Barack Obama’s eagerly awaited homecoming in July jolted many, especially the Luos, out of a romantic stupor. Obama’s meteoric rise to the pinnacle of America’s state power as the first African-American president with strong Kenyan roots had held out much promise for the far-flung villages in his father’s homeland, such as K’ogelo Nyangoma in Siaya County, where Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., was raised.
The launch of his half-sister Auma Obama’s Sauti Kuu, a K’ogelo-based learning and resource centre, was full of tensions and contradictions. It revealed not only the limits of Barack Obama’s soaring rhetoric on human equality and democracy, but also Auma Obama’s feminist politics, which was nearly drowned in the din of corporate accolades and her diatribe against the Luo have-nots for their practice of “gonya gonya” and “konya konya” (soliciting hand-outs).
Of the eight children sired by Barack Obama Sr., Auma Obama is closest to her famous half-brother Barack. She is also among the most educated of her siblings, having attained a PhD from Bayreuth University in Germany. Auma and Barack’s fondness for each other was evident when the latter made an official visit to Kenya in July 2015 when he was the US president – Auma not only was at the airport to receive him but had the unusual privilege of sharing his armoured limousine – popularly known as “The Beast” – with him. This bond is probably what prompted Barack Obama to agree to attend the opening ceremony of Sauti Kuu, a project that Auma initiated to improve the lives of youth in her home village.
Speaking at the opening of the Sauti Kuu centre, Barack Obama said he was “really coming back as a citizen of the world, with so many people who are family to me, as a brother, as a citizen of the world, as someone with a connection to Africa.”
“I believe in Nelson Mandela’s vision, I believe in the vision shared by Gandhi and King and Abraham Lincoln,” Obama thundered when delivering the Nelson Mandela annual lecture in Johannesburg shortly after his Kenya visit. “I believe in a vision of equality and a vision of justice and freedom and multiracial democracy, built on the premise that all people are created equal and they are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights. I believe that a world governed by such principles is possible,” he said, extolling the virtues of liberal democracy.
But a day before, in Nyangoma-K’ogelo, the Barack Obama-Auma Obama tag-team’s performance showed that the rhetoric of human equality was just that — rhetoric. Sauti Kuu’s launch reflected the failure of the Obamas to mitigate the power and material inequalities that often characterise human relations.
Obama’s return to Kenya was low-key, some said. Disappointing, others noted. But it served many sobering lessons – lessons well known by the residents of coastal cities such as Mombasa or Malindi, whose wisdom and maritime experience span the ebb and flow of geopolitics and commerce, from the days of the dhow to the coming of cruise ships. They will tell you that when a big ship docks at a quay near you, it doesn’t lift up every canoe ashore; no one rides atop the crest of its waves. It comes ashore with sharks in tow that feed off its jetsam; its powerful engines and propellers generate waves that can easily keel one’s canoes over, producing ripples that can easily drown, rather than buoy up, even the strongest swimmer.
Sailing in a skiff, rowing a boat, or swimming too close to such a ship is a perilous undertaking, unless, of course, you are a corporate shark or a ticket-carrying passenger aboard the ship. Only those aboard and the sharks know the unalloyed joy of disembarking to the ecstatic reception of crowds, expectant with hope.
A disappointing homecoming
Barack Obama might be free of the cumbersome security restrictions of a sitting US president, but he is still captive to the restrictions of Brand Obama, which eschews radical black politics at home in the United States – as Aziz Rana, a law professor at Cornell University, points out – and avoids the murky politics of “home square” in Kenya. Since his rise to the presidency of the United States, Obama has avoided sailing too close to Kenya’s politics, especially Luo politics. He has assiduously avoided Kenya’s narrow ethnic or national capture, but has embraced and celebrated corporate capture, which has taken away the warmth, charm and spontaneity that endeared him to so many, especially in Siaya and Kisumu, when he first came calling when he was a senator from Illinois.
Barack Obama might be free of the cumbersome security restrictions of a sitting US president, but he is still captive to the restrictions of Brand Obama, which eschews radical black politics at home in the United States…and avoids the murky politics of “home square” in Kenya.
In 2006, Senator Obama courted the affection of Kenyans, addressing crowds of people in Nairobi, Kisumu, and Siaya. On that occasion, Raila Odinga, whose political future looked bright too, accompanied him and his wife, Michelle, on their home square stretch of the journey. The Obamas took an HIV test at the Nyanza General Hospital to publicly demonstrate individual responsibility on matters of sexuality and sexual health as well as to demonstrate moral leadership on a serious health concern as crowds of Kisumu residents looked on from afar. He addressed the residents of K’ogelo at a primary school, speaking a word or two in Dholuo, acts that greatly endeared him the Luo/K’ogelo community, with many spinning yarns of kinship connections to the Obama family after his visit. But on his return to his father’s homeland this year, Obama spurned the Luo/K’ogelo community, claiming to be “a citizen of the world” and took this visit as an opportunity to take a dig at those “who claim to be family” (a reference to those who have used their kinship ties to the Obama family to lay claim on him).
Since he became the president of the United States, Obama’s visits to Kenya have become stilted, served to carefully selected and canned audiences in a heavily guarded stadium or hall. In Nyangoma-K’ogelo, no effort was made to extend the joy of seeing and listening to Barack Obama to the hundreds of villagers and admirers who were not invited to the Sauti Kuu launch. Not even a giant TV screen, like the one put up far away in Kisumu’s Kenyatta Sport Grounds for some residents of Kisumu, was put up for the villagers of K’ogelo.
Instead, hundreds of sweat-drenched villagers stood by the roadside on a hot sunny day eagerly waiting, hours on end, to catch a glimpse of or to wave at K’ogelo’s most famous son under the watch of hawk-eyed police officers. There was the occasional pulling and pushing, as the crowds surged forward to catch a glimpse of the dignitary. “We are disappointed that after spending more than nine hours here, it was in vain. We never came to beg, but we just wanted to see our son and greet him,” Ms. Mary Awour told the Nation. “We are happy he came, but angry that they have not allowed us to access the venue,” Mr. Kennedy Owino told the Standard.
“We are disappointed that after spending more than nine hours here, it was in vain. We never came to beg, but we just wanted to see our son and greet him,” Ms. Mary Awour told the Nation.
Some Kenyans on Twitter mocked Barack Obama, saying he “is facing the same challenge African men face…spouses refusing to accompany you to your ancestral home,” a reference to the fact that Michelle Obama chose to go to a Beyoncé concert in Paris rather than accompany her husband to the Sauti Kuu launch in K’ogelo.
In Siaya County, Cornel Rasanga, the governor, experienced the emasculating power of Obama’s security detail: “My friend, I’m the host here. I don’t need to be searched,” he is reported to have said. His Kisumu County counterpart, Prof. Anyang’ Nyongo, and his deputy, Mathews Owili, however, submitted to the checks at the gate of Sauti Kuu without a fuss.
Governor Rasanga could neither count on the fabled Luo kinship ties that bind every Luo to the Obamas nor on the prestige of his office to get a dignified hearing. He had to boldly waylay Obama’s entourage as it made its way to the main hall to get in a word edgewise.
In the main hall, the chosen ones – a motley crew of celebrities and corporate types – were entertained by talented dance troupes. A sumptuous lunch awaited them at the end of the event.
Auma Obama’s stage was set. Her finest moment was also a moment of some hard-hitting truths for the Luos – spoken and unspoken. By design, the event assiduously avoided Luo patriarchal, parochial political capture, but embraced and celebrated corporate capture. Auma Obama stoked insurgency against Luo patriarchs, symbolically silencing the governors of Kisumu and Siaya, other patriarchal Luo voices, and perhaps those of their accomplices, such as Ida Odinga, who also attended the launch. However, she amplified resilient Luo women, such as Phoebe Asiyo, a Luo elder and former Member of Parliament for Karachuonyo Constituency in Homa Bay County.
The Luo society’s male-dominated leadership was reduced to peripheral or perfunctory roles. Prof. Nyongo welcomed Obama at the Kisumu International airport. Strictly observing protocol and official business, unlike the welcoming of the Cuban doctors in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport a few weeks before, there was no time for the multilingual governor to wax lyrical in Dholuo, English or Spanish. Together with Governor Rasanga, Prof. Nyongo and other leaders were part of the audience, assigned a minor role in K’ogelo. No elected leader from the area spoke at the event.
Only Phoebe Asiyo, spoke, signaling a welcome endorsement of strong women leadership among Luo society. She, in turn, symbolically endorsed Auma Obama’s leadership, perhaps signaling a long overdue inter-generational succession in Luo politics.
Although Mrs. Odinga’s presence was hardly publicly acknowledged, contrary to the custom in this part of the world, where she enjoys the title and privilege of being a Min piny (mother of a people/nation/territory). Was her voice silenced at the launch because she too is a leftover from the past political struggles though now part of the Luo leadership for whom the struggle is past?
Auma Obama’s launch ruffled many feathers, not just of Luo leaders, but also of the Luo have-nots, the riff-raffs who supposedly don’t want to earn their keep. When she first broached the contentious conversation on the practice of “gonya gonya,” as an irritating act of begging or dependency by the Luo have-nots on the Luo haves, she sounded urban chic. Her remarks, like a sting in the tail, came at the end of a wide-ranging interview with Ann Kiguta of Citizen TV on a number of issues: Kenyan students burning schools; parenting; education; NGOs; slums and development; Barack Obama’s legacy; and the upcoming launch of Sauti Kuu. “This is this gonya gonya … gimme, gimme. Stop guys, stop… In the time that Obama has been president, up until now, what have you done? What have you done to make a difference in your country, in your life, in your community? Because you cannot sit and just wait for Obama. I can tell you what I have done… Do something. Stop gonya gonya,” she said. In yet another interview with the KTN TV, Auma was emphatic: “We are trying to change the mentality of gonya gonya, give me give me, help me, help me. Don’t keep begging.”
Auma Obama’s launch ruffled many feathers, not just of Luo leaders, but also of the Luo have-nots, the riff-raffs who supposedly don’t want to earn their keep.
On the auspicious occasion of the launch of Sauti Kuu, Asiyo reiterated Auma’s message. Speaking in Dholuo, she said: “Adwaro nyiso oganda Luo niya, ng’ama ja kwecho e piny oganda Luo, onge dwol. Ok nyal goyo mbaka kata e anyuola. Auma en nyako ma eluungo ni migogo, ka ne een dichuo waluonge ni Migosi. Etimo gima lich ne oganda Luo….” (I want to tell groups that make up the Luo community that one who begs among us has no voice. You can’t even participate in a conversation among your kin. Auma is a woman called a Migogo. If she were a man we would call her a Migosi. You have done something great for the Luos).
Unbowed, Auma Obama said, “We need to start taking care of ourselves, we can…let’s stop the gonya gonya syndrome. Let’s stop, and I repeat it even if I get a lot of flak on social media, let us stop the gonya gonya, konya konya, syndrome. I insist, and if you think you are mad at me come and join me let us work together and I’ll show you how not to do it.”
The Sauti Kuu initiative and the criticism of the Luo have-nots echoed her brother Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative in America, with its emphasis on hard work, individual responsibility and self-reliance. However, Auma failed to address the social and political contexts that give rise the practice of gonya gonya. Her criticism evoked furious responses. Some took offence with the manner in which she broached and took up the conversation on gonya gonya, first on national television, where ethnic pride is at stake, and second, in the glare of the international press at the launch, where the community was stripped of its pride and dignity on a global platform. Perhaps those who took to tweeting in Dholuo (but who normally tweet in English) were expressing a wish that this was a Ramogi-FM kind of conversation, an in-group, internal critique. It hurt many who also find the pesky practice of begging for hand-outs shameful but yearn for a safe space for this kind of conversation.
Some took to Twitter, saying that Auma “oelo dugwa,” (Auma has exposed) rather than covered up communal nakedness, a response that expresses a shared sense of shame that the practice of begging brings to a community whose members once lived by mantras such as “adak makata ee oonge,” (I do or can live without you) while sustaining opposition politics against one party-state repression, and without asking for relief food even during severe famines.
Some took to Twitter, saying that Auma “oelo dugwa,” (Auma has exposed) rather than covered up communal nakedness, a response that expresses a shared sense of shame that the practice of begging brings to a community whose members once lived by mantras such as “adak makata ee oonge,” (I do or can live without you)
But the loudest responses were viscerally misogynistic, couched in the caustic and retrogressive terms that have characterised Luo politics from the days of Grace Akinyi, Kenya’s first post-independence female mayor and the first woman Member of Parliament, to those of Phoebe Asiyo and Millie Odhiambo, the twice-elected Member of Parliament for Suba North. The responses reflected castration angst, misogyny, and sexism, captured in a concept frequently used to stoke the patrilineal and patrilocal prejudices of Luo society: “en migogo or tend migogo rach,” (a married woman’s leadership is bad or being led by a married woman is a bad thing).”
A male-centric reading of who a migogo is holds that as once married, a daughter or a sister might have some stake in the affairs of her father’s home, but has no voice over issues that matter. She may contribute material resources but can neither sit where binding decisions are made nor lead the rest of the family and clan on such matters. Instead, she must defer to her uncles and brothers on matters affecting her natal homestead.
Migogo means different things to different people but it is mostly a misogynistic slur.
A male-centric reading of who a migogo is holds that as once married, a daughter or a sister might have some stake in the affairs of her father’s home, but has no voice over issues that matter. She may contribute material resources but can neither sit where binding decisions are made nor lead the rest of the family and clan on such matters.
Millie Odhiambo blows a raspberry at those who use the concept to denigrate and exclude women from active involvement in their family, community and constituency politics. She provides alternative reading of the concept. “Migogo connotes I am a daughter and not a stranger. Migogo had a special place. If she visited she was allowed to go to the dero (granary) and pick whatever she wanted. I went to the dero and picked leadership,” she told the Sunday Nation four years ago.
As Gilbert Ogutu points out, the fisherfolk of Nam Lolwe (the Luo name for Lake Victoria), who include Millie Odhiambo’s constituents in Rusinga and Mfangano islands, named their boats after a grandparent, or someone of great achievement. Ogutu notes that these fisherfolk say Yie en migogo as well as Yie en mgongo and that one can easily miss the difference between migogo (married woman) and mgongo (the keel of a boat); this difference completely collapses when they quip that “yie en migogo,” (a boat is a married daughter).
Auma Obama, like Millie Odhiambo, seems to have “returned,” to her father’s homestead and picked out leadership too, but did she get Sauti Kuu’s keel right? Did she place Sauti Kuu on an even keel in the choppy patriarchal waters of Nam Lolwe as well as those of black politics of education and freedom?
Gonya gonya double standards
At the launch of Sauti Kuu, it seems not all kinds of “asking,” “help me,” or “begging” riled Auma Obama. Asiyo’s “askings” or “help us” at the launch did appear odd but did not merit a strong public response from Auma. Speaking in Dholuo, Asiyo asked Auma Obama to build a Sauti Kuu in Homa Bay County, where Hussein Onyango Obama, Auma’s grandfather, migrated from. Speaking in English, Asiyo also asked Barack Obama to use his connections and get someone from America to help the Luos get rid of the hyacinth weed that has impeded fishing and navigation in Lake Victoria since the early 1990s.
It seems that the gonya gonya that riles Auma Obama is the kind that doesn’t do her political bidding. What irks Auma are the hand-outs that the Luo haves give to the Luo have-nots, the kind of donor funding that stigmatises its beneficiary because it comes without a written proposal or a memorandum of understanding between the giver and the taker.
Nurtured mostly by opportunistic politicians whose political agenda was out of sync with the Luo society’s aspirations, “gonya,” also translates to “untie me” or “set me free”, in English. It is a code word for a hand-out and is mostly used on politicians by a cynical and demoralised electorate. Its seeds were sowed by KANU politicians who thought they could buy their way out of the strong waves of Luo opposition politics. The Luo, in turn, used it as a mechanism of extracting a pound of flesh out of the elite, especially the politicians, who once ensconced in public office or because they were rich, disengaged from the affairs of the village and became unreachable.
Ironically, gonya gonya, in its irritating form, is partly nurtured by the Auma Obama rural development model: top-down, elite know-it-all-driven projects executed without any meaningful participation of the “beneficiary or host community”, who presumably know nothing about what’s good for them and who have no preferences. It is noblesse oblige par excellence, underpinned by no reciprocal horizontal relationship between the giver and the receiver, thereby displacing collective communal action and its positive effects.
Ironically, gonya gonya, in its irritating form, is partly nurtured by the Auma Obama rural development model: top-down, elite know-it-all-driven projects executed without any meaningful participation of the “beneficiary or host community”, who presumably know nothing about what’s good for them and who have no preferences.
Listening to Auma Obama’s tributes to “my donors, my sponsors, my partners, my family”, one is hard pressed to point out what the K’ogelo Nyangoma community’s contribution to Sauti Kuu is, apart from being the immediate beneficiaries of the project. Auma thanked the Red Cross, Kenya Airways, the Eagles, Toyota, and the Gina Din Group. But the Nyangoma-K’ogelo community’s offer of 24 acres of land for a proposed Barack Obama University of Leadership and Technology was lost in the din of corporate accolades.
What excites Auma Obama’s community project is offers from abroad, such as that from Yale University for a programme on emotional intelligence. “Hey, hey, Yale University is looking at us,” Auma said, with hardly a word about Nicholas Rajula, the Nyangoma-K’ogelo community spokesman and his plans of turning Siaya Agricultural Training Centre into a constituent college of the proposed Barack Obama University, as reported by the Nation on the eve of the launch.
Auma Obama’s project is not novel, it seems. It is underpinned by a vertical relationship of accountability between the director of the project and the donors/sponsors/partners. It is a supply-driven project in the name of development made popular by NGOs, which thrived in the gaps left by the state and market failures, especially among the Luo, after the onslaught of neoliberalism in the 1990s. The combined effect of this NGO model of development and the sell-out politics of gonya gonya is a generation of youth who’ve refused or are reluctant to earn their keep, and who are often found loitering and shooting the breeze by the roadside or sitting in betting dens days on end.
Auma describes Sauti Kuu as “a space” – abstract postmodern speak which suggests that centre’s potential is multiple yet still undefined by any particular activity, product or character. If and when it becomes a place, one hopes it will not only be defined by excellence in sports and vocational training, but also by the kind of education that can reproduce a Barack Obama Sr., whose agnostic but liberal critique of Kenya’s development “Bible”, “Problems Facing Our Socialism: Another Critique of Sessional Paper no. 10”, stands vindicated by the return of Sauti Kuu-like initiatives to the countryside 55 years after Kenya’s independence, ostensibly as a solution to unemployment, slums, economic inequality and rural-urban migration.
If Barack Obama’s winning political identity was partly constructed by successfully dropping radical black politics and leftist imaginations that connected black resistance against oppression worldwide and partly by enmeshing his autobiography with the American Creed, as Aziz Rana says, then Auma Obama is constructing her political identity partly by spurning Luo patriarchs and Kenya’s toxic ethnic politics as well as by championing a conservative creed: hard work, individual responsibility and self-reliance.
Still, Sauti Kuu will have to contend with the fact, to paraphrase Barack Obama Sr., that economic issues cannot be divorced from the political-social-cultural context in which we find ourselves.
The Rebels Within: The Politics of Kieleweke and Tanga Tanga in Central Kenya
12 min read. Dissent is brewing in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Kikuyu strongholds, which has allowed Deputy President William Ruto to gain support in the region.
The fracas that took place in Gitui Catholic Church in Murang’a County on September 8, 2019, is a harbinger of the political battles that are going to be fought in Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region by the fractious Jubilee Party antagonists.
“The battle for the soul of the Kikuyu vote is on and what we witnessed in Murang’a was a proxy war being waged by two factional camps, split by succession politics that are intent on capturing the Kikuyu vote ahead of the 2022 general elections,” said a Central Kenya politician who requested for anonymity.
The camps are led by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his Deputy William Samoei Ruto. Fronted by their respective protégés, the factions are known by their signature monikers – Kieleweke (it shall [soon] be evident) and Tanga Tanga (the roving group). Although President Uhuru has not come out openly to associate with the @Kieleweke group, which is being fronted by one Ngunjiri Wambugu, the flip-flopping Nyeri Town MP, his deputy, no doubt, has made it known that he is the de facto Tanga Tanga leader, a label he proudly carries.
The church lent itself as a perfect scene on a Sunday afternoon for the antagonists to outdo each other as they sought to prove to their respective masters that were ready and willing to wage a proxy battle on their behalf. As it will soon be evident, Murang’a County, sandwiched between Kiambu and Nyeri counties, is the very ground where the battle for the much-coveted Kikuyu electorate will be viciously fought.
If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor. The electorate has sniffed a one-time opportunity to prove (to its sister counties) that it too can also ascend to the highest echelons of political power and it should not be taken for granted.
The Kieleweke group, this time led by nominated MP Maina Kamanda – a man who now carries the label KYM (kanda ya moko, Kikuyu for a hatchet man) – “sneaked” into Kiharu constituency, an unacceptable political tourism into another MP’s territory without his prior notice. As Uhuru’s man on the ground, he had carried Sh1 million to be donated to the church on behalf of the president. Getting whiff of Kamanda’s meandering into his constituency, Ndindi Nyoro, the greenhorn Kiharu MP, who today is described as the “Murkomen” of Central Kenya, burst into the church to let Kamanda know that he was the sheriff in town and that others could not appear in his turf without his prior knowledge and permission.
“The ensuing kerfuffle between Nyoro and the elderly Kamanda inside the church was, as unfortunate, the proxy battles being fought elsewhere in the country by the Jubilee factional wings,” said a Mt Kenya politician who has known Kamanda for well over three decades. “We were with Kamanda in the opposition politics in the 1990s and one time I and another Central Kenya MP went to bail him out in Embu town after former President Daniel arap Moi ordered that he be locked in a police cell for his utterances.”
If the Kieleweke group has smelt dissent and infiltration of enemies in what they consider to be their unrivalled turf, the Tanga Tanga group, in its roving mission, has stumbled upon a restless electorate, anxious and willing to be wooed by a ready suitor.
The politician told me he has been calling Kamanda’s mobile phone number to no avail. “He has refused to pick my call…just as well…because I wanted to tell him that the September 8 ugly scene was beneath him. As a senior politician, he should have known better than to engage in such like shenanigans.”
But the Mt Kenya politician reserved the harshest barbs for both the Catholic Church’s leadership and the parish priest, Fr John Kibuuru. “That priest is a vagabond. For him to have allowed the politicians to desecrate the offertory was a cardinal sin to, especially us Catholics. The offertory is where we go to offer our supplications, it is a sacrosanct place – how dare he let vagabonds like him defile the holy sanctuary?”
The politician, a staunch Catholic known for his morning mass and an unfailing Sunday service attendance wherever he is, reminded me: “I have never conducted my politics inside the precincts of the church for all the 30-something years I have been in politics. The Church can bare me out…you can bare me out. If and when I want to meet the electorate, who form part of the congregation, I ask it we meet outside the church, after the priest is done with the mass. I’ve always respected the sanctity of the church.”
It was useless for Bishop John (Maria) Wainaina, of Murang’a diocese who also oversees the Kirinyaga diocese to issue a belated decree the day after, ordering politicians to keep off the church’s sanctum, said the politician. “The pulpit should not, at all times, be a place for politicians to address the electorate – the politicians have their forums to do that – and the church’s rostrum is not one of them.” The politician accused Fr Kibuuru of being partisan on the current succession politics and for letting himself be dined and wined by politicians.
“For my church, I’m sorry to say it has lost its direction: the clergy is no longer the light of the laity. For that ugly scene to have taken place in a Catholic church shows you just how lowly the Catholic church leadership in Kenya has sunk. Priests nowadays do what they feel like doing. The bishops cannot reign in on the priests because they themselves are no better.”
He added that the Catholic Church has been infiltrated by ethnic baronial politics, which has chosen to serve the interests of political power brokers. The politician said the church in general, in Kenya has ceded ground to the politician because of greed for money and power.
Gitui Catholic Church is on your way to Kangema and some of the congregants told me that Kamanda’s coming to Kiharu without notifying Nyoro was disrespectful and uncalled for. “Kamanda should know we have an MP whom we elected ourselves, he shouldn’t stomp here like it’s his area, Nyoro is young, but he is ours.” The Kiharu residents let it be known to me that “after all, Kamanda is not from here, he is from Nyandarua, if he wants to be elected, there is Nyandarua for him if Nairobi has become too hot for him to handle.”
The 36-year-old excitable Ndindi Nyoro has been riding on the crest of a popular wave since that hullabaloo with Kamanda. His electorate right now think of him as a local hero for standing up to Kamanda and for expressing his political stand – which at the moment gels with the electorate: dissatisfaction with President Uhuru’s disastrous politics.
Ndindi’s Kiambugi Mixed Secondary schoolmates remember him as a feisty young man who dreamt of one day being an important (wealthy) man. A relative of Ngenye Kariuki, Ngenye refers to Nyoro as his grandson. He campaigned for Ngenye in 1997 when he run for the same Kiharu seat, as a student. “He was very active, organising for Ngenye’s supporters to be ferried in trucks to his rallies and exclusive meetings,” said one of his schoolmates. Ngenye won the seat on a Safina ticket and Ndindi four years later transitioned to Kenyatta University. Kiambugi Mixed Secondary School later on was transformed into a boys’ only high school.
Between 2013 and 2017, Ndindi Nyoro, served as the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) manager for Kiharu under Irungu Kangata. When Kangata decided to go for the senator seat, there was understandably a mutual agreement between them that Nyoro should “take over” from Kangata. Today, Nyoro has publicly identified his politics with those of Deputy President William Ruto, claiming that he is the best suited to “take over” from President Uhuru who is serving his last second term. His Kiharu constituents seem to largely agree with him…for now.
The Matiba factor
Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had. It is a “grudge” they carry against their cousins from both Kiambu and Nyeri counties, albeit surreptitiously.
The general election of November, 1979 called by a new President Moi, who had taken over from Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, who had died on August 22, 1978, saw an energetic, bold and young Matiba enter the race for Kiharu, then known as Mbiri, armed to the teeth with the latest statistical data on the constituency. Fresh from being the managing director of East African Breweries Limited (EABL), Matiba waged a political battle pitted against the “mighty” Gikonyo Kiano, which Kiano, until his death in April 2003, was never to recover from.
In an era when statistics as an effective campaign tool was unheard off, Matiba came to Mbiri with data that laid bare the geographical, socio-political and economic facts of the constituency: gender composition, household incomes, number of graduates, population density, the area’s topography, voting patterns, I mean…name it. With these facts, Matiba, with military precision, combed the length and breadth of Mbiri, and floored Gikonyo, the first post-independence Minister of Trade and Commerce, in a battle royal that is the stuff of political legends.
When the son of Njindo entered the presidential race in 1992, it was not the same Matiba who, more than a decade before, had entered constituency elective politics as a corporatist, dare-devil, intelligent and sharp man. Although the presidential race was won by the incumbent Moi, Murang’a people to date believe that Matiba won that election, in which he ran alongside Ford Kenya’s Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and the Democratic Party’s Mwai Kibaki.
However, it was Kibaki’s entering the presidential race in 1992 that still rankles the Murang’a folks: Had he not run, the Kikuyu vote would not have been split and, therefore, Matiba would easily have romped home, many of them believe. It is something they will not say loudly, but it is still a chip on their shoulder after all these years.
Kiharu constituency is famous for being at one time represented by the irrepressible Kenneth Stanley Njindo Matiba, the rambunctious politician who was detained by President Moi in 1990 and never recovered from his stroke till his death in April 2018. Matiba still evokes nostalgic emotions from Murang’a residents, who still view him as the president they never had.
“The people of Murang’a County break no bones when they insist they have supported both Kiambu and Nyeri people to ascend to the presidency. But those same people have yet to reciprocate the gesture,” said a former Nairobi city councillor from Dagoretti. “This feeling of ‘abandonment and betrayal’ by their cousins, was aggravated in 2017, when the Murang’a moguls ceded control of Nairobi to a ‘lay about and nonentity’ through Uhuru’s carelessness and cowardly politics.”
The former councillor, who keeps tabs with the Rwathia Group, the influential and richest group of Kikuyu men who since independence have controlled the business and politics of Nairobi city, said the moguls seethe with anger against President Uhuru for the loss of the Nairobi County governor’s seat to Mike Mbuvi Sonko in 2017. “That is all we had asked from Uhuru, to allow us to have Nairobi, but even that he could not deliver,” confided the moguls to my councillor friend.
“The Murang’a people have smelt an opportunity and they are ready to seize it,” said the former councillor. “Uhuru is not going to be a factor insofar as 2022 succession politics are concerned: no Kikuyu voter, much less the political elite, is going to listen to him – he has done his call of duty and as it is, they are not amused with his performance,” the former councillor said.
The Raila factor
The anger against President Uhuru among the Kikuyu electorate makes Ruto seem like the only viable alternative. “It is going to take a near miracle for President Uhuru to persuade the Kikuyus to listen to him. The Kikuyu rebellion against the Kenyatta Family this time is real.”
The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming. Uhuru has overseen the systematic destruction of the Kikuyu economy – he was supposed to protect it, instead, what has he done? He has presided over its deliberate collapse. Is that not why he is sending Kamanda to us? Because he cannot dare venture into Central Kenya or anywhere near Mt Kenya region?”
The Murangá magnate said, “The Kikuyu people will frustrate Raila’s presidential efforts until he grows so old that he will not have the stamina to run. We are waiting for that Uhuru to come and tell us about the handshake. We will tell him our minds.” If by supporting Ruto, the Murangá people can attempt a stab at the presidency so be it, said the tycoon. He said that President Uhuru spent half of his presidential campaigns demonising Raila, so much so that, to now point the Kikuyu people to his direction is to really mock them. “Has Uhuru come back to the Kikuyu people to undo the damage?” he asked.
The many forays by Deputy President Ruto’s team into the heartland of the Kikuyu domain is because he has established that the people are divided and are not speaking in one voice, said a one-time senior civil servant from the Mt Kenya region. “He knows the President’s core constituency is bitter with him and because he [Uhuru] is unsure of their retribution against him, he has dilly-dallied going home. So the DP has taken advantage of this lacuna to make inroads into the region and is consistently preaching a message that entrenches their hatred for Raila Odinga.”
A poll survey conducted recently by a professional research group showed that if presidential elections were to be held today, William Ruto would win by 45 per cent countrywide, and in the Mt Kenya region, he would garner a very strong support. The poll’s sample size, significantly larger than the usual 3000 people, was picked across the 47 counties. The somewhat surprising poll results dissuaded the firm from publishing its findings and making them public. Ruto is considered an incumbent, and therefore a frontrunner, and the only person who has explicitly said he would be gunning for the presidency come 2022. His is not only a brand name, but he has name recognition across the country.
To tame the deputy’s presidential ambitions and to curtail his perceived inroads into Central Kenya and the larger Mt Kenya region, his political nemeses in the Jubilee Party have been making his interlocutors lives’ in the region, difficult.
The Kikuyus are plotting to vote for William Ruto as a protest vote and teach President Uhuru a lesson, said one of the richest magnates in Murang’a. “Raila will never rule this country. If Uhuru thinks we will be swayed by his belated shaking of hands with that ‘mad man’, he has another thing coming…”
“The hauling of the Kiambu governor to court and making him spend some days in police cells over corruption charges is part of the handshake’s efforts to throttle the DP’s penetration of the area,” said the former senior civil servant. “When he was thrown into custody at the Industrial Police Station cells, Ferdinand Waititu (Kiambu Governor) was visited at night by a Jubilee Party mandarin allied to President Uhuru’s wing who mocked him by telling him ‘to now call the DP’ to bail him out.” The mandarin allegedly warned Waititu that he was going to pay for his cavorting with the Deputy President.
Governor Waititu apparently is not the first Central Kenya politician to be “punished” by the “handshake team” for not toeing the line: “The first to be tamed was the deleterious Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria, who immediately after the swearing-in of President Uhuru Kenyatta for his second term in November 2017, was seen as Ruto’s point man in Central Kenya. He was slapped with an unpaid tax accumulated over the years that effectively cooled his heels,” said the former senior civil servant.
Yet, according to the senior civil servant, it was Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo, formerly known as Ann Waiguru, who had to be quickly nipped in the bud because she was thought to be running ahead of herself. Immediately after being confirmed as the Governor of Kirinyaga, after a protracted court battle filed by her opponent, former Gichugu MP and 2013 presidential contender, Martha Wangari Karua, it is alleged that Governor Ann Mumbi Waiganjo went around telling and whispering to anybody who cared to listen that she was primed to be Deputy President William Ruto’s running mate come 2022.
“The Kirinyaga governor was therefore seen as a possible and viable teammate of Ruto in his search for a deputy from the all-important Mt Kenya region,” said the former civil servant. “To stop forthwith that talk that apparently was interpreted as rallying the larger Mt Kenya region in the direction of the Deputy President’s team 2022, the governor was aptly reminded of the National Youth Service (NYS) mega scandal that took place in 2016 when Ann Waiguru was the Cabinet Secretary for Devolution.”
The sudden change of tune by the Kirinyaga governor is not out of step, said my source: “That today she is singing the ‘handshake tune’ is not as a result of a Damascus moment, the realisation that after all, it isn’t a good idea to be a deputy president of Kenya. It is the flexing of power of the opposing sides within the Jubilee Party at play.”
Since her change of tune regarding local and national politics, the governor has had to face the wrath of some of her constituents: Last month, when she went to open a market in Kagumo town, she was jeered by a mob that she claimed was paid to do so. Paid to do so, because it told her off over her support of “the handshake” and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).
Kagumo town in Kirinyaga Central constituency is the hotbed of Kirinyaga County politics. And this is not the first time the governor was being chased away from Kagumo: When she was campaigning for the governor’s seat, she was also one time ferreted out of the town. It took the intervention of Purity Wangui Ngirici, then campaigning for the Women Representative seat, to help her navigate around Kirinyaga County.
“It is Ngirici who held Ann’s hand in a manner of speaking and showed her the ropes in Kirinyaga,” said one of Karua’s chief campaigners. “Waiguru didn’t know the nooks and crannies of the county – it was Ngirici who showed her around. Remember Ngirici was always a William Ruto person: the helicopter she was campaigning in – which was emblazoned with her name Wangui – was lent to her by Ruto.” Purity Wangui Ngirici hails from one of the two most powerful families in Mwea: Mbari ya Douglas, (the clan of Douglas) and Mbari ya Mkombozi (the clan of the saviour). She is married to Ngirici, who is the son of the late spy master James Kanyotu.
Ngirici, who is in her late 40s, is the Women’s Rep, but by and large she controls the politics of Kirinyaga: three-quarters of all the elected MCAs owe allegiance to her. To checkmate her, the governor equally nominated her loyalist MCAs to counterbalance Ngirici’s force. Ngirici has trashed the handshake and has been telling the Kirinyaga electorate that the BBI’s motive is to unload Raila onto them by creating additional executive positions.
In Ngirici, Ruto has a powerful ally in the county. It is, therefore, not improbable to imagine where Ngirici’s politics are headed: in 2022 Ann Mumbi Waiganjo will have a worthy opponent for the governor’s seat. And if all factors remain the same, it is also not too difficult to imagine whose drumbeats she will be beating: William Ruto’s.
On the peripheries of Mt Kenya region, other Ruto allies include the Kikuyu MP Kimani Ichungwá, Kandara MP Alice Wahome, Kiharu MP Ndindi Nyoro and Bahati MP Kimani Ngunjiri. “These are relatively young MPs (of course apart from Kimani) in age and politics. They are pragmatic enough to know where their political bread is buttered; not with Uhuru, but with Ruto…so it’s nothing personal,” said a Jubilee Party politician from Mt Kenya.
In an area where 70 per cent of the incumbent MPs are thrown out every five years, these MPs are closely reading the signs on the wall – and the signs on the wall currently in the Mt Kenya region are that William Ruto is the man to beat.
Will the New Competency-Based Curriculum Lead to Declining Educational Standards in Kenya?
8 min read. The newly rolled-out education system will not live up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system from vested business interests and international agencies with hidden agendas.
Research findings recently released by the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT) show that Kenyan schools are woefully unprepared to implement the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) that is set to replace the so-called 8-4-4 system. The report comes at a time when the country is grappling with issues of curriculum review and the reform process, teacher training and recruitment, the formulation and implementation of a national education policy and the implementation of CBC. The research, conducted by KNUT, looked into issues of teacher preparedness, the availability and adequacy of teaching materials, the level of engagement between teachers and parents, as well as the challenges faced by head teachers and teaching staff in implementing CBC.
KNUT concludes that the implementation of CBC has been hurriedly undertaken while the majority of teachers have not been sufficiently trained in CBC content and teaching methods. It adds that most pre-primary teachers, as well as those for grades one to three have not received any training whatsoever while those that did attend training workshops were inadequately trained by trainers and facilitators who were themselves incompetent in the delivery of the CBC approach.
The research also found that the training sessions were poorly conducted and that their effectiveness fell well below expectations, hindering the ability of teachers to design, assess, and evaluate the delivery of lessons and learners’ outcomes. The report also notes that the resources and infrastructure required for learning, assessment and capacity-building in the CBC approach—which are completely different from those in use in the current system—are non-existent or inadequate at best. Parents and other stakeholders have not been involved in the reform process nor have public awareness campaigns been conducted following the roll-out of CBC.
The CBC system and design
Formal education was introduced in Kenya during the British colonial era and between 1964 and 1985 the education cycle comprised seven years of primary school, four years of secondary school, two years of high school, and three years of university education. The 8-4-4 system of education—eight years of primary school, four years of secondary school and four years of university education—was introduced in January 1985 to address concerns that the basic education previously provided lacked the necessary content to promote widespread sustainable self-employment.
The Kenyan primary school curriculum is approved for all public schools and most private schools—with the exception of international schools, which usually offer the British or American curriculum. The subjects studied at the primary level are English, Kiswahili, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies, Religious Education, Creative Arts, Physical Education and Life Skills. Pupils take a national examination at the end of the primary cycle with the results of the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) determining placement in secondary school.
In a major departure from the 8-4-4 system, the proposed CBC system was launched in 2017 and is designed to comprise two years of pre-primary education, six years of primary education, three years of junior secondary education, three years of senior secondary education and three years of university.
The Kenyan CBC is designed with the objective that at the end of each learning cycle every learner will be competent in the following seven core competency areas: communication and collaboration; critical thinking and problem-solving; imagination and creativity; citizenship; learning to learn; self-efficacy; and digital literacy.
CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems. Teaching methods include role-play, problem-solving, projects, case studies, and study visits, among other learner-centred strategies, and the teacher is expected to switch from the role of an expert to that of a facilitator who guides the learning process. Learners are expected to take responsibility for their own learning through direct exploration and experience while their teachers are expected to design effective learning activities geared towards the development of specific competencies.
Moreover, the revised curriculum requires teachers to frequently assess their students using assessment methods, such as portfolios, classroom or field observation, projects, oral presentations, self-assessments, interviews and peer assessments. Teachers are also required to change from a norm-referenced to a criterion-referenced judgment of learners’ capabilities or competencies to determine their progress. Finally, teachers are supposed to provide continuous, timely and constructive feedback to inform their students about the strengths and weaknesses of their performance since instruction and learning are reviewed and modified based on the feedback.
CBC places emphasis on competence development rather than on the acquisition of content knowledge. This effectively means that the teaching and learning process has to change its orientation from rote memorisation of content to the acquisition of skills and competencies useful for solving real-life problems.
It is clear, therefore, that the introduction of CBC in Kenyan schools calls for a comprehensive change in the instructional approach in terms of teaching, learning and assessment, and this requires changes in teacher training programmes in order to equip teachers (both pre-service and in-service) with the competencies that will enable them to effectively handle the challenges associated with CBC implementation in schools.
However, Kenya initiated the implementation of the Competency-Based Curriculum in 2017 in the absence of any research-based evidence on the effectiveness of the new system. Despite the challenges and shortcomings identified by the internal and external evaluations of the pilot study on CBC implementation, the government went ahead with the national roll-out of CBC in January 2019.
Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework. The needs assessment was not properly conducted. The summative evaluation, which was conducted in 2009, cannot be the basis for reforming the curriculum in 2018. The entire process was dominated by foreign consultants with no experience in curriculum reform in Kenya. The involvement of teachers, university lecturers, and prominent local experts was minimal.
Moreover, an illegality was committed at the time of rolling out CBC for pre-primary and Standards One to Three as there was no Sessional Paper to guide the process and, furthermore, no review of the existing education system had been undertaken by an Education Commission prior to the roll-out. Pilot testing of the curriculum was hurriedly done over a few short months and without appropriate syllabus or pupils’ books and teachers’ guides.
It must also be pointed out that the introduction of technical and vocational courses in the school curriculum is a serious mistake as the purpose of basic education is not to train students but to make them trainable. Empirical studies show that competency-based models are mainly applicable to vocational education and training due to the emphasis placed on standards of competence in occupational sectors. Competence is the possession and demonstration of knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and behaviour required to perform a given task to a described standard. The concept is therefore more useful in vocational education since the emphasis is on the ability of the student to perform a set of related tasks with a high degree of skills, and a particular competency can be broken down into its component parts through task analysis.
Prior to its adoption and roll-out, no comprehensive survey of international best practices was conducted and nor was there any research to support the argument that the CBC framework is more effective than the current learning outcomes-based curriculum framework.
The adoption of CBC in Kenya—as in some other African countries, such as Botswana, Senegal and South Africa—may be explained in part by the current tendency of some international agencies to favour such pedagogies. In most of the countries concerned, however, attempts to institutionalise child-centred pedagogy in schools and teacher-training institutions have been inconclusive and, indeed, no country in the world has successfully implemented CBC. It is therefore a disturbing development that the member countries of the East African Community have—according to Sessional Paper No. 14 of 2012—adopted a common policy of harmonising education systems and training curricula that will shift focus from the standard curriculum design to the CBC and assessment approach.
Tanzania introduced CBC in secondary schools in 2005 and in primary education in 2006. Back in 2001 the Ministry of Education and Culture had asked for education to be treated as a strategic agent in the creation of a well-educated nation. The ministry anticipated developing an education system that would enable Tanzanians to be sufficiently equipped with the knowledge needed to competently and competitively solve the development challenges facing the nation.
However, a 2012 study on the implementation of the competency-based teaching in schools in Tanzania established that CBC had not been well implemented and more efforts needed to be devoted to the development of tutors’ and principals’ understanding of the CBC approach. Other studies conducted to assess CBC implementation in Tanzania have confirmed that there is very minimal use of the CBC teaching approach in schools and that more than 80 per cent of the teachers lack a proper understanding of the approach and continue to use traditional knowledge-based teaching and learning methods, with assessment methods remaining the same as those used in assessing knowledge-based teaching and learning, while the teaching approach continues to be teacher-centred.
The role of education in the development process cannot be over-emphasised. There is substantial empirical evidence of the crucial role of education in poverty reduction, human development, job prospects for individuals and the broader social-economic development of nations. In other words, education plays a key role in the transformation of societies. Unfortunately, the impact of education in sub-Saharan African countries has been minimised because African countries have often been put under pressure to adopt unrealistic reforms by a small number of nameless and faceless experts working in international organisations, such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Bank, who have a hidden agenda and normally exert their influence indirectly from behind the scenes.
Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards. It is an orderly, planned sequence in which curriculum specialists, teachers, university lecturers who have undertaken advanced academic studies in curriculum development and other local education experts—including the Ministry of Education professional staff who have extensive experience in curriculum development, implementation and evaluation—assist in conducting a needs assessment identifying a problem, finding a solution, conceptualising the required curriculum, planning and designing a reformed curriculum, pilot-testing the revised curriculum on a small scale, then implementing it nationally.
Unfortunately, the views of the Ministry of Education and the team of local consultants and foreign experts have tended to dominate decisions about the ongoing curriculum reform process. The prominent role of UNICEF—and not UNESCO—in the reform process raises fundamental questions about the agenda of the donor.
Curriculum reform is an improvement or change of the curriculum for the better. It involves the development and utilisation of the curriculum in new and unique ways that will enhance the attainment of higher levels of achievement for students. Curriculum reform is mainly concerned with changes in the content and organisation of what is taught. Many people and organisations, including teachers’ unions, professional bodies, religious organisations, students, teachers, curriculum specialists, quality assurance and standards officers, educational administrators and community leaders concerned with matters of education often seek to bring reforms to the school curriculum.
Curriculum reform is necessary if we want to improve the quality of education in Kenya. However, curriculum reform should be based on the needs of learners and society and on best international practices and standards.
In most African countries—and Kenya is no exception—curriculum developers are the gatekeepers who critically assess the different proposals for curriculum reform and make recommendations for the changes to be made to subject panels and academic boards. The authority for the decision to change the curriculum rests with the Academic Boards of Curriculum Development. Many educators, including those from Kenya, are now rejecting the externally-driven approach to education reform. They propose instead an interactive and participatory approach which involves—and begins with—an evaluation by classroom teachers and district education personnel. This ensures that the views of the people closest to the process of teaching and learning are taken into account.
Based on the findings of the research conducted by KNUT, it is fair to conclude that the implementation of CBC has not lived up to the aim of transforming education in Kenya. Collective efforts are, therefore, needed to save Kenya’s education system not only from vested business interests and local cartels, but also from international agencies and non-governmental organisations with hidden agendas. The Ministry of Education should commission highly educated and experienced curriculum developers and evaluators to produce a high-quality curriculum which is relevant to the Kenyan child and to the needs of the country.
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
10 min read. The rise of right-wing populist leaders in many countries across the globe suggests that democracy’s days are numbered. However, as PATRICK GATHARA argues, populism is less a cause of democracy’s demise than a consequence of it.
“Anyone can cook,” declares Chef Auguste Gusteau in the 2007 Pixar classic, Ratatouille, one of my favourite animated movies. The film tells the tale of an anthropomorphic French rat with a passion for haute cuisine, who against all odds, makes it from foraging in the garbage to cooking at a high-end restaurant and being declared “nothing less than the finest chef in France”. It is an inspiring story with valuable lessons about bravery, determination and following one’s dreams. Yet it comes with a caveat, as explained by the funereal critic, Anton Ego, at the end of the movie: “Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.”
Across the world today, democratic societies appear to have taken Gusteau’s maxim but not necessarily with Ego’s qualification. In Kenya, the death of popular Kibra MP, Kenneth Okoth, has occasioned a by-election in which the ruling Jubilee Party has fronted a professional footballer who has spent much of the last decade in Europe and who, until a few weeks ago, had never even registered to vote or expressed any interest in politics.
“The world is going the Wanjiku way,” Mike Sonko, the populist Governor of Nairobi declared recently on the Sunday show, Punchline. “Take the example of the Ukraine. The President of Ukraine is currently is a comedian. They voted for a comedian. Because the Wanjikus were fed up with the leadership of that country. They were fed up with the politicians…Go to Liberia. They elected a footballer to be their president. Madagascar for the second time have elected a DJ, Rajolina, to be their president”.
He is not wrong. From Donald Trump in the United States to Bobi Wine in Uganda, there seems to be a growing dissatisfaction with and distrust of career politicians and the nebulous “establishment”. In Kenya, this manifests in a contest between the so-called “dynasties” (the wealthy families that have dominated the country’s politics for nearly 60 years) and the “hustlers” (the political upstarts who claim to not be a part of the establishment). It is evident in the “handshake” between President Uhuru Kenyatta and opposition leader Raila Odinga, sons of Kenya’s first President and Vice President, respectively, and their open feud with Deputy President William Ruto, the self-declared head of the “hustler nation”.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
Yet this democratisation of governance has created fears of its contamination by the unwashed and uneducated masses. A famous quote from the early twentieth century US journalist, Henry Mencken, encapsulates these fears: “As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” The quote is taken from Mencken’s piece originally posted in the Baltimore Evening Sun in July 1920 in which he rails against the candidacies of Republican Warren Harding and his rival, James Cox, for the US presidency, which he saw as proof of the tendency of democratic competition to result in a race to the bottom.
The idea that “anyone can rule” is taken by many to be a cardinal tenet of democracy. At its root is a legitimate rejection of the old idea that the ability to govern was only bestowed on some bloodlines, which today has largely been consigned to history’s trash heap.
“The first and last aim of the politician,” he wrote, “is to get votes, and the safest of all ways to get votes is to appear to the plain man to be a plain man like himself, which is to say, to appear to him to be happily free from any heretical treason to the body of accepted platitudes – to be filled to the brim with the flabby, banal, childish notions that challenge no prejudice and lay no burden of examination upon the mind.”
Arguing that “this fear of ideas is a peculiarly democratic phenomenon,” he goes on to assert that as politicians increasingly pander to electorates, then “the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life” and the field is left to “intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes” – those without convictions and those willing to hide them.
Many recognise the fulfilment of Menckel’s prophecy in Donald Trump’s presidency, though it is notable that it had been applied to Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush before him. However, it is clear that Mencken had a low opinion, not just of politicians, but of electorates as well. In fact, in his view, it is the ignorance and stupidity of the masses that, in a democracy, makes morons of politicians. And moronic politicians love ignorant voters as evidenced by Trump’s declaration during the 2016 presidential campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”
Menckel’s view is also echoed by a common maxim spuriously attributed to Winston Churchill: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So, is the slide into populist idiocy the inevitable fate of democracy? Can anyone cook? Or is Ego right that while good governance can come from anywhere, not everyone can be a great leader?
“Democracy is hard,” notes Kenyan academic and author, Nanjala Nyabola. It “requires constant vigilance—something that we now see is difficult to achieve even under the most ideal circumstances.” For most voters, this constant vigilance is a tough ask. In fact, for most, getting to grips with the issues and personalities is not worth the hassle.
As Ilya Somin, Professor of Law at George Mason University, puts it, “If your only reason to follow politics is to be a better voter, that turns out not to be much of a reason at all… there is very little chance that your vote will actually make a difference to the outcome of an election.”
And that’s not all. Even if one were inclined to be immersed in the policy debates and to investigate candidate platforms, the sheer size of modern government and the scale and impact of its activities means that one could not hope to monitor more than a tiny fraction of what the state gets up to.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma” (Father has read it). Baba is a reference to Raila Odinga, perhaps the best known politician in the country and the voters, many of whom had little knowledge of constitutionalism, were opting to take their cue from him. Others chose to follow the musings of pundits and other self-appointed “experts” or journalists or even comedians. The problem here, as with following politicians, is you do not know whether what you are getting is the truth, the real truth and nothing but the truth.
However, that turns out to be less of a problem than one might at first suppose. Truth (shock, horror!) is not always the reason one follows politics – or politicians. Prof. Somin notes that political supporters tend to behave very much like sports fans – less interested in the merits of arguments or how well the game is played than in whether their side wins. This is perhaps best illustrated by the phenomenon of electorates voting against their own interests. For example, in the US, older voters tend to support the Republican Party, which takes a dim view of government entitlement programmes like Medicare and Social Security that primarily benefit the elderly.
Since voters are unwilling to get their hands dirty, they take short cuts, which often means relying on someone else to tell them what’s going on in the kitchen. For instance, when asked, during the 2005 and 2010 referendum campaigns on a proposed new constitution, whether they had read the drafts, a section of Kenyan voters were reported to have responded with “Baba amesoma”.
Even the few neutrals out there tend to talk only to like-minded others or follow the game through like-minded media. In either case, there is little scope for voters to have their views challenged or their horizons expanded. As the former British Prime Minister put it, “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long. Or if they do, it is with a sigh… before going back to worrying about the kids, the parents, the mortgage, the boss, their friends, their weight, their health, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.”
A civic ritual
If voters don’t care about politics, why do they even bother to vote? According to Prof Somin, “The key factor is that voting is a lot cheaper and less time-consuming than studying political issues. For many, it is rational to take the time to vote, but without learning much about the issues at stake.”
Voting has thus become a civic ritual, much like going to a football game and cheering your favourite team. It provides the satisfaction of participation – one can brandish a purple finger as a marker of having fulfilled one’s duty without actually doing the hard work of wrestling with the issues. Voters pick their teams based less on ideas than on arbitrary considerations, such as ethnicity or place of birth.
The media exacerbates this trend in two ways; both in the content of their reporting and in the manner they do so. By far, the mainstream press is the most important avenue through which people access and organise information about what is happening in the world. Despite the growth of the internet, which has enabled many more people to get in on the act, news is still largely what the media says it is, whether it is an earthquake or a war in some far-off place or the latest tweet by Donald Trump.
However, as Prof Cas Mudde of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia writes, the media tends to report the news, rather than analyse and explain it. The addiction to scoops and “breaking news” and the competition to be first even when every outlet will have the story in the next few minutes and though social media means there is less attention paid to “trends behind the day-to-day news”. Further, in order to attract a larger audience and sell more advertising space or more newspapers, the media prioritises what is sensational over what is important and stays away from anything that cannot be reduced into a soundbite or squeezed into a two-minute news segment.
It also propagates and perpetuates false notions of “objectivity”, presenting itself as a reliable neutral observer rather than as an active participant. Yet through its curating and shaping functions, the media wields tremendous influence not only on how events unfold but also on how on they are perceived. Like a chef, the media takes events and fashions out of disparate events, to be served up to audiences in bite-sized chunks on its many channels.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity. If the world is so simple, then fixing it requires no specialised knowledge. Anybody can cook.
It is no wonder then that today there is a lot of angst about the state of democracy and fears that the ship of liberal democratic constitutionalism is floundering on the rocks of populism. The emergence of right wing populist governments and movements in countries as far removed as Brazil, Italy and the Philippines, and in Western countries once thought to hold the high ground for liberal democracy, such as the UK (which is steeped in a constitutional crisis over Brexit) and the US (where President Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry) has many thinking that democracy’s days are numbered.
William Galston has called populism an internal challenge to liberal democracy. Populists, he says, weaponise popular ignorance “to drive a wedge between democracy and liberalism”. Liberal norms, institutions and policies, they claim, weaken democracy and harm the people and thus should be set aside.
Brought up on this fast news diet, Prof Somin says, voters come to “mistakenly believe that the world is a very simple place [requiring] very little knowledge to make an informed decision about politics”. And this leads to the embrace of simplistic panaceas for complex problems, and to a preference for populist politicians who deny complexity.
Populism, though, is less a cause of democracy’s demise than it is a consequence of it. Democracy has been crumbling from within for a long time. Galston blames this on immigration which, he says, has not only upset the “tacit compact” between electorates and elites – where the former would defer to the latter as long as they delivered economic growth and prosperity – but has also profoundly challenged existing demographic and cultural norms, leaving many feeling dislocated in their own societies.
However, it is that compact that is at the root of the crisis, transforming as it does the understanding of democracy from a system where people participate in governance to one where they elect others to govern them. Further, the gnashing of teeth over historic decline in voter turnout blinds many to the fact that, like populism, it is also a symptom and not the problem.
As Phil Parvin notes in his paper, Democracy Without Participation, the decline in political engagement and deliberation by ordinary citizens and the eclipse of broad-based citizen associations by professional lobby groups have resulted in a model of democracy where “politics … is something done by other people on behalf of citizens rather than by citizens themselves”.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections. Participation in governance in the periods in between elections is actively discouraged. Those who are dissatisfied with government policies are routinely told to shut up and await the opportunity to do something about it at the next election.
This model of democracy as reality show, where elites compete on who gets a turn at the trough (with the media providing a running commentary and the public choosing the winner) is at the root of the malaise. The professionalisation of democratic participation – outsourcing it to politicians and activists – leads to an increasing polarisation and tribalisation, with everyone claiming to be the authentic voice of the silent and silenced population. Alienation, as political debate focuses on the problems of elites rather than those of the people, becomes inevitable.
It is into this void that the populists have stepped, claiming to do away with the edifice of “the establishment” when in fact, they are seeking to entrench elite rule by doing away with even the appearance of popular consultation. This is what they mean when they evoke the idea of a “strong leader” – one who is not bound by the charade of democratic politics and can thus instinctively channel a pure form of the people’s will. But, as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, says, this is to ignore the lessons of history. Strongmen, as Africans know from bitter experience, tend to reflect, not the aspirations of their people, but their own.
In Africa, the “wind of change” that toppled many dictatorships in the 1990s and early 2000s did not result in the empowerment of local populations to do anything other than participate in the ritual of periodic elections.
The solution may be to do away with elections altogether as a means for selecting decision-makers. In any case, what is required is not less popular participation, but more. We can no longer afford to continue to treat governance as something voters get to participate in once every election cycle, to pretend that democracy is a fire-and-forget proposition. Constant vigilance requires citizens at all levels willing to get their hands dirty, learn about issues, debate openly and engage with representatives – citizens who collectively insist on being heard and who demand accountability from those in power, not simply wait for someone else to do it on their behalf.
Paradoxically, the internet has dramatically lowered the costs of participation and it has never been easier for people to access information, to express opinions, to participate in petitions and to organise outside the parameters set by the elite or by the state. The question for societies with democratic aspirations should be how to make the voices and concerns of ordinary folks, rather than just their votes, count and not be drowned out by the din of elite politics. How do we truly get to the public interested in the ideal of “government of the people, by the people, for the people”?
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