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.
Harsh Economic Times, Political Uncertainty…and Now Corona
Kenyans were already struggling with tough economic conditions and political tensions when COVID-19 appeared. Lockdowns and dwindling incomes have now made their lives much more difficult, even as they pray for the virus to be vanquished.
Our live were ruined among the leaves,
We decayed like pumpkin in a mud field
~ Mazisi Kunene, South African anti-Apartheid poet
They say when it rains, it pours, and calamity comes with its brother. The revelation that the dreaded coronavirus had, about two weeks ago, finally found its way into Kenya threw the country into a state of pandemonium. Until then, Kenyans viewed the virus as a devastating but “alien” disease.
It was not until the quasi-lockdown was ordered by the government that Kenyans realised that beyond the confusion and panic, a much worse situation was threatening to compound and exacerbate an economic meltdown they have been experiencing for the last 20 months or so. The “alien” ailment has not only brought with it bewilderment, but is threatening to lock them down, literally, to starvation.
The virus, of the genus corona, was first detected in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019, hence the name COVID-19 (coronavirus disease of 2019). Three months later, when Kenyans first heard about a disease that was killing the Chinese quicker than flickering fireflies, they brushed it off as one of those phenomena that occur in far-off countries in the East.
The disease could not have come at a worse time for Kenyans. Experiencing harsh economic times and political uncertainty, many Kenyans concluded that the gods have conspired to punish them. “For how else do you explain the disease coming to Kenya at a time when we are faced with the toughest of economic hard times?” posed a woman.
That plane from China
“This is the modern Armageddon, the end of times is nigh because we’ve deviated from God’s ways. It is a message from God who is angry with us. We’ve sinned too much and this is a sign from God who is asking us to turn from our wicked ways and repent of our sins,” prophesied a street vendor in Nairobi selling tree tomatoes, popularly known in Kiswahili as matunda damu. But after this revelation of a messianic message, the woman admitted that the hint of a complete lockdown by the government was a sure way of strangling the livelihoods of people like her.
“Ndiraikara mucii nacio ciana irie ke?” You’re asking me to stay at home, what will my children eat? “Ako corona niguturaga, reke tukuire guku bara-ini”. If the coronavirus is going to kill us, let us then die on these streets, hustling. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has already killed our businesses, now he is asking us to stay at home – tumurie kana twikie atia? We feed on him? Or how does he propose we should fend for our families?
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez-faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The plane that she was referring to was a China Southern Airlines flight that was allowed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 26 February 2019. The flight had arrived in Nairobi despite a directive forbidding flights originating in China to land in Kenya due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. Kenya Airways had also by that time suspended all its flights to and from China. This particular plane carried 239 passengers, many of whom were Chinese nationals. The airport employee who posted a video of the plane landing was suspended (and later reinstated through a court order), which suggested that the plane had the government’s permission to land. The reference to this plane and the anger it has generated among the people I talked to was evident throughout all my interviews.
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The weekend before the quasi-lockdown decreed by the government on Monday, 23 March 2020, I was in Nakuru County. My first stop was at the Java House located in CK Patel House in central Nakuru town. It was 10.00 a.m. and there was absolutely no customer. I found the manager sipping her coffee latte. “What’s up?” I asked her. “There’s no one in the house”.
The nonplussed manager said the coronavirus was bad for business. “Look, it is mid-morning, a peak time when customers should be flocking in for their refill, yet we’ve an empty house.”
The coffee house closes at 5 p.m., which is normally a peak hour when commuters wait for the traffic jam to ease off before heading home. “This is not a harbinger of good times,” said one of the lady waiters. “If this situation persists long enough, who knows, the management could easily send us home…this, by the way, is not good at all.”
“The incompetence of this government and President Uhuru is mindboggling,” said a lady I was meeting in Nakuru town. “Why, in God’s name, did he allow the plane from China to land at JKIA?” she furiously wondered aloud. “He should have ordered the plane to turn back, the way it came and never to allow the passengers to disembark. Do we know how many of those passengers could have been infected all the way from China? Do we know how many people they, indeed, could have infected once here in the country? Who knows where those people are and which corner of the country they are in? Did the government ever track them down?”
The lady was convinced that if the government had refused the landing of that plane, it is probable that we would not be so afraid now and there would not really have been a case for a (quasi) lockdown.
“The government now is all over issuing edicts – it must always do the wrong thing first before it turns around to sound the alarm bells,” she said. People seem to be impressed by the new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, I’m not. What ordinary Kenyans want to know is how, in the event of a complete lockdown, they will earn a living. Period. Endless press conferences threatening us with damnation are neither here nor here. The President recently threatened us, saying the government will crack down on anybody not adhering to the stay-at-home edict. This is uncalled for as well as unhelpful. Does he have any concrete plans for ameliorating the situation and ensuring Kenyans who live from hand to mouth are cushioned?”
Later in the evening, I was at Garden Villa, located on the western side of town as you head to Shaabab residential area. It was completely empty and the waiters were just lounging around. Garden Villa is an expansive nyama choma eatery, as well as a “watering hole” with appropriate cushioned-seat cubicles for groups of people or couples. It was glaringly in its emptiness.
Beatrice, our waitress, was not amused by coronavirus coming to Kenya: “It is no longer a death scare; it has come to actually destroy our livelihoods. I’ve three children – two in university and one is finishing high school. My job has really sustained me, I’ve been able to educate my children so far with the tips that I collect here and there from patrons like you. When there are no customers, we are finished. I’m really worried. If this situation continues like this, we’ll all be declared redundant. What will happen to my children?”
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
The main work of security guards like one at Java House is to ensure that patrons enjoy their house coffee without probing eyes and disturbance from the city centre’s “undesirables”, and to usher patrons inside the coffee house. They help customers find car park spaces and guard the automobiles from hoodlums. They will also offer concierge services to patrons, such as carrying stuff to their vehicles. At the end of the day, they have enough pocket money to pass through the supermarket and buy some milk and bread for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. He told me the lack of patrons meant that he would go home empty-handed. “Mungu asaidie afukuze hii coronavirus, kama siyo hivyo tumeisha.” The almighty should intervene and clear this coronavirus as quickly as possible, otherwise we’re all finished.
In the city centre, at the famous Jevanjee Park, I met a group of four middle-aged women. They were talking with each other. On the day the government ordered the people not to leave their houses after 7 p.m., they disobeyed and trooped to town. “I’m staying in the house and then what happens?” posed one. “Are my children going to feed on me?”
The women were “professional” casual labourers. Lately they have been getting manual jobs from the Nairobi County as grass cutters and street sweepers.
“We live on a day-to-day basis” said one of the women. “How on earth does the government expect us to survive?”
“Tell you what,” ventured one of the women, “yesterday I went to church because our pastor had sent word around that we must not fail to go church.” She told me she attends a Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) church. Their pastor told them that coronavirus had come to Kenya to remind Christians that, indeed, these were the last days.
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
“Coronavirus is not going to be defeated by worshippers staying at home,” claimed the pastor. “It is going to be wrestled down to the ground by prayer warriors. We must condemn the evil-doer, we must never doubt our faith. We must never doubt our God, Is this the time to let our able God down? Are we doubting Him?”
“I’m a Catholic and we went to church. The parish priest, through jumuia [small community groups], sent word that we must all be in church on Sunday without fail,” said one of the woman. “The priest said the body of Christ is asking us, ‘Are you not going celebrate with me? For is this the time to forsake me?’ It is always fundamentally important to remember to keep the faith.’”
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands. The church and the government’s work is to fleece us, the people.”
In the evening, I caught up with the same quartet outside Charlies’ restaurant that faces City Hall. It was now past five and they were hungry and angry. “How are we going home?” asked one of them in concealed desperation. All of them lived in the sprawling slums of Nairobi. Seated on the stone bench of the restaurant, they resorted to begging money from any passing man they thought they could remotely recognise.
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands…”
The following day, I found myself in bustling Kawangware, where the coronavirus threat is real. Kawangware was deserted – many businesses were shut and the human commotion that is usually associated with the sprawling residential area was absent. I dropped in at Sakina’s kibanda (food kiosk-cum-shed) in the Coast area (Mombasani) where she sells very pocket- friendly fresh food to construction workers, bachelors, spinsters, and all manner of casual labourers. Sakina shared the kibanda with her mother, but her mom was not there on that day.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked Sakina.
“She took the kids [her four children] to shags [her rural home],” she responded. (Sakina’s rural home is right in the middle of Nyeri town, at Meeting Point.) “Business is slowly grinding to a halt and we didn’t want to take chances. At least at cucu’s [grandma’s] place, there’s food to eat…this coronavirus has dealt us a huge blow…but alhamdulillahi, it is going to be defeated by Allah.”
In times like this, said Sakina, it’s important to be steadfast and to anchor your whole self in the great faith.
A disease of the rich
At Zambezi trading centre, 19 kilometres from the city centre on the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, Nyambura, a chicken legs and liver vendor, was preparing her foodstuff for her evening customers.
“Are you not afraid of the coronavirus?” I asked her.
“Indeed I am,” she replied. “But can I eat fear? Can my children eat fear? I cannot stay in the house. I must get out to fend for my family. My husband is a salaried worker. He has to wait for 30 days to be paid his paltry pay. We cannot wait for that. It is my responsibility to supplement the ugali he brings home,” said the lady with a great chuckle.
“[President] Uhuru doesn’t care about us small farmers. He has been careless and is playing dice with our lives. After ruining our lives, he has now let this coronavirus invade our country. Why couldn’t he stop that plane from China? Its good coronavirus is infecting the rich and the powerful. They should all perish. They have caused us enough agony,” said Nyambura.
“But trust me, this coronavirus is not going to finish us because our Lord Jesus Christ is on the throne. In the name of Jesus, I condemn the disease,” she added.
She said coronavirus, like the most incompetent government she had lived through, had conspired to kill the spirit of Kenyans. “Yesterday, I paid 100 shillings from 87 to here. Can you imagine? Ordinarily the matatu fare from 87, just after Uthiru to Zambezi, is 30 shillings. For how long can one afford that kind of fare?” She said that from the Old Nation House roundabout stage to Zambezi, passengers were being charged 150 shillings. I hooked up with my freelance tout friend Davy to confirm whether it was true.
“What do you expect when the matatus have been ordered to carry half the seating capacity of their vehicles?” said the freelance tout.(The government has directed that public transport vehicles observe social distancing among their passengers, which means that these vehicles are forced to carry fewer passengers per trip.) Davy told me that many matatu proprietors had grounded their vehicles. “Hakuna haja ya kufanya kazi ya kirai”. It’s pointless to engage in an unprofitable business.
From the city centre to Zambezi, the fare is ordinarily 80 shillings during peak hours and 50 shillings during off-peak hours. “Think about it,” explained Davy. “The matatus that have chosen to be on the road are being fair.”
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. The Nissan shuttles that ferry 14 passengers are now having to carry just 8 passengers. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“How many people can afford to be paying 300 shillings every day to town?” asked Nyambura. “What is it then you are working for? You’ve not even eaten. And President Uhuru, instead of telling us how the government can come up with ways of helping us alleviate this burden, has gone on air to tell us about the merits of 4G Internet speed. (On March 23, President Kenyatta addressed the nation live on air, extolling the virtues of the business deal between Telcom Kenya and Google Loon, which would now allow for faster speed and easy interconnectivity.)
In the political sphere, Nakuru residents believe that the coronavirus appeared just in the nick of time to save President Uhuru and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team the embarrassment of a looming contest and showdown that was to take place in town at Afraha Stadium. On 21 March 2019, BBI had organised a rally to popularise its agenda. But every indication showed that this was not going to be a walk in the park for the BBI mandarins.
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“This coronavirus has just given the president some reprieve,” said a Nakuru boda boda (motorcycle rider) from Maili Sita trading centre (popularly known simply as Sita) on the Nakuru-Nyahururu Road. The rider opined that had the BBI rally taken place, the William Ruto wing of the Jubilee Party would, most certainly, have upstaged the BBI brigade. It was going to be battle a between BBI and the deputy president’s “Tanga Tanga” band of supporters.
When on 28 January 2019 President Uhuru was in Nakuru town to open a cement factory in Rongai, he detoured to Bahati constituency, where at Sita he lambasted the area MP, Kimani Ngunjiri. As he was castigating him, Ngunjiri was several metres away from the president’s motorcade. “When he left, the boda boda riders came to Ngunjiri and they were high-fiving him and laughing excitedly,” said the boda boda rider. “They promised him that when BBI lands in Nakuru, they would show President Uhuru who ruled Nakuru.”
With all the laments, speculation and tantalising gossip, it is still not clear what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Many are in still in disbelief and more worried about their livelihoods than about falling ill or dying. But what is clear is that Kenya after corona will not be the same again.
Inside the Quarantine: Fears of Further Spreading the Virus Haunt the Confined
Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
“We were flying over Juba when the announcement was made”. Chris*, not his real name, recounts to me his whereabouts when Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made the announcement that mandatory quarantining of all persons flying into Kenya would begin with immediate effect. It was early evening in Nairobi and a likely anxious nation tuned in for what was the tenth briefing from the ministry about the global COVID-19 pandemic that had made its way to Kenya, on the wings of an aircraft much like the one that ferried Chris back from a work trip to London.
Chris and I spoke a day after his arrival. He was in a hotel turned government-sanctioned quarantine facility, the Boma Hotel. The hotel, one of four Kenya Red Cross hotels that had just weeks before been placed under receivership, was dusty, with some rooms not having been cleaned for a while. Dead flies lined his windowsill. Chris complained that layers of dust on his pillowcase and bedsheets caused him discomfort. That was a minor inconvenience in comparison to the subject of our call.
Their flight, which arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the night of Monday, March 23rd, carried what was, in Chris’s estimation, about 60 people.
“After being screened and filling out immigration forms, we were told about the Ministry of Health’s directive. We protested the directive because some of us had made arrangements to self-quarantine. Among those on our flight were students who, I think, wouldn’t have taken the flight if they thought that they would be taken into mandatory quarantine.”
Their protests would seem vain in the face of the government’s efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has overwhelmed some of the world’s best-equipped healthcare systems, but the response to these complaints from Ministry of Health officials was even more strange.
“The government relented and allowed us to leave the airport and go home, with orders that we report to the Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) at 11:00 a.m for tests.”
Chris was picked up by his driver and recalls reaching his home at about midnight on the 23rd of March.
As he was falling asleep, Doris*, also not her real name, was on a fairly empty flight from Germany, a country hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, via Amsterdam, back home.
“I was alone on my row, the two rows behind me were empty and the lady in the row next to mine also sat alone.”
Her flight touched down in Nairobi on the morning of 23rd March and taxied in. In the nine hours between the landing of Chris’ flight and Doris’, the information that passengers were given had differed.
“Our temperature was taken, then we filled a form saying that we would self-quarantine. Then we filled the older, yellow immigration form. As we did so, there was a lady shouting that we should all go to KMTC at 11:00 am for testing. That was it.”
Doris had already made plans to self-quarantine. She had found an apartment on an online booking site, AirBnB, where she says she was going to stay for the recommended 14-day quarantine. She booked an Uber, made the trip across town to her apartment in Kileleshwa, showered, changed and then booked another Uber to the KMTC.
Before they got to KMTC, if Chris and Doris were carriers of COVID-19 and were contagious, they may have spread the disease to at least three people each. Neither of them has been asked to account for their movements or the people that they came into contact with; termed by the World Health Organisation as contact-tracing. They do not yet know whether or not they have the virus, because they have yet to be tested for it. They weren’t alone on their flights home, and sadly, their experience was not unique to them.
Infection within the quarantine facilities
Both Doris and Chris are worried about the possibility that they contracted COVID-19 while they were in the throes of evident lapses and confusion that they found at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and at the KMTC, where they would go as ordered, on the 24th of March, at 11 am.
“When we turned up at the KMTC, they closed and barricaded the gates behind us, and said that we were officially under mandatory quarantine,” Chris remembers.
Doris witnessed the furore of the now hundreds of passengers grow, with them crowding around Ministry of Health officials for answers, having just been stung by the news. She tried to hang as far back as she could to avoid coming into contact with the virus.
“We were then given three options for places that we would undergo quarantine. Boma Hotel (where Chris would eventually go), the KMTC and the Kenya School of Government (KSG) in Lower Kabete, Nairobi,” she remembers.
“Boma would cost us USD 100 (Kshs 10,000) a night (this figure was later revised downwards), and the conditions at KMTC were just awful, so I chose KSG. When we got to KSG the director of the campus told us that it would cost us USD 40 (Kshs 4,000) a night. People protested again and crowded around the officials telling us this. They then relented and said we would be charged USD 20 (Kshs 2,000) a night.”
A video taken by one of the passengers shows the proximity of the passengers to the officials, and to one another. Again, Doris wisely chose to hang back and wait until things calmed down so that she could get a room.
Chris chose to stay at the Boma hotel.
When Chris’s cohort of travellers arrived at the Boma hotel, he says there was just one receptionist at hand to meet them.
“We all herded around the reception area waiting to be checked in. I am very afraid that we may have been exposed while we were getting into quarantine!”
Later that evening, Chris heard the sounds of sirens outside his window.
A hotel staffer told him that ambulance workers in hazmat suits were there to evacuate a fellow traveller, an elderly lady who allegedly fell ill.
“We are all so worried”.
Even with the inconveniences they have experienced, both Doris and Chris’s worry extends to the unanswered question they both have – were they both complicit in some way in the spread of COVID-19?
“If the government was serious about a mandatory quarantine, why did they let us go home first?” Chris asks, the tone of his voice deep and serious, unfettered by the muffles and crackling on the phone line.
“There were people on our flight who took public transport from the airport and to KMTC. How many people have they been in touch with?”
The question of how the virus spreads is no longer in contention, but there are concerns about the handling of passengers who were being put in isolation in order to contain COVID-19’s spread in Kenya.
Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the founder and CEO of Lancet Laboratories, which is among Kenya’s first private laboratories to offer PCR tests for COVID-19 (Polymerase Chain Reaction tests detect the genetic material of COVID-19, called RNA), shares his worries about the possible contagion that people in the mandatory quarantine may be facing.
“For me, it is a big scare. I am privy to what has been going on in some of those facilities and it has been a bit of a mess.”
“If two hundred people go into a hotel and three or four of them have COVID-19, by keeping them in close proximity we are creating an incubating chamber (for the virus).”
Dr Kalebi believes that in late April, Kenyan cases of COVID-19 will have risen exponentially. Government models publicized on Monday 30th March put Kenya at possibly having 10,000 cases by that time.
Several accounts from persons currently in mandatory quarantine speak to the potential for this, especially as they were being transferred into quarantine facilities. Doris, who was being quarantined at the Kenya School of Government facility, Chris at the Boma hotel, and Caleb* (not his real name), a traveller who is currently in quarantine at the Kenyatta University Conference Centre, all give similar accounts about how risky the first day of their return was.
They were all supposed to be part of a Ministry of Health-led mass testing campaign of the over two thousand Kenyans currently in quarantine facilities, being carried out beginning the weekend ending March 29th. Chris took a photo of a Ministry of Health official in a Hazmat suit from a common area at the Boma hotel.
Doris, Chris, Caleb and other travelers in quarantine that I spoke to all say that they feel healthy, save for a few coughs and sniffs which they hope are signs of a cold rather than COVID-19, but they may not be out of the woods, even as the days wind down to the end of their quarantine.
“The Coronavirus takes between two to fourteen days to incubate,” says Dr Kalebi.
“If tests were done at day seven, which is what the government is doing this weekend (weekend ending March 29th), you may have only a few people testing positive, who would be taken to more stringent quarantine facilities. Then you wait another week. Assume more people get infected. On day 14, when you are releasing them, people may have been infected in quarantine.”
Fears that the government quarantine facilities may become petri dishes for the spread of the virus are valid, but over-estimated, according to Professor Omu Anzala, who specializes in virology and immunology. He’s also part of the taskforce set up by the government to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya.
“There is that possibility but we have not seen anybody go more than 14 to 15 days without having come down with the disease. We have not seen anybody who has gone more than 15 days who is not showing symptoms but is secreting the virus.”
He does say that these still are early days and that the government, like all governments, is learning as it goes deeper into fighting the virus.
It won’t be long before Doris and Chris get out of quarantine. Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored.
A Short History of Constitutions and What Politicians Do to Them
History, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians. But this is not new, argues Prof. Yash Pal Ghai. In fact, a peer into the history of constitution-making in Kenya reveals a tendency of the political class to subvert theses processes for their own benefit.
1963 and Jomo
Kenya has gone through multiple systems of governance, starting with the British and their occupation of our country. There is little point in discussing the British period, though in some important ways it seems that our rulers have been inspired by the ethos of the colonial British. Britain did try, at the demise of its rule, to establish in Kenya, a Westminster parliamentary system but at the same time incorporating special provisions for the protection of minorities. Despite the resistance of the leaders of dominant tribes, particularly Jomo Kenyatta, they had to accept the rights of minorities (mostly indigenous), even though the proceedings took an enormously long time.
The major difference in the negotiations for the 1963 Constitution was over whether Kenya should be a unitary state or divided into regions (majimbo). It became clear to those opposing majimbo that this was the price for independence. The deep divisions among Kenyans (divisions created to a considerable extent by colonial policy) might have led to Kenya’s disintegration, but for pressure from Britain. Jomo realised that it was worth conceding to the British terms: so long as he became prime minister (with Britain out of the way), when he could dispense with majimbo. This he did within a year, with other major changes, making the state highly centralised—and under his control, not as prime minister but as executive president. Jomo, it has to be said with sadness, set an extraordinarily bad example for a head of state, with no respect for democracy or integrity. We still suffer from these ailments, which his son has promised to remove—with BBI?
1978 – 2002 and Moi
Daniel arap Moi, successor to Jomo (accepted only on the understanding that the Kikuyu politicians would be dominant), set no better example, adopting largely his master’s style of administration and lack of integrity. Jomo and Moi had no respect for the Rule of Law, a central virtue of the constitution giving us independence. Politics ceased to be about policies but instruments of violence (of even honest and nationalist Kikuyus). The popular Tom Mboya, a minister regarded by many as the rightful successor to Jomo was killed. It was widely believed by government agents.
2002-5 Kibaki and the Bomas Draft Constitution
The end of the Cold War and considerable agitation from the younger generation of Kenyans and pressure from West (formerly supporters of corrupt and cruel politicians rulers, here as elsewhere) led to the preparation of a new democratic and fair constitution. There were considerable discussions among the public on the values of the new constitution in which some kind of consensus emerged. But there was little discussion at first among politicians, but in due course, the then opposition parties came around to the idea of moving towards a new constitution. Moi’s party remained scrupulously out of any discussion.
Eventually, a committee of scholars and activists was appointed to undertake the process of wide consultations and to draw a draft of the constitution for consideration of a constituent assembly, consisting of a wide cross-section of Kenyans, in regional and professional terms. After nearly four years of consultations and negotiations, a draft constitution was agreed—and adopted, by the constituent assembly (“Bomas” after its venue, the Bomas of Kenya cultural centre). Its values included: national unity, rule of law, democracy, participation, a wide range of human rights (with special provisions for the marginalised), good governance, integrity, transparency, and accountable development.
Jomo and Moi had no respect for the Rule of Law, a central virtue of the constitution giving us independence. Politics ceased to be about policies but instruments of violence.
Needless to say that it received wide acclamation but not from that eminent Kenyan, Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki provided a very good example of the self-centred Kenyan politician. A senior minister once (in Kenyatta’s time), he had fallen out with President Moi by the time the process for adopting a new democratic constitution.
Initially, Kibaki probably thought that his chance of getting back into power was through the parliamentary system. He and his party (assisted by Kiraitu Murungi) were among the first to make submissions to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC). He urged it to adopt the parliamentary system—even though he had been the beneficiary of presidential system politics under Jomo and Moi. He made a spirited denunciation of what he called “the imperial presidency”. He appeared to stick to this position during much of the Bomas Constitutional Conference process.
Meanwhile the members of Bomas were debating the CKRC proposals – made after intensive consultations with Kenyans of all kinds, throughout the country. The membership of Bomas (officially 629) comprised all the parliamentarians (222), representation of all the districts (chosen by the District Boards), and civil society and professionals (with fair representation of women and people with disability). A broad consensus was emerging in favour of a parliamentary system: with a President having a largely formal role except for minimal powers to counterbalance possible abuses by the government, and a Prime Minister, with the support of Parliament, as head of government.
Kibaki and his team, however, changed tone at this stage and started arguing for the executive presidential system. Having defeated Moi’s chosen successor (Uhuru) in 2002 he had begun to realise the “virtues” of the presidential system that gave him as President so much power.
Kibaki and his team started more or less to boycott Bomas. And rumours suggested that Kibaki and his team were engineering a challenge to the entire Bomas draft – and as Chair a leading lawyer warned me, confidentially, that this was taking the form of a court case, which would go against the Bomas process. I increased the pace of the Bomas discussions, even at the cost of foregoing refinement of the provisions of the draft constitution on devolution.
…Kibaki and his team started arguing for the executive presidential system. Having defeated Moi’s chosen successor (Uhuru) in 2002 had begun to realise the “virtues” of the presidential system that gave him as President so much power.
The remaining Bomas members worked extremely hard, burning the midnight oil, with good discussion, to conclude the agenda and in the presence of a large audience (in addition to the Constitutional Conference members themselves), the draft constitution was adopted in accordance with the prescribed rules, by an overwhelming majority.
The court case and its consequences
Sure enough, a few days later, the High Court decided that there was a fundamental flaw with the whole Bomas process. There were major problems with the litigation. It was started three and a half years after the start of the process, when the draft constitution was nearly done.
The identity of the presiding judge caused a good deal of comment. At the time he was in the running for one of two prominent positions: as head of a new post of a new anti-corruption body, carrying the highest salary in the land, or promotion within the judiciary. After the case he was offered, and accepted, the former, a position essentially in the gift of Kiraitu Murungi who held a senior ministerial post. That judge’s lengthy judgment designed to demonstrate the faults in the procedure of Bomas, was full of references to cases and arguments that had not been raised by the plaintiff.
Bomas was killed thus. This enabled the government to take over the whole process, amend the document to take away the parliamentary system – returning to a largely presidential system. But the government’s butchered version of the constitution was rejected by the people in a referendum – as much motivated by disappointment with the regime as by the detail of the constitution. Nevertheless, no-one in the government mourned this referendum result: it left them with the old, discredited constitution, complete with its imperial presidency.
Returning to the old authoritarian system led to discrimination, ethnicity driven deceits and conflicts. Elections under the old system predictably gave rise to disputes. The 2007 elections were the most critical, with Kibaki and Odinga as the front runners—Odinga the supporter of Bomas constitution and Kibaki favouring the old model. The campaign was organised purely on ethnic lines (Kikuyu versus Luo). The campaigns of Odinga and, especially, Kibaki were conducted largely in their own tribal areas, each carefully avoiding the other’s territory. It is generally accepted that Odinga ran an impressive campaign, supporting the values implicit in the Bomas draft, not narrowing his support to his own tribe, travelling widely.
As the historian Charles Hornsby put it: Odinga personified a popular movement for radical change, while Kibaki was positioned as leader of a reactionary, tribalist, old guard that had mismanaged Kenya in the past. Odinga fought hard for integrity, while Kibaki was suspected of corruption.
Outwardly, it seemed that Odinga was winning by a huge majority, with wide national support, while Kibaki’s support was restricted to Kikuyu, Embu and Meru areas. Odinga’s team had won widely throughout the country. The mode of the counting of votes seemed increasing dubious as the results were announced—or not announced till the last minutes. Gradually Odinga’s huge initial lead over Kibaki started to give way to Kibaki’s lead. In the elections for Parliament, the victory of Odinga’s party, the ODM was overwhelming (presumably the counting was at this level). It was widely believed that Odinga had been cheated of his victory; there was ample evidence to this effect, acknowledged by the head of the electoral body itself. But the false result prevailed.
As historian Hornsby put it: Odinga personified a popular movement for radical change, while Kibaki was positioned as leader of a reactionary, tribalist, old guard that had mismanaged Kenya in the past.
Kenyans were so shocked by the extent of this deceit and it led to the greatest outburst of anger—and, shortly after, violence. As the historian Hornsby noted, “Kenya cracked apart in the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the country’s history”—ironically in the interests of the candidate who had destroyed the Bomas draft which sought to eliminate ethnic conflict in our country. There was vast destruction of property—and worst, enormous number of killings. Kibaki had succeeded not only in killing Bomas constitution; but in nearly destroying the state of Kenya. Kenyan “leaders” were completely unable to bring the country under control. As a scholar said, “Kenya had seen the increasing use of violence as a political tool and the emergence of mono-ethnic youth militia”.
The county got into a situation in which its leaders could do nothing to bring it to peaceful resolution. African states and the international community had to intervene. An African team led by the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, was convened to bring the county to some order. We had no choice but to be guided by them. Kofi Annan himself advised strongly for the revival of the Bomas Constitution—which the local “leaders” had to accept. For the interim, Annan and his team were able, with great support from Western states, to overcome the resistance of Kibaki to form a coalition government in which Odinga would be the Prime Minister, and Kibaki remaining as the President—and Uhuru Kenyatta as Deputy Prime Minister! The Cabinet was formed by the agreement of Kibaki and Odinga! Meanwhile, discussions proceeded on a permanent constitution, mindful of Kofi Annan’s advice to enact the Bomas draft.
The Bomas draft formed the basis for the work of the Committee of Experts, which was formed to carry forward the constitution project. And the parliamentary system of government – because of its inclusive and ultimately more democratic nature – became again the central proposal, so far as the system of government was concerned. But at the final stage the politicians took over control—and unexpectedly and arbitrarily decided on a presidential rather than a parliamentary system of government. Calculations about who– meaning which individuals – would benefit from which system of government again figured prominently in the reasoning that led to these results. The parliamentary committee had the power to make recommendations, not make decisions. But the Committee of Experts felt, unwisely, that it had to accept what the politicians “recommended” on the questions that touched on political power.
But why rehash this old history? Because history, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians.
2018-20 The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)
The government (or rather Uhuru and Raila) having created a so-called “Task Force” feel they or we are about to solve our problems.
At first it looked as though their mandate from Uhuru-Raila was broader than who held political power. What seemed to be needed was the fulfilment of the Constitution (which Uhuru and Raila professed to revere). And the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Task Force’s report is long and discusses much that touches on other issues. About nine of their proposals need changes to the Constitution; nearly 30 would require changes to ordinary law. Many others are just “let’s do what the law already requires”. The real concerns of our political leaders seem to be revealed by the decision announced at one stage to appoint a group of constitutional experts to assist the Task Force to “fine-tune” the BBI report (though this idea seems to have faded away). The discussion about a “referendum” also lays bare the real concerns. Under our law and Constitution the only situation that requires, or even contemplates, a referendum is constitutional reform. And the constitutional reform that is being focussed on is – and you have noticed it – is on the system of government. In other words, on who gets to hold political power – that political power that it is the sovereign right of the people of Kenya to allocate.
…History, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians.
A reasonably competent team, in the form of the Task Force, listed a large list of constitutional and other violations—but every Kenyan knows these violations and that are mostly perpetrated by the state (including politicians).
Instead of taking any action, the government has extended the life of the Task Force (in the New Year), to educate Kenyans on the problems facing Kenya and how they could be solved.
The outcome of all this is continued feuding among political groups of little significant interest to most Kenyans. The major issue concerns leaders of major tribes as to political, legal arrangements after the end of the present terms of office. And the current solution for our problems is to ensure a prominent, prestigious, post for the major 5 or 6 tribes or more accurately for their leaders (against the terms of the Constitution). What has been canvassed with vigour is the retention of the President, as at present, outside Parliament, one Prime Minister with two deputy prime ministers with, perhaps responsibilities of their own. Raila, having been vocal in support of a full parliamentary system with the Prime Minister as head of government, more recently seems to have shifted to favour the BBI’s Tanzanian model of a weak Prime Minister as a side-kick to the President.
2020 The real problems facing Kenya
In brief, we all know that there are repeated and gross violations of the Constitution. The strength of the current Constitution is clear from Art. 10, especially 10(b) which prescribes national values and principle of governance. Some key provisions are national unity, democracy (including participation of the people, human dignity, equity, social justice, human rights – which include abolition of poverty and protection of the marginalised).
There is massive violation by political parties and the IEBC of electoral laws as well as of provisions on the nature of political parties under the Constitution. Article 91 sets out the rules governing political parties (such as having a national character, promote and uphold national unity; abide by democratic principles). A party cannot be founded on a religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, gender or regional basis; engage in bribery or other forms of corruption, or use public resources to promote its interests or its candidates in elections.
The outcome of all this is continued feuding among political groups of little significant interest to most Kenyans. The major issue concerns leaders of major tribes as to political, legal arrangements after the end of the present terms of office.
There are massive violations of the Constitution by state agencies, from the office of the President to the lowest public officer. This is now widely acknowledged by President Uhuru and many other state officials.
But, yet again, our politicians have reduced our problems to “their” problems – those who call themselves politicians. The concerns are with who gets into power, not with how that power is used for the people of Kenya, in accordance with the Constitution in which Kenyans have placed so much faith, and into which they put so much effort. Our politics go no further than conflicts between politicians.
Handshake and BBI: Demise of the 2010 Constitution?
My view of Handshake and BBI is very different from what the President and Honourable Odinga claim it is—as creating peace and harmony among us all, moving away from ethnicity; catering to the needs of Kenyans. Perhaps I have become too cynical about politicians to believe that they are ever driven by the desire to help Kenyans—rather than only themselves. But I did work with them for four years, and met party leaders at least once a fortnight to report on and discuss the progress or otherwise of the constitution-making process. I could give you some examples of their selfishness (like claiming expenses for Bomas meetings when they did not attend the sessions—I did recover that in due course, under threat of going public!) and changing their strong position on a constitution proposal without any qualm or embarrassment if they see some advantage in doing so. The crude and embarrassing way they are changing their partners now over the BBI is an example.
…our politicians have reduced our problems to “their” problems – those who call themselves politicians. The concerns are with who gets into power, not with how that power is used for the people of Kenya, in accordance with the Constitution…
Knowing Raila as I have done, I was not surprised at the initiation of BBI. At that time BBI seemed to be a project to ensure the full implementation of the 2010 Constitution. He had identified 9 objectives and values of the Constitution, directly at the welfare of the people, that the Government had not implemented. That was it. This did not surprise me because I knew of his commitment to the welfare of the people. Over the years he has fought for their rights—and had suffered a long period in jail during the regime of Moi, because he fought for a fair administration, which respected the rights of Kenyans. He had been active in politics all his life for this cause. So my expectation was that, together with Uhuru, with his access to state resources and power, the Government would immediately deal with those gaps, particularly the provisions on human rights, and scrupulously and diligently address those issues (an impression I got from the only meeting that I had with their technical team) that the nine areas of the violation of the Constitution would be covered—and we would all be happy thereafter. But this did not happen—clear and simple as this might be, and as the Government is bound by the Constitution to implement them. Instead he and Uhuru set forth on a complex, expensive, and (as it turned out) tortuous path to achieve a long and complex strategy—but strategy for what?
The fault for the misery of millions of Kenyans is surely with Uhuru and his government. It is extraordinary that the powerful President (in office over six years) with control over a huge bureaucracy and resources should say that they need to consult people on their needs. Surely we know, and the President knows, the hardships that the people suffer constantly–in defiance of the Constitution. What they would like the state do for them was conveyed to CKRC and is reflected in the Constitution, as the President knows well.
I am totally puzzled by his and Raila’s strategy—if this is the objective. I could understand the appointment of a technical team—and several members are indeed well qualified for the job. I assumed that they were to liaise with the relevant ministries, responsible to make good the Nine Deficiencies in the implementation of the Constitution. However, it became clear soon that this was not the intention—the team were advisers to Uhuru and Raila (I should have known from their composition!). Meanwhile I saw little remedial policies from the relevant ministries. Instead shortly later, Uhuru and Raila embarked on a tour of the country, explaining to the people (and to other politicians) the purpose and nature of BBI (by which title the whole project became known). Their entourage was itself of no mean size. It was not clear to me what really was being conveyed to the audiences.
The fault for the misery of millions of Kenyans is surely with Uhuru and his government. It is extraordinary that the powerful President with control over a huge bureaucracy and resources should say that they need to consult people on their needs.
Instead, what worried me most was the enormous expense that this exercise was incurring. It was not clear under what authority the huge sums of money were being expended. In any case funds were running out—until our benefactor, that sharp minded President of the USA, Trump, apparently voted us huge sums of money (gift or loan?). In the end, rumour has it, this became the major source of funds for this exercise—to keep up these tours, with huge audiences but less and less of any meaning.
Meanwhile their advisory team went around the country—with a clear mission. As I understand, they sought the views of ordinary Kenyans as to the hardships they face in everyday life and how their lives could be improved—for which purpose they could have examined people’s submissions to the CKRC as how their lives could be improved as well as the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights).
Before long, the focus of the grand BBI project shifted away from the needs of the people to the concerns of politicians—led by Uhuru and Raila and their entourage. At this stage the sharp conflict between two wings of politicians—Uhuru versus Ruto, became fully clear. It seems that Ruto has not given much attention to constitutional reform/change, more to political conflicts. So his clashes with Uhuru lacked reference to what had become constitutional matters of debate. The debate between the two is truly abysmal. Perhaps even Uhuru has lost track of the many amendments to the Constitution proposed by other politicians. The BBI has moved to a new level—of critical amendments to the Constitution—a long way from the politicians’ original apparent concern with fulfilling the Constitution to plans for fundamental changes in its structures. Whether the broad objectives of BBI have been replaced by other considerations or merely a complex system to achieve the same objectives, remains to be seen. We turn to that now.
Proposing Change to the Constitution
If BBI started with strengthening the Constitution, it ended by trying to weaken it. As mentioned earlier, the objective of their amendments was to move away from ethnic pre-occupation/domination of politics and state structures (consistently with the Constitution). Whether their intentions changed is unclear—but you will see.
It seeks to change the Executive and Parliamentary system. The office of the Presidency and the Deputy would remain. There would be posts of Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers, chosen by the largest party in Parliament. If that party is that of the President, as is likely, it will greatly increase the authority of the President, compared to the current situation (in which the President is already regarded too powerful). A point to note is that the number of key posts for politicians will more likely be 5: from the 5 largest tribes? It is also interesting that the key actors in the BBI are from these 5 tribes!
Before long, the focus of the grand BBI project shifted away from the needs of the people to the concerns of politicians—led by Uhuru and Raila and their entourage. At this stage the sharp conflict between two wings of politicians—Uhuru versus Ruto, came fully clear.
How the system will work is hard to foresee. Certainly not like the parliamentary prime minister—originally so dear to Odinga. In the event that the President and the Prime Minister come from different parties, because the dominant party in Parliament is not that of the President, there could be serious conflicts between two major political parties in the legislature—and more broadly.
There seems to be an assumption that, in order to prevent the rigging of elections, every leader of a major ethnic group should have an important office. This is a strange way to move away from ethnicity to nationhood – and hardly consistent with the sub-title of the BBI Report: “From a nation of blood ties to a nation of ideals”.
Another unsatisfactory proposal is that members of the IEBC should be appointed by political parties. This means giving up on the idea of an independent electoral commission, it assumes a fixed pattern of parties, but Kenyan parties change frequently. It is would almost certainly be unworkable, unstable, and prone to irregularities.
How democratically arrived at these proposals are is evident that the Speaker of Parliament prevented any debate on these proposals—no doubt not to give MPs of Ruto’s school an opportunity to voice their views.
There are various other proposals. One is to reduce the health responsibilities of counties, by establishing a National Health Service Commission to employ medical staff. True there have been counties in which health care has been deplorable. Others have provided a model for the national governments universal health care plans.
Appointing Ministers (a return to the old terminology rather than Cabinet Secretaries taken from the US system when we took their model of government) from Parliament responds to the ambitions of MPs who hate being confined to the role of legislator.
A very revealing proposal is that the person who comes second in the presidential poll should get an automatic seat in Parliament and be Leader of the Opposition. This responds to politicians’ frustration at failing to become president and then not even being an MP. There are various practical problems. First, the balance of parties in the National Assembly would be affected by the introduction of a member of a party who was not elected (a minor point unless numbers of MPs was very close for the two top parties/groups). But suppose the runner up in the presidential election is actually from the largest party in the National Assembly? It’s not impossible. What happens? The presidential runner up is both PM and leader of the opposition? Surely not. People from the same party are PM and Leader of the Opposition? Ludicrous.
A very revealing proposal is that the person who comes second in the presidential poll should get an automatic seat in Parliament and be Leader of the Opposition. This responds to politicians’ frustration at failing to become president and then not even being an MP.
Part of the problem is that the BBI recommended two solutions from similar problems – the sense of exclusion of the narrowly defeated.
I do not think that all the proposals have no merit. I think that a distinct status for Nairobi City as the capital of the country is not a bad proposal. It was actually recommended in the CKRC and Bomas drafts – but without details, these being left to an Act of Parliament.
But this and all the other ideas need very careful consideration, not the half-baked discussion in this report.
Need for a process
Whenever a constitution is to be considered for amendment there is need for a very thorough process. We would need much more detailed public participation, published proposals, giving Kenyans ample time to examine and discuss them. We would need national discussions, observing the best practices of public participation. In other words, something much more like the CKRC process, not this amateurish effort of a process and mishmash of proposals.
The whole process so far shows the tendency of politicians to mess around with the Constitution to their own benefit.
Raila Odinga has suffered for democracy in this country. He achieved a wider degree of public support, less pegged to ethnicity, than any other Kenyan politician in a democratic context. He has genuinely believed in ideologies and policies.
But is this where he would want to end his distinguished career in a shoddy and clumsy process, designed for the benefit of himself and a few others and for the exclusion of others?
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