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SMOKE AND MIRRORS: What the demolitions are really about

The handshake may have provided cover for the ongoing selective demolitions of buildings on public land. However, unless the economy improves, Uhuru Kenyatta may be storing up trouble for himself. By DAUTI KAHURA

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SMOKE AND MIRRORS: What the demolitions are really about
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Days after I had written on the Kibera slum demolitions by the government, I met with some senior General Service Unit (GSU) intelligence officers. The GSU is a paramilitary outfit that was formed in 1948 by the British as Regular Police Reserve to suppress native resistance in the Kenyan colony. Today, the unit supports the Kenya Police Service in accordance with Section 24 of the National Police Service Act, 2011. GSU officers are basically trained to deal with riots and civil disturbances. Menacing, merciless and ruthless, the government usually deploys them to beat up and maim Kenyans who stand up against state authorities.

“The Kibera demolition was a litmus test for the government,” said one of the officers. “The demolitions were a 100 per cent success in view of the government’s projected plans on future demolitions elsewhere in the city and countrywide, especially in the slum dwellings.” The government had gone to Kibera armed to the teeth, expecting resistance. “Tough orders had been issued from the presidency to quell any semblance of remote resistance by scorched earth policy – clear anybody and anything on site,” surmised one of the officers.

The Kibera demolitions were the testing ground of the state to gauge its effectiveness in completely subduing the bastion of opposition politics in Nairobi city and indeed in the country. “If the government succeeded in pulverising the Kibera populace, breaking its will to fight back, cowing any remaining residue opposition to the government, the government would, easily now demolish any slum within the city,” opined another officer.

According to Jacinta Wanjiku, a resident of Mathare, the government has already issued notices for evictions from the expansive Mathare Valley in order to complete Muratina Road – the road linking Jogoo Road to Juja Road and the Mlango Kubwa slum which links to Thika Superhighway. However, the government has been dithering in effecting the demolitions for several reasons: Huge sections of Mathare Valley slum, unlike Kibera, are populated by the Kikuyu, the bedrock of President Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta’s, and by extension, his Jubilee Party’s loyal support. Some of the Mathare Valley slumlords have invested heavily in brick and mortar structures that are protected by the so-called Nairobi Business Community aka Mungiki.

Both loyal supporters and Mungiki were used by President Kenyatta and Jubilee as a bulwark against a recalcitrant and rejuvenated opposition that threatened to snatch the reins of power. If politically irritated, both can mount a backlash against a ruling party now riven with divisions. “Now Uhuru can find a justification to destroy buildings and structures in Mathare in the full knowledge that even if he faces resistance, he will cow in easily. If Kibera can come down, what other slum in Nairobi cannot come down?” posed a GSU officer.

But there is also another reason why the pulling down of a section of Kibera was possible: The March 9, 2018 political handshake between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga on the steps of Harambee House. “The Kibera demolitions could not have been effected had the handshake not taken place,” said one of the GSU officer’s friend. “One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”

According to the officers, if there had been no rapprochement between Raila and Uhuru, a section of the Kibera slum would not have been flattened to create room for the link road. “We would have been deployed there to beat the people into total submission. The people, properly mobilised by Jakom [Raila] would have fought back. There would have been multiple deaths and destruction all over. Ngong Road would have been a no-go-zone and the central business district, uneasy about protests and looting, would have shut down.”

“One of the enduring and biggest benefits of the handshake is that it has given President Uhuru a breather and a lifeline – he can at least now plan his exit agenda freely and without too much pressure, without constantly having to look over his shoulders and worrying what Raila could be up to.”

This scenario would have likely played out given the social and economic challenges facing the country. Faced by a populace that is reeling from hard economic times because of massive theft by state officers, an already discredited President coming out of a seemingly stolen election would have found little favour among the people and, therefore, would have been forced to back down. The glare of the international media would have made the demolitions untenable.

The GSU officers told me that the next biggest slum awaiting demolition was Mathare Valley. “We have already been signalled to stay alert. The Mathare people saw what happened in Kibera – the message is clear: you cooperate or we come down on you like a tonne of bricks.” All the buildings and structures that line the valley and river, from Muthaiga to Mathare 4A, are expected to be pulled down. “But for now the government has to tiptoe around the slum, looking for the best opportunity to pounce.”

Informal settlements and the state’s response to them

As you drive down on the Thika superhighway from Muthaiga, you descend into a depression. Looking askance on your right, there is a river at the bottom of the valley. There is a lot of activity at this point of the river: the first obvious one is the car wash that is evident from afar. But as you approach the river, you will find women washing clothes and up river young boys, some as young as 10, swimming and generally having a great time playing in the water.

This part of the river is called Githathuru River, a tributary that feds into Nairobi River. It is from here that the demolitions will take place. The Nairobi River basin consists of three main rivers: Ngong, Nairobi and Mathare. These rivers assemble east of Nairobi and join river Athi, eventually draining into the Indian Ocean. Other than Githaturu tributary, Nairobi’s other tributaries are Kamiti River (aka Gathara-ini), Karura Ruiru, Kirichwa and Rui Ruaka.

Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.

Michuki’s first target was the polluted Nairobi River, which rises 20 km west of Nairobi in the southern extreme of the Aberdares, sometimes referred to as Kikuyu Springs. He began cleaning the river at it most polluted stage – along Kirinyaga Road and Kijabe Streets in the central business district, where mechanics had turned its banks into garages.

Over the last couple of weeks, “riparian” has become a catchy word for Nairobians, much to the amusement of environmentalists and riverine settlers. The word first became prominent among Kenyans when John Njoroge Michuki was made Minister of Environment and Natural Resources by President Mwai Kibaki in 2008. As soon as he assumed his new portfolio, he decreed that all people and structures along riparian lands would be ejected and that the rivers would be restored and reclaimed.

But I am jumping the gun.

In reality, the fight against riparian lands, land reclamation and forest lands was actually started by Prof Wangari Maathai, the late Nobel laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM). Prof Maathai started the GBM in 1977 and by the time of her death seven years ago in 2011, her organisation had planted 47 million trees across the country. The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, awarded solely on the account of her sustained battle against environmental degradation, Kenyans particularly remember her for waging war in 1989 against former President Daniel arap Moi and his Kanu party in their attempts to “grab” and erect a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s largest public park, complete with a full-size statue of Moi and an underground car park for an upward of 2,000 cars. Maathai eventually won that battle, but had to suffer repeated police brutality and arrest.

Maathai is also credited with saving Karura Forest. Today, Kenyans from all walks of life and expatriate denizens can walk, run and just saunter around the forest, thanks to Prof Maathai, who in her many battles to save the forest, which is just five kilometres from Nairobi city centre, was once beaten by Moi’s security forces and her braids plucked out, leaving her bleeding from the head. Invariably, Prof Maathai also vociferously opposed the construction of the recently demolished Ukay Nakumatt Centre and Oshwal community hall and temple, which face each other in the Westlands area of Nairobi. Together with the posh Westgate Mall, which is 100m from the Ukay Centre, Prof Maathai argued for their demolition to save riparian land from further destruction.

The first demolitions of any kind in the city of Nairobi are believed to have taken place half a century before. This was in the mid to late 1960s and mid-1970s during the mayoral tenures of Charles Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta. Rubia was the mayor from 1962 to 1967, while Kenyatta took over City Hall in 1970 and stayed till 1976.

Just like riparian is now a cautionary word, seemingly portending disaster and doom among Kenyans who have encroached on the riverine ecosystem, today Nairobians first came to learn of the word “bulldozer” – and to fear it – in the late 1960s. “Bulldozers were first sent to ‘City Carton’ slum on Kijabe Street along the Nairobi River around 1966, I think,” says Mzee Sylvester Oduor, a long-time resident of Nairobi. “The poor lived in houses made of cardboard boxes which were considered an eyesore as well as a security threat by the city elites, said Oduor, who knows the history of Nairobi like the back of his hand. “Most of these people when they were ejected from City Carton moved to Mathare Valley and joined the people who were already living there – near the banks of the river.” Once they had settled in Mathare, they took up urban farming – they started growing arrow roots, sugarcane, sweet potatoes and yams and vegetables such sukuma wiki (kales) and spinach. Sukuma wiki and spinach supplemented dietary consumption at home, while arrow roots, sweet potatoes and yams acted as “cash crops” to be sold for surplus income.

Farming was a new venture for the former City Carton dwellers. But one activity they carried along from Kijabe Street was chang’aa brewing. Chang’aa is a traditional liquor from western Kenya. The British colonial government had outlawed the brewing of traditional drinks, such as busaa, changaa’a and muratina, and the independence government, under Jomo Kenyatta, the first president of Kenya, adopted the same colonial logic and continued to view traditional brews with the same suspicion with which the British had viewed them.

The growing of sugarcane by the enlarged Mathare Valley slum dwellers by the river side was to augment their chang’aa brewing business. The brewing of the illicit liquor was the other reason that the City Carton dwellers had been ejected from Kijabe Street. The City Council, then under Mayor Charles Rubia, argued that the Kijabe Street chang’aa dens were too near the city.

The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses. “TJ had the clear intention of completely doing away with Majengo,” said Mzee Oduor. “He is the one who canvassed for the building of California estate next to the slum by the City Council. TJ’s American connections were evident even in the naming of the well-designed estate in his constituency. TJ’s policy was to house every resident who had lived in Majengo – whether they were sex workers, some of whom came from Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi – or government workers.”

The first informal settlement in the city was the Majengo slum created after World War II in 1945 in Pumwani, northeast of Nairobi, for migrant African male labour. In 1967, Thomas Joseph Mboya (popularly known as TJ), the mercurial and youthful MP for Kamukunji constituency, led the first demolition of Majengo’s mud-walled Swahili houses.

Mzee Oduor told me that many of the commercial sex workers were a priority in Mboya’s housing scheme and ended up getting the houses, which then were some of the best-modelled houses in Nairobi’s Eastlands area. “The sex workers were compensated by being the first to acquire the houses. To this day some of the sex workers who got houses in California still remember Tom Mboya fondly and nostalgically,” said Mzee Oduor.

Two of the most famous Kenyan artists in the 1970s and 1980s, Mzee Pembe (Omar Suleiman) and Mama Tofi (Aisha Juma), who lived in the slums, got houses in California estate. Another famous TV artist, Kipanga Athumani, whose full-time job was as a Kenya Bus Service (KBS) driver, was moved to Wood Street in Eastleigh. The trio acted in the popular Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) TV skit called Jamii ya Mzee Pembe, a precursor to Vioja Mahakamani. Today, Wood Street is named after Kipanga Athumani, arguably Kenya’s first stand-up comedian. Athumani was an ethnic Maasai.

Kipanga lived in Pangani slums. “In those days, Pangani slums, which stretched from today’s Riverside posh residences all the way to the current Pangani Girls High School, was then one of the largest slums in Nairobi,” narrated Mzee Oduor, “It bordered Ngara estate, then an exclusive estate for Indians. Pangani slums were called Pangani because the tin houses had iron sheets for their roofing. The Pangani and Majengo slums were homes to people from the coast of Kenya, Tanzanians, Ugandans and other Kenyans who professed Islam as their religious faith and that is why even up to today Kiswahili is widely spoken in Majengo. In fact, Pangani and Ziwani estates’ names are derived from the Kenyan coast. The original Pangani is in Kilifi,” said Mzee Oduor.

One of the reasons why TJ was unbeatable in Kamukunji was his sophisticated cosmopolitan type of politics. Itself a cosmopolitan constituency, Kamukunji, even in those days, had the ethnic Kikuyu as the majority voters, “but TJ’s representation knew no tribe, or favouritism,” said Oduor. “The California estate project propelled Mboya’s political profile to even to greater heights – he became unstoppable and unconquerable. But as fate would have it, he was gunned down in July 1969 and that is how TJ’s Majengo housing project came a cropper.” Today, Majengo is hemmed in and marooned by Bondeni estate (named so because it is built on the valley across Nairobi River; bondeni is Kiswahili for valley), Gorofani estate, Shauri Moyo estate, Starehe and Biafra estates.

The City Council argued that it was demolishing illegal structures within the capital city essentially because it had enough houses for anybody who wanted to live decently and legally. “The City Council was building houses, especially in Eastlands, such as the Huruma and Kariobangi South flats and large estates like Jericho (Lumumba and Ofafa), Maringo, Uhuru and Jerusalem, where Jaramogi Oginga Odinga maintained a council house for a very long time.”

When in the 1970s manufacturing processing factories and plants started expanding and mushrooming in the Industrial Area in the southeast of Nairobi, the Mukuru slums (today referred to as Mukuru Kaiyaba, Mukuru kwa Njenga and Mukuru kwa Reuben) quickly mushroomed next to the plants and along the Ngong River. “The slum dwellers were putting up structures on riparian land because they claimed it was no man’s land,” explained Oduor. (Ngong River runs through Kibera and passes through the Industrial area. Mukuru is the Kikuyu word for valley.)

More fundamentally, the river provided fresh water for human consumption, as well for urban farming, a practice the slum dwellers took up, just like their counterparts in the Mathare Valley. The dwellers also took up chang’aa brewing because there was lots of water, a crucial ingredient.

“In the days of Rubia and Margaret Kenyatta (Kenyatta succeeded Isaac Lugonzo as mayor who had served from1967–1970), the biggest rationale both the City Council of Nairobi and government used for demolishing the people’s structures in the slums was because they were illegal. City by-laws and the laws of the land did not allow semi-permanent structures in the city,” recalled Oduor. “And, because slums then did not have electricity, criminals used them as hideouts.”

Selective demolitions

The current demolitions are ostensibly spurred by infrastructural developments on government land that has been grabbed and illegally occupied for ages through political patronage, and like President Uhuru said on August 12, 2018 to Faith Evangelistic Ministries’ Church’s Karen congregation, “it is difficult to stop the (demolitions), because we must fight impunity”. According to the president, it is also the desire of the Jubilee government to reclaim riparian lands and preserve the fragile riverine ecosystem.

“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity. Will President Uhuru ask for their demolitions now that we know from Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko that it is President Uhuru who has sanctioned the arrest of certain individuals and the demolition of the suddenly ‘undesired’ buildings?”

“Road expansion, fighting runaway (state) corruption, saving our environment…there is something eerily disingenuous about these suddenly discovered lofty social ideals by President Uhuru,” quipped a former Central Kenya MP. “Most of the plots of land along Langata Road all the way to Galleria Mall opposite Bomas of Kenya are owned by politicians – past and present – and were illegally acquired through political connections and impunity.”

In a video clip that went viral several days ago, Nairobi Governor Mike Sonko is heard telling his counterpart from Kiambu, Governor Ferdinand Waititu, that orders to arrest the latter’s wife for putting up a building on unapproved piece of land are from above. Who else would be above Governor Sonko other than the President himself? “Orders from above”, the former MP told me, can only mean one thing, and in Kenya, it has always meant one thing: the President himself.

Impunity and patronage politics in Kenya did not start today, said the former MP. “Are you aware the land where InterContinental Hotel is built was once Parliament land? Are you also aware that the land was hived off from Parliament by none other than President Jomo Kenyatta?” Similarly, the ex-MP told me, Serena Hotel sits on Uhuru Park, which was public land that was given to the Aga Khan, again by Jomo Kenyatta. “So the question we must ask ourselves as Kenyans is: From when should the government seek to reclaim grabbed government land or land meant for public use that is now in the hands of private entities?”

In the church where the President was addressing the congregation on the difficulty of stopping the demolitions, he also spoke of losing many friends because of the ongoing destructions. He said his friends had been calling him, asking him to stop the demolitions, but he reiterated that impunity must be fought. And it did not matter whether the “culprits” are politically powerful, influential or moneyed.

“Can the people of Kenya reclaim Uhuru Park, can the Parliament sue to get its rightful land back?” posed the former MP. “The current demolitions by any stretch of imagination are selective and targeted. It is doubly interesting that Java Coffee House and the Shell Petrol Station in Kileleshwa … had to come down. Just next to the Java there are flats whose rear parking bay encroaches onto the river bank. Why was it spared?” The Central Kenya politician said the flats belong to a member of a former First Family. “There are demolitions and there are demolitions. I can guarantee you that these demolitions are political – they have nothing to do with fighting corruption, neither are they for curbing corruption.”

“President Uhuru Kenyatta told Rev Bishop Teresia Wairimu that he is being bombarded by telephone calls from people asking him to stop the demolitions,” said the former MP. “That might well be so. My friend Maina Kamanda (former Starehe MP and now a Jubilee Party nominated MP) has two blocks of flats in Buru Buru Phase III. They are built on a road reserve and he acquired them when he was a powerful political city honcho and when he hobnobbed with the political aristocracy. Now I hear they may be pulled down. My political bird whispered to me that Kamanda had reached out to fellow Murang’a political buddy David Murathe to plead his case to President Uhuru on his behalf.” (One of the block of flats faces Buru Buru Community Centre, Church of God and houses Kenya Commercial Bank (KCB) offices and ATM machines on the ground floor.)

“President Uhuru is just entertaining the masses…bringing down a building here and there, as the masses clap and ululate. In their temporary excitement, they crave for another building to come down and momentarily forget that the President is involved in a nested game of political juggling and survival as he buys time and crafts the trajectory of his tempestuous second term,” said the former MP.

A game of optics

“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties. What happens when he will have demolished enough buildings and cannot demolish more? He will have to move onto something else, because Kenyans must be kept preoccupied,” he lamented.

“Just the other day, President Uhuru enthralled Kenyans by telling them that the government would import polygraph equipment that would be used on civil and public servants, in a move to ensnare corrupt employees,” observed the former MP. “What happened to the furore that accompanied the President’s June 1, 2018 pronouncements? Are government employees still waiting to be lined up for the lie detector tests? What about the much talked about lifestyle audit – is it ever going to materialise?”

“Kenyans are living under one of the harshest economic times in modern Kenya, but they have been made to believe that demolishing an important building here and there will assuage their hardships,” said the former MP. “The president is engaged in a game of optics – what he is doing is creating optical illusions and mirages for Kenyans as they wallow in socio-economic difficulties.”

President Uhuru is stuck; he does not know what to do or, even where to move next and is desperate, said the politician. “There is no money at all in the government: all the money was scuttled in a stealing spree that emptied the coffers in the first term of Uhuru and his deputy (William) Ruto’s rule.” The 2013–2017 Jubilee coalition government profligacy was of unmitigated proportions, said the former MP, “and now the people are lurching from hope to desperation. They are disillusioned and dispirited and a trifle embarrassed: They gave President Uhuru their all. At the very least, they expected he would cushion them economically. Now that that may not happen, not even in the foreseeable future, they cannot turn around to claim they did not know that they were being duped.”

The former MP said Central Kenya people are now quietly wishing that Raila Odinga, the opposition supremo, who led the National Super Alliance coalition against President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party in the 2017 August elections, would be in the opposition to check President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government. “Raila is the only person who can candidly and openly shout about flagrant theft in the government, expose the culprits – whether they are Cabinet Secretaries or parastatal heads – thereby shaming them and helping stop the haemorrhage and pilferage.”

Among the Central Kenya political elite, the MP former intoned, some have been audacious, albeit in hushed tones and in private corners, to suggest that President Uhuru should bite the bullet, swallow his pride and call in David Ndii to fix the economy as the Treasury boss. (David Ndii is an economist who played a significant role in the economic recovery strategy of Mwai Kibaki’s first presidential term. Until the famous “handshake” between Raila and Uhuru, he was also instrumental in steering Raila’s campaign against the Jubilee government.) “He [Uhuru} can play politics later if he so wishes…he can, after two years, either instigate his [Ndii’s] sacking or blame him for the flailing economy if it refuses to pick up,” said the former MP, seemingly capturing the sentiments of his fellow Central Kenya politicians.

“There might, after all, be a logic to the demolition ‘madness’. If that be the case, more power to President Uhuru. If, on the other hand, the demolitions end up as a sob story for those whose property has been destroyed for nothing, and if the demolitions will not have solved the economic morass that Kenyans find themselves in, then President Uhuru could as well be riding a dangerous, mutinous horse.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

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The Making and Unmaking of a Revolution: From the Fall of al-Bashir to the Return of Janjaweed
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After more than 30 years of ruling Sudan, in April 2019 the dictator Omar al-Bashir was finally deposed by the military following an irrepressible explosion of civil unrest. In less than five months of protest following the intolerable austerity politics imposed by al-Bashir’s administration, the Sudanese population found unexpected energy and cohesion in fighting peacefully to obtain a democratic government. As crowds of demonstrators from all across the country converged on the capital to join the civil movement, art flourished, and a renewed sense of freedom gave voice once again to those who found the strength to break their chains. Women, such as the “Nubian Queen” Alaa Salah (dubbed “the woman in white”), have been at the forefront of the demonstrations, and people from all walks of life who have been denied their basic human rights rose to finally end their silence.

However, things went south in June when the army refused to hold its promise to guarantee a three-year transition period before a new civilian rule could be established. Although the protest organisers rebuked the military’s decision to scrap the agreement, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) acted with unexpected brutality, killing more than one hundred Sudanese activists during the Khartoum massacre. Today, the situation is extremely tense, with claims that the United Arab Emirates is arming the violent counter-revolution. Furthermore, back-and-forth negotiations after a general strike have brought the whole country to a halt. While it’s still hard to tell when (and if) normality will return to the country, let’s have a look at what has happened so far and what the future may hold for Sudan in the post-al-Bashir era.

11 April 2019 – The despot is overthrown

After succeeding former Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi in 1989, Omar al-Bashir didn’t lose much time to show the world his true face as a violent and brutal leader. Al-Bashir has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He has been accused of being the man behind the mass murders, forcible transfers, tortures, and rapes committed in Darfur since 2003.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs. When the first demonstrations over the unacceptable living standards began in the eastern regions (the price of bread tripled in less than one year), the situation quickly became uncontrollable.

In December 2018 the unrest spread to the capital Khartoum and took the form of a series of riots that were brutally repressed by the regime. Nearly a thousand protesters were arrested, and dozens more got killed or wounded by the security forces who used live ammunition against the population. Coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), demonstrators from all social classes of the country eventually joined forces under the umbrella of the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) – also known as the Alliance for Freedom and Change – to fight for the ouster of the regime and the transition to a democratic government. Despite many attempts to block media coverage of the protests and to impose strict Internet censorship on social media, al-Bashir’s administration failed to contain the civil movements.

When in January 2018 the country started facing imminent economic collapse, al-Bashir decided to impose a series of extreme austerity measures that included cuts to wheat and electricity subsidies, and the devaluation of the country’s currency. Inflation spiked to 70 per cent, and the Sudanese people had to struggle even to access basic goods, such as fuel, bread, and cash from ATMs.

The tension peaked in February 2019 when the president went so far as to declare a state of national emergency – an attempt to try and break the will of the protesters with more violence, beatings, and arrests perpetrated by army officers who were put in charge of provincial governments. But the Sudanese protesters did not relent, and on April 6 hundreds of thousands of them marched to the square in front of the military’s headquarters, seeking the help of the army. A conflict between the military who took the demonstrators’ side and the security forces ensued, and shots were fired. On April 11, 2019, the military finally announced that al-Bashir had been overthrown.

The many shapes and colours of the civil protest

Thirty years of suffering under the weight of al-Bashir’s regime have not been enough to drain the Sudanese people of their desire to be free. The protest drew people from all ages, social classes, religions, and colour. They overcame social and economic barriers, and joined forces under the same banner.

During the hardest times of the civil battleground, the revolt harboured some heroic moments, such as when a doctor was killed while he was bravely trying to resuscitate other protesters who were wounded by the security forces. The marches were led by courageous women who took a stand against the oppressive colonial laws that condemn to flogging all female activists who participate in anti-government manifestations. The image of Kandake Alaa Salah chanting to encourage the protestors went viral and came to symbolise women’s strength in leading this battle to live in a country where everyone’s human rights are protected.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience. Neither the scorching heat, hunger, nor thirst stopped the Muslims protesters from enduring their sit-ins in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum during Ramadan. The same social media that the government tried to muzzle became the instrument used by the volunteers who assisted these determined dissidents by providing them food and water at night. And as the revolution never stopped or faltered under the blows of the regime’s forces, all this energy became palpable and took the form of colourful murals, amazing canvases, manifestos on women’s rights, and other incredibly beautiful works of art that left the word astonished. And very few things are more exquisitely humane and liberating than art itself.

The betrayal by the TMC and the Khartoum massacre

Following the deposition of al-Bashir, power was assumed by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), a council of seven generals led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan. Once it seized power, the TMC held its position firmly, claiming it must stay in charge to ensure order and security. A long and difficult negotiation with the FCC ensued before an agreement could be reached on May 15. The agreement provided for a 3-year transition period to a civilian-led government constituted by a sovereign council, a cabinet, and a legislative body. The long transition period was needed to dismantle the deeply entrenched political network previously established by former President al-Bashir and ensure fair, democratic elections.

The civil unrest channeled incredible and unexpected energy from the Sudanese population – an unbreakable will to peacefully fight against oppression that provided the entire continent with a fundamental lesson on civil disobedience.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured. Hit squads move around the city in Toyota pickups with their plates removed to chase down protesters.

Who are these people? They’re the same elite squads of security forces employed by the now ousted al-Bashir regime to clear out protesters from the streets. Named the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), they’re highly-trained, exceptionally brutal agents able to exact swift punishment on anyone who endangers their control on the Sudanese people and the country. They are the feared Janjaweed, a group of specialised forces famous for the atrocities inflicted on the civilian population during the Darfur crisis 14 years ago.

The TMC went so far as to arrest and forcibly deport three rebel leaders – Yasir Arman, Ismail Jalab and Mubarak Ardol – to South Sudan after they met Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed for talks about the negotiation. Their goal is clear – the do not intend to hand over power to the people. The military elites simply ousted al-Bashir as they saw a unique opportunity to seize power for themselves, and they came clean on this on June 3 when several armed bands opened fire on the protesters with the excuse of “dispersing the sit-in”.

However, a few days later, something terrible happened. A new (or we should say, old) force made its appearance among the Sudanese soldiers. Groups of masked militiamen started beating activists and dragging them away to secret detention centers where they are held without charge and sometimes even raped and tortured.

They didn’t stop there. Over 200 military vehicles and 10,000 soldiers ravaged and ransacked the city for several days while the Internet was shut down. Countless unjustified arrests were carried out, and unarmed people were dragged out of their houses, detained, beaten, and raped. The aftermath was a bloodbath – aptly named the Khartoum massacre, with more than 100 Sudanese activists killed, nearly 700 wounded, and at least 70 women and men raped by the RSF and Janjaweed forces. (Many corpses have been thrown in drainage channels so the body count is probably even higher.) Shortly after the violent crackdown, the military council thrashed any agreement made with the FCC and SPA and announced that fresh elections would be held within nine months.

The general strike and total civil disobedience

In the wake of the killings, civilian activists haven’t given up with their quest to establish a democratic government in Sudan. The “people’s movement” may lack the cohesion and discipline of the reorganised military party, but it definitely doesn’t lack the will and determination to make the change. While the international community’s response has been the usual generic condemnation, the rebels swiftly understood that big powers, such as the United States, China and Europe, could do nothing more than ask their regional allies to exert (negligible) pressure on the Sudanese army. Even the hands of the United Nations are somewhat tied after China and Russia blocked the sanctions that were initially foreseen. The FCC thus defiantly cut all contacts with the TMC and called for a general strike – “total civil disobedience” – to kick the military junta out.

Observance of the strike was nearly absolute, reaching almost 100 per cent in Khartoum. All across the country all kind of operations, from banks, to hospitals, airports, ports, and government agencies, have been shut down for days. Workers are protesting side by side with scientists, doctors, lawyers, shop owners, street vendors, and journalists. The entire country is once again united against a common threat.

But the reprisal was swift and cruel, with dozens of airport workers arrested and hundreds of people detained without charge. Despite its attempts at distorting the truth through propaganda, the RSF now looks more and more like an army of occupation than a force that is guaranteeing civil order and security.

The current situation and the reaction of the international community

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy. The Saudis and the Emiratis know that he is the ideal candidate to preserve the autocratic status quo in Sudan after the fall of al-Bashir, and have already warned against the “folly” of a popular uprising. They have explicitly expressed their support for Hemeti and other military leaders. Several videos uploaded on social media clearly show that the militiamen who carried out the killings during the June 3 attack were geared with Emirati-manufactured armaments.

The United States’ reaction was cautionary at best. The Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale, expressed concern over the crackdown during a talk with the Saudis, noting “the importance of a transition to a civilian-led government”. A diplomat will be sent to ease the talks between the FCC and the TMC, but so far, no real pressure has been exerted on Egypt or the Saudis to act against the TMC forces or to help the FCC.

The commander of the RSF, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (widely known as “Hemeti”), is a ruthless veteran of the war in Yemen – his RSF troops are still fighting there to help the Saudi-led coalition. For obvious reasons, he is backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates who do not want see a major Arab country like Sudan transition to democracy.

After initially supporting a transition towards civilian rule, the African Union (AU) spoke against the intervention of international actors in the current Sudanese situation. But the AU’s chairperson is none other than Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the Field Marshal who won elections with a landslide victory by obtaining 97 per cent of votes. It is not a coincidence that el-Sisi seized power after his army massacred 1,000 unarmed protesters at a sit-in in Cairo in 2013.

Now, after days of talks, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed finally managed to broker a new agreement between the civilian and military forces. On 12 June, the strikes were momentarily suspended after the TMC agreed to release political prisoners, and the two parties are now at the negotiating table once again. The situation is extremely unstable, and the TMC is starting to feel the pressure of internal divisions. What the future holds for the Sudanese people is really hard to tell, but their defiant battle against all odds is a prime example of the immense power that common people unknowingly hold against their oppressors.

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Politics

Man Enough? Why Men Shouldn’t Have To Be

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too.

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A fable I was taught as a young Kikuyu boy seeks to explain the rise of the patriarchal society. It speaks of a time, long ago, when women ruled over men. Unhappy with the state of affairs, the “oppressed” men conspired to get all the women pregnant at the same time, and so easily overthrew them. They have since been the undisputed rulers.

The misogyny and fear of women expressed in that tale are alive and well in contemporary Kenya’s male-dominated society. Today they manifest in the repeated refusal of the country’s parliament to enact laws mandated by the country’s constitution that prohibit any public body (including Parliament) of having a composition of more than two-thirds of their members from one gender. It is manifested in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s own refusal, which gives the lie to his rhetoric at last week’s Women Deliver Conference in Canada to implement the same rule in his appointments and nominations. It is a fear that may, ironically, be also driving discrimination and oppression of men – specifically, homosexual men.

Banning homosexuality

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”. The High Court in Botswana recently struck down as unconstitutional an identical law, also introduced by the British, declaring it “discriminatory” and warning that “human dignity is harmed when minority groups are marginalised”.

Many times, such harmful laws are supported by the same Kenyan men who rabidly oppose women’s empowerment. As it turns out, this may not be a coincidence. According to researchers at the University of Geneva, prior to the feminist revolution of the late 1960s, men had largely constructed their masculinity in opposition to women as anti-femininity. However, as society moves towards greater gender equality and as men are encouraged to get in touch with their “feminine” side and to show emotion and vulnerability, some men, particularly those of a more traditional bent, look for something else to serve as a foil for their idea of masculinity. Typically, they emphasise their heterosexuality. As, Prof Juan M. Falomir, who led the research team says, “homophobia is the alternative way of asserting their masculinity.”

Last month, in a convoluted and contradictory judgment, the High Court upheld colonial-era laws that criminalised sex acts “against the order of nature”. Enacted at the very dawn of colonial occupation by the famously stuck-up Victorians, the laws are today spuriously defended as reflective of “African culture”.

The trajectory of Kenya’s legal prohibitions exemplifies this. As women in Victorian Britain teetered on the verge of a vast change in the laws that had constrained them since medieval times, their menfolk were imposing draconian decrees targeting specifically male homosexual behaviour in their colonies. Today, as women in Kenya increasingly assert themselves in public spaces and challenge the norm of masculine domination, the blowback is not just against them but also against gay men.

Gay women too suffer bigotry and violence. As is true in many other countries, they are subjected to horrific abuse, including assaults and rape, as research on their lived experiences in Kenya has shown. “Masculine presenting” gay women or “studs” experience more discrimination and abuse and are “deliberately locked out of conversations around protection of women by State actors,” the research found. Infamously, the Kenya Film Classification Board last year banned the multiple award-winning movie Rafiki “due to its homosexual theme and clear intent to promote lesbianism in Kenya”. The constitutionality of the ban is currently being challenged in court.

Here too, constructions of masculinity are at play. “Patriarchy becomes panicked at these women denying men an opportunity for sex on demand, power on demand, or both. Their power and ability to live the life…outside the autocracy of male influence…becomes a threat to society as it is constructed,” says Dr Njoki Ngumi. Men see lesbians both as sexual rivals taking “their” women, and also as women denying them sex and power.

The link between misogyny and other bigotries is particularly visible online, a platform that has been described as “the gateway drug for extremists”. Today in the West, the rise of populist, far-right governments has also coincided with the accession of an increasing number of women to the pinnacle of power. Donald Trump was widely expected to lose to a woman in 2016. The outgoing Prime Minister of the UK is a woman as is the Chancellor of Germany. And Santiago Zabala has also linked the inclusion of “a racist, homophobic and anti-immigration party” in Spain’s ruling coalition to “the patriarchal obsession with the so-called natural order and the politics of hate that it incubates”.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, for example, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when – as witnessed in the public violence meted out on female politicians in Kenya at the hands of their male counterparts – they dare to confront or deny a man.

Reconstructing masculinity

But how exactly do we go about reconstructing masculinity? Is that even possible? Or does the solution lie in abandoning the idea of gender altogether as fundamentally anti-human? After all, masculinity and femininity are social, religious, political and cultural constructs, only incidentally related to biological accoutrements. When the Standard newspaper calls Amina Mohammed “the only ‘man’ in Uhuru’s Cabinet” or Macharia Gaitho says the same about Martha Karua in the Daily Nation, they do not mean to suggest that the two are in possession of penises and scrotums. When one is told to “man up” or “don’t be a pussy”, the reference is not to biology. All these are pretty offensive – and plainly wrong – cultural constructions that suggest that traits like bravery and assertiveness are to be associated with males while fear and submissiveness are inherently female.

It is important to keep in mind, though, that it is women who have borne the brunt of the violence committed by men who are unable to construct masculinity in terms other than domination of another. In recent years, reports of women maimed or murdered by their partners or by men they have spurned have become a staple of Kenyan daily news. Such assaults are about reminding women of their place in patriarchy’s pecking order, especially when they dare to confront or deny a man.

If we understand that, then we can begin to see the idea of gender itself as just another weapon in the service of patriarchal domination. Rather than a dictate of biology, it is a way of ordering society’s power structure in much the same way other fictional constructs, such as race or tribe, have been historically used.

But while we may rightly take umbrage at media folk ascribing particular qualities to race or tribe (imagine the uproar if the Standard were to describe Mohammed as “the only Kikuyu” or Gaitho were to call Karua “the real mzungu” as a way of recognising their contributions), we seemingly have no problem with the false dichotomies of male as strong and female as weak.

Even the Kikuyu fable I cited at the beginning is an attempt to use biology as a justification for the tyranny of man over woman. Women, it suggests, are weak because they can become pregnant – an assertion that has been shown to be scientifically bogus. If anything, it is the other way around. A recent study in the US found that elites athletes and pregnant women have similar endurance levels. Pregnancy, researchers found, “pushes the body to the same extremes as endurance events like long-distance triathlon competition Ironman or the Tour de France.”

But the fable doesn’t stop there. It constructs female rule as inherently oppressive and men as victims who are justified in using women’s biology against them – kind of like waylaying a cyclist at the end of the Tour de France, which is hardly a fair fight. It is interesting to observe how these ideas then play out in real life as when men deny women access to birth control or abortion and the persistence of practices like FGM or early marriage, all of which are meant to serve as a form of control.

It is no accident that the gender roles and attributes that patriarchal societies have invented tend to favour the dominion of men and to construe biology as women’s inescapable prison. Men, they believe, have freedom that women don’t because women can be raped, need to be defended, cannot hunt or fight. So, the logic goes, biology has decreed that their place is in the home, to serve as the caretaker and caregiver for the man who is able do those things. Yet every day, women are demonstrating the falsehood of such ideas. Sure, the average man is physically bigger and stronger than the average woman, but that does not tell us if he’s braver, more intelligent, a better hunter or a better fighter. After all, humankind’s rise to the top of the food chain has little to do with the size of our muscles.

Femininity is associated with silly and frivolous pursuits while masculinity is about serious things. Women gossip, men talk; women are vain and illogical; men are practical. Yet this script is quickly flipped when it suits the latter, especially when it involves labours that are long, non-stop and are most likely to be devalued or demanded for free. Suddenly women are inherently better, more loving and more attentive parents, while men are inherently incompetent assholes who should not be left alone with either the house or the children. This despite numerous studies demonstrating that supposedly hardwired gender differences are really the result of social conditioning – “it is the experience of parenting, and not some inalterable genetic factor or hormone, that constitutes what we call the ‘maternal instinct.’”

Playing the victim card

Of course, this is not welcome news for men. Most of us like the world just as it is. We can do pretty much what we want – boys will be boys – and we justify it (and comfort ourselves) with the delusion that nature decrees that it is the women who must pick up the pieces (and our socks). We are the kings – why would we want to give that up? When nature is no longer a sufficient prop, we resort to inventions like culture, tradition and even the law and conveniently interpreted religion to cement our place at the top. When those are themselves undermined by reason, we turn the tables and, like the folks in the fable, don the garb of the victim.

“The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate,” declared Adam. “Nature has given women so much power that the law has very wisely given them little,” is how the eighteenth-century English poet and essayist, Samuel Johnson, sought to justify the oppression of women.

Today in Kenya, we are assailed by online calls for the uplifting of the “boy-child” who has apparently been hard done by as a result of the focus on empowering girls and women. Now it is not in dispute that many boys need help. What is telling is the assertion that the help has to come at either the expense of or as a reaction to that given to girls – even though it is undeniable that across the board, girls and women suffer much more violence and denial of opportunities, mostly at the hands of men. However, the boy-child (and male empowerment) activists many times betray their motives by behaving as if the boy-child problem stems, not from the same patriarchal system that oppresses girls, but rather from the attempt to abolish it and its effects.

This construction of masculinity as victimhood is also evident in the resistance to attempts to decriminalise homosexuality. A typical example is provided by Ghetto Radio, which is popular with Nairobi youth, and which recently reported on the “Alarm Over Rising Rate Of Lesbians In Eastlands”. As Dr Ngumi explains, “Women who are not coded as heterosexual, and thus available for male desire, are going about their business. But here, they are reported to be stirring up ‘fear of being rejected’ in men [in] a falsely alarmist and bigoted news piece which can instigate violence against them.”

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

For men who construe sex as something men do to women as an expression of power and penetration as conquest, men who allow themselves to be so penetrated are seen at traitors who endanger the status of all males. It is this idea of a loss of status that is behind the popular notion that homosexuality is somehow “spread” or people are “recruited” into it and that the homosexuals are coming for us all – the patriarchy’s version of the zombie apocalypse.

Biology is not destiny

Gender is probably an irredeemably oppressive way to organise the world. Modelling the world as inherently divided into a male and female half with gendered responsibilities and roles has terrible implications. Take for example Nigerian feminist and academic, Obioma Nnaemeka’s assertion that “each gender constitutes the critical half that makes the human whole. Neither sex is totally complete in itself. Each has and needs a complement, despite the possession of unique features of its own”. This creates the clearly problematic image of a world of incomplete people seeking to find their “other half”, rather than one where relationships are voluntary and can take a variety of forms.

A common refrain is that gays threaten the survival of the species, which is baffling considering that they are a tiny minority. And yet, it makes sense if you consider that it is also about group domination as well. As Lara Temple noted in her study of male rape, scholars “have posited … that the subjugation of gay men stems from the perception that they forfeit their male privilege by behaving like women”.

There is absolutely no reason why, in this day and age, biological differences should be assumed to ascribe limitations beyond the physical – just because nature decrees that it is the women who give birth and breastfeed, there is no reason to assume that they then must be the sole, or even primary caregivers. In the vast majority of instances, men and women can competently perform the same roles and share responsibilities. There is therefore no need to encourage men to get in touch with their supposed “feminine” side since what is coded feminine – such as a desire for and work towards cleanliness, hygiene and beauty in one’s self and their surroundings, as well as a desire to socialise with, care for and listen to others – is actually just human.

The same could be said of arguments that ideas of masculinity need not solely encompass violence and domination. Given that gender and its attributes are social constructions, Nigerian professor of history, Egodi Uchendu, notes that “yardsticks for assessing manifestations of masculinity could differ from place to place and from continent to continent”. There is no one masculinity, rather a multitude of ways to define manliness (as opposed to maleness). Some, like the Zulu, include traits such as honesty, wisdom and respect. Uchendu points out that among the Hua of Papua New Guinea, masculine subjects are seen “highly placed but physically powerless and weak”. And masculinity “is lost by men as they age but gained by women through childbearing”. Yet it is unclear why certain human qualities should be reserved to a particular sex at a particular time (or why their acquisition should necessarily come at the expense of other desirable traits) when they are clearly available to everyone at every time. And worse, they inevitably set up a power dynamic and competition that opens doors to violence and domination.

Towards a gender-free world

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that. This, however, will not be easy, just as creating a world free of other bigotries is not. The legacies of millenia of discrimination and marginalisation will need to be addressed and people, especially women, should be afforded help to overcome it. It is that legacy, for example, that necessitates measures like the not-more-than-two-thirds gender rule.

Unfortunately, we do not have recourse to a Thanos-like snap of the fingers that would dissolve long-standing bigotries and hostilities. Legal changes, while necessary, are not sufficient. They will need to be accompanied by targeted efforts to help women, as well as civic and cultural education campaigns and societal willingness to learn new ways to live and relate with each other. Change would take time to effect and to take hold. There will be many false starts, as there have been in the fight against racism and tribalism. But in the end, it will be worth it.

Creating a world free of gender does not mean that people wouldn’t think of themselves as men or women just as ridding the world of racism and tribalism needn’t require that people forsake their other made-up identities based on the biological adaptations coded as race, or on the imagined lineages coded as tribe. It just requires that we acknowledge that these are not markers of inherent differences beyond the physical or genealogical – if even that.

Getting rid of gender-determined roles would require men, for example, to shoulder their fair share of unpaid household labour – cooking, cleaning and caring – most of which is foisted on women. This would free the latter to pursue education, dreams and careers. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that what we often think of as a gender pay gap is more accurately described as a childbearing pay gap or motherhood penalty. Basically, women take a lifetime earnings hit when forced to drop out of the workforce to take care of children. In Kenya, a 2018 report by USAID notes that “unpaid care and domestic work burdens limit women’s contributions in and benefit from productive activities, constrains their mobility, and limits their access to market resources”. The same does not happen to men. In fact, a New York Times piece on pregnancy discrimination noted that while “each child chops 4 percent off a woman’s hourly wages…men’s earnings increase by 6 percent when they become fathers”. Yet there is no physical or biological reason why childcare and domestic duties cannot be more equally shared.

Dr Ngumi notes that “if masculinity is defined by oppression, for men it cannot be practised without it”. Going forward, Kenya, like other societies around the world, will need to address the problems created by the toxic idea of gender and to create better, more meaningful, and more complete notions of humanity that are not legitimised by the oppression of someone else. Men, in particular heterosexual men, will need to understand that life is not a zero-sum competition with and over women. The truth is, as Kenyan lawyer and writer, Marilyn Kamuru says, “There is room for all of us, men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, to live more authentic, freer lives.”

Breaking the dominance chain

Still, the question remains: What would men gain by relinquishing the power that masculinity has so far unfairly accorded them? Freedom for one. Because it is not just women and LGBTI folks who are oppressed by the idea of gender; heterosexual men are too. Kenyan academic Godwin Murunga notes that “the idea of flawed or hegemonic masculinity has been used to indicate that though all men enjoy the “patriarchal dividend” by the sheer fact of being men, these dividends do not accrue to all of them in the same manner and in equal measure”. It is perhaps more useful to think of it as a spectrum of domination, with women and sexual minorities at the bottom but with dominance being expressed right through the chain. Masculinity causes men to harm other men who are weaker, poorer, or who are of a different race or religion.

During the recent brutal attacks on protesters in Sudan, many men, as well as women, were raped by the Janjaweed militias. In fact, the rape of men is well-documented as a weapon in conflicts ranging from the Syrian civil war to that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And, as with the rape of women, it is about power, not sex. As a harrowing report on the rape of men in the Guardian explained, notions of gender and masculinity force a conspiracy of silence between perpetrators and victims with the latter often stigmatised and deserted by family and friends once their story is discovered. One victim in the report was afraid to let his own brother know: “I don’t want to tell him…I fear he will say: ‘Now, my brother is not a man'”. This demonstrates the truth of Lara Temple’s observation that “the rape of men is a form of gender oppression in which gendered hierarchies are reproduced”.

As alluded to above, men are also forced to give up a part of their human self in order to become more manly. The prohibitions against showing emotion, the constant competition to be First Bodi – or Alpha Male, the pressure to accumulate sexual “conquests”, all these take their toll, constantly shrinking their pool of experience, isolating them from the world, turning them into tired, grumpy, angry, old men, who have no idea how to love, how to be tender, how to be kind, or how to maintain mutually beneficial human relationships.

And they are downright dangerous. Studies have shown that “the system that keeps men in a collectively dominant position over women and in competitive relations to other men comes at a cost for men in terms of their health and quality of life. Faced with an ideal where physical resilience is valorised, men find it harder to seek healthcare and engage in preventive activities.”

On the other hand, equality has clear benefits for men. As Thomas Sankara said, “We do not talk of women’s emancipation as an act of charity or because of a surge of human compassion. It is a basic necessity for the triumph of the revolution. Women hold up the other half of the sky.”

Women’s empowerment need not – and does not – come at the expense of men. On the contrary, it is indispensable to their welfare and to that of all of society. The World Bank estimates that gender inequality in 2014 cost the global economy $160 trillion – which is double the total estimate for global GDP. And that figure has been rising along with population growth. Twenty years before, it was $123 trillion.

Bigotry, in the end, is incredibly short-sighted even as concerns the bigot’s own interests. “The repeal 162 case is an excellent example of this,” says political analyst and author, Nanjala Nyabola, citing the High Court ruling upholding laws criminalising gay sex. “Was it worth unraveling constitutional protections against discrimination just to protect a heteronormative idea of marriage which wasn’t even on the table?” she asks pointedly.

The cost of discrimination is not just to the victims but is borne by society as a whole. All of Kenya would benefit from a more diverse Parliament in terms of better governance. And the refusal to implement a constitutional principle is not just troubling for women. For if the people in power can ignore that provision, who is to say they cannot ignore any other provision? Are men really willing to forgo their own protections just to keep women in their place? Rather than be king of a small pond, wouldn’t it be better to share the bounty of an ocean of humanity? Only a man blinded by the idea of masculinity would say no.

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Politics

Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya.

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Call It By Its Name: Tribalism’s Moment in American Politics
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The United States of America has a fundamental issue with using certain terminology. When it comes to certain hills, the cultural norm is to die upon them without admitting certain ugly truths. The issue of American tribalism is one such battle of attrition.

In the US, in all brutal honesty, there is no admittance to looking at issues through a tribal lens; it is considered an almost uncouth term, inaccurate, sensationalist and (through a more ugly lens) applicable to an interchangeable “other”. I’ve had conversations revolving around this, when Americans are quick to point out that the issue of “tribalism” is a fundamentally African problem, something that occurs overseas, within countries that are painted with an unspoken brush of “lesser” – less developed, less “civilised”, less democratic, less Western, depending on the kind of jingoistic plug they want to apply to racism or neo-colonialism.

Tribalism has become a buzzword within American politics at present, but that doesn’t make it untrue. The affliction becomes especially acute when compared with the state of tribalism within East Africa, particularly in Kenya. The issue is, above all, an insidious indictment against another group. It is an inherent and unfounded bias against perceived characteristics that cuts across facts and rationality. Tribalism is, in many aspects, the very epitome of the “us against them” mentality. So how does this play into American politics?

The very definition of tribalism, according to Merriam Webster, is “loyalty to a tribe or other social group especially when combined with strong negative feelings for people outside the group”. Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

Americans just tend to think that this is merely a question of ethnicity, of belonging to a literal tribe, thus positioning themselves falsely above the fray; in denial of any association with any such allusion parallel to an issue often associated with the “developing” world.

As Kenyan citizens are all too aware, the very nature of tribalism is its pervasiveness. For those prescribing to fall in line with tribal ideas, it can become all-encompassing and derogatory of other groups in the extreme. In the mind of a “tribalist”, Kikuyus are shrewd business minds and are surely taking over the country to their own ends; Luos are loud and boisterous, too uncouth for political control; Merus have long fuses but terribly explosive tempers once the fuse is completed; Kalenjins will borrow things but are not to be trusted with them; Kambas are flashy in their style but have spent the rent for the style achieved. All of these stereotypes, when manifesting as the first and foremost notion of a group, can become deeply engrained, however head-slapping they may be.

Despite the progress made over these divisions in Kenyan society, it is still a common occurrence to come across an individual who holds true to their notions about others, and can’t be told otherwise. It is the last aspect, that of being unable or unwilling to deviate from a divisive perception that is most applicable to the political situation in the United States approximately 17 months ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The liberal and conservative wings are at each other’s throats to an extent that hasn’t been seen in the United States since the darkest days of the clashes between those against the Vietnam War and those supporting the military action.

Therefore, it is only right to look with a critical lens towards my own side, my own social identity, my own political “tribe”. It is time for me to admit my personal political views. I fall into the liberal camp and have always done so. Despite my leanings, it is impossible to look at the tone of the liberal wing of American society objectively and not view them as part of the problem, at least with regard to the furthering of the tone. I will pause here and allow for a multitude of familial connections and social acquaintances to send me sharply worded messages explaining that their side is worse; it is them that are furthering the division, that it is Republicans who are on the wrong side and that good liberal democrats could never think as cruelly as conservative voters do. They prove my point: one of the ugly realities of tribalistic thinking is to buck criticism from those within your own ranks and to view such criticism as a betrayal to the group.

From the liberal side of things, the perception is clear. There is open talk among the left that Republicans are a “threat”; that they are “seizing control” and are “selling out to a dictator to get what they want”. It is rebounded off left-leaning media echo chambers, in satire, from Democratic politicians themselves. Tribalism, in its essence, is finding societal safety in a group, and damn the others if you think they impede on your safety.

The messaging from the left-leaning side is that the right-wing tribe is a threat, that they are a minority in the US that are seeking to maintain their ill-gotten political control by any means necessary, including those means that are less than democratic. They are only in the game for themselves, while exploiting members of their own political base (who will, of course, follow them blindly) to gain more of a stranglehold on American society; the Republicans are trying to form the United States as moulded around the conservative ideal (which was based on oppression in the first place, of course) in spite of what would be a “positive outcome” for the long-suffering masses. (The Kenyan reader will probably find that prior statement uncomfortably familiar in tone to some of the talk swirling about before the 2007 elections. This is meant in no way to diminish the horrors of the post-election violence and elevate American problems as to somehow “more so”; merely to point out tonal similarities.)

The conservative tribe must also be examined in close detail, as there a direct line to cut towards tribalistic tendencies in both tone and action. From this end, some of the divisions have been made more acute, if not deepened in a more extreme fashion. When dealing with issues of the politically tribal, the top brass should be the major holder of any responsibility for the messaging and resulting actions of their followers.

There is no clearer example of an individual who should be held accountable than that of Donald Trump himself. It isn’t an exaggeration to state that he has frequently engaged in incitement along tribal lines. His words must speak for themselves. Mexicans (and other Latin American migrants) are rapist criminal invaders, hell-bent on taking the “homeland” for their own ill purposes. Democrats are disgusting, manipulative and treacherous, seeking to overthrow the very power that the conservatives currently lay claim to within the United States. Muslims are a threat, and are to be banned. Political dissidents are committing treason. Those who investigate serious allegations of ongoing criminal activities are actively engaged in a “witch hunt” and must be ignored by those loyal to the White House, regardless of evidence.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

In recent weeks and months, Trump has spoken repeatedly and publicly (without proven basis) of a conspiracy against him aimed at usurping the White House and launching some sort of coup (as those loyal to the left could never accept the outcome of a controversial election in 2016 and are thus trying to undermine the administration). Violent action is repeatedly hinted at, to be carried out at the hands of “those with the guns” in America.

The conservative end of the media, such as FOX News, isn’t much different, repeating talking points, calling Democrats “rats” in front of millions of viewers. The barrage of information, misinformation, and accusation-hefting has become a constant staple. Those Republican politicians who have fallen into the camp of “dissent” have their loyalty publicly questioned by the White House. That’s the essence of political tribalism – to further the message of the group through a means of clarity-by-murkiness.

So what is the result of this political climate in America? Both sides have gone further towards their respective ideologies, leaving a gaping gulf between them, with little room for political maneuvering, social interaction, or public discourse within it. At a localised level, the true extent of tribalism comes to fruition: neighbours fuming at each other, families not on speaking terms, friendships ending and punches thrown at political rallies. This is fundamentally a problem of communities being pitted against one another; and is a question of being primed to do so, with the loudest voices being lifted to the forefront and drowning out what one report on tribalism in America called “the exhausted majority” – those tired of the constant fighting but resigned to the untoward realities therein. Those at the fringes hold more and more sway, and hold the rest of the community accountable to fall in line, encouraging that silence. Right now in the United States, that is the pervasive tone. The average person, upon hearing a political discussion, seems spent by the very idea of engaging in it, turned off, angry and unsure of what to do; there seems to be an air of not knowing exactly what to do about the perceived takeover of the political discourse.

A fundamental misunderstanding of tribalism is that is the entirety of a population that becomes ensnared and takes extreme action. This largely isn’t the case; it is usually a small proportion of the population yelling the loudest and taking to the streets in numbers that would intimidate other disorganised citizens. In America, those few yelling the loudest often have semi-automatic guns.

Will the United States look to Kenya to learn from the nation’s recent history? There is, unfortunately, little to no chance of that, as American society is nothing if not jingoistic and bullheadedly independent. If one was apt enough to look though, the entire blueprint of the darkness of tribalism invading politics would be laid bare in the Kenyan example; the same tones used, the waters of messaging getting muddied, the divisions deepening, and finally, in the wake of a disputed and inflammatory election, an entire nation taken to the very brink of irreversible damage.

If tribalism, at its very core, is identity politics, are the political climates within the two countries truly all that different? It reflects badly upon the US, in a further parallel to view itself as somehow “above” sinking to political violence at levels comparable of those “other” countries. After all, in much of the West, Kenya pre-December 2007 was talked about in a patronising tone of being a “good” African country incapable of slipping into a vacuum of politically stoked bloodshed. The explosion in Kenya was largely sparked by a rough year-long period of fear-mongering and polarising rhetoric and speech so questionable that six prominent Kenyan public figures of politics and the media were investigated by Kenya and the International Criminal Court for incitement to violence. This period of amplification came atop decades of divisive politics and tribalistic tension.

Within the US, although the overall feeling remains that the nation will somehow carry on unscathed, historical evidence points to a potential for a darker outcome. Already, there have been calls that the 2016 election outcome was somehow “rigged” on the part of the Democrats, stealing a result that wound up in an electoral college victory regardless.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions.

The protectionist mantra has also been intensified, with “armies” of Latin American immigrants allegedly due at any second to stream across the border and snatch away power. There have been explicit nods to white nationalist causes from the White House, making the statement that in fact, yes, white America has something to fear. Trump in essence has been stating that he alone can combat the causes of those fears, real or imagined. It isn’t a stretch of the imagination to look at some of the statements made by the current administration as acts of tribal incitement. He’s offered protection to his supporters who would act violently at political rallies against protesters, offering to even “pay their legal fees”. He’s repeatedly attacked his critics, even, in the case of Senator John McCain, after their passing due to their political opposition to him. He has repeatedly dehumanised those outside his support group, calling them cowards, liars, cheats. He has heralded the most vehement and extreme among his base, even to point of promoting them to be members of the White House staff. He’s even claimed publicly that if an attempt to formally remove him from office were made, a revolt would take place in the US. If tweets, including such inflammatory language, had come from an African leader’s phone at 3 am, it might well end up as exhibit A at International Criminal Court proceedings.

There is a further wrinkle when addressing the political leaders engaging in tribalism: they often skate on with impunity, above the fray that they’re helping to create, outside the fire that they’re stoking and without real consequences for their statements and actions. That is the case with Trump currently; even as he’s preyed upon the pre-existing divisions within the US for his own personal exploitation and “all coverage is good coverage” political PR strategy, nothing concrete has stuck to him. He still holds the office, he still wields power, he’s consolidated his political base around him to the extent of commanding the highest ever approval ratings among his base, all the while pushing the left further away and across the void. No charges have been made against him. There has been no formal announcement of impeachment. The powerful political figures in his party have largely fallen in line. During the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, there was an outpouring of violence at political rallies. It is yet to be seen if the continued toxicity of the last three years will bleed over into the ramping up of the political season, and if that dye has already been cast.

In 2007 it did in Kenya and in the aftermath of it all, no one was really held to account. Those who suffered the most were far away from the lush compounds in Lavington or Karen; far away from jetting out of the country for an extended holiday or a jaunt in Zanzibar, and that, more than anything, is the inherent tragedy of tribalism; that those who champion division, rile the sides to rattle sabers against one another and possibly incite actual violence never end up holding the water for anyone below them.

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry.

The likes of Donald J Trump have the capital to stay away from it all and to give the same sleazy statements feigning outrage at the very notion that they should somehow be held to account for their words and actions on media platforms, on the campaign trail, and within the very halls of power. Floyd Mayweather has nothing on the ability of a tribe-stoking politician to duck a punch. No lessons have been learned in the US, not from our own recent election, not from Kenya’s past and not from any international voice or citizen of the “political bubble”. The problem is that in a nation so driven to the extreme of division, in this far out of the actual depths of election season (and the actual ballot day of Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020), the bottom is very hard to see. After all, the Democratic Party is still a year out from picking a champion and it is yet to be seen if any in the Republican Party would dare to challenge Trump (a move which would inevitably push him to consolidate his base by bringing them closer into the fold).

The real answers, however, aren’t in the lofty political bourgeois debate and scramble for influence, but down at the street level, where Americans are forming their own ranks among the citizenry. Just the other week, on the steps of the state capital of Wisconsin in Madison (itself an incredibly divided so-called “swing state”), a protest against the recent anti-abortion measures passed in Alabama took place, and I joined in the ranks of those protesting against the recent ban. I watched as in front of me members of the two sides yelled into each other’s faces over the shoulders of police ranks formed to keep proceedings calm. Nothing was resolved, but in that exchange I saw a microcosm of such confrontations that can only increase in frequency and vehemence in the months and years to come. But to what end is impossible to say. Neither side is willing to give an inch at this point, a precarious position to take when at the precipice.

If ever there was a time for America to listen, for once, to Kenya, it is now. For the people in the Rift Valley, nothing was resolved despite all the posturing and promises. Those who lit the fire in Kenya stood back and watched the flames rise. Right now in the United States, it seems, that some in power are willing to flick the matches.

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