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MAGICAL KENYA: Where the fantastic blends with the mundane to produce the unbelievable

Only by grasping the political processes that reproduce death, destruction and destitution will Kenyans finally exorcise the demons of their history. By CHRISTINE MUNGAI

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MAGICAL KENYA: Where the fantastic blends with the mundane to produce the unbelievable

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness in this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” – Ephesians 6:12

The first episode of the popular Netflix series Narcos opens with the title card: “Magical realism is defined as what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe. There is a reason magical realism was born in Colombia.”

Magical realism as a literary genre presents the supernatural and the fantastic in an otherwise mundane, ordinary real-life setting. These magical elements are presented in the story in a matter-of-fact way, without explanation or even being remarked upon. It is not quite science fiction, or straight-up fantasy writing. The writer does not create a fictional universe to set the story. It is something more subtle, more murky. It is the integration of the supernatural with the ordinary, like the ghosts in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, or Toni Morrison’s Beloved, who visit the real world without being haunting or terrifying like they would be in a classic horror movie. The reader, therefore, accepts the marvellous as normal and common.

Now in its third season, Narcos’ story arc of notorious druglord Pablo Escobar places his fantastic wealth and opulence in the realm of magical realism – at one point Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s entire national debt of $10 billion from his own pocket. His criminal enterprise was spending $2,500 a month just on rubber bands to wrap bank notes from the proceeds of drug trafficking, and at one point was losing 10% of its income – always stashed in cash – to rats and mould. When Escobar’s family was hiding from the police in a mountainside farmhouse, his daughter became ill and hypothermic, so he burned $2million of currency notes to keep her warm.

Now in its third season, Narcos’ story arc of notorious druglord Pablo Escobar places his fantastic wealth and opulence in the realm of magical realism – at one point Escobar offered to pay off Colombia’s entire national debt of $10 billion from his own pocket.

WTF?!

The problem with explaining Escobar as magical is that it obscures the very real-life political processes, historical context and foreign policy strategies that make an Escobar possible. The notorious Colombian druglord comes on the scene during the Cold War, in the midst of a civil war in his country. The right-wing factions of that war have had US/CIA support almost uninterruptedly. The US/CIA supports the drug trade when it suits their political and foreign policy interests. (See the Iran/Nicaragua Contra affair.) Most of the profits from the drug trade went to the United States as illegal money to be laundered in CIA-linked banks.

Kidnappings, murders, and fantastic wealth are not things that “just happen” in a magical place south of Miami. [For a wonderfully insightful long read on why Narcos is not magical realism, see this blog post by Diana Méndez]. Still, it is difficult for most of us to grasp political processes that produce death, destruction and destitution. We see the effects, but we can’t really explain what has happened. They are too big or abstract for us to grasp, and too nefarious and diabolical for us to believe.

So some turn to magical realism, an artistic attempt to capture the unbelievable in a setting where these things happen frequently. Magical realism expresses a “’Third World’ consciousness,” Salman Rushdie once said, societies where “the impossibly old struggles against the appallingly new, in which public corruptions and private anguishes are somehow more garish and extreme than they ever get in the so-called ‘North’ where centuries of wealth and power have formed thick layers over the surface of what’s really going on”. Rushdie pointed out that in the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, “impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun”.

***

I never read Emmanuel Eni’s Delivered from the Powers of Darkness when I was a child, but it was a hugely influential part of my Christian discourse and formation in the late 1980s and 1990s. In Christian Union meetings, in youth group discussions, in passionate sermons and testimonies, the Nigerian evangelist’s influence was everywhere.

Rushdie pointed out that in the works of Márquez, as in the world he describes, “impossible things happen constantly, and quite plausibly, out in the open under the midday sun”.

The plot can be summarised thus: An adolescent Eni, orphaned and insecure, is introduced into satanism by a former schoolmate who is in her twenties and improbably wealthy. The friend confesses that it is her interaction with the occult that has got her to her present status, and she introduces him to the occult congregation, many of whom are intellectuals.

Then impossible things happen – human sacrifice, teleportation, bloody rituals, shape-shifts into animal form, descending to the bottom of the sea on a staircase to meet the “Queen of the Coast”, a beautiful woman with whom he seals a contract that would guarantee him riches, and so on. (Eni constantly reminds the reader that these were real events, happening in his physical form.)

The second half of the book deals with his conversion: He meets Jesus Christ himself –who he describes as a beautiful man. After the powers of darkness have been exorcised, he becomes an active member of the Assemblies of God church.

I recently conducted a very unscientific survey on Twitter, asking followers what they remembered about the book; what it felt like to read and talk about it. “Scary”, “chilling’, “terrifying”, came up again and again.

Others said: “I’m still haunted by it”; “stayed up all night afraid of the darkness”; “so confused…it took me a long time to recover”. “It was one of those books that was passed around in class. Hastily read in rounds during preps,” KipropKimutai (@Tiboron) tweeted.

But this wasn’t the kind of fear one feels in a fictional horror film, which can nervously be laughed away once the credits start rolling. The real terror of the stories of satanic riches – of which Eni’s tale was just one of an entire genre of books, movies, sermons and devotionals – was in the way the supernatural and the quotidian were colliding in a way that was fantastic yet…plausible. For most people who read the tale, there was something you just couldn’t shake off.

The narratives of satanic riches are plausible for two reasons. First, the fact that they are confessional actually adds to their credibility – if one confesses to doing despicable deeds which no one would ever like to be accused of, that makes the confession very credible. “For anyone who admits to having killed others by witchcraft or done harm to people must indeed be telling the truth. Since Eni admits to having killed, the rest of the story is taken at face value,” researcher Birgit Meyer argues.

But second is the fact that a crucial element of the stories of satanic riches was the sacrificing of one’s reproductive capacity (the devil would make one barren in exchange for riches) or sacrificing of actual loved ones, such as a spouse, child or relative. The crux of the story is that money is never obtained for nothing, but always in exchange for a human being, preferably a blood relative or spouse, or a future offspring.

In the context of a collapsing economy and dilapidation of social services – as was happening in most of Africa at that time in the 1980s and 1990s – the family is the only meaningful social safety net for most people. Therefore, it is not a huge imaginative leap to argue that the only way one could become rich in that context is by neglecting one’s loved ones, by ignoring pleas for help from poorer relatives, by meanness and avarice. Only an individual who has become atomised and who is disconnected from the wider community is willing to sacrifice other people’s lives for wealth; everyone else is likely to be drained by the competing demands of spouses, children and extended relations. Magical realism tells us that whether that sacrifice is literal or metaphorical is not the point; the point is that something is off; something doesn’t add up, some evil is at work here.

People can sense the dehumanising logic of capitalism that discards real human lives with alarming indifference. It is the logic that allows an accident victim to die a wholly preventable death because a cash deposit has not been paid for a bed in ICU. It is the logic that makes it okay to have a country where pastoralists are ejected from their own land because they are not “contributing to the economy”, as was once said of the pastoralists in Laikipia. It is the logic that produces a Kenya where less than 0.1% of the population (8,300 people) owns more wealth than the bottom 99.9% (more than 44 million people). It is the logic that reduces all human activity to a form of economic calculation, dismissing love, empathy and care as powerful but unfortunate delusions. It is a form of creating that actually destroys creation, in the words of Prof. Willie J. Jennings of Yale University. “This is not the logic of breaking eggs to make omelettes. The horror here is distorting the bodies of chickens to maximise egg production unto death. This logic drives creation towards death.” By keeping track of the trail of blood that taints every exploitative capitalistic success story, the stories of satanic riches are, in a way, a site of resistance.

People can sense the dehumanising logic of capitalism that discards real human lives with alarming indifference. It is the logic that allows an accident victim to die a wholly preventable death because a cash deposit has not been paid for a bed in ICU. It is the logic that makes it okay to have a country where pastoralists are ejected from their own land because they are not “contributing to the economy”

***

In 1994, the then President Daniel arap Moi established the Devil Worship Commission following a sustained campaign by the church, supported by the media, that the existence and extent of devil worship in Kenya should be investigated. The devil worship inquiry was triggered by a claim by the head of the Anglican Church that educational institutions in Kenya were in danger of being taken over by devil worshippers and that parents should be wary of which schools they take their children to.

On 21st August 1993, the Minister for Education issued a directive to expel all devil-worshipping children from public schools. The following day, in reaction to the minister’s directive, the Daily Nation, in an editorial, stated that parents needed to be told more about devil worship so that they could avoid taking their children to schools where it is practised.

The momentum had begun. A few months later, the Standard, citing an education official, said that devil worship was rampant in Western Kenyan schools, and another official said the same about schools in Taita Taveta district. Eventually, the issue made it to the floor of Parliament when two MPs called on the Minister of Education to institute a probe into devil worship, which was “threatening public schools”.

The following day, the Daily Nation joined in and, in an editorial, claimed that “time seems to have come for a serious inquiry into the whole diabolical business, if only for peace of mind of many parents.” Vice President George Saitoti reiterated the same two days later, decrying the rise in devil worship in Kenya. Church leaders, members of parliament, and ordinary Kenyans – sometimes through angry letters to the editor – continued to pile on the pressure.

On 20th October 1994, President Moi announced that a commission of inquiry would be formed to look into the matter of devil worship in Kenya. He noted the ongoing public discourse on devil worship and said, “If these reports are true, then this obnoxious and ungodly practice must be checked.”

The Daily Nation carried in its editorial the headline, “Here is a most welcome probe”, in reference to the Commission. The editorial claimed that the setting up of an official inquiry was the right thing “given the emotive nature surrounding the issue of Satanism”. It added that the inquiry “is welcome as its aim is to remove the murkiness that has surrounded allegations of existence of this practice and the fear it has generated among parents, church leaders and ordinary people”.

It is not a coincidence that this fear-mongering was happening in Moi’s Kenya. Magical realism was happening in real life at that time, the fantastic and the mundane existing side-by-side. A 25-year-old named Kamlesh Pattni somehow contrived an audacious financial buccaneering scheme that promptly drained Kenya of 10% of its Gross Domestic Product. The scheme, dubbed the Goldenberg Scandal, began in 1991, almost immediately after the Kenya government, following directions from the IMF, introduced measures to reform the economy and increase international trade and investment.

Precisely how they did it – by manipulating regulations on export compensation in an economy strapped for hard currency – is complicated to explain (See this wonderfully detailed article by Peter Warutere, one of the leading financial journalists who covered the too-crazy-to-believe scandal as it unfolded.) By all accounts, Goldenberg was a high-level conspiracy “by senior officials of the Moi administration, together with local and international wheeler-dealers who ostensibly capitalised on the government’s desperation for foreign exchange and the greed of Moi’s cronies. These cronies displayed an insatiable appetite for plundering the economy even when it was flat on its back,” wrote Warutere.

The effects of the scam – even though it is difficult to explain how it had happened – were obvious to everyone. Interest rates rose to a stunning 80% per annum. Goldenberg tore through Kenya’s political, economic and social fabric, plunging Kenya into a decade of recession and decay. By one estimate, it will take three generations for Kenya to fully recover from the effects of the scheme.

When you have a generation of parents who cannot adequately explain why they are unable to afford their children a better life than they had, the discourse of “generational curses” gains power. It must be the devil, and in a way, they are right.

***

“The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We destroy arguments and every proud obstacle raised up against the knowledge of God… ” 2 Corinthians 10:4

When you have a generation of parents who cannot adequately explain why they are unable to afford their children a better life than they had, the discourse of “generational curses” gains power. It must be the devil, and in a way, they are right.

In today’s Kenya, we are constantly bombarded with the fantastic and the unbelievable, but delivered to us in the implausibly dry and composed tones of the evening news. Everything seems normal – the lights; the blue, orange or brown set; the TV station logo in the corner of the screen; the scrolling ticker tape of news highlights at the bottom.

But the words being spoken are in the realm of the absolutely fantastic: billions of shillings being carted away in sacks in broad daylight; poisoned sugar that may or may not be on your table right now; a man eating githeri getting a Head of State Commendation; horrible sexual abuse of children, babies, grandmothers; murders of wives, husbands, entire families; a probably unlicensed, collapsed dam that sweeps nearly 50 people to their death, just like that. On and on.

No one flinches. No one’s voice breaks. No Kanye West blurting out “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” No one seems on the edge of tears. Perhaps that’s the truly amazing thing – the objectivity and professionalism with which we are calmly reporting our own death and destruction.

Theologian Emilie Townes describes the fantastic as [living] in those moments of uncertainty when it is not clear if what we perceive or experience is an illusion of the senses (which makes it a product of the imagination and the laws of the world remain intact), and when we detect that the event has actually taken place but laws unknown to us control reality.

Yet the fantastic is much more; it is also being comfortable with the supernatural or what may seem supernatural to others. In other words, the fantastic may be the everyday for those who live in it. They may not find the presence of ghosts or shifted realities unusual.

For me, the fantastic – and especially those obscure, real-world processes that produce suffering and evil – can be distilled into the notion of strongholds, powers and principalities that the New Testament talks about in 2 Corinthians 10 and in Ephesians 6.

Structures of domination and oppression that are too big and too nefarious for us to grasp, the ones that make the unbelievable frequently invade our daily lives, are those powers and principalities talked about “in high and low places”. They reproduce evil with alarming regularity, sometimes even without the malicious participation of those involved.

Here are some examples. The Brand Kenya master plan describes Kenya as “an exotic destination that is surprisingly familiar, where people and nature live in harmony alongside ambitious economic developments”. Wandia Njoya has critiqued this racist, self-loathing logic that makes Kenyans see their own country as an investment destination for foreigners first, and the needs of Kenyan citizens way down the priority list – after all, they are just living “alongside” economic developments. Which is why a minister can be more concerned about what foreign tourists will think about us than that mercury in sugar that might be poisoning Kenyans.

Rasna Warah has written about Nairobi as a city where “contempt for the resident is everywhere apparent”, where more than 80% of trips are made on foot, bicycle or by public transport, yet the lack of adequate pavements and bicycle paths has resulted in unnecessary deaths of pedestrians and cyclists; in fact, cycling and walking are considered among the most dangerous forms of transport in Kenya.

Darius Okolla has argued that social mobility in Kenya is a figment of our imagination – less than half a million Kenyans are middle class, in a population of more than 44 million, and 85% of Kenyans will remain in the social class they were born in. Yes, there is always the anecdotal and inspirational rags-to-riches story, of the charcoal to gold variety, but the vast, vast majority of poor people will remain poor, as a result of a non-existent and dysfunctional public sector.

I could go on and on.

There are forces at work here that make us hate ourselves and each other, that make us express more sympathy for buildings than for human beings, as Kiambu governor Ferdinand Waititu did recently when he pleaded that buildings built on riparian land be spared from demolitions and that the rivers be moved instead. Yet he expressed no such sympathy for the thousands of human beings being evicted from their homes in Kibera at the crack of dawn to make way for a road, against a court order and against all sense of human decency. This is not normal.

Destroying arguments that seem sensible but keep people in oppression is part of the work of imagining freedom. Shining a hard, unrelenting light on structures of domination should be the work of writers, journalists, artists and preachers in this moment, because the work of domination happens in that uncanny place where the imaginary and the real collide – to deadly effect.

However, the acts of controlling and manipulating human lives through processes of domination and subordination are not inevitable or unanswerable, just as the diabolical deeds of Pablo Escobar were not magical. They were aided and abetted by an intersection of history, politics, market forces, technology and foreign policies. Complex, yes. But not magical.

Destroying arguments that seem sensible but keep people in oppression is part of the work of imagining freedom. Shining a hard, unrelenting light on structures of domination should be the work of writers, journalists, artists and preachers in this moment, because the work of domination happens in that uncanny place where the imaginary and the real collide – to deadly effect.

We need to deconstruct that “fantastic hegemonic imagination”, in the words of Emilie Townes, which reproduces structural evil in our society. It will take deconstructing and probably destroying the institutions that are founded on colonial, capitalist logics. As Wandia Njoya says, Kenyans will have to go through a national mental re-engineering that heals us of our inferiority complex and deals with our historical wounds, and then write an affirmation of dignity as human beings. Only then can we be delivered from the powers of darkness.

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Christine Mungai is a Kenyan writer, journalist and Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

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THE WALKING POOR: Nairobi Privileges the Motor Vehicle, Not the People

Fifty-five years after independence, Nairobi’s urban planning still privileges the high-heeled motorists over the walking poor. This, as PATRICK GATHARA explains, is rooted in colonial policy.

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To make our roads safer, we need to make them feel less safe

The return of the “Michuki Rules” (the stringent rules established by John Michuki, the former Transport Minister in Mwai Kibaki’s government) that targeted public transport operators has precipitated days of traffic chaos as matatus, the backbone of what passes for the city’s public transport system, declared a strike in protest. Newspaper headlines bemoaned the agony visited on drivers and commuters, with some decrying the traffic gridlock that ensued as private cars flooded the roads. The Daily Nation describing it as a “day of walking”.

It is a telling description and speaks to the low regard with which pedestrians in Nairobi are held. This despite the fact that even when matatus are on the roads, most Nairobians leg it to wherever they are going. According to the World Bank, more than 8 out of every 10 commutes involve walking as the primary or secondary mode of travel. Half of those trips are made completely on foot. The 2010 draft Sessional Paper on Integrated National Transport Policy states that nearly two-thirds of the city’s residents meet their daily travel needs by walking or cycling.

Despite this, the focus on motorised transport is understandable given the truly terrible state of transport infrastructure and traffic congestion. The Traffic Index 2018, a composite index published by the Serbia-based website numbeo.com (which claims to be “the world’s largest database of user contributed data about cities and countries”) rates Nairobi as having the 12th worst traffic in the world, with one-way journeys averaging just under an hour. The World Bank says that Nairobi has “one of the world’s longest average journey-to-work times” with commuting speeds of just 14 kilometers per hour.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

In such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising that the needs of pedestrians are mostly kicked to the kerb. In fact, as New York-based CityLab notes, “The ongoing battle for the roads of Nairobi is an extension of the city’s broader class segregation: Cars, a transit option for the city’s upper classes, command the road with superiority. Pedestrians, many of whom belong to Nairobi’s lower class of informal laborers, are funneled into dangerous and uncomfortable walking environments”.

Since 2013, city authorities have embarked on an ambitious road expansion scheme to tackle the congestion, but it seems that the roads are filling up faster than they can build them. Dorothy McCormick, a researcher at the University of Nairobi, told the Guardian in 2016 that Nairobi’s vehicle population had grown 16-fold in under 30 years and the former Nairobi County Governor, Evans Kidero, once observed that at the current rate of registration, Nairobi’s vehicle population was likely to surpass 1.35 million by 2030.

Nairobi’s love affair with the automobile and the classist segregation of public spaces it represents has a long history. The article “Politics, policy and paratransit by Jacqueline Klopp of Columbia University and Winnie Mitullah of the University of Nairobi states that “European settlers and officials ‘planned’ the city of Nairobi around personalised transport which facilitated physical segregation in terms of mobility”. By 1928, just over two decades after it became the official capital of Kenya, the city had 5,000 cars “making it the city with the highest per capita private automobile ownership in the world”. Thus traffic was a major concern even then. But it was still a city more concerned with the problems of a wealthy motoring few rather than those of the majority of its citizens. Europeans and Asians drove. Poor Africans have always walked.

Just as there was little planning in place to cater for the residential needs of the African majority (which resulted in the mushrooming of slums across the city) so there was little thought given to how they would move around. “The colonial, segregationist urban economy failed to cater for people who were not formally employed by the colonial government,” Klopp and Mitullah note.

When the Nairobi Town Bus, the precursor to Kenya Bus Services, was inaugurated in the 1930s, it was largely for the benefit of Europeans and Asians, as Isaiah Gibson Aduwo noted in 1990. In the 1940s and 1950s, the Kenya Bus Services “served the Eastern parts of the city [where Africans lived] using vehicles built on lorry chassis” according to the paper “The Metamorphosis of Kenya Bus Services Limited in the Provision of Urban Transport in Nairobi” by Tom Opiyo of the Department of Civil Engineering.

In fact, the growth of the matatu industry, which is the source of so much grief nowadays, is a direct result of Africans entrepreneuring their way around the public transport problems that the city government had failed to resolve given that the bus service remained out of reach for all but a minority of city residents. Still, nearly a century after it received its charter as a city, the only major change in the character of Nairobi has been the replacement of the colour bar with one based on class.

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital. The walking poor have to struggle daily for this constricted space on the street with the very perpetrators whose theft of public land has created this situation.

The privileging of the automobile has had a detrimental effect on the community life of the city. “Increased traffic has adverse impacts on public activities which once crowded the streets, such as markets, agoras, parades and processions, games, and community interactions. These have gradually disappeared to be replaced by automobiles,” notes the authors of the book The Geography of Transport Systems. “In many cases, these activities have shifted to shopping malls while in other cases, they have been abandoned altogether.” 

The class “battle for the roads” is over a tiny sliver of Nairobi’s land into which motorists, commuters and pedestrians have been pushed by decades of uncontrolled land-grabbing. A study by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) revealed that in the central part of Nairobi, the space allocated to streets and pavements is only about 12 per cent of the total land area, less than half of the estimated 30 percent required to support a functioning traffic system in a modern capital.

Few stop to ask about who ends up sacrificing the most at the altar of the vehicle and whether it is fair. After all, the vast majority of the walking poor do not hang out at the new swanky malls popping up across the city. Regardless, it is they who end up paying the highest price, both in lives and treasure, for Nairobi’s dysfunctional system, even when they benefit least from it. According to the National Transport Safety Authority, 60 per cent of fatal accidents on the city’s roads involve pedestrians. They also suffer a much higher rate of injury than other road users. Even the introduction of bodaboda (motorcycle taxis), which have brought motorised transport closer to the poor, has been quickly followed by a spike in accidents and deaths involving them.

Further, the street network is ultimately funded by public taxes, and it is the poor who contribute most of that. The rich and the middle classes may have a higher share of income tax but the poor, by sheer force of numbers, more than make up for it in the taxes they pay for accessing goods and services – the government’s largest single source of tax revenue. They basically subsidise car-owning residents’ travel on roads from which they themselves are actively excluded. And this has real implications for their ability to escape poverty as, according to the World Bank, for the average household, only 2 out of every 10 formal jobs are accessible within an hour of either walking or using public transport. In a car, however, that number rises to 9 out of every 10 jobs.

Today, the walking poor are mostly still treated as an after-thought when designing, building and repairing streets. The expansion of roads may be popular but it also generates huge inconveniences and dangers. Pedestrians are forced to either take long detours to find the nearest safe bridge to cross or to risk their lives trying to dash across six or eight lanes of road. The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

But that is an exception. Even when it comes to patching up streets, pedestrians are still left with the short end of the stick. It is common to find smooth roads lined with cratered pavements, which are peppered with open manholes or have been turned into parking spaces.

The recently expanded Outer Ring Road in the poorer eastern part of the city features almost no facilities, such as bridges or pavements, for pedestrians to safely cross or even walk. However, it is interesting to note that when roads were expanded in the wealthier parts of the city, such as in Kileleshwa, most of whose residents drive to work, sidewalks and bicycle lanes were included.

As we increase the city acreage devoted to cars, there is little corresponding increase in land devoted to people. Within the city’s Central Business District, only two streets (Mama Ngina Drive and Aga Khan Walk) are devoted to pedestrian and non-motorised traffic. Hawkers are actively barred from accessing the CBD while matatus and buses can occupy streets (and pavements) for hours on end. In many city estates as well, home owners have grabbed sections of kerbs bordering their properties and converted them into parking spaces or flower gardens.

The county government has been making noises about introducing car-free days to encourage people to leave their vehicles at home but that will not happen as long as the city continues to be organised as it is. “[T]he default in Nairobi for the proper road user is the car,” notes Amiel Bize, a Columbia PhD candidate who has been studying pedestrian safety in Kenya since 2010.

Undoubtedly, the capital needs a sane motorised public transport system. It also needs to take care of its congestion problem. However, none of these objectives can be achieved if it does not take care of its walkability problem. The goal of re-engineering and reinventing Nairobi as a city for people, rather than a city for vehicles, will remain elusive as long as it does not cater to the needs of the majority of its population. It is this that led to Nairobi being ranked a lowly 186 out of 231 global cities in the New York-based consultancy Mercer’s 2018 quality of living survey.

Much of this will involve undoing a century of misconceptions about the desirability of walking. These misconceptions are captured in the Business Daily headline that read: “Traffic congestion slows down Nairobi to a walking city.” Yet the idea of “a walking city” is not a lamentable consequence of a failure of motorised transport but rather should be the desired outcome of effective policies to decongest roads. In fact, as The Geography of Transport Systems notes, “people tend to walk and cycle less when traffic is heavy”. The book emphasises that “traffic flows influence the life and interactions of residents and their usage of street space. More traffic impedes social interactions and street activities.” With the introduction of modern light rail, the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, demonstrates how a combination of policies to improve public transport and a consistent commitment to investing in pedestrian infrastructure can help regenerate cities.

Rather than implementing separate policies, such as the Michuki Rules, to tame matatus and beating Kidero drums to tackle congestion, Nairobi should adopt an integrated plan whose aim should be to make the city a more humane and walkable place to live – a city where the streets are transformed from theatres of conflict and exclusion to arenas of interaction that welcome all people regardless of class.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

CLAUDIO BUTTICÈ examines the factors that influence internet freedom in Africa.

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BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING: Factors influencing Internet freedom in Africa

With the possible exception of Kenya and South Africa, Internet freedom is constantly under attack in most African countries. Ethiopia has suffered a dramatic decline in Internet freedom over the past few years, the Ugandan government has imposed a tax on social media, and the Tanzanian government has taken down many websites – a pattern that closely mimics what happens in China and Korea. In a continent where Internet penetration stands at just 31.2 per cent, less than one-third of the population has access to the World Wide Web. Such restrictions on connectivity, as well as a lack of security, online manipulation and disinformation tactics, play a significant role in keeping many countries undeveloped.

Why online manipulation tactics are a threat to freedom

When the Internet started becoming a mainstream technology, many praised it as a liberating force that was helping millions of people to know the truth about the world they lived in. It didn’t take much for governments of the less democratic countries to understand the threat it posed to their power. Today, however, even many so-called “democracies” have learned how dangerous Internet freedom can be to their entrenched interests and privileges, and have taken action to disrupt it.

Between 2016 and 2018, Internet freedom was widely abused by many governments to distort the truth in their favour. Massive online manipulation tactics have been employed in countries such as China, Russia, Syria and Ethiopia. Even Western nations historically known for the independence of their media, such as the United States and Italy, have seen disinformation used to manipulate elections results. Information about many global events, such as the migratory flows from South America and Africa to the United States and Europe, have been distorted to fuel scare-mongering tactics. Governments in all the corners of the world use political and security reasons as excuses to restrict mobile Internet services, especially in areas populated by religious or ethnic minorities. Online dissent has been suppressed by altering, filtering or removing information on social media, and human rights defenders have often been threatened, attacked, or even killed to silence the few independent voices left. For instance, in March 2018, Rwandan blogger Joseph Nkusi was sentenced to 10 years in prison for incitement to civil disobedience and spreading rumours just because he offered a different perspective on the official narrative of the 1994 genocide.

Bots and fake news have been created and deployed to shape the opinion of countless numbers of people. Surreptitious grassroots support for government policies have been fabricated to justify even the most blatant violation of human rights. Many anti-democratic changes have been condoned by building social media bubbles where citizens falsely stand with regimes that are essentially endorsing themselves. And when online news media suffer the same level of restrictions and propaganda that plague the remaining traditional media, any hope for objectivity is lost forever.

PARASITES OR PRODUCTIVE WORKERS? The truth about African migrants in Europe

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In a nutshell, when people have no access to the truth, or, at least, a different side of the truth, their freedom is stolen, and democracy dies. State-led interventions to restrict Internet freedom ensure that our eyes are open to one thing, and one thing only. Governments that resort to these tactics are scared by the idea of people knowing what is really happening because they have something to hide.

The Chinese influence

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”. Similar seminars have been held in the Philippines, Vietnam, India, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, as well as in many African countries, including Libya, Egypt, Morocco, Tanzania, and Uganda. Unsurprisingly enough, these conferences are often followed by the implementation in those countries of some of the most restrictive and controversial cybercrime and social media laws.

It is no mystery why China is the country that is currently spearheading this new wave of policies that aim to chain down Internet freedom. Officials from Beijing are hosting several seminars, conferences and training courses to teach other governments how to monitor and handle negative public opinion. They have devised new tools to “manage the public opinion in the cyberspace” and establish a new form of “socialist journalism with Chinese characteristics”.

The Chinese are also the same people who provided all those governments with high-tech surveillance tools to monitor people with no respect for their privacy or human rights. With the excuse of “maintaining public order,” autocrats and dictators started employing Artificial Intelligence-powered facial recognition software developed by Chinese companies such as Hikvision and CloudWalk. The latter signed a strategic partnership with the government of Zimbabwe to develop AI that can recognise African faces. Needless to say, the millions of Zimbabwean citizens who saw their personal data sold by the Zimbabwean government to a foreign agency had no say in the deal.

Much of the most important telecommunications infrastructure in these countries is built by China, which apparently doesn’t shun any opportunity to collect additional intelligence. In January 2018, much to their dismay, security staff at the African Union found that the computer system in the headquarters that the Chinese government had gifted the organisation was likely a Trojan horse for cyberespionage. Though China officially denied the reports, it appears that the system had been secretly sending data back to Shanghai servers every day for five years. It is not hard to see that there’s an agenda behind the Asian giant’s digital generosity towards smaller and poorer nations.

Social and blogging media taxes

The Ugandan “social media tax” is a glaring indication that something is wrong. After 32 years of entrenched power held with brutal strength, President Yoweri Museveni found in the Chinese seminars a flawless idea to rule out political opposition without any violence. The Ugandan government imposed an apparently harmless social media tax of 5 cents per day to put an end to “gossip”. Citizens who fail to pay the tax will be cut off from social media by their Internet service provider (ISP). In a country where 80 per cent of the population earns less than a dollar a day, five cents a day is no small deal. And since the tax is applied to all social media platforms and online messenger services, including Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, SnapChat, Tumblr, WhatsApp, Telegram, Viber, Line, and Skype, it quickly adds up. It has been estimated that it could drive up the Internet connection prices to an unacceptable 40 per cent of the average Ugandan’s monthly income.

To further enforce this policy, Uganda’s Communications Commission Executive Director, Godfrey Mutabazi, suggested telecom companies subject virtual private networks (VPNs) to the tax. In the meantime, ISPs have been ordered to block and switch off VPNs one by one. Banning VPNs is a move that China already tested as a successful tactic to stop those who found a rather simple method to circumvent Internet censorship. It would be a terribly effective way for Museveni to maintain his authoritarian regime without facing the international condemnation that comes with the use of tear gas and live rounds fired at demonstrators. And it could have similar effects as in Cameroon, which restricted Internet access for at least 150 days in 2017.

In 2017, neighbouring Tanzania praised the Chinese government’s efforts to replace social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter with “homegrown sites that are safe, constructive, and popular”. Shortly afterwards, in July 2018, several popular websites had to be shut down to avoid hefty fines imposed by a new troubling law that restricts criticism of the government. In an effort to “curb moral decadence” the government passed a provision that forces bloggers, online streaming platforms, YouTube TV channels, online radio stations, online forums, social media users and Internet cafes to pay a $930 fee to publish online. Bloggers are required to also provide a lengthy list of details and information, while Internet cafés must install surveillance cameras. Violating these new rules or posting anti-government statements on social media may lead to imprisonment for a minimum of 12 months or a fine of at least $2,200, or both. Once again, free expression in Africa was muzzled and curtailed through Internet censorship.

Surveillance and interception of communication

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Malawi, the Consolidated ICT Regulatory Management System (CIRMS) – what Malawians call the “Spy Machine” – will allegedly monitor mobile phone service providers to ensure fair pricing and quality of service. Note that “allegedly” here is the key word. Its implementation was initially challenged in the High Court by civil rights movements but the Supreme Court eventually allowed it. Bottom line: the Spy Machine now allows Malawian government officers to listen to subscribers’ private conversations with no restriction. To ensure “quality of service”, of course.

Another way to impose an indirect control on Internet usage is the violation of privacy rights for alleged “security purposes”. Many countries, such as Kenya, Uganda, DR Congo and Tanzania, enacted laws that allow the installation of surveillance tools that enable interception of communications with the excuse of “detecting, deterring and disrupting terrorism”. But who is protecting people from being spied on? Who controls whether these tools are used for surveillance or censorship instead?

In Kenya, in January 2017, the Communications Authority (CA) wanted to install a link at the data centre or mobile switching room of mobile operators to identify counterfeit or stolen phones. The purpose of this was supposedly to prevent terrorism in accordance with the provisions of the country’s Prevention of Terrorism Act. However, it was later alleged that this system could also intercept phone calls and its implementation was, therefore, blocked by the courts. It was also later alleged that middle boxes may be present on the Safaricom network and that law enforcement officers are allowed to extract private information before seeking a warrant. Other reports purportedly found that the CA procured the Israeli HIWIRE technology to capture, monitor, and analyse private activities on social media. Although all of these allegations are still just allegations and nothing else, it’s not hard to understand what the narrative is in this case.

The economic impact of Internet disruptions

Internet shutdowns have become common in sub-Saharan Africa, especially during elections or when public anti-government protests occur. Internet disruptions in the region have occurred in a total combined period of 236 days since 2015. But even if security agencies work with national communications regulators to order the disruptions for purported “national security reasons”, many African governments do not even realise how high the cost of these shutdowns is.

In Africa, the information communications technology (ICT) sector is thriving. Over the past two years, smartphone connections have doubled to almost 200 million, especially in countries such as South Africa, DR Congo, Cameroon, and Kenya. Broadband subscriptions, smartphone purchases, and the mobile money sector are expected to grow exponentially, providing unique opportunities for productivity gains to enterprises and governments. The ICT sector is a potent catalyst of economic growth since it provides the opportunity to overcome Africa’s logistical limitations, such as poor road networks and cumbersome bureaucracy. ICTs also allow for a reduction in organisational costs; they speed up the circulation of money, and contribute directly to the economy of many African countries in the form of fees and taxes paid by local and foreign ICT companies. The value added by the ICT ecosystem has been estimated at $10.5 billion in 2016, with an indirect productivity impact worth up to $62 billion.

It is hard to precisely estimate the economic cost of Internet disruptions because every shutdown of communication services affects countless services. Secondary economic damages are suffered by sectors affected by shutdowns, such as call centres, tourism and hospitality services and e-commerce. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa estimates that African governments have suffered a deficit of at least $235 million due to lost tax revenues caused by blocked digital access and reduced worker productivity – a significant sum as the African Union’s combined GDP amounts to only $1.5 trillion. Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Positive news

Africa’s Internet freedom is constantly under attack, but democratic forces are fighting back, and in some instances, were able to score some critical victories.

In May 2018, the Computer Misuse and Cyber Crime Act passed in Kenya provided authorities with the discretion of prosecuting individuals who were found guilty of “subverting national security” while interacting online. While the law purported to protect Internet users from things like cyber harassment, it was clearly created with the sole purpose of muzzling dissenting political views and freedom of expression. But on May 29, the Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE) sued the Attorney-General, the Speaker of the National Assembly, the Inspector-General of Police and the Director of Public Prosecution, claiming the Act was unconstitutional. The High Court ruled in favour of the bloggers, suspending 22 provision of the law for further review.

Shutdowns represent an insurmountable barrier to business expansion; they damage local competitiveness and erode investor confidence, causing unnecessary reputational risks. In Kenya, the direct and indirect costs of a full Internet shutdown would be among the highest in sub-Saharan Africa, at over $6.3 million per day.

Ethiopia, a nation which spearheaded censorship in Africa, is also slowly freeing itself from the draconian restrictions imposed by the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. Although strong repressive measures are still present, the newly appointed Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, has already started moving towards a more progressive agenda. A gender-balanced cabinet has been appointed, thousands of prisoners, including some prominent bloggers, have been released, dissidents have been allowed to return home, and hundreds of TV channels and websites have been unblocked. Ethiopians are now enjoying an unexpected new age of free expression, which other so-called democracies in the rest of Africa should emulate.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

CHRISTINE MUNGAI explores Kenya’s new prison industrial complex and unearths the fundamental flaws in Jubilee’s plan to make jails profitable.

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KENYA’S NEW PRISON INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: Fundamental flaws in Uhuru Kenyatta’s plan to make jails profitable

“When I first became involved in anti-prison activism dur­ing the late 1960s, I was astounded to learn that there were then close to two hundred thousand people in prison. Had anyone told me that in three decades, ten times as many peo­ple would be locked away in cages, I would have been absolutely incredulous.” ~ Angela Davis

In the one hundred years between the mid-1850s and 1980s – a period of nearly 130 years – the state of California constructed a total of nine prisons and two prison camps. But in the five years between 1984 and 1989, nine more prisons were constructed. It had taken more than a century to build the first nine prisons in California, and less than a decade for that number to double. Today, there are 34 state prisons in California, and this is not counting federal prisons or county jails – the equivalent of Kenya’s police cells. The state of California also has 43 prison “conservation” camps, whose inmates are procured to fight wildfires and respond to other public emergencies.

That the US is running a Prison Industrial Complex has been well documented. America accounts for just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Ava DuVernay’s gripping 2016 documentary, 13th, expertly tracks the policies, systems and forces that have pressed more than 2.3 million Americans – overwhelmingly black and Latino – into the prison system, so much so that in some neighbourhoods, going to prison is almost a normal rite of passage.

But what the figures above from California reveal is that the processes that produce mass incarceration of an entire demographic can be astonishingly rapid and diabolically efficient.

***

“The first thing that happened when we got there is we were told to strip. In the open. All wardens sitting there watching. I think this was the worst thing to happen to us. We were many. The indignity of standing naked in front of strangers…” ~ Anonymous submission to #PrisonDiaries (courtesy of @MarigaThoithi)

 In early October, a press statement from the Presidential Strategic Communications Unit (PSCU) revealed a plan to establish the Kenya Prison Enterprise Corporation, a “state enterprise” that would reportedly expand the scope of prison work programmes “with the aim of unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry, and ultimately turn it into a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity.”

The new corporation will also contribute to the realisation of President [Uhuru] Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, particularly food security, affordable housing, and manufacturing,” a statement from State House said. The corporation will be mandated to “organise and manage” the assets of the Prisons Department, including 86 prison farms with a total of over 18,200 acres of land. The corporation will, at some point, “foster ease of entry into partnership with the private sector on different spheres” – a vague statement that could include private contracting of anything from construction of prison facilities to full operations.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

However, it is horrifying to think that the way to kill two birds – job creation and industrialisation – is by the deadly stone of expanding the prison sector, corralling people into a pool of cheap labour with almost no rights. Granted, there are many different privatisation models. Private firms can be contracted to build prisons, to manage them, or both. Countries such as the US, UK and Australia have privatised the entire chain of operations from construction to day-to-day operations, while in Europe the trend is to outsource specific functions, such as catering, administration, healthcare and security. In many Asian prisons, the private sector is more directly involved in the prison industry by contracting inmates to work in for-profit factories or firms. Kenya seems to be leaning towards a mixed model, where the corporation, for now, remains fully state-owned but is run with a private sector ethos.

As Michael Onsando at BrainstormKE has argued, the plan to “unlock the revenue potential” of the prison industry is linked to the current financial distress in the Jubilee administration, as well as to a desire to make some gains in President Uhuru Kenyatta’s “legacy” term.

Kenya’s prisons house nearly 50,000 people in facilities designed to hold 14,000. Stories of horrific conditions of disease, vermin and lack of food are common.

Most of the support for the privatisation of prisons is in the form of two arguments: one, that the private sector can run prisons better than governments can; and two, and that prisons ought to support themselves financially.

The evidence is mixed on the first claim; privatisation does not always save money or improve efficiency. A 2011 investigative report by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that private prisons “do not save money, cannot be demonstrated to save money in meaningful amounts, or may even cost more than government prisons.”

A value-for-money study commissioned by the Dutch government found that while operational costs in private prisons were reduced by 2-13%, savings disappeared once transaction and other financial costs were taken into account.

Some countries have rejected proposals to privatise prisons. In Costa Rica, although the government had signed a pre-contract to build a private prison with a capacity for 1,200 inmates at $73 million, it did not proceed with the deal, instead opting to build facilities at its own expense for 2,600 inmates at $10million. The Costa Rican government realised that going along with the deal would mean being locked into a contract that would spend $37 daily per inmate for 20 years, while in the state prisons the amount was $11. (Inmates in state facilities made up 80% of the prison population.) The government cancelled the contract, and opted instead to improve the situation of all inmates, raising the daily per capita amount to $16 for all those under confinement.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The second claim – that private prisons should be able to support themselves financially – is deeply rooted in a neoliberal ethos that judges the value of everything through the logic of the market. We see this in the announcement of the plan by PSCU, which stated that unlocking the revenue potential of the prisons industry would ultimately turn it into “a reformative and financially self-sustaining entity”.

In South Africa, the government took over a private prison in Bloemfontein because G4S – the private security company contracted to run the prison – “had lost effective control of the facility”. Investigations were launched into allegations that some prisoners had been forcibly injected with anti-psychotic medication and subjected to electric shocks.

The framing of this proposal is curious, particularly in the way it connects reformation with financial independence. It is neoliberalism offering rehabilitation through success in the market. (No wonder that the phrase “prominent Nairobi businessman/ woman” is often used to sanitise the reputation of people mired in scandal.)

Moreover, in a place like Kenya, where government contracts are often irregularly awarded and where corruption is endemic, privatisation can actually result in degraded services. Already, detectives are investigating a Sh6.2 billion scandal at the Prisons Department. A senior detective revealed a few weeks ago that investigators from the Directorate of Criminal Investigations and the anti-graft commission were closing in on suspects behind the suspicious spending on prisoners’ food, which was cleared last year although it is still marked as a pending bill.

Now, by linking the prisons sector with President Kenyatta’s Big 4 Agenda, we are likely to see the emergence of a “hard-working performer” at the helm of the prison corporation who will point to the profits at the end of the prison pipeline as evidence of “cleaning up” the ailing penal system.

***

“The perpetrator is a product of criminal discourse and a victim of institutions that claim to deter crime, but are actually invested in perpetrating a police state where everyone is under surveillance and on the border of falling into criminality.” ~ Michel Foucault

All this is happening in a worrying context of a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets the young, the poor and the urban. Last year, a damning audit by the National Council on the Administration of Justice revealed that the Kenyan state is essentially at war with informality. In practical terms, poverty is a crime.

Not only that, colonial laws against offences like vagrancy and loitering remain on our statute books and are vigorously enforced – as Carey Baraka articulated on the perils of being a young man on the streets of Nairobi and being forced to prove your existence by producing an ID card on demand. In fact, demands for ID documents assume that the black body in the city is not legitimate and must be accounted for.

“It’s an assumption that Africans can never be urban,” says city planner Constant Cap. “If you are urban, then you are not a real African, and you must explain your presence in the city to the powers that be. Our cities are actually not planned with us in mind – it is like they are not expecting permanent residents, just itinerant workers who trade their labour.”

This means that nearly 70% of court cases in our criminal judicial system are criminally petty, nuisance offences, or economically-driven (such as being drunk and disorderly, trading without a licence, loitering, causing a disturbance, or “preparing to commit a felony”). The dragnet is so large and indiscriminate that a Kenyan adult has a 1 in 10 chance of spending some time in police custody over the course of a year, although these figures skew heavily towards those who are young, male and poor.

In some ways, it is a logic that leans towards universal punishment rather than supporting universal prosperity – even for the small street trader who is really not doing anyone any harm, and certainly does not deserve jail time. As the economy continues to be depressed, we are likely to see more people who are unable to secure formal employment and who turn to informal trading on the street. This will make them more vulnerable to police harassment and arbitrary arrest.

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

Meanwhile, the Judiciary is reeling from huge budget cuts this year. It had requested Sh31 billion to fund its operations for the current financial year but it was allocated Sh17 billion by the National Treasury. The latter figure was further reduced by Parliament to Sh14 billion. This means that judicial officers will likely be under more pressure to arrest and fine, as a prosecutor in the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) told me. “Petty offences are prosecuted vigorously in the judicial system because they are quick and easy to prove – the only witness needed in most cases is a police officer,” she said. “And the fines are now an even important source of money for the Judiciary.”

A recent investigation by Nation Newsplex revealed that there are more pre-trial detainees incarcerated in Kenya than convicted prisoners; 90% of those in remand have been granted bail but cannot afford it even though more than half of the bails were set at less than Sh250,000 (roughly $2,500). In other words, there are immediate better outcomes for being rich and guilty than poor and innocent.

It doesn’t help that the key performance indicators (KPIs) for judicial officers are convictions. The gravity of the case doesn’t matter because “a conviction is a conviction, and magistrates get promoted on the basis of the number, not the type, of convictions,” the prosecutor told me, “even if the charges are just trespassing, hawking, illegal grazing, and the like.”

How might the profit incentive in the prisons change the trends in convictions and sentencing? “I definitely see a possibility for it to be more profitable to send people to jail than to fine them,” the prosecutor said. “Remandees are often given work to do things like sweep the governor’s compound – a profit motive in prisons will escalate this, and it will be framed as a favour to prisoners.”

***

But this is not all. The Kenyan education system is undergoing two major changes. On the one hand, the new curriculum has an increased focus on technical and vocational skills, and less of an emphasis on academic subjects. On the other hand, there is increased surveillance and militarisation of the school system, with authorities, including the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI) and the Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed, issuing threats of a criminal record and jail time for students who protest or who are implicated in anti-social behaviour.

“This is to warn every student from primary school, secondary school, college and university that the DCI is archiving and profiling every criminal act and consolidating charges that may be preferred to each and every student involved in any crime,” the DCI tweeted in June.

A school-to-prison pipeline is therefore not far-fetched. With the new curriculum putting students on individual “talent” pathways, it will be easy to explain student failures on their lack of talent, thereby obscuring the bigger structural issues that might be at play. And now, students cannot complain, or they risk jail time.

“[The] negative characterization of poor and largely nonwhite youth is in sync with the broader push to replace social services with criminalization,” Alex Vitale writes in “The Criminalization of Youth”, an article in Jacobin magazine. “As more and more deprived neighborhoods are denied access to decent jobs and schools, their young people are criminalized as ‘the worst of the worst’ to ensure that the problems in these communities are understood as individual and group moral failures, rather than the result of rapacious market forces and a hollowed-out state.”

***

“Companies that service the criminal sys­tem need sufficient quantities of raw materials to guarantee long-term growth . . . In the criminal jus­tice field, the raw material is prisoners and indus­try will do what is necessary to guarantee a steady supply. For the supply of prisoners to grow, criminal justice policies must ensure a sufficient number of incarcerated [people] regardless of whether crime is rising or the incarceration is necessary.” Steven Donziger

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This should worry us all because mere contact with the system leaves “a stain of criminality”, my prosecutor friend told me. “I’ve seen children and young people enter the criminal justice system for a small reason that could have been handled at home or in the community – and by the time the system is done with them, they are into proper crime: hardened, disillusioned and angry.”

Three new menacing forces – the profit motive of privatised prisons, a depressed economy with fewer formal jobs and more informal trade, and a more militarised school system with jail sentences for unruly students – are likely to work with diabolical synergy to push an increasing number of young people into the criminal justice system.

This is not a feature of a broken state apparatus; on the contrary, the state is acting just as it was designed to act, as Keguro Macharia reminds us:

One reads Kenyans demanding colonial systems work better, and weeps. 

– “we need police to do their work properly”

– “we need the laws implemented properly”

– “we need the judicial systems to work properly”

If you are being unhumaned, those systems are working properly.

If you are being executed, those systems are working properly.

If you are feeling frustrated and humiliated, those systems are working properly.

The demand cannot be that systems designed to unhuman Africans work properly.

The demand is abolition.

And as for Uhuru Kenyatta achieving the Big 4 agenda through prison “reform”, it would be worth looking at how the US government systematically and cynically deprived its black and brown citizens of liberty at a huge cost even to itself. Instead of building good public housing like the Housing Acts of 1949/65/68 mandated, the US rapidly built prisons. So in an evil kind of way, the US did end up investing in public housing – in jail.

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