1,800.

Like Branch International Inc., an international online money lending consortium that has its headquarters in San Francisco in California, and which launched its services in Kenya in 2015, KCB M-Pesa, vigorously advertises on Classic FM’s most popular morning radio show. Its target audience, just like Branch’s, is post-millennial youth who have just turned 18, who are college-bound and who have just acquired a national identity card. Branch is giving loans of up to Sh70,000, and according to the radio promos, it claims to have up to a million Kenyan borrowers. “You do not need any collateral, any bank account or a referee, all you need to do is download the Android app and you will receive your loan in 10 seconds flat,” proclaims the ad.

The advertising language used to sell the online borrowing apps is deliberate and intentional, targeted at a generation that is just starting to discover itself and excited about owning a gadget that, to them, seems to unlock hitherto unimagined infinite possibilities. The one-minute radio promos of these online lending apps are couched in language that would appeal to young adults. “Unlocking your growth potential” and other slogans are targeted at a generation that had little or no financial knowledge.

Ken, like Charles, borrows to finance his gambling habits. “So I will borrow every time there are big matches being played on the English Premier League,” admitted Ken. “I bet on Sport-Pesa and I borrow between Sh1,500 to 3,000. He said his favourite app was Tala because, “it is very prompt when relaying the money. I wanted an app that does not waste time in giving me instant cash.”

Dates and other emergencies

The online app of choice for 19-year-old Steve, a Technical University of Nairobi student, is M-Shwari. “I opted to use M-Shwari because it is a solid brand that works together with KCB, another solid brand.” Steve said he borrows between Sh1,000 and 3,000 a month to finance his college lifestyle habits. “Cut a brother some slack,” he said. “I need to enjoy some good life while I’m a student.” Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve told me it is not just once that he did not have the cash to entertain some girl in a fancy restaurant. “On several occasions I have had hot dates, but trust me, I did not have a penny. But tell me, would you let slip a date you’ve been chasing like there’s no tomorrow just because you’re not liquid?”

Steve said he relies on his parents for pocket money “but can what they give me be enough? I oftentimes have to deal with emergencies, hence the need to have a channel where you can quickly run to for fast cash.” These “emergencies” include impressing and winning over impromptu dates.

Steve said he has walked confidently into a Java restaurant a couple of times with a “beautiful catch” with not a single penny in his pocket because he knows he can borrow money from M-Shwari “of course, without her knowledge”. The instant loan is deposited into his M-Pesa account, which he uses to settle his bill. Meanwhile, the Java generation belle will not have the slightest hint that her expensive lunch treat was financed by a loan and that the young man will have to figure out how to repay it later.

By 2017, the M-Shwari (shwari means to be calm or peaceful in Kiswahili) online loan portfolio had 420,000 applications every day; of that, 70,000 are processed daily for repayment every 30 days. It has more than 80,000 agents countrywide and processes US$20 million daily payments, according to a study done by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay. M-Shwari is operated by Safaricom, the biggest mobile network operator in Kenya, and is considered to be the mother of mobile phone lending apps, largely because it was the first mobile phone loan application in Kenya.

Started in 2012, M-Shwari has to date 21 million customers in Kenya. The minimum threshold required of an M-Shwari borrower is to possess a Safaricom sim card and to be registered as an M-Pesa user. Therefore, technically speaking, anyone with an M-Pesa account qualifies to borrow from M-Shwari. The beauty with M-Shwari, its users tell me, is that you can borrow offline so long as you are on the M-Pesa platform. M-Shwari charges a one-time “service fee” of 7.5 per cent on all loans.

M-Shwari is actually a creation of a partnership between Commercial Bank of Africa (CBA) and Safaricom, who split the revenue accrued from the lucrative business. According to the How M-Shwari Works: The Story So Far report written by Tamara Cook and Claudia McKay in 2015, Safaricom provides access to customers and transactional data on mobile phone and mobile money usage. CBA, on the other hand, develops credit scoring algorithms that analyse the transactional data to make credit evaluation decisions. The actual lending is done by the bank. One of the single biggest reasons why the M-Shwari app is preferred is because money is promptly credited to your phone immediately. But just as you receive money on the spot, you must also pay it back on time. Deferment and delayed payment can be costly and punitive. “I have always endevoured to pay back on time,” said Steve.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers (known as mama mboga). From as early as 3 in the morning, the women vegetable sellers begin to borrow money from M-Shwari because they need to go their respective markets to buy their wares, fresh and in good time. These women are experts in M-Shwari borrowing. By the evening, when they are reconciling their figures, they will begin repaying their loan, usually from between 8.30pm and 10.30pm, in preparation for the dawn borrowing. The women borrow anything from between Sh3,000 and Sh5,000 daily. On a good day, the mama mboga will repay her M-Shwari debt and still remain with a tidy sum as profit. However, these women, who are M-Shwari’s most loyal customers, are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to paying back their loans.

According to a Safaricom manager, M-Shwari is busiest from 3am to 5am and from 8.30pm to 10.30pm, not because of the nocturnal spending habits of young men like Steve, but because of the business acumen of women vegetable hawkers.

Chebet, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not even care to know the interest rates charged by these mobile phone apps. She told me that she borrows between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 per month. And she was very forthright on why she borrows the money: “I borrow to satisfy my spendthrift behaviours. I am always buying shoes, bags and clothes that my meagre allowance that I am allowed by my parents cannot satiate.”

The 19-year-old said her favourite borrowing app is Tala. “I got used to Tala because it is advertised a lot on mobile smartphones. Tala is truly one of the money-lending apps that is advertised 24/7 on Android smartphones. The pop-ups are constantly in your face every time you navigate through the phone.” (Tala was previously known as Mkopo Rahisi, Kiswahili for “easy loan.” The app has devised a system where it rewards referrals: for every person you recommend Tala to, you are paid Sh200. Users of Tala, nonetheless, have to part with an additional charge in the form of M-Pesa transaction fees because the app uses a Pay Bill number. I asked her whether she paid her debts in time; she said she had defaulted a couple of times.

Tasha, like Chebet, has no clue how much interest rate she is charged by Tala. Blandly honest, the 20-year-old student told me she told me she borrows “to buy myself make-ups.” Hence, every three months she will borrow between Sh1,500 and Sh3,000 from Tala.

Tala, which was started in March 2014 by Shivani Siroya, a former United Nations employee, began by dishing out Sh10,000 loans in Kenya; today it gives loans worth up to Sh50,000. The app has the highest interest rate among its competitors – between 11 per cent and 15 per cent. (Branch charges 8.4 per cent.) Tala charges 11 per cent if you pay your loan weekly and 15 per cent if you choose to pay monthly.

Tala has also come up with a system that can detect when customers change their mobile phone number. It has a default message that reads: “Your account is linked to another device.” It is a polite warning from Tala that it would be improper and risky to run away with their money, for example, thinking that by changing your sim card, you will be off the hook insofar as repaying your loan is concerned. Chebet, in not too many words, confirmed to me Tala’s tightening of its lending procedures: “You can run, but you cannot escape.”

Mariam, another 19-year-old, is hooked to Tala. Although not a spendthrift like Chebet, she nevertheless said a good thing will not pass her simply because she cannot afford it. “That’s why these apps came about; to be rescuing some of us when we are stuck.” Getting stuck often means not being able to do things, like going to concerts with your peers, because you don’t have the money. “The first time I borrowed money from my phone was when there was a big music show in town and I just could not afford to miss it. All my friends were going there. How could I be left behind?” Mariam uploaded the Tala app and in the blink of an eye she had money in her M-Pesa account. “I resorted to Tala because it’s really advertised on the phone, plus my friends invited me to use it.” Mariam says Tala’s interest rates are high, yet she opted to stick and continue using the app because she finds it convenient. She borrows between Sh1,000 and 2000 every month.

In an interview she had with the Business Daily in January, Siroya said that Tala’s association with the M-Pesa platform had given her company access to 27 million users. Worldwide Tala has given out 4.5 million loans worth Sh25 billion to clients in the Philippines, Mexico, Kenya and Tanzania. Ninety-five per cent of her clients are repeat customers.

George, 20, a student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology (JKUAT), was as candid as a college student can be. “What do you borrow the money for?” I asked. “To finance dates at fancy restaurants that I know very well I can hardly afford with my own meagre cash.” George also said he borrows to patronise expensive pubs, which ordinarily he would not afford. “How often do you borrow?” Often enough was his curt answer. “Which app do you usually use?” The student said he does not have a specific app and therefore did not also care to find out their respective interest rates. “I will use any as long as it gets the job done. But I have noticed, by and large, I tend to rely mostly on Tala and M-Shwari.” I also asked him whether he repays the loans, if at all. “I do, although I am always falling behind schedule.”

Just like her fellow college mate George, Barbara, 19, a student at the University of Nairobi, does not care about interest rates. “All that I care for is there is money coming my way.” She said she borrows “to get through to the end of the month, as well as to buy my writing books for assignments after squandering my allocated pocket that my parents give me for every month.” Barbara said she religiously borrows between Sh1,000 and Sh2,000 every month. “I use Tala simply because of peer influence – many of my friends use it and they recommended it to me.”

Perhaps it is because of his age that I found Joe’s reason for resorting to the online borrowing money apps reassuring. Joe is 21 and has almost completed his studies at JKUAT. He therefore is already thinking about what he will do after exiting college. He currently runs a mitumba (secondhand clothes) business, selling contemporary clothing to his fellow students. So when I asked him what he borrows the money for, he promptly told me that he borrows it to replenish his stock and to keep his business afloat,“because oftentimes, I’m not paid on time by my customers”. Every month he borrows a standard Sh2,000 from Tala, which he repays promptly.

Chomba, also a university student, borrowed just once because he had a real emergency. His sister’s child, who he was looking after when he was on recess, became sick and needed urgent treatment. “I had heard about KCB-M-Pesa and its reasonable interest rates, so I downloaded the app and borrowed Sh4,000. I later opened an account with KCB.”

Njoroge, the financial expert, pointed out to me that online loans are approved on the basis of the applicant’s reputation, “what they call reputational collateral”. Reputational collateral is dependent on such habits as how many times you make your calls and how often you transact on your M-Pesa account. “The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Danson Muchemi, CEO of Jambo Pay, the IT company that collects revenue on behalf of Nairobi County, especially revenue relating to parking charges, praises the online borrowing apps “because they brought down banking barriers. There is no more profiling. The technology has enabled the creation of ‘digital assets’ that approximates what type of a person you are. Armed with this information, the apps are able to sketch your character and identify your spending habits, needs and wants, even though there is a thin line that separates the two.”

“The apps’ engineers have developed algorithms that compile your personal data: your social media activities – the kind of Facebook messages you post, your type of friends, how many there are, the sites you like visiting, among other analytics.” He said all this was part of the data analytics that CRB also collects on individuals’ financial habits, which CRB uses to advise whoever requires the data.”

Unlike the banks, which depended on your “CV” to arrive at a decision about whether or not they will advance you a loan, the power of technology is such that it can, with near precision, detect whether or not you will be a defaulter. By analysing your social media profile, the apps can sum up your personality and your willingness or ability to pay back. “Technology, as opposed to traditional banking methods, which took ages deciding on whether you qualify for a bank loan or not, allows mobile banking financiers to make that decision fast and instantly.”

“Old habits die hard” is an English idiom that explains acquired habits that later become difficult to get rid of. When a loan is just a click away, it is not hard to imagine a future where online borrowing will become a habit, or maybe even a harmful addiction, among Kenyans.

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

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

Blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy. Argues BETTY WAITHERERO

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THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data

In a well-written article, economist David Ndii finally went on record with a counter-proposal to the Jubilee economic platform: “If knowledge and human capital are the engines of economic growth, what is the role of the foreign investment and infrastructure edifices that our governments are obsessed with?” he asked.

Dr. Ndii proposes a more realistic approach for a developing nation such as Kenya: Grow the economy by investing in both knowledge and human capital, rather than by mimicking growth seen in already developed nations that focus investments on infrastructure.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale. Ultimately, it will take Kenya a long time to recoup its investment in the standard gauge railway (SGR), for instance. As we can see currently with this particular infrastructural investment, the level of profits or benefits gained through the building of the SGR is significantly lower than the amount of money invested and will remain so for a long time. This is unhealthy growth, but expedient in the short term, in that it is convenient for the government to make such investments even when it is not necessarily wise or morally right to do so.

However, forming capital in an economy by investing in innovation and acquiring human capital – getting people to be productive and to work – will always lead or be at par in proportion to the initial amount of money or resources invested, creating constant returns to scale. Basically, an increase in investments in knowledge and human capital will cause an increase in economic productivity. This is healthy growth because knowledge is wealth, economic growth is learning, and the individual in conditions of economic and political liberty is the resource. These are uncomfortable notions that governments and people must accept before investing in knowledge; democracy must become an enabling means to ones’ productivity and livelihood, going beyond mere politics and electoral cycles.

Dr. Ndii’s explanatory narrative of how both Robert Lucas’s and Paul Romer’s models work together to generate endogenous growth allows us to understand that economic growth, for developing nations especially, is rooted in being able to account for human capital and innovation. In a nutshell, Paul Romer’s endogenous growth theory holds that it is the creation and investment in knowledge, human capital and innovation that is the more substantial contributor to economic growth.

Investing in people

For emerging economies like Kenya, endogenous growth theory and its possible application allows us to correct nearly 150 years of chasing the consequences of other nations’ economic decisions and interests. Put simply, Kenya, just like many other previously colonised African nations, has an economy that is designed to primarily serve the interests of its former coloniser. And despite the intentions of successive governments, a lack of human capital accounting (identifying, reporting and measuring the value of human resources in a country) has ensured that this economic model works to the detriment of the majority of the population.

Of all the devices created by human beings, the government is the most formidable and consequential. The government is responsible for all the best and all the worst happenings in humanity’s history, as well as for everything in between. This device has evolved over generations, taking on different forms and purposes consistent with the prevailing paradigms and needs of its wielders.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift. Investing in human potential, knowledge, skills and creativity ought to be the drivers of economic growth, rather than the seemingly strict investment in state and capital assets, as is the current government’s approach.

Investing in people is not restricted to education; it includes funding for research and innovation, and also investing in information platforms, healthcare and provision of sustenance. In other words, if indeed the Jubilee government wishes to create one million jobs every year, it ought to invest in the people who will do these jobs.

The aspirations of the Jubilee government, as expressed in its Big 4 agenda, are to spur and ignite Kenya’s economic growth by ensuring food security and universal healthcare, building affordable housing and increasing manufacturing. However, motivating an entire nation of more than 40 million people to achieve these goals demands a paradigm shift.

Automation and the productivity gap

The reality is that technology and automation are putting people out of jobs already. In August this year, the Daily Nation reported that 2,792 banking staff had been laid off due to increasing automation and declining profitability – the effect of unintended consequences of the move to mobile financial applications to reach the unbanked, eliminating the need for intermediaries in the banking hall, coupled with the effects of government policies seeking to cap interest rates. This is an ironic outcome given the government’s goal of financial inclusion and greater employment.

Automation in other economies is creating a productivity gap. Increasingly, jobs that were previously done by people are being taken over by more efficient and more accurate machines and robots. This cuts across industries ranging from manufacturing to food production, leaving behind a population of people who do not have the requisite skills for jobs outside their industries. These people fall through the gaps, and remain unemployable for months or even years.

In an article published in Fortune,This is the Future of Artificial Intelligence”,

the wealthy entrepreneur and Xerion CEO, Daniel Arbess, highlighted the profound manner in which Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms are eating up human jobs. “Our political leaders don’t seem up to the policy challenges of job displacement — at least not yet, but the application of Big Data software algorithms is elevating decision-making precision to a whole new level, creating efficiencies, saving costs or delivering new solutions to important problems.” he wrote. “The Bank of England estimates that 48% of human workers will eventually be replaced by robotics and software automation.”

Kenya’s unemployment rate is estimated to be 11.4 per cent. This unemployment rate translates to a further 30 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty. There are many harmful social and psychological effects of short- and long-term unemployment, including alcoholism, homelessness, and rising crime, especially crimes that target more vulnerable people such as women and children.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

Furthermore, having nearly 83 per cent of the working population in the informal sector means that capital is not accessible through tax revenues – a situation that the government opted to address through new taxation aimed at mobile transactions and data. Emerging economies like Kenya need small business to thrive, but work is not forthcoming. Business opportunities are declining, incomes are diminishing and purchasing power is diminishing.

The situation is compounded by nearly three decades of missed growth opportunities brought about by the fact that there was a lack of human capital accounting. Even at its most prosperous, Kenya’s economic policies simply assumed that jobs would be created via investment in infrastructure rather than in people. Consequently, we have a debt culture that affects the entire nation.

And because the government is hoarding tenders (in July, Uhuru Kenyatta ordered a freeze on new government projects), business is hoarding opportunities and banks are hoarding finance. As productivity is constrained, banks and non-bank financial institutions (NBFIs) are distributing through debt the purchasing power that businesses are not distributing through salaries.

China is doing the same on an international scale by distributing purchasing power through debt as a substitute for national economic growth. It is building infrastructure, such as highways and railways, using loans that are then spent on Chinese companies that serve China’s interests, even though the infrastructure will, hopefully, eventually benefit the debtor nation.

Human capital accounting

A lack of accounting for human capital exacerbates the situation. An economic model that seeks great investment in infrastructure in order to boost the economy but does not account for people engaging in economic activity will result in a mismatch, most graphically seen in an absence of skilled and qualified professionals adept at doing the new jobs that are created. So, without the necessary skills, the locals fall through the employment gaps, and unfortunately, foreigners, with the requisite skills, are hired.

Governments advance the welfare of citizens by establishing and executing public policy for net positive outcomes. This is conventionally done through the creation of rules and regulations, and enforcing their compliance. If viewed in technology terms, the government can be described as a protocol stack (a set of rules) that responds to any input in a prescribed manner consistent with underlying statutes. Indeed, failures in government can be spectacularly linked to the ignoring, circumvention or subversion of the procedures set forth to guide healthy operability among various constituencies and concerns among the citizenry.

Smart-law is the idea that a legal statute can be implemented as a digital computational protocol to which users can connect, execute and return results exactly according to the purpose and design of the underlying legal architecture. There are benefits to a smart-law paradigm, including the fact that it can be censorship-resistant, in that transactions cannot be altered and anyone, without restriction, can enter into those transactions; it is trustless, meaning that trust (knowing and trusting the other party to fulfil their obligations) is not necessary or required, and it does not discriminate in the manner or order of its operations.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The world in the 21st century is one of advancement through technology. Everything has made a leap forward in one way or another through the impact of technology. It is also true that among all entities, the government remains the most obstinately slow in embracing technology and innovation.

The Kenyan government has taken action to advance citizen-centred public service delivery through a variety of channels, including deploying digital technology and establishing citizen service centres across the country. Smart-laws that can provide compliant, straightforward and predictable interactions between citizens and the bureaucracy would have a big and important role to play in this endeavour.

The time is right for the government to undergo a technology-driven transformation that it so yearns and that will bring it up to par with the industries and sectors it intends to effect. By doing so, it can unleash the potential of the 21st-century citizen.

Blockchain technology

Kenya’s recognition of blockchain technology via its Blockchain Task Force headed by Dr. Bitange Ndemo allows for a little optimism. I will provide a simple explanation for this technology. Blockchain is very often conflated with bitcoin and cryptocurrency trading. However, blockchain is an incorruptible digital ledger where transactions are recorded and cannot be altered. In securing these transactions, computer processors complete complex mathematical equations which when solved are rewarded with a token. The token can bitcoin, or ethereum, all depending on which blockchain platform is being utilised.

The trading and investing of these coins by laypeople in Kenya (sometimes leading to loss of funds) is what leads both Dr. Patrick Njoroge and Dr. David Ndii to call cryptocurrency a scam. I am inclined to agree with them on the matter of how the trading is conducted in Kenya – some traders entice investors with a multi-level marketing or Ponzi-style scheme. But I disagree with a blanket declaration writing off this technology and its potential utilisation in governance and its products, the cryptocurrencies. I recently had a robust discussion with Dr. Ndii on twitter on the same matter.

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

Together with two of my colleagues, Andrew Amadi, who is a sustainable energy engineer, and Chris Daniels, who is an economist and programmer, we created the Freework Society in 2017 with the aim of achieving this particular goal through a programmable economic model built on ethereum blockchain. (Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based and distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract functionality.)

It is my firm belief that blockchain technology has the necessary framework to address the challenge of accounting for human capital and allowing for democracy and the creation of knowledge in order to grow the economy.

In developing a public computing infrastructure that can implement smart-laws, and which can also account for anyone’s work and effort, and can allow for investment in innovation, we were compelled to improve the very platform we would utilise by creating a standard. This standard is called an Ethereum Improvement Proposal (EIP), which describes core protocol specifications, client application programming interface (API) and contract standards. In a nutshell, an EIP describes how the platform will function if the proposal is implemented.

In developing countries like Kenya, the returns on government investments in infrastructure and inventory to create capital will always lag behind the initial amount invested i.e. there will be diminishing returns to scale.

Our proposal is to utilise the opportunities presented on ethereum blockchain technology by creating a human capital accounting framework that provides a merit-based system of indexing human resources, knowledge and talent, and subsequently reducing market search costs and challenges to price discovery and increasing the desirability to share value, work, and assets within the economy. This proposal has been accepted and assigned Ethereum Improvement Proposal EIP1491.

EIP1491 is a proposal that intends to contribute to the development of a human capital accounting standard on blockchain. EIP1491 allows for the implementation of standard APIs for human cost accounting tokens within smart contracts. This standard provides basic functionality to discover, track and transfer the motivational hierarchy of human resources.

Whereas blockchain architecture has succeeded in the financialising of integrity by way of transparency, correspondingly real-world outcomes will be proportional to the degree of individualisation of capital by way of knowledge.

What this means in an entrepreneurial economy is that where you have employers and workers looking to exchange value (work for money) there is now a proposed standard of how to go about this, and these standard assigns unit value to the labour/work that is done, and creates a meritocracy for those who will do the work i.e. a standard unit of labour with a coefficient that assigns value via points to education, years of experience, talent, and interests.

Suppose there is an employer who wishes to have job X done by a university graduate with three years’ experience, for which he is willing to pay Y amount of money. Utilising our standard API, the employer is able to compute how many labour hours he will be required to pay for, and what exact merit the employee will have, meeting the challenge of price discovery. The employer will also reduce his market search cost because he is able to track and locate the right candidate for the job. Both employer and employee are happy with the work because both are correctly directed to the right smart contract.

For millions of people in emerging economies around the world, the potential of EIP1491 will allow for individualised agency, rather than that agency being rooted in government. As we can all agree, despite the best of intentions, governments cannot be trusted to act in the interest of citizens. The best example for this is the debt-based culture that currently runs economies.

This means that an individual’s human resource, talent, interest and work has a value that can be exchanged at will because the individual has control over his agency. He is able to turn his different trades into capital that can be exchanged directly for purchasing power.

The ability to factor in growth in a knowledge-based economy ultimately should mean that not only is unemployment impeded, but that with increased utilisation, time becomes money, waste is reduced and the incidences of unrealised potential and missed opportunities are eliminated. Total factor productivity can be achieved in a shared agency ecosystem where millions engage willingly in exchanging value propositions using their own human capital.

We invite robust engagement and discussion on this standard and its applicability, and comments on the same.

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. By ABDULLAHI BORU HALAKHE

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DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin

In the Jubilee universe, it is almost an article of faith that politics is “bad” and development is “good”. It’s not uncommon to hear President Uhuru Kenyatta, Deputy President William Ruto, and high-level administration officials and their supporters’ constant put-downs directed at their opponents: “We don’t have time for politics, we are only interested in development.” They believe that the depoliticisation of development is necessary in order for them to deliver on their campaign promises.

While such a rhetorical sleight of hand is occasionally designed to silence opponents – who are supposedly opposed to development – in practice, it also reveals the Jubilee government’s limited understanding of politics. For them development is a cold, apolitical, technical exercise that is not only immune to politics, but transcends it.

More broadly, Jubilee’s politics-development dichotomy is an insidious attempt at redefining politics as criticising Jubilee, whether fairly or unfairly, and development as praising the administration, whether they are delivering or not. The net aim is to induce self-censorship among critical voices.

Techno-fallacy

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya” (bad politics, bad life), never mind that under him, Kenya was firmly in mbaya zone. Maisha was so mbaya under Moi that economy growth was a mere 0.6 per cent when his successor Mwai Kibaki took over in 2002. Dissent was penalised and the country felt like a band that was dedicated to singing his praises. It is rather ironic that Jubilee, which would like to be remembered for good economic stewardship, would look to Moi for inspiration.

Building a rhetorical firewall between development and politics is not a new idea; President Daniel arap Moi’s favourite retort when placed under pressure was “Siasa mbaya, maisha mbaya”

The Jubilee government has also coupled the depoliticisation of development with a similar rhetoric on technology, in the process completely eviscerating nuances, complexities or grey areas when discussing public policy. You are either part of the cult of technology or you are not interested in progress.

In his book, To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov captures Jubilee’s approach to development: “Recasting all complex social situations either as neat problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimised — if only the right algorithms are in place! — this quest is likely to have unexpected consequences that could eventually cause more damage than the problems they seek to address.”

For instance, one of Jubilee’s bright ideas of fixing the education system is to provide every child with a laptop, in line with their emphasis on learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as opposed to the humanities, which they see as not “marketable”. Never mind that only slightly over half of Kenya has access to electricity, that the teachers have not yet been trained or hired for the switch to using laptops, and most schools do not have computer labs. Jubilee is, after all, led by the dynamic digital duo that needs everyone to be wired.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

This is not new; under pressure domestically from opposition groups, and externally from the Bretton Woods institutions, Moi appointed a “Dream Team” to key public offices. The officials were drawn from the private sector, international finance and development organisations. The group was led by Richard Leakey (the famous paleoanthropologist and former head of the Kenya Wildlife Service who had even formed a political party to oppose Moi in 1990s), who was appointed as the Secretary to the Cabinet and Head of the Civil Service. Martin Oduor-Otieno, a former director of finance and planning at Barclays Bank, was appointed as the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Planning and Mwangazi Mwachofi, the resident representative of the South Africa-based International Finance Corporation, became the Finance Secretary.

Along with a blind faith in technology, Jubilee also regards corporate experience as a most prized asset in public appointments – as exemplified by the Harvard-educated former Barclays CEO, Adan Mohamed, who is the Cabinet Secretary for Industrialisation. For Kenyatta and his ilk, corporate experience, when coupled with technology, will fix pesky inefficiency and sloth in the public service.

While Moi was boxed into a corner and had no option but to cater to donors’ wishes, Jubilee’s appointment of well-credentialed public officials from the private sector is an attempt to demonstrate that the government is using corporate best practice principles to manage the public sector. However, the appointment of individuals with private sector or international expertise is rooted in a lack of appreciation for received bureaucratic wisdom; it is a system of faceless, unelected officials keeping the state’s institutions humming along and ensuring continuity from one administration to another.

For Jubilee, bureaucracy is a dirty word. Both under Moi and under Jubilee, the credentialed senior public officials failed to deliver, although on balance, Moi’s cabinet, which had more court poets than individuals with diplomas from good schools abroad, did better.

Grievances and greed

Jubilee’s weaponisation of optics and breathless spin was honed when Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto – the two principals in the Jubilee coalition – were indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for their alleged role in 2007-2008 violence.

Ruto and Kenyatta make an unlikely political team. The latter is a prince of Kenya’s politics and the former is a self-declared “hustler”. Even when considering Kenya’s shape-shifting political landscape and allegiances, the two couldn’t be more different.

But they were brought together by grievance and greed. They regarded their prosecution at the International Criminal Court as a witch-hunt; they argued that the two top presidential candidates during the 2007 election that led to violence and displacement were former President Mwai Kibaki and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence. Their spin was so effective that even some of the victims of the violence held “prayer rallies” for them.

In fairness, some of the reputational damage experienced by the ICC was self-inflicted. When I visited a IDP camp in Nakuru in 2011, one of the IDPs told me that the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, had no time to visit them, and was busy doing safaris in Nairobi National Park.

During the course of their indictments, the duo skillfully used social media and established themselves as bona fide underdogs. As a result, they refined their enduring ability to generate sometimes pugnacious, if not altogether needless, spin, which had tremendous traction with their base. Ruto and Kenyatta cast the ICC as an imperial project bent on getting them, effectively framing themselves – not those killed, maimed or displaced – as the victims of the post-election violence.

The ICC was not the only victim of Jubilee’s rage; Raila Odinga, the cottage industry of upstart politicians, felt the full weight of Jubilee’s relentless propaganda blitzkrieg, part of it also emanating from his support for the ICC process, which Ruto, his lieutenant in 2007, interpreted as throwing him under the bus. (Ruto was a leading member of Odinga’s team during the 2007 election.)

After claiming some big domestic and foreign scalps, Jubilee started believing is own hype. While many dismissed Jubilee’s breathless social media campaigns during the elections as a passing fad once the cold reality of governing sets in, for Jubilee social media was the system. Beyond the hype, any critical assessment of Jubilee’s grand ideas, such as a 24-hour economy, 9 international standard stadia, and 21st century public transport, would show that they are all sizzle and no steak. The large-scale infrastructure projects were mostly designed as a gravy train, as the Standard Gauge Railway amply demonstrated.

Politics of shamelessness

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form. The shamelessness here is not the kind citizens have come to almost expect from the politicians; in Jubilee’s case, it is its modus operandi, a blunt object to hit opponents with. The lack of shame has not only been adopted by Kenyatta and Ruto, but also by their close lieutenants.

When the presidential results were announced two days after the annulled August 8, 2017 election, demonstrators and the police engaged in a running a battle in the Mathare slum in Nairobi. Police used live bullets and killed both demonstrators and bystanders. I spoke to some of the families of the victims and corroborated their stories with medical records and family witnesses.

The tissue that connects the depoliticisation of development, the blind deployment of technology, and the professionalisation of the cabinet is Jubilee’s shamelessness. No political party is without faults and foibles, but in Jubileeland, shamelessness has taken an insidious form.

But on August 12, at a press conference, the then Acting Internal Affairs Cabinet Secretary, Fred Matiangi’ denied that police had shot and killed people. He stated, “I am not aware of anyone who has been killed by live bullets in this country. Those are rumours. People who loot, break into people’s homes, burn buses are not peaceful protesters.” Yet it is not that Matiangi’ did not have access to the details of the people killed, some of whose deaths have been recorded in government hospitals and by the media and human rights groups.

Jubilee learnt some of this shameless spin from Moi’s Kanu party. In 2000, when drought was ravaging parts of Northern Kenya, the then government minister, Shariff Nassir, denied there was drought when pressed in Parliament by one of the area MPs. A few days later, the government declared a famine in Kenya.

President Kenyatta says that fighting corruption will be a key pillar of his legacy. The Auditor General’s Office has done more than any other state organ to reveal the level of corruption in government agencies through audit reports. In an ideal world, you’d think that the president would consider the Auditor General’s Office as a key ally. But the president scoffed at the Auditor General’s plan to investigate the activities of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in relation to the alleged misuse of $2 billion Eurobond cash that Kenya raised in 2014. The president was quoted telling the Auditor General, “When you say that the Eurobond money was stolen and stashed in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, are you telling me that the Kenyan government and United States have colluded?” The president then insinuated that the Auditor General, Edward Ouko, was stupid. Never mind that the president’s remarks came during a State House anti-corruption summit. It is also likely that the story of the missing Eurobond money will be the story of Jubilee’s corruption.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

David Ndii wrote, “Jomo Kenyatta’s regime was corrupt, illiberal and competent. Moi’s was corrupt, illiberal and mediocre. Kibaki’s was corrupt, liberal and competent. So, Moi scores zero out of three. Jomo scores one out of three. Kibaki scores two out of three.”

The original sin after 2010 constitution was promulgated was when a court ruled that Kenyatta and Ruto could contest the 2013 elections despite being indicted by the ICC. This officially killed Chapter Six on leadership and integrity of the Katiba, which effectively set Kenya down the path of “anything goes”.

Lack of shame is dangerous when it comes from a place of entitlement – the #Mtado? phenomenon. Which naturally breads impunity.

Kanu and Jubilee have ruled Kenya longer than any other party, and in the process have created the Kenyatta and Moi family and business dynasties. When under pressure, it is not uncommon to see Kenyatta and Jubilee seek Moi’s eternal wisdom. The visits to Moi’s home are done at the exclusion of William Ruto, which sets up 2022 neatly as the battle between the princes and the hustler.

Raila was a key player in the 2002 elections, and in 2013, Ruto was a key player in defeating Raila. In 2022, Ruto could face Raila’s fate. While Ruto’s defeat could delight many, the techno-dignified political opportunism that is Jubilee, which is illiberal, incompetent and corrupt, will endure.

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

The potential significance of the abduction of Ms Sylvia Romano has already been pushed into the background but will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored by the Government of Kenya. By ANDREW FRANKLIN

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TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction

Ms Sylvia Constanca Romano, a twenty-three year-old Italian NGO worker, was abducted on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 at 8 pm from her lodging in the remote trading centre of Chakama, located 80 km west of the Kenyan Indian Ocean resort town of Malindi in Kilifi County. Ms Romano was managing a children’s home for the Italian NGO, African Milele Onlus, and the armed men who took her were identified as being of Somali origin.

Weeks later, this Italian woman is still missing and while not immediately dismissing the involvement of Al Shabaab, the Government of Kenya is still resisting suggestions that the kidnappers were terrorists rather than ordinary thugs carrying AK-47s. Although initial reports in the Italian media were quick to blame Al Shabaab, the Italian Government just as rapidly asserted that the kidnappers were “armed herders” although, as quoted in the local media, fears were expressed that Ms Romano might have been sold on to Al Shabaab elements inside Somalia.

Italy was the preeminent colonial power in the Horn of Africa, especially in what is today effectively the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) territory, which is currently being contested by jihadists. Italy contributes paramilitary police advisors to the nine-nation European Union Mission to FGS and has trained the Somalia Government police at its base in Djibouti; Italian Navy elements have participated in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia since 2008.

In October 2018, Al Shabaab in Mogadishu targeted a convoy of Italian security personnel returning to their base with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED). Although there were no Italian casualties, this attack on foreigners is not Shabaab’s modus operandi; the main targets of the terrorist organisation’s operations within Somalia have mainly been Somalis, although neighbouring Kenya has been a target since Operation Linda Nchi – the Kenyan Defence Forces (KDF) incursion into Somalia in October 2011. Some of the most deadly Al Shabaab attacks on Kenyan soil include the Westgate mall attack in Nairobi in September 2013 in which 67 people lost their lives and the Garissa University College massacre in April 2015, in which 147 students were brutally gunned down.

Elsewhere in the region, the Kenya Police recently took delivery of four Italian-made utility helicopters for use in its operations domestically against terrorists. Italy’s continuing role in the war on terror within the region remains low key and its government prefers to keep it that way.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian; there has yet to be an explanation for the origin of AK-47s or when they were smuggled into the trading centre. According to the police, the attackers fled with their hostage using two subsequently abandoned motorbikes before crossing a major river and disappearing into a rather thick bush.

It has been confirmed that at least three of the attackers had arrived in Chakama several days earlier and had rented lodgings and apparently observed village routines, including Ms Romano’s activities. Initial reports were that five heavily armed assailants had shot wildly during the Tuesday evening attack, wounding five Kenyans before seizing the Italian…

There is no permanent police presence in Chakama, which is located in a remote area of Kilifi County. It seems that there was no organised security forces’ response during the first 24 hours following the abduction. The security forces’ operating capabilities during the hours of darkness cannot be evaluated except for certain elite units (i.e. General Service Unit [GSU] Recon and KDF Rangers and Special Forces). Regular police and Administration Police (AP) units, regardless of designation, are not trained, organised or equipped for extensive patrolling. Although police helicopters were deployed to the area, it’s unlikely that the hastily cobbled together rescue force, comprising Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) Game Rangers, KDF troops, GSU, APs and regular police, had the ability to coordinate ground forces with air support.

In fact, in the event that this was an Al Shabaab operation, the seeming reticence on the part of the security forces is understandable as it would be expected that Al Shabaab would plant IEDs and organise ambushes to slow down pursuit and inflict maximum damage on the rescuers. This is standard procedure and characteristic of all guerrillas fighting road-bound conventional forces; since 2016 Al Shabaab has been regularly ambushing KDF and/or police patrols across all five frontline counties in Kenya. Another foreseeable risk is that Al Shabaab will attempt to shoot down a police helicopter, as was reported on 2 September in the vicinity of Boni Forest in Lamu County.

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation. Since the kidnapping, the Kenya Police have taken more than twenty civilians in and around Chakamba into custody for questioning; the wife and brother-in-law of one of the three named suspects were arrested in Garsen in Tana River County when a telephone call was intercepted and traced back. As with the previously noted lack of explanation regarding the presence of AK-47s in Chakamba, there was no information provided as to whether the security forces were able to trace the GPS signatures of the suspects; Al Shabaab operatives would no doubt discard their phones to avoid detection. Perhaps these men are part-time insurgents or even freelancers?

Although remaining somewhat tight-lipped about the actual affiliation of the attackers, the expansion of search activities outside Kilifi County into neighbouring Lamu, specifically into Boni Forest, which straddles the Kenya-Somalia border, and the issuance of “WANTED” posters for three men of ethnic Somali origin – albeit without specific background details – point to officials believing this to have been an Al Shabaab terrorist operation.

Operation Linda Nchi and its after-effects

Operation Linda Nchi, a cross-border punitive expedition by 1,800 KDF troops, was launched on 15 October 2011 ostensibly in retaliation for alleged Al Shabaab kidnappings of Spanish MSF workers from the Dadaab refugee camp and tourists from Manda Island in Lamu, The latter attacks were eventually found to be the work of common criminals based in Ras Kamboni where pro-FGS forces hold sway. Al Shabaab’s involvement in the kidnapping of the Spanish volunteers was neither confirmed nor denied. Anecdotal evidence, however, indicates that the kidnappings within Somalia of locals has been used to raise funds not only by criminals but also by Al Shabaab, which has long made money from participating in transnational organised criminal activities, including charcoal smuggling, arms dealing, human trafficking and trade in illicit narcotics.

Al Shabaab attacks have taken place fairly regularly across the five Kenyan counties bordering Somalia, whose populations are overwhelmingly Muslim and predominately of ethnic Somali origin. Although Al Shabaab has eschewed headline-grabbing terror attacks, such as that on the Westgate mall in September 2013, its fighters regularly target police and KDF patrols, permanent security force bases, mobile telephone masts and power stations. Occasionally they also take control of villages and harangue inhabitants at night with little or no government interference. In June 2016, for instance, Al Shabaab took control of the villages of Mpeketoni and Poromoko in Lamu County and killed 60 men. The security response to this attack was dismal; there were stories of police stations in Mpeketoni being abandoned prior to the attack and villagers being left to their own devices to deal with the terrorists.

Since 2016, most professional security analysts agree that the Al Shabaab attacks have derailed devolution in the frontline counties of Mandera, Wajir, Garissa, Lamu and Tana River by severing the people from administrative functions. The attacks have throttled formal economic activities and disrupted delivery of education and social and health services. Civil servants, teachers, traders and students from outside these counties fear returning there after an attack. Most of the students who survived the Garissa University College attack, for example, were relocated to campuses in other parts of the country. Many teachers have also refused to be sent to these counties for fear of being attacked by Al Shabaab. These attacks have effectively normalised a state of endemic insecurity within which police elements and KDF units are alienated from the local citizens, many of whom are not convinced that they are truly citizens of the Republic of Kenya as their regions have been systematically marginalised and neglected since independence in 1963.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu. In fact, the KDF invasion of Somalia and its subsequent incorporation into the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) inadvertently provided Al Shabaab opportunities to subvert the Kenyan government’s influences across the restive predominantly ethnic Somali counties, to expand recruitment, to increase revenue from transnational crime and to undermine the morale of a major troop-contributing country. Kenya, out of all the states adjacent to Somalia or involved in AMISOM, has been shown to have the most fragile domestic security architecture amidst a fractious political environment in which little or no attention is paid to matters of national insecurity.

Despite attempts by all parties in Nairobi to portray events in Garissa, Tana River, Mandera, Wajir and Lamu counties as merely episodic terrorism that can happen anywhere in the world, the reality is that Al Shabaab insurgents are conducting a reasonably successful, low-intensity conflict that complements its operations to defeat the Western-backed FGS based in Mogadishu.

The abduction of an Italian NGO worker from a remote market centre in Kilifi County, which is outside of Al Shabaab’s normal area of operations, had to have been well-researched and carefully planned. Nearly all Western states have prohibited their officials from working within the five frontline counties and tourists have been actively discouraged from visiting even popular resorts on Lamu Island. Travel advisories issued since 2012 have crippled Kenya’s tourism sectors, especially along the Coast in Malindi, Watamu, Kilifi and the beaches north of Mombasa; however foreigners like Sylvia Romano would not really have been warned off by their governments and are now the best targets available to Al Shabaab and/or disparate armed groups, including livestock raiders and poachers.

Western governments have pretty much placed most of the five frontline counties off limits to their employees and strongly discouraged their citizens from visiting them for any purposes. Al Shabaab has been very active in mainland Lamu County, which resulted in foreigners being discouraged from visiting popular locations on Lamu Island and adjoining islands. Although the UK lifted its travel advisory in May 2017, the position of the US Government and others remains oddly ambiguous.

However, Al Shabaab is considered one of the most dangerous of Al Qaeda’s global franchises; Al Qaeda cells blew up US Embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 and the terrorist organisation launched a suicide bomber against the Israeli owned Paradise Hotel in Kikambala in 2002. Simultaneously, Al Qaeda operatives unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down an El Al charter flight taking off from Mombasa. Al Qaeda has never backed away from threats to retaliate against citizens of enemy nations wherever they are located and it seems likely that Al Shabaab will expand activities wherever targets can be found.

The Italian connection

There are nearly 15,000 Italian citizens living in Malindi, Watamu and elsewhere on the Kenyan coast. The Italian government operates an official satellite tracking/space research facility just north of Malindi. During the pending festive season, hundreds more Italians will descend on an otherwise depressed holiday destination. In my view, Al Shabaab is implicitly threatening the safety of these people in order to leverage the Italian government to reduce its footprint in Mogadishu.

As with the kidnappings of foreigners in 2011, whether Al Shabaab fails to take responsibility or is ultimately found not to be culpable is less important than popular perception. The longer Sylvia Constanca Romano remains unfound, the greater the possibility that media attention, particularly in Italy, will speculate on whether Al Shabaab is involved and whether there is a link between the Italian government’s counterterrorism activities against Al Qaeda/Al Shabaab and her abduction.

Although the Chakamba market centre is several kilometres away from major Indian Ocean tourist towns, it is located in an area traversed by foreigners visiting Kenya for luxury safaris – the very same bush into which the Italian woman’s abductors fled. Whether this incident is the start of a high season offensive intended by Al Shabaab to further undermine the economy of Kilifi County cannot be ruled out. Doing so would further undermine support by the Kenyan public, especially at the coast, for KDF’s continued deployment to AMISOM, particularly if Italian security assistance to FGS is seen to falter.

So far, Nairobi’s Western allies have not extended stringent travel advisories outside of the five frontline counties but it can be expected that an unhappy outcome of yet another botched Government of Kenya anti-terrorist operation will impact negatively on economies of already shell-shocked coastal counties where there are strong undercurrents of opinion favouring self-determination and even secession.

Regardless of how this unfortunate incident plays out, the fact of its occurrence indicates that expert advice concerning best practices to respond to cross-border and even domestic attacks of this type have been ignored for more than seven years. The initial reaction to the news of the kidnapping followed the same old script in which personnel from different security forces were thrown together without appropriate training and organisation to track a small gang through unfamiliar terrain during the hours of darkness. Reports that police were detaining witnesses may mask employment by security personnel of heavy-handed and counterproductive methods, which have been the trademark of government forces since before independence in 1963.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this, the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media. Kenya’s mainstream press has avoided anything suggesting that the government’s war on terror, whether at home or in the near abroad, is less than a reasonable success under the circumstances. Local and international media have excluded security professionals who can document how officialdom has perversely ignored practical, common sense solutions to the myriad security issues that have evolved into a comprehensive existential threat to national security.

It is notable, however, that the Kenyan government has successfully controlled the flow of information although it has to date set the narrative by avoiding any narrative. In this the authorities have been aided by a seemingly disinterested and largely uninformed domestic media.

The potential significance of this kidnapping has already been pushed into the background; will this be yet another wake-up call to be ignored?

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