The Embassy bombing of August 1998 and the twinned attack on a Kikambala tourist hotel and Israeli charter flight in 2002 led to the designation of the coast of East Africa as a primary theatre in the war on terror. Lamu featured prominently in the events that followed the emergence of homegrown terrorists. The new state of affairs was as unexpected as it was counterintuitive. For those who know the archipelago and its people, a remote and peaceful society like Lamu became associated with radical Islam defies the imagination. How this came about is a long story.
Religion and revivalism in the Lamu Archipelago
For people living in a place like Lamu scanning the horizon becomes a habit. For over two millennia, the triangular sails that with clockwork regularity appear in the distance near the end of the kaskasi winds brought new influences and exotic visitors who settled and became part of the Swahili coast’s hybrid mélange. Swahili language and culture evolved out of the long-term dynamic of cosmopolitan interaction interrupted by the occasional system-modifying disruption.
Islam, a source of stability that provided the template for the numerically small Swahili communities dealing with the vagaries of the outside world, took centuries to take root and flourish. During the eighth century C.E., political conflicts associated with the Sunni-Shia schism propelled small groups of Muslim refugees to the coast of east Africa. Islam spread slowly during the following millennium, integrating along the way influences from the hinterland like the kuzungusha ng’ombe and sorio purification rituals that the scholar Gunther Schlee identifies as originating with the proto-Rendille/Somali cultural complex.
The integration of such local practices congruent with Biblical and Quranic traditions apparently synched with the Swahili coast’s legacy of orthodox Islamic scholarship. According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
Pate went into decline after an internal war of succession broke out following the death of Fumo Omari, Pate’s Sultan in 1807. The long poem Al Inkishafi, the most powerful exemplar of classical Swahili poetry, contrasts images of the once powerful Sultanate’s former opulence with Pate’s ruinous state several decades later to illustrate the transient nature of the material world.
According to a 16th century report credited to the Qadhi of Mecca, Lamu’s ulama religious council could hold its own in theological discussions with anyone. Lamu prospered as the archipelago’s main harbor, but remained under the control of Pate, which for centuries was the most powerful city-state between Mogadishu and Kilwa.
The nineteenth century was a period of political turbulence across the Muslim world that prompted a rethink of Islam in Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, and other centres of Islamic scholarship. Developments opened the door for the pan-Islamic political ideologies of religious rationalists. Reformers like Mohammed Abdul and Jamal Din Al Afghani advocated for Islamic education based on open inquiry and the search for knowledge over slavish commitment to medieval interpretations of Islam. In other areas, where Sufi traditions of experienced based religious knowledge were strong, reform focused on the personal internalization of Islamic values. One scholar writing about the Hadhramaut, a strong source of Islamic influence on the coast of East Africa, described the focus of religious renewal as “a shift from doctrine to praxis – i.e. as an attempt to bring to others the ‘tools’ for proper, good life, for ‘inner’ ability to separate right from wrong.”
The Ba’Alawiyya is Sufi tariqa established by descendants of the Prophet over a thousand years ago in the Hadhramaut. It became known later for championing the expansion of religious education while retaining its emphasis on Sharifite lineage. The Hadhrami diaspora that accelerated during the 1700s spread Ba’Alawiyya influence across the Indian Ocean from Java to East Africa. Several generations of Hadhrami scholars based in the Comoros and Zanzibar had through their scholarship and personal example promoted the quest for personal purity through the study of Islam’s original Quranic sources and traditions. This saw ulama religious councils in Zanzibar and the Comoros displace the influence of those of Lamu and Mombasa as the region’s ranking centres of religious knowledge.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
Salih bin Alawi, or Habib Saleh as he came to be known, was born in 1853 on the island of Grande Comoro. At the age of 18, the young Sharif followed his uncle Abdalla bin Alawi to Lamu to study with its Islamic scholars. After a sojourn in the Comoros he returned to Lamu, declaring that Lamu was the only place where he felt spiritually at home.
The arrival of the charismatic Jamil al Layl Sharif, Habib Saleh from the Comoro Islands subsequently sparked the revival of Lamu as a centre of Islamic knowledge.
During the last decade of the nineteenth century Habib Saleh acted on his belief that religious education should be available to everyone. The town’s stratified social order was already being challenged by the growing number of Hadhrami immigrants, Bajuni settlers from the archipelago’s outer islands, and freed slaves who settled in the area now known as Langoni. Habib Saleh built the original Ryadha mosque on a sandy hill above the expanding area of new settlement and went on to establish a mosque college modeled on the ribats established in the Hadhramaut by the previous generation of Alawi scholars. Ryadha offered religious instruction to all at a time when religious knowledge was still central to the power relations in Swahili settlements.
The Ba’Alawiyya taught that a religious leader should seek out obscurity in place of popular recognition, avoid material manifestations of wealth and power, and that they should keep a low public profile while continuing to offer advice to the community in religious matters. Habib Saleh personified these qualities. He also established a new Maulidi, the religious ceremony celebrating the birth of the Prophet, that featured litanies composed by one of his mentors, Al Habshi, recited to the accompaniment of the twari, a percussion instrument similar to the tambourine.
Habib Saleh’s educational pluralism put him into conflict with Lamu’s power establishment based in the old stone town, who tried to curb his activities. When this failed agents of the old order attempted to sabotage his growing influence by starting a fire in the Ryadha area of Langoni. According to the folklore, Habib appealed to his mentor in the Hadhramaut, Al Habshi, who intervened by using his mystical powers to miraculously extinguish the fire from afar.
These events coincided with the turbulent events accompanying the establishment of British imperialism in East Africa. As the archipelago’s pivotal role on the Swahili coast began to ebb, Kiwa Ndeo, the ‘Proud Isle’ as Lamu was known in Swahili verse, emerged as the center of a new Islamic movement that was to gradually spread beyond its coastal base. The town’s two religious streams coalesced after the success of Habib Saleh’s religious education revolution. His sons and grandsons proceeded to extend Lamu’s religious influence across the coast and into the interior of East Africa after the Saint’s death in 1938.
When I took up residence in Lamu in 1974, the Ryadha Mosque College buzzed with activity and housed students from as far away as Zaire, Tanzania, and the Comoro Islands. Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
The festival had at some point expanded to include traditional Swahili dances that were performed in the large open area in front of the mosque. Elders from Pate and Ndau performed the slow moving Goma parade in immaculate white kanzu while the youth fought mock battles in the kirumbizi stick-fighting dance to the rapid cadence of the high-pitched zumari. After the conclusion of the Ishaa evening prayers, Miji Kenda gyrated to the rhythm of their ndurenge and mwanzele, the Pokomo did their mwaribe, and the wagema, the specialists in climbing the tall coconut palms to harvest the nuts and tap its sweet sap, performed their distinctive uta dance.
Lamu’s annual Mauled festival attracted Muslims from diverse backgrounds, including delegations from southern Arabia and Sudan, becoming one of East Africa’s major cultural events in the process. Wealthy Arab and Asian businessmen from Nairobi and beyond used the occasion to donate funds to the academy.
Not everyone accepted this exemplar of the Swahili coast’s tolerant and cosmopolitan Islamic culture. A small minority of Wahhabi influenced reformers objected to the use of the twari during the recitation of the Maulidi in Lamu mosques and the non-Islamic performances during the festival. Lamu religious leaders dismissed the complaints by stating that the Maulidi celebrated Habib Saleh’s tradition of inclusion, and that it attract new converts while maintaining positive relations with their non-Muslim neighbors.
Like the annual arrival of the dhows, the Maulidi’s importance for Lamu’s economic cycle had grown as the latter declined, in part due to the arbitrary imposition of customs duty and harassment by government officials. The rest of the year, Lamu’s economy largely depended on the traditional maritime activities and farming. The once vibrant mainland agriculture, however, was suffering due to poor security. Mainland Bajuni, displaced by Shifta bandit attacks in the 1960s, tried to resettle in mainland areas like Magogoni but found the going rough. A friend of mine gave up his farm there after being raised in the air by an elephant and dashed to the ground in front of his terrified children.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed. The hospitality industry became an essential growth sector that compensated for the decline of other livelihoods while revitalizing the production of artisanal crafts and the town’s famous woodcarving tradition. The building boom in Arabia led to a spike in demand for mangrove poles, reviving the international dhow trade. Remittances and returnees from the Gulf and Saudia Arabia provided a boost. After eight decades of economic stagnation, the archipelago’s economy began to sparkle again.
The Maulidi gained additional traction during this period as an advertisement for Lamu’s tourism, attracting a growing stream of Western visitors and high profile celebrities. On different occasions I saw the likes of Robert Redford, Omar Sharif, and Mick Jagger walking down the waterfront unrecognized and undisturbed.
These were simpler times, although much was changing underneath the surface. The tensions fueled by religious dogma and historical divisions elsewhere in the Islamic world were a non-factor except for the running debate over the distinctive Maulidi celebration spearheaded by Kenya’s chief Kadhi, Abdalla Farsi, and other Mombasa-based reformers. This debate was of little import in Lamu. The only dispute of significance was the internal rift between the Ryadha Sharifs that came into the open during the early 1970s when two of Habib Saleh’s grandsons started an alternative madrassa at Sofaa, a new mosque modeled on Ryadha and financed by a patron from the old Mkomani elite.
The contest between the traditionalists and modernisers remained couched in battles over local issues like the debate over the introduction of the Al Habshi version of the Maulidi celebration in place of the more generic Barzanji recitation, and its validation of the sharifs’ elevated spiritual station. It was difficult to see divisions like the longstanding Sunni-Shia conflict arising among the local believers in these settings. But events conspired to make this happen after a small freighter dropped anchor in the Lamu roadstead on an otherwise unremarkable June day in 1985.
Shi’a versus Bidha’a on the Coast of Kenya
The 1979 Iranian revolution upset the Islamic world’s political and religious status quo. The unanticipated strength of the events set in motion by Ayatollah Khomeini overturned both conventional and leftist concepts of the ‘grand march of modernization in the West, reviving religion as a driver of socio-political change for the first time since the Western Enlightenment.
One of the West’s most prominent academic authorities on Islam, Maxime Rodinson, had built a reputation by stressing that historically it was extremely difficult to find religious sources for Muslim responses to their situation: explanations should be sought in the “the social, cultural and ideological context of the age in which they operated than by their Muslim origin”. The country’s relative prosperity made developments in Iran all the more surprising for upending such theories. Analysts and policy makers were unprepared to assess the implications of what the Lebanese–born scholar, Fuad Ajami, termed “The Impossible Revolution”.
Internal Iranian participants in the upheaval also confused the broad spectrum of anti-government support that united under Khomeini, with the revolution’s Shia religious agenda. The centre did not hold. The Marxist Khalq Party was decimated. The interim Prime Minister, Mehdi Barzagan, didn’t last long. Khomeini banished any hope of accommodation by backing the students who took control of the US Embassy.
The broad spectrum of leftist groups and moderate middle class supporters who joined up with the religious opposition during the uprising could only rue their mistake. Like the many experts caught out by the events, they were left to contemplate Khomeini’s observation that “the Islamic revolution is not about the price of Persian limes.”
It was one of the seminal events of the Twentieth Century. Ayatollah Khomeini ended up on the cover of Time in 1979. The Saudi’s and their Western allies responded by backing Saddam Hussein’s doomed invasion of the contested Iraq-Iran border zone. The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Egypt was the first modern Islamic voice to influence Muslims south of the Sahara, and religion did not figure prominently in the message. Gamal Abdel Nassir used the Voice of Egypt to break the European control of the airwaves and focused on anti-imperialist themes reinforcing African aspirations for independence. Egyptian radio broadcasts of the 1960s eschewed the sectional interests of the region’s diverse Muslims and instead cultivated support for the non-aligned movement. But after Nassir’s death, economic power replaced ideology, and patronage links with Saudi Arabia took over as the primary conduit of external influence on the Islamic periphery.
The mutually calamitous military intervention morphed into a wider soft war to win the hearts and minds of the world’s Muslims, it was only a matter of time before the agents of this proxy battle showed up on Kenyan shores.
Most of their funds were transacted on the state level with a view towards cementing ties of economic cooperation while curbing Israeli influence. The rest went to support madrassa education and to train teachers. In Kenya, a new generation of scholars and Imams, many of whom were sponsored by the Saudis, were opposing superstitions like belief in the power of amulets, quasi-religious divination and magic, and other practices tolerated by the Sharifite establishment. But despite its decidedly non-Wahhabi orientation, Lamu’s Ryadha establishment also received Saudi support.
Although Saudi aid at that juncture highlighted secular principles, it was part of a longer-term strategy twinning cultivation of Wahhabi ideology with support for the Kingdom. The Iranian Revolution shook up this patrimonial status quo, and in Kenya, Iran’s new popularity complemented coastal Muslims’ antipathy for the ‘Arabs’.
During my early days on the coast I was frequently confused by the contradictions conveyed by the word “Arab.” As far as I could see, although only religious scholars and relatively recent Hadhrami immigrants actually spoke Arabic, many coastal Muslims aspired to a degree of Arab-ness through dress and language, while real and imputed connections to Arab lineages conferred prestige. Bajuni oral tradition, for example, states that these indigenous African Swahili originated in Mecca. I was naturally perplexed when a Bajuni friend remarked, “Arabs are the worst people in the world.
Other coastals who came from high status ‘Arab’ families expressed a similar attitude, claiming that the Arabs of Arabia are primitive and vain. Jokes about the Saudis in particular were common, especially among coastals returning from the Kingdom who found life in Arabia difficult and suffocating. The large number of coastals who migrated there in search of work found themselves treated as low status migrant workers. Merchants with important business connections sometimes echoed the negative attitudes prevalent among the Swahili and near universal among the Somali. “The Saudis are very nice when you meet them here,” one Mombasa tycoon told me, “but if you deal with them in Arabia they are the worst of savages.”
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
This began to change after the 1979 revolution. Iran became a symbol of the fight back against Westernisation. Their efforts to promote Islamic moral renewal highlighted local grievances over historical injustices and other issues that were never championed by the Arabs and their political clients. For the first time since the late nineteenth century, coastal Muslims could look to a role model in Ayatollah Khomeini who combined religious integrity with political liberation. Pictures of the Ayatollah joined the pantheon of cultural heroes on the coast, sometimes sharing a wall with Bob Marley and Bollywood film stars.
A convoluted mix of Arab-philia and Swahili cultural autonomy reflected the conservatism of many local scholars and Imams, who tended to steer a neutral line between the influence of internal reformers and external religious patrons. What they shared in common was their reluctance to address the political marginalization of Kenya’s Muslims.
During the early 1980s the Iranians initiated efforts to exploit their religious capital by cultivating influence on the coast. They established an Islamic newspaper in Mombasa that discussed social problems and offered religious commentary. The Iranian Embassy sponsored delegations of local notables and sheikhs to visit Iran. Most returned speaking of Iran in glowing terms; the Saudis responded by flying many of the same individuals to Mecca and Medina. The narrative emerging out of these junkets confirm the reports of seamen who reported how they were welcomed as Muslim brothers in Iranian ports like Bandar Abbas but were treated poorly on the other side of the Persian Gulf—where Christian expatriates were received with open arms.
The Iranians’ efforts gradually brought some religious leaders under their influence, including Abdullahi Nassir, former leader of the pro-secession Coast Peoples Party, who was commissioned to deliver a series of lectures across the coast. In Lamu, the internal conflict between the Ryadha and Sofaa sharifs provided another entry point.
In 1983 Sofaa had recruited the assistance of the long-serving Mombasa politician, Sharif Nassir. The two factions typically supported different candidates in local elections, and this presented Nassir with an opportunity to leverage his support among the large Lamu community in Mombasa. The coast’s pre-eminent politician held a harambee at the Sofaa Mosque to raise funds to build a new madrassa and dormitory. Shortly afterwards the Iranians offered their assistance for the same project.
When I visited the mosque in May of 1984 I found a new over-sized version of the original Sofaa and a new educational complex erected on the plot behind it. A block of classes funded by Nassir’s harambee remained incomplete, like a testament to the old order. I was told that Mzee Mwenye, the head of the mosque and its Imam, Mwenye Omari, had embraced the Ithna Asheri school of Shi’ism. When I spoke to them, they said they were grateful to their new Iranian friends for improving the facilities but otherwise nothing significant had changed.
The mosques beautiful new calligraphy with its references to the Shia martyrs Hussein, Hassan, and the Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, indicated otherwise. The conduct of prayers and most everything else was the same, although my father-in-law confirmed that the pro-Shia management had began using the Shia version of the call to prayers before the complaints of the neighborhood’s residents saw it discontinued.
East African Muslims are a multicultural community where until recently sectarian differences rarely served as a source of friction. Bohra, Ismaili, Ithna Asheri, and other Asian Shia Muslims lived among the Sunni majority in coastal towns and cities and even married Sunni wives occasionally. This explains why Sofaa’s Shia affiliation was, for most people in Lamu, more about the ongoing Ryadha-Sofaa feud than a break with Lamu’s Islamic tradition. My father-in-law and many other former regulars continued to pray at Sofaa despite the changes.
The conflict nevertheless began to ramp up over the following months as the two factions engaged in various battles for influence, beginning with the recruitment of children to attend their respective madrassa. My wife was perplexed when competing representatives of Sofaa and Ryadha had come to the house advising her to enroll our children in their respective Quran schools. They warned of the negatives that would result if they remained in their present chuo, which was not affiliated to either faction.
The Sofaa faction won a legal victory when they went to court to prevent the eviction of a popular female maalim based in a vacated Shi’a mosque that had not been used for decades. This was followed by a battle over selection of a new mosque for hosting Friday prayers. The traditional Mskiti wa Jumaa in Mkomani could no longer host the town’s growing numbers, forcing late arrivals to pray on the sidewalks and alleyways outside the mosque. When Sofaa lost their bid to be selected as the second Jumaa mosque, partisans chained the doors of the eight hundred year-old Pwani Mosque – identified with Lamu’s pre-Ba’Alawiyya ulama – that had been chosen instead. The District Commissioner, however, intervened on behalf of the anti-Sofaa clerics.
Lamu people discussed these developments in their usual jocular fashion, referring to the parties as Watu wa Shi’a and Watu wa Bidha’a, the latter being a reference to the criticism of the Maulidi who claimed it was the kind of religious innovation forbidden in the Quran. Most everyone I knew viewed the events as a family affair that had burst into the open with comic effect. No one took down their pictures of the Ayatollah, even though their take on the revolution had soured during the interim.
Prior to these developments, in 1982, a fire consumed a large area of Langoni. It started after a quarrel between a brother and sister ended with the brother setting the house on fire before dawn. The prevailing kuzi winds spread the flames across Langoni’s canopy of palm-thatched roofs, incinerating hundreds of the densely packed mud and wood houses and spreading to the coral rag stone structures lining the Msitu wa Mui, Lamu’s main street which the government had ineffectually renamed Kenyatta Avenue. When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
International and Kenyan donors committed funds for rebuilding a new mabati (corrugated iron)-roofed Langoni, but the promised reconstruction of the homes dragged out. A year later many households were still camping in makeshift structures built on the ruined plots; after two years some victims on the list were still waiting for compensation. Most of the damage occurred on the Sofaa side of town, which ostensibly led to the mission of the mysterious freighter that arrived almost three years later.
When the fire moved uphill towards Ryadha, the mosque’s senior Imam, Sayyid Ali Badawy, came out of the mosque waving Habib Saleh’s flag. The wind died and the fire expired without causing further harm. I was upcountry at the time. When I returned to Kiwa Ndeo a week later, a posse of eyewitnesses confirmed this sequence of events.
The ship carried clothing for the victims of the Lamu fire donated by the Shi’a community in Kuwait. It spent a long time anchored off Manda Island while the Sofaa sharifs negotiated the cargo’s release. Several months later the goods were cleared, but because they were officially listed as charitable donations for the community at large, the Provincial Administration claimed that other religious actors should be allocated equal shares. As it turned out, the shipment contained many items of high quality, and distribution proceeded on a prejudicial basis. Some recipients reported that they found dollars and riyals in the pockets of donated kanzu; a fisherman showed me a Seiko watch he found in the ‘Kuwaiti’ gown he received.
For a while “umepata Kuwaiti gani?” became the first question people asked after the usual greeting. Many of the genuine victims received nothing. My brother-in-law, who lost more than most when his shop and home burned, missed out. The generosity of the foreign benefactors ended up generating more controversy than relief.
The issue was settled when, during Friday prayers a group of youth broke into the storeroom where the Kuwaiti cargo was kept. They made off with the remaining chests and footlockers. They broke them open on the waterfront, dumped out the contents, and ran off after taking the pick of the loot—which was mainly shoes. The public scrambled for what was left, all evidence of the heist vanishing before the faithful in the mosque uttered the final “Assalamu alaykum wa barakatuh” ending the prayers. The news spread fast.
“These guys committed a major sin!” one my neighbors declared.
“What’s so wrong about liberating what was supposed to be gifts for the poor?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said, clarifying that “it was bad because most of the best things went to the slackers who don’t attend Juma’a prayers.”
That was not the end of it. In the scramble for the footwear most of the pairs were separated. Several times a day someone would call hodi hodi from downstairs, walk up the stairs, and after the usual salutations produce a bag filled with unmatched shoes.
“Uko na ndugu ya hiki?” invariable followed, as they placed a single Italian loafer or a fashionable woman’s stiletto on the mat.
The exercise continued for several weeks. Although I surmised many of the shoes were never united with their ‘brothers’, it helped restore a degree of normality to community after the antagonistic Shi’a versus Bidha’a interlude. Twice, women who were not on good terms with my spouse clunk-clunked up the stairs and politely made their enquiries, and I observed how the process resulted in the resumption of normal relations.
Things did not end well for the warring sheikhs. The infighting continued, and the resulting decline in status coincided with the rise of a new generation of more activist reformers with comparatively shallow educational and spiritual qualifications than their predecessors.
Assessing The Aftermath: The Kingdom Strikes Back
At the time I viewed this incident as a victory for local religious sensibilities over the forces of patronage and imported religious models. But the influence of the Ayatollahs’ revolution had opened the way for political Islam to take root in local conditions. No one anticipated the directionality of events over the next two decades.
The Iranian gambit ended up producing the opposite effect in respect to their political interests, with correspondingly negative implications for the Muslims of this region. Infatuation with the Islamic revolution declined as the Iranian government began to show its authoritarian nature, and the Saudis went on the offensive. Iran’s pan-Islamic activism in turn prompted Saudi Arabia to adopt a more aggressive role across the Islamic world. Over the course of the 1980s the Kingdom spent over $4 billion per year to spread the Wahhabi creed abroad. Private sources in the kingdom interpreted the Mujahedeen victory in Afghanistan as divine approval for their version of jihad, and extended their funding for radical Wahhabi movements across to virtually the Islamic world.
The gradual spread of Wahhabi influence provided cover for the proponents of the more extreme Salafi movement before the Embassy bombings of 1998 accelerated the convergence of the global Islamist narratives across the Horn of Africa region. This coincided with the spread of social media and internet-based transmission of Islamist ideologies, which gained ground at the expense of the transmission of formal Islamic knowledge through recognized schools of jurisprudence and the human exemplars of Sufi teachings.
We all know what came next.
The irony is that Lamu, home to the Islamic tradition that is most resistant to religious extremism in the region, has suffered disproportionately from the international cast of Al Qaida sleeper cells and Al Shabaab insurgents based across the Somalia border.
Harsh Economic Times, Political Uncertainty…and Now Corona
Kenyans were already struggling with tough economic conditions and political tensions when COVID-19 appeared. Lockdowns and dwindling incomes have now made their lives much more difficult, even as they pray for the virus to be vanquished.
Our live were ruined among the leaves,
We decayed like pumpkin in a mud field
~ Mazisi Kunene, South African anti-Apartheid poet
They say when it rains, it pours, and calamity comes with its brother. The revelation that the dreaded coronavirus had, about two weeks ago, finally found its way into Kenya threw the country into a state of pandemonium. Until then, Kenyans viewed the virus as a devastating but “alien” disease.
It was not until the quasi-lockdown was ordered by the government that Kenyans realised that beyond the confusion and panic, a much worse situation was threatening to compound and exacerbate an economic meltdown they have been experiencing for the last 20 months or so. The “alien” ailment has not only brought with it bewilderment, but is threatening to lock them down, literally, to starvation.
The virus, of the genus corona, was first detected in Wuhan Province in China in December 2019, hence the name COVID-19 (coronavirus disease of 2019). Three months later, when Kenyans first heard about a disease that was killing the Chinese quicker than flickering fireflies, they brushed it off as one of those phenomena that occur in far-off countries in the East.
The disease could not have come at a worse time for Kenyans. Experiencing harsh economic times and political uncertainty, many Kenyans concluded that the gods have conspired to punish them. “For how else do you explain the disease coming to Kenya at a time when we are faced with the toughest of economic hard times?” posed a woman.
That plane from China
“This is the modern Armageddon, the end of times is nigh because we’ve deviated from God’s ways. It is a message from God who is angry with us. We’ve sinned too much and this is a sign from God who is asking us to turn from our wicked ways and repent of our sins,” prophesied a street vendor in Nairobi selling tree tomatoes, popularly known in Kiswahili as matunda damu. But after this revelation of a messianic message, the woman admitted that the hint of a complete lockdown by the government was a sure way of strangling the livelihoods of people like her.
“Ndiraikara mucii nacio ciana irie ke?” You’re asking me to stay at home, what will my children eat? “Ako corona niguturaga, reke tukuire guku bara-ini”. If the coronavirus is going to kill us, let us then die on these streets, hustling. President Uhuru Kenyatta’s government has already killed our businesses, now he is asking us to stay at home – tumurie kana twikie atia? We feed on him? Or how does he propose we should fend for our families?
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez-faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The plane that she was referring to was a China Southern Airlines flight that was allowed to land at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) on 26 February 2019. The flight had arrived in Nairobi despite a directive forbidding flights originating in China to land in Kenya due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in China. Kenya Airways had also by that time suspended all its flights to and from China. This particular plane carried 239 passengers, many of whom were Chinese nationals. The airport employee who posted a video of the plane landing was suspended (and later reinstated through a court order), which suggested that the plane had the government’s permission to land. The reference to this plane and the anger it has generated among the people I talked to was evident throughout all my interviews.
The vendor was angry that the president exhibited a laissez faire attitude towards battling the deadly virus. “Why didn’t he stop the plane that came from China? If he had done that, we wouldn’t be in this bad situation and our livelihoods would not be threatened.”
The weekend before the quasi-lockdown decreed by the government on Monday, 23 March 2020, I was in Nakuru County. My first stop was at the Java House located in CK Patel House in central Nakuru town. It was 10.00 a.m. and there was absolutely no customer. I found the manager sipping her coffee latte. “What’s up?” I asked her. “There’s no one in the house”.
The nonplussed manager said the coronavirus was bad for business. “Look, it is mid-morning, a peak time when customers should be flocking in for their refill, yet we’ve an empty house.”
The coffee house closes at 5 p.m., which is normally a peak hour when commuters wait for the traffic jam to ease off before heading home. “This is not a harbinger of good times,” said one of the lady waiters. “If this situation persists long enough, who knows, the management could easily send us home…this, by the way, is not good at all.”
“The incompetence of this government and President Uhuru is mindboggling,” said a lady I was meeting in Nakuru town. “Why, in God’s name, did he allow the plane from China to land at JKIA?” she furiously wondered aloud. “He should have ordered the plane to turn back, the way it came and never to allow the passengers to disembark. Do we know how many of those passengers could have been infected all the way from China? Do we know how many people they, indeed, could have infected once here in the country? Who knows where those people are and which corner of the country they are in? Did the government ever track them down?”
The lady was convinced that if the government had refused the landing of that plane, it is probable that we would not be so afraid now and there would not really have been a case for a (quasi) lockdown.
“The government now is all over issuing edicts – it must always do the wrong thing first before it turns around to sound the alarm bells,” she said. People seem to be impressed by the new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, I’m not. What ordinary Kenyans want to know is how, in the event of a complete lockdown, they will earn a living. Period. Endless press conferences threatening us with damnation are neither here nor here. The President recently threatened us, saying the government will crack down on anybody not adhering to the stay-at-home edict. This is uncalled for as well as unhelpful. Does he have any concrete plans for ameliorating the situation and ensuring Kenyans who live from hand to mouth are cushioned?”
Later in the evening, I was at Garden Villa, located on the western side of town as you head to Shaabab residential area. It was completely empty and the waiters were just lounging around. Garden Villa is an expansive nyama choma eatery, as well as a “watering hole” with appropriate cushioned-seat cubicles for groups of people or couples. It was glaringly in its emptiness.
Beatrice, our waitress, was not amused by coronavirus coming to Kenya: “It is no longer a death scare; it has come to actually destroy our livelihoods. I’ve three children – two in university and one is finishing high school. My job has really sustained me, I’ve been able to educate my children so far with the tips that I collect here and there from patrons like you. When there are no customers, we are finished. I’m really worried. If this situation continues like this, we’ll all be declared redundant. What will happen to my children?”
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
The main work of security guards like one at Java House is to ensure that patrons enjoy their house coffee without probing eyes and disturbance from the city centre’s “undesirables”, and to usher patrons inside the coffee house. They help customers find car park spaces and guard the automobiles from hoodlums. They will also offer concierge services to patrons, such as carrying stuff to their vehicles. At the end of the day, they have enough pocket money to pass through the supermarket and buy some milk and bread for tomorrow morning’s breakfast. He told me the lack of patrons meant that he would go home empty-handed. “Mungu asaidie afukuze hii coronavirus, kama siyo hivyo tumeisha.” The almighty should intervene and clear this coronavirus as quickly as possible, otherwise we’re all finished.
In the city centre, at the famous Jevanjee Park, I met a group of four middle-aged women. They were talking with each other. On the day the government ordered the people not to leave their houses after 7 p.m., they disobeyed and trooped to town. “I’m staying in the house and then what happens?” posed one. “Are my children going to feed on me?”
The women were “professional” casual labourers. Lately they have been getting manual jobs from the Nairobi County as grass cutters and street sweepers.
“We live on a day-to-day basis” said one of the women. “How on earth does the government expect us to survive?”
“Tell you what,” ventured one of the women, “yesterday I went to church because our pastor had sent word around that we must not fail to go church.” She told me she attends a Kenya Assemblies of God (KAG) church. Their pastor told them that coronavirus had come to Kenya to remind Christians that, indeed, these were the last days.
Back in Nairobi, I went to one of my usual Java House haunts. The security guard was forthright: “Hii kitu itauwa watoto wetu. Sijui leo nita peleka nini nyumbani.” This thing called coronavirus will kill our children. Today I don’t know what I will take home.
“Coronavirus is not going to be defeated by worshippers staying at home,” claimed the pastor. “It is going to be wrestled down to the ground by prayer warriors. We must condemn the evil-doer, we must never doubt our faith. We must never doubt our God, Is this the time to let our able God down? Are we doubting Him?”
“I’m a Catholic and we went to church. The parish priest, through jumuia [small community groups], sent word that we must all be in church on Sunday without fail,” said one of the woman. “The priest said the body of Christ is asking us, ‘Are you not going celebrate with me? For is this the time to forsake me?’ It is always fundamentally important to remember to keep the faith.’”
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands. The church and the government’s work is to fleece us, the people.”
In the evening, I caught up with the same quartet outside Charlies’ restaurant that faces City Hall. It was now past five and they were hungry and angry. “How are we going home?” asked one of them in concealed desperation. All of them lived in the sprawling slums of Nairobi. Seated on the stone bench of the restaurant, they resorted to begging money from any passing man they thought they could remotely recognise.
“The churches cannot, even for once, pretend that they care for our welfare,” said another woman. “In these times of economic turbulence and the coming of the corrosive coronavirus, all what the churches can tell us is to still go and congregate in congested spaces. And all what this government can tell us is to sanitise our hands…”
The following day, I found myself in bustling Kawangware, where the coronavirus threat is real. Kawangware was deserted – many businesses were shut and the human commotion that is usually associated with the sprawling residential area was absent. I dropped in at Sakina’s kibanda (food kiosk-cum-shed) in the Coast area (Mombasani) where she sells very pocket- friendly fresh food to construction workers, bachelors, spinsters, and all manner of casual labourers. Sakina shared the kibanda with her mother, but her mom was not there on that day.
“Where’s your mother?” I asked Sakina.
“She took the kids [her four children] to shags [her rural home],” she responded. (Sakina’s rural home is right in the middle of Nyeri town, at Meeting Point.) “Business is slowly grinding to a halt and we didn’t want to take chances. At least at cucu’s [grandma’s] place, there’s food to eat…this coronavirus has dealt us a huge blow…but alhamdulillahi, it is going to be defeated by Allah.”
In times like this, said Sakina, it’s important to be steadfast and to anchor your whole self in the great faith.
A disease of the rich
At Zambezi trading centre, 19 kilometres from the city centre on the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, Nyambura, a chicken legs and liver vendor, was preparing her foodstuff for her evening customers.
“Are you not afraid of the coronavirus?” I asked her.
“Indeed I am,” she replied. “But can I eat fear? Can my children eat fear? I cannot stay in the house. I must get out to fend for my family. My husband is a salaried worker. He has to wait for 30 days to be paid his paltry pay. We cannot wait for that. It is my responsibility to supplement the ugali he brings home,” said the lady with a great chuckle.
“[President] Uhuru doesn’t care about us small farmers. He has been careless and is playing dice with our lives. After ruining our lives, he has now let this coronavirus invade our country. Why couldn’t he stop that plane from China? Its good coronavirus is infecting the rich and the powerful. They should all perish. They have caused us enough agony,” said Nyambura.
“But trust me, this coronavirus is not going to finish us because our Lord Jesus Christ is on the throne. In the name of Jesus, I condemn the disease,” she added.
She said coronavirus, like the most incompetent government she had lived through, had conspired to kill the spirit of Kenyans. “Yesterday, I paid 100 shillings from 87 to here. Can you imagine? Ordinarily the matatu fare from 87, just after Uthiru to Zambezi, is 30 shillings. For how long can one afford that kind of fare?” She said that from the Old Nation House roundabout stage to Zambezi, passengers were being charged 150 shillings. I hooked up with my freelance tout friend Davy to confirm whether it was true.
“What do you expect when the matatus have been ordered to carry half the seating capacity of their vehicles?” said the freelance tout.(The government has directed that public transport vehicles observe social distancing among their passengers, which means that these vehicles are forced to carry fewer passengers per trip.) Davy told me that many matatu proprietors had grounded their vehicles. “Hakuna haja ya kufanya kazi ya kirai”. It’s pointless to engage in an unprofitable business.
From the city centre to Zambezi, the fare is ordinarily 80 shillings during peak hours and 50 shillings during off-peak hours. “Think about it,” explained Davy. “The matatus that have chosen to be on the road are being fair.”
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. The Nissan shuttles that ferry 14 passengers are now having to carry just 8 passengers. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“How many people can afford to be paying 300 shillings every day to town?” asked Nyambura. “What is it then you are working for? You’ve not even eaten. And President Uhuru, instead of telling us how the government can come up with ways of helping us alleviate this burden, has gone on air to tell us about the merits of 4G Internet speed. (On March 23, President Kenyatta addressed the nation live on air, extolling the virtues of the business deal between Telcom Kenya and Google Loon, which would now allow for faster speed and easy interconnectivity.)
In the political sphere, Nakuru residents believe that the coronavirus appeared just in the nick of time to save President Uhuru and the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team the embarrassment of a looming contest and showdown that was to take place in town at Afraha Stadium. On 21 March 2019, BBI had organised a rally to popularise its agenda. But every indication showed that this was not going to be a walk in the park for the BBI mandarins.
A 33-seater is now carrying 16 passengers. So passengers are paying 150 shillings instead of 80 shillings in normal times. Davy said if the government was considerate, it would, at least for now, reduce the price of fuel. That way the matatu owners would not be forced to adjust the fares.
“This coronavirus has just given the president some reprieve,” said a Nakuru boda boda (motorcycle rider) from Maili Sita trading centre (popularly known simply as Sita) on the Nakuru-Nyahururu Road. The rider opined that had the BBI rally taken place, the William Ruto wing of the Jubilee Party would, most certainly, have upstaged the BBI brigade. It was going to be battle a between BBI and the deputy president’s “Tanga Tanga” band of supporters.
When on 28 January 2019 President Uhuru was in Nakuru town to open a cement factory in Rongai, he detoured to Bahati constituency, where at Sita he lambasted the area MP, Kimani Ngunjiri. As he was castigating him, Ngunjiri was several metres away from the president’s motorcade. “When he left, the boda boda riders came to Ngunjiri and they were high-fiving him and laughing excitedly,” said the boda boda rider. “They promised him that when BBI lands in Nakuru, they would show President Uhuru who ruled Nakuru.”
With all the laments, speculation and tantalising gossip, it is still not clear what impact the coronavirus pandemic will have on the lives of ordinary Kenyans. Many are in still in disbelief and more worried about their livelihoods than about falling ill or dying. But what is clear is that Kenya after corona will not be the same again.
Inside the Quarantine: Fears of Further Spreading the Virus Haunt the Confined
Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
“We were flying over Juba when the announcement was made”. Chris*, not his real name, recounts to me his whereabouts when Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Health, Mutahi Kagwe, made the announcement that mandatory quarantining of all persons flying into Kenya would begin with immediate effect. It was early evening in Nairobi and a likely anxious nation tuned in for what was the tenth briefing from the ministry about the global COVID-19 pandemic that had made its way to Kenya, on the wings of an aircraft much like the one that ferried Chris back from a work trip to London.
Chris and I spoke a day after his arrival. He was in a hotel turned government-sanctioned quarantine facility, the Boma Hotel. The hotel, one of four Kenya Red Cross hotels that had just weeks before been placed under receivership, was dusty, with some rooms not having been cleaned for a while. Dead flies lined his windowsill. Chris complained that layers of dust on his pillowcase and bedsheets caused him discomfort. That was a minor inconvenience in comparison to the subject of our call.
Their flight, which arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport on the night of Monday, March 23rd, carried what was, in Chris’s estimation, about 60 people.
“After being screened and filling out immigration forms, we were told about the Ministry of Health’s directive. We protested the directive because some of us had made arrangements to self-quarantine. Among those on our flight were students who, I think, wouldn’t have taken the flight if they thought that they would be taken into mandatory quarantine.”
Their protests would seem vain in the face of the government’s efforts to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has overwhelmed some of the world’s best-equipped healthcare systems, but the response to these complaints from Ministry of Health officials was even more strange.
“The government relented and allowed us to leave the airport and go home, with orders that we report to the Kenya Medical Training Centre (KMTC) at 11:00 a.m for tests.”
Chris was picked up by his driver and recalls reaching his home at about midnight on the 23rd of March.
As he was falling asleep, Doris*, also not her real name, was on a fairly empty flight from Germany, a country hard-hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, via Amsterdam, back home.
“I was alone on my row, the two rows behind me were empty and the lady in the row next to mine also sat alone.”
Her flight touched down in Nairobi on the morning of 23rd March and taxied in. In the nine hours between the landing of Chris’ flight and Doris’, the information that passengers were given had differed.
“Our temperature was taken, then we filled a form saying that we would self-quarantine. Then we filled the older, yellow immigration form. As we did so, there was a lady shouting that we should all go to KMTC at 11:00 am for testing. That was it.”
Doris had already made plans to self-quarantine. She had found an apartment on an online booking site, AirBnB, where she says she was going to stay for the recommended 14-day quarantine. She booked an Uber, made the trip across town to her apartment in Kileleshwa, showered, changed and then booked another Uber to the KMTC.
Before they got to KMTC, if Chris and Doris were carriers of COVID-19 and were contagious, they may have spread the disease to at least three people each. Neither of them has been asked to account for their movements or the people that they came into contact with; termed by the World Health Organisation as contact-tracing. They do not yet know whether or not they have the virus, because they have yet to be tested for it. They weren’t alone on their flights home, and sadly, their experience was not unique to them.
Infection within the quarantine facilities
Both Doris and Chris are worried about the possibility that they contracted COVID-19 while they were in the throes of evident lapses and confusion that they found at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, and at the KMTC, where they would go as ordered, on the 24th of March, at 11 am.
“When we turned up at the KMTC, they closed and barricaded the gates behind us, and said that we were officially under mandatory quarantine,” Chris remembers.
Doris witnessed the furore of the now hundreds of passengers grow, with them crowding around Ministry of Health officials for answers, having just been stung by the news. She tried to hang as far back as she could to avoid coming into contact with the virus.
“We were then given three options for places that we would undergo quarantine. Boma Hotel (where Chris would eventually go), the KMTC and the Kenya School of Government (KSG) in Lower Kabete, Nairobi,” she remembers.
“Boma would cost us USD 100 (Kshs 10,000) a night (this figure was later revised downwards), and the conditions at KMTC were just awful, so I chose KSG. When we got to KSG the director of the campus told us that it would cost us USD 40 (Kshs 4,000) a night. People protested again and crowded around the officials telling us this. They then relented and said we would be charged USD 20 (Kshs 2,000) a night.”
A video taken by one of the passengers shows the proximity of the passengers to the officials, and to one another. Again, Doris wisely chose to hang back and wait until things calmed down so that she could get a room.
Chris chose to stay at the Boma hotel.
When Chris’s cohort of travellers arrived at the Boma hotel, he says there was just one receptionist at hand to meet them.
“We all herded around the reception area waiting to be checked in. I am very afraid that we may have been exposed while we were getting into quarantine!”
Later that evening, Chris heard the sounds of sirens outside his window.
A hotel staffer told him that ambulance workers in hazmat suits were there to evacuate a fellow traveller, an elderly lady who allegedly fell ill.
“We are all so worried”.
Even with the inconveniences they have experienced, both Doris and Chris’s worry extends to the unanswered question they both have – were they both complicit in some way in the spread of COVID-19?
“If the government was serious about a mandatory quarantine, why did they let us go home first?” Chris asks, the tone of his voice deep and serious, unfettered by the muffles and crackling on the phone line.
“There were people on our flight who took public transport from the airport and to KMTC. How many people have they been in touch with?”
The question of how the virus spreads is no longer in contention, but there are concerns about the handling of passengers who were being put in isolation in order to contain COVID-19’s spread in Kenya.
Dr Ahmed Kalebi, the founder and CEO of Lancet Laboratories, which is among Kenya’s first private laboratories to offer PCR tests for COVID-19 (Polymerase Chain Reaction tests detect the genetic material of COVID-19, called RNA), shares his worries about the possible contagion that people in the mandatory quarantine may be facing.
“For me, it is a big scare. I am privy to what has been going on in some of those facilities and it has been a bit of a mess.”
“If two hundred people go into a hotel and three or four of them have COVID-19, by keeping them in close proximity we are creating an incubating chamber (for the virus).”
Dr Kalebi believes that in late April, Kenyan cases of COVID-19 will have risen exponentially. Government models publicized on Monday 30th March put Kenya at possibly having 10,000 cases by that time.
Several accounts from persons currently in mandatory quarantine speak to the potential for this, especially as they were being transferred into quarantine facilities. Doris, who was being quarantined at the Kenya School of Government facility, Chris at the Boma hotel, and Caleb* (not his real name), a traveller who is currently in quarantine at the Kenyatta University Conference Centre, all give similar accounts about how risky the first day of their return was.
They were all supposed to be part of a Ministry of Health-led mass testing campaign of the over two thousand Kenyans currently in quarantine facilities, being carried out beginning the weekend ending March 29th. Chris took a photo of a Ministry of Health official in a Hazmat suit from a common area at the Boma hotel.
Doris, Chris, Caleb and other travelers in quarantine that I spoke to all say that they feel healthy, save for a few coughs and sniffs which they hope are signs of a cold rather than COVID-19, but they may not be out of the woods, even as the days wind down to the end of their quarantine.
“The Coronavirus takes between two to fourteen days to incubate,” says Dr Kalebi.
“If tests were done at day seven, which is what the government is doing this weekend (weekend ending March 29th), you may have only a few people testing positive, who would be taken to more stringent quarantine facilities. Then you wait another week. Assume more people get infected. On day 14, when you are releasing them, people may have been infected in quarantine.”
Fears that the government quarantine facilities may become petri dishes for the spread of the virus are valid, but over-estimated, according to Professor Omu Anzala, who specializes in virology and immunology. He’s also part of the taskforce set up by the government to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in Kenya.
“There is that possibility but we have not seen anybody go more than 14 to 15 days without having come down with the disease. We have not seen anybody who has gone more than 15 days who is not showing symptoms but is secreting the virus.”
He does say that these still are early days and that the government, like all governments, is learning as it goes deeper into fighting the virus.
It won’t be long before Doris and Chris get out of quarantine. Perhaps, it won’t take much longer before the country knows whether the mandatory quarantine strategy helped spread or stop COVID-19.
This article was first published by Africa Uncensored.
A Short History of Constitutions and What Politicians Do to Them
History, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians. But this is not new, argues Prof. Yash Pal Ghai. In fact, a peer into the history of constitution-making in Kenya reveals a tendency of the political class to subvert theses processes for their own benefit.
1963 and Jomo
Kenya has gone through multiple systems of governance, starting with the British and their occupation of our country. There is little point in discussing the British period, though in some important ways it seems that our rulers have been inspired by the ethos of the colonial British. Britain did try, at the demise of its rule, to establish in Kenya, a Westminster parliamentary system but at the same time incorporating special provisions for the protection of minorities. Despite the resistance of the leaders of dominant tribes, particularly Jomo Kenyatta, they had to accept the rights of minorities (mostly indigenous), even though the proceedings took an enormously long time.
The major difference in the negotiations for the 1963 Constitution was over whether Kenya should be a unitary state or divided into regions (majimbo). It became clear to those opposing majimbo that this was the price for independence. The deep divisions among Kenyans (divisions created to a considerable extent by colonial policy) might have led to Kenya’s disintegration, but for pressure from Britain. Jomo realised that it was worth conceding to the British terms: so long as he became prime minister (with Britain out of the way), when he could dispense with majimbo. This he did within a year, with other major changes, making the state highly centralised—and under his control, not as prime minister but as executive president. Jomo, it has to be said with sadness, set an extraordinarily bad example for a head of state, with no respect for democracy or integrity. We still suffer from these ailments, which his son has promised to remove—with BBI?
1978 – 2002 and Moi
Daniel arap Moi, successor to Jomo (accepted only on the understanding that the Kikuyu politicians would be dominant), set no better example, adopting largely his master’s style of administration and lack of integrity. Jomo and Moi had no respect for the Rule of Law, a central virtue of the constitution giving us independence. Politics ceased to be about policies but instruments of violence (of even honest and nationalist Kikuyus). The popular Tom Mboya, a minister regarded by many as the rightful successor to Jomo was killed. It was widely believed by government agents.
2002-5 Kibaki and the Bomas Draft Constitution
The end of the Cold War and considerable agitation from the younger generation of Kenyans and pressure from West (formerly supporters of corrupt and cruel politicians rulers, here as elsewhere) led to the preparation of a new democratic and fair constitution. There were considerable discussions among the public on the values of the new constitution in which some kind of consensus emerged. But there was little discussion at first among politicians, but in due course, the then opposition parties came around to the idea of moving towards a new constitution. Moi’s party remained scrupulously out of any discussion.
Eventually, a committee of scholars and activists was appointed to undertake the process of wide consultations and to draw a draft of the constitution for consideration of a constituent assembly, consisting of a wide cross-section of Kenyans, in regional and professional terms. After nearly four years of consultations and negotiations, a draft constitution was agreed—and adopted, by the constituent assembly (“Bomas” after its venue, the Bomas of Kenya cultural centre). Its values included: national unity, rule of law, democracy, participation, a wide range of human rights (with special provisions for the marginalised), good governance, integrity, transparency, and accountable development.
Jomo and Moi had no respect for the Rule of Law, a central virtue of the constitution giving us independence. Politics ceased to be about policies but instruments of violence.
Needless to say that it received wide acclamation but not from that eminent Kenyan, Mwai Kibaki. Kibaki provided a very good example of the self-centred Kenyan politician. A senior minister once (in Kenyatta’s time), he had fallen out with President Moi by the time the process for adopting a new democratic constitution.
Initially, Kibaki probably thought that his chance of getting back into power was through the parliamentary system. He and his party (assisted by Kiraitu Murungi) were among the first to make submissions to the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission (CKRC). He urged it to adopt the parliamentary system—even though he had been the beneficiary of presidential system politics under Jomo and Moi. He made a spirited denunciation of what he called “the imperial presidency”. He appeared to stick to this position during much of the Bomas Constitutional Conference process.
Meanwhile the members of Bomas were debating the CKRC proposals – made after intensive consultations with Kenyans of all kinds, throughout the country. The membership of Bomas (officially 629) comprised all the parliamentarians (222), representation of all the districts (chosen by the District Boards), and civil society and professionals (with fair representation of women and people with disability). A broad consensus was emerging in favour of a parliamentary system: with a President having a largely formal role except for minimal powers to counterbalance possible abuses by the government, and a Prime Minister, with the support of Parliament, as head of government.
Kibaki and his team, however, changed tone at this stage and started arguing for the executive presidential system. Having defeated Moi’s chosen successor (Uhuru) in 2002 he had begun to realise the “virtues” of the presidential system that gave him as President so much power.
Kibaki and his team started more or less to boycott Bomas. And rumours suggested that Kibaki and his team were engineering a challenge to the entire Bomas draft – and as Chair a leading lawyer warned me, confidentially, that this was taking the form of a court case, which would go against the Bomas process. I increased the pace of the Bomas discussions, even at the cost of foregoing refinement of the provisions of the draft constitution on devolution.
…Kibaki and his team started arguing for the executive presidential system. Having defeated Moi’s chosen successor (Uhuru) in 2002 had begun to realise the “virtues” of the presidential system that gave him as President so much power.
The remaining Bomas members worked extremely hard, burning the midnight oil, with good discussion, to conclude the agenda and in the presence of a large audience (in addition to the Constitutional Conference members themselves), the draft constitution was adopted in accordance with the prescribed rules, by an overwhelming majority.
The court case and its consequences
Sure enough, a few days later, the High Court decided that there was a fundamental flaw with the whole Bomas process. There were major problems with the litigation. It was started three and a half years after the start of the process, when the draft constitution was nearly done.
The identity of the presiding judge caused a good deal of comment. At the time he was in the running for one of two prominent positions: as head of a new post of a new anti-corruption body, carrying the highest salary in the land, or promotion within the judiciary. After the case he was offered, and accepted, the former, a position essentially in the gift of Kiraitu Murungi who held a senior ministerial post. That judge’s lengthy judgment designed to demonstrate the faults in the procedure of Bomas, was full of references to cases and arguments that had not been raised by the plaintiff.
Bomas was killed thus. This enabled the government to take over the whole process, amend the document to take away the parliamentary system – returning to a largely presidential system. But the government’s butchered version of the constitution was rejected by the people in a referendum – as much motivated by disappointment with the regime as by the detail of the constitution. Nevertheless, no-one in the government mourned this referendum result: it left them with the old, discredited constitution, complete with its imperial presidency.
Returning to the old authoritarian system led to discrimination, ethnicity driven deceits and conflicts. Elections under the old system predictably gave rise to disputes. The 2007 elections were the most critical, with Kibaki and Odinga as the front runners—Odinga the supporter of Bomas constitution and Kibaki favouring the old model. The campaign was organised purely on ethnic lines (Kikuyu versus Luo). The campaigns of Odinga and, especially, Kibaki were conducted largely in their own tribal areas, each carefully avoiding the other’s territory. It is generally accepted that Odinga ran an impressive campaign, supporting the values implicit in the Bomas draft, not narrowing his support to his own tribe, travelling widely.
As the historian Charles Hornsby put it: Odinga personified a popular movement for radical change, while Kibaki was positioned as leader of a reactionary, tribalist, old guard that had mismanaged Kenya in the past. Odinga fought hard for integrity, while Kibaki was suspected of corruption.
Outwardly, it seemed that Odinga was winning by a huge majority, with wide national support, while Kibaki’s support was restricted to Kikuyu, Embu and Meru areas. Odinga’s team had won widely throughout the country. The mode of the counting of votes seemed increasing dubious as the results were announced—or not announced till the last minutes. Gradually Odinga’s huge initial lead over Kibaki started to give way to Kibaki’s lead. In the elections for Parliament, the victory of Odinga’s party, the ODM was overwhelming (presumably the counting was at this level). It was widely believed that Odinga had been cheated of his victory; there was ample evidence to this effect, acknowledged by the head of the electoral body itself. But the false result prevailed.
As historian Hornsby put it: Odinga personified a popular movement for radical change, while Kibaki was positioned as leader of a reactionary, tribalist, old guard that had mismanaged Kenya in the past.
Kenyans were so shocked by the extent of this deceit and it led to the greatest outburst of anger—and, shortly after, violence. As the historian Hornsby noted, “Kenya cracked apart in the worst outbreak of ethnic violence in the country’s history”—ironically in the interests of the candidate who had destroyed the Bomas draft which sought to eliminate ethnic conflict in our country. There was vast destruction of property—and worst, enormous number of killings. Kibaki had succeeded not only in killing Bomas constitution; but in nearly destroying the state of Kenya. Kenyan “leaders” were completely unable to bring the country under control. As a scholar said, “Kenya had seen the increasing use of violence as a political tool and the emergence of mono-ethnic youth militia”.
The county got into a situation in which its leaders could do nothing to bring it to peaceful resolution. African states and the international community had to intervene. An African team led by the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, was convened to bring the county to some order. We had no choice but to be guided by them. Kofi Annan himself advised strongly for the revival of the Bomas Constitution—which the local “leaders” had to accept. For the interim, Annan and his team were able, with great support from Western states, to overcome the resistance of Kibaki to form a coalition government in which Odinga would be the Prime Minister, and Kibaki remaining as the President—and Uhuru Kenyatta as Deputy Prime Minister! The Cabinet was formed by the agreement of Kibaki and Odinga! Meanwhile, discussions proceeded on a permanent constitution, mindful of Kofi Annan’s advice to enact the Bomas draft.
The Bomas draft formed the basis for the work of the Committee of Experts, which was formed to carry forward the constitution project. And the parliamentary system of government – because of its inclusive and ultimately more democratic nature – became again the central proposal, so far as the system of government was concerned. But at the final stage the politicians took over control—and unexpectedly and arbitrarily decided on a presidential rather than a parliamentary system of government. Calculations about who– meaning which individuals – would benefit from which system of government again figured prominently in the reasoning that led to these results. The parliamentary committee had the power to make recommendations, not make decisions. But the Committee of Experts felt, unwisely, that it had to accept what the politicians “recommended” on the questions that touched on political power.
But why rehash this old history? Because history, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians.
2018-20 The Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)
The government (or rather Uhuru and Raila) having created a so-called “Task Force” feel they or we are about to solve our problems.
At first it looked as though their mandate from Uhuru-Raila was broader than who held political power. What seemed to be needed was the fulfilment of the Constitution (which Uhuru and Raila professed to revere). And the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Task Force’s report is long and discusses much that touches on other issues. About nine of their proposals need changes to the Constitution; nearly 30 would require changes to ordinary law. Many others are just “let’s do what the law already requires”. The real concerns of our political leaders seem to be revealed by the decision announced at one stage to appoint a group of constitutional experts to assist the Task Force to “fine-tune” the BBI report (though this idea seems to have faded away). The discussion about a “referendum” also lays bare the real concerns. Under our law and Constitution the only situation that requires, or even contemplates, a referendum is constitutional reform. And the constitutional reform that is being focussed on is – and you have noticed it – is on the system of government. In other words, on who gets to hold political power – that political power that it is the sovereign right of the people of Kenya to allocate.
…History, again, seems to be repeating itself. A system of government established in a constitution is in danger of being radically changed for the benefit of politicians.
A reasonably competent team, in the form of the Task Force, listed a large list of constitutional and other violations—but every Kenyan knows these violations and that are mostly perpetrated by the state (including politicians).
Instead of taking any action, the government has extended the life of the Task Force (in the New Year), to educate Kenyans on the problems facing Kenya and how they could be solved.
The outcome of all this is continued feuding among political groups of little significant interest to most Kenyans. The major issue concerns leaders of major tribes as to political, legal arrangements after the end of the present terms of office. And the current solution for our problems is to ensure a prominent, prestigious, post for the major 5 or 6 tribes or more accurately for their leaders (against the terms of the Constitution). What has been canvassed with vigour is the retention of the President, as at present, outside Parliament, one Prime Minister with two deputy prime ministers with, perhaps responsibilities of their own. Raila, having been vocal in support of a full parliamentary system with the Prime Minister as head of government, more recently seems to have shifted to favour the BBI’s Tanzanian model of a weak Prime Minister as a side-kick to the President.
2020 The real problems facing Kenya
In brief, we all know that there are repeated and gross violations of the Constitution. The strength of the current Constitution is clear from Art. 10, especially 10(b) which prescribes national values and principle of governance. Some key provisions are national unity, democracy (including participation of the people, human dignity, equity, social justice, human rights – which include abolition of poverty and protection of the marginalised).
There is massive violation by political parties and the IEBC of electoral laws as well as of provisions on the nature of political parties under the Constitution. Article 91 sets out the rules governing political parties (such as having a national character, promote and uphold national unity; abide by democratic principles). A party cannot be founded on a religious, linguistic, racial, ethnic, gender or regional basis; engage in bribery or other forms of corruption, or use public resources to promote its interests or its candidates in elections.
The outcome of all this is continued feuding among political groups of little significant interest to most Kenyans. The major issue concerns leaders of major tribes as to political, legal arrangements after the end of the present terms of office.
There are massive violations of the Constitution by state agencies, from the office of the President to the lowest public officer. This is now widely acknowledged by President Uhuru and many other state officials.
But, yet again, our politicians have reduced our problems to “their” problems – those who call themselves politicians. The concerns are with who gets into power, not with how that power is used for the people of Kenya, in accordance with the Constitution in which Kenyans have placed so much faith, and into which they put so much effort. Our politics go no further than conflicts between politicians.
Handshake and BBI: Demise of the 2010 Constitution?
My view of Handshake and BBI is very different from what the President and Honourable Odinga claim it is—as creating peace and harmony among us all, moving away from ethnicity; catering to the needs of Kenyans. Perhaps I have become too cynical about politicians to believe that they are ever driven by the desire to help Kenyans—rather than only themselves. But I did work with them for four years, and met party leaders at least once a fortnight to report on and discuss the progress or otherwise of the constitution-making process. I could give you some examples of their selfishness (like claiming expenses for Bomas meetings when they did not attend the sessions—I did recover that in due course, under threat of going public!) and changing their strong position on a constitution proposal without any qualm or embarrassment if they see some advantage in doing so. The crude and embarrassing way they are changing their partners now over the BBI is an example.
…our politicians have reduced our problems to “their” problems – those who call themselves politicians. The concerns are with who gets into power, not with how that power is used for the people of Kenya, in accordance with the Constitution…
Knowing Raila as I have done, I was not surprised at the initiation of BBI. At that time BBI seemed to be a project to ensure the full implementation of the 2010 Constitution. He had identified 9 objectives and values of the Constitution, directly at the welfare of the people, that the Government had not implemented. That was it. This did not surprise me because I knew of his commitment to the welfare of the people. Over the years he has fought for their rights—and had suffered a long period in jail during the regime of Moi, because he fought for a fair administration, which respected the rights of Kenyans. He had been active in politics all his life for this cause. So my expectation was that, together with Uhuru, with his access to state resources and power, the Government would immediately deal with those gaps, particularly the provisions on human rights, and scrupulously and diligently address those issues (an impression I got from the only meeting that I had with their technical team) that the nine areas of the violation of the Constitution would be covered—and we would all be happy thereafter. But this did not happen—clear and simple as this might be, and as the Government is bound by the Constitution to implement them. Instead he and Uhuru set forth on a complex, expensive, and (as it turned out) tortuous path to achieve a long and complex strategy—but strategy for what?
The fault for the misery of millions of Kenyans is surely with Uhuru and his government. It is extraordinary that the powerful President (in office over six years) with control over a huge bureaucracy and resources should say that they need to consult people on their needs. Surely we know, and the President knows, the hardships that the people suffer constantly–in defiance of the Constitution. What they would like the state do for them was conveyed to CKRC and is reflected in the Constitution, as the President knows well.
I am totally puzzled by his and Raila’s strategy—if this is the objective. I could understand the appointment of a technical team—and several members are indeed well qualified for the job. I assumed that they were to liaise with the relevant ministries, responsible to make good the Nine Deficiencies in the implementation of the Constitution. However, it became clear soon that this was not the intention—the team were advisers to Uhuru and Raila (I should have known from their composition!). Meanwhile I saw little remedial policies from the relevant ministries. Instead shortly later, Uhuru and Raila embarked on a tour of the country, explaining to the people (and to other politicians) the purpose and nature of BBI (by which title the whole project became known). Their entourage was itself of no mean size. It was not clear to me what really was being conveyed to the audiences.
The fault for the misery of millions of Kenyans is surely with Uhuru and his government. It is extraordinary that the powerful President with control over a huge bureaucracy and resources should say that they need to consult people on their needs.
Instead, what worried me most was the enormous expense that this exercise was incurring. It was not clear under what authority the huge sums of money were being expended. In any case funds were running out—until our benefactor, that sharp minded President of the USA, Trump, apparently voted us huge sums of money (gift or loan?). In the end, rumour has it, this became the major source of funds for this exercise—to keep up these tours, with huge audiences but less and less of any meaning.
Meanwhile their advisory team went around the country—with a clear mission. As I understand, they sought the views of ordinary Kenyans as to the hardships they face in everyday life and how their lives could be improved—for which purpose they could have examined people’s submissions to the CKRC as how their lives could be improved as well as the Constitution (particularly the Bill of Rights).
Before long, the focus of the grand BBI project shifted away from the needs of the people to the concerns of politicians—led by Uhuru and Raila and their entourage. At this stage the sharp conflict between two wings of politicians—Uhuru versus Ruto, became fully clear. It seems that Ruto has not given much attention to constitutional reform/change, more to political conflicts. So his clashes with Uhuru lacked reference to what had become constitutional matters of debate. The debate between the two is truly abysmal. Perhaps even Uhuru has lost track of the many amendments to the Constitution proposed by other politicians. The BBI has moved to a new level—of critical amendments to the Constitution—a long way from the politicians’ original apparent concern with fulfilling the Constitution to plans for fundamental changes in its structures. Whether the broad objectives of BBI have been replaced by other considerations or merely a complex system to achieve the same objectives, remains to be seen. We turn to that now.
Proposing Change to the Constitution
If BBI started with strengthening the Constitution, it ended by trying to weaken it. As mentioned earlier, the objective of their amendments was to move away from ethnic pre-occupation/domination of politics and state structures (consistently with the Constitution). Whether their intentions changed is unclear—but you will see.
It seeks to change the Executive and Parliamentary system. The office of the Presidency and the Deputy would remain. There would be posts of Prime Minister and two Deputy Prime Ministers, chosen by the largest party in Parliament. If that party is that of the President, as is likely, it will greatly increase the authority of the President, compared to the current situation (in which the President is already regarded too powerful). A point to note is that the number of key posts for politicians will more likely be 5: from the 5 largest tribes? It is also interesting that the key actors in the BBI are from these 5 tribes!
Before long, the focus of the grand BBI project shifted away from the needs of the people to the concerns of politicians—led by Uhuru and Raila and their entourage. At this stage the sharp conflict between two wings of politicians—Uhuru versus Ruto, came fully clear.
How the system will work is hard to foresee. Certainly not like the parliamentary prime minister—originally so dear to Odinga. In the event that the President and the Prime Minister come from different parties, because the dominant party in Parliament is not that of the President, there could be serious conflicts between two major political parties in the legislature—and more broadly.
There seems to be an assumption that, in order to prevent the rigging of elections, every leader of a major ethnic group should have an important office. This is a strange way to move away from ethnicity to nationhood – and hardly consistent with the sub-title of the BBI Report: “From a nation of blood ties to a nation of ideals”.
Another unsatisfactory proposal is that members of the IEBC should be appointed by political parties. This means giving up on the idea of an independent electoral commission, it assumes a fixed pattern of parties, but Kenyan parties change frequently. It is would almost certainly be unworkable, unstable, and prone to irregularities.
How democratically arrived at these proposals are is evident that the Speaker of Parliament prevented any debate on these proposals—no doubt not to give MPs of Ruto’s school an opportunity to voice their views.
There are various other proposals. One is to reduce the health responsibilities of counties, by establishing a National Health Service Commission to employ medical staff. True there have been counties in which health care has been deplorable. Others have provided a model for the national governments universal health care plans.
Appointing Ministers (a return to the old terminology rather than Cabinet Secretaries taken from the US system when we took their model of government) from Parliament responds to the ambitions of MPs who hate being confined to the role of legislator.
A very revealing proposal is that the person who comes second in the presidential poll should get an automatic seat in Parliament and be Leader of the Opposition. This responds to politicians’ frustration at failing to become president and then not even being an MP. There are various practical problems. First, the balance of parties in the National Assembly would be affected by the introduction of a member of a party who was not elected (a minor point unless numbers of MPs was very close for the two top parties/groups). But suppose the runner up in the presidential election is actually from the largest party in the National Assembly? It’s not impossible. What happens? The presidential runner up is both PM and leader of the opposition? Surely not. People from the same party are PM and Leader of the Opposition? Ludicrous.
A very revealing proposal is that the person who comes second in the presidential poll should get an automatic seat in Parliament and be Leader of the Opposition. This responds to politicians’ frustration at failing to become president and then not even being an MP.
Part of the problem is that the BBI recommended two solutions from similar problems – the sense of exclusion of the narrowly defeated.
I do not think that all the proposals have no merit. I think that a distinct status for Nairobi City as the capital of the country is not a bad proposal. It was actually recommended in the CKRC and Bomas drafts – but without details, these being left to an Act of Parliament.
But this and all the other ideas need very careful consideration, not the half-baked discussion in this report.
Need for a process
Whenever a constitution is to be considered for amendment there is need for a very thorough process. We would need much more detailed public participation, published proposals, giving Kenyans ample time to examine and discuss them. We would need national discussions, observing the best practices of public participation. In other words, something much more like the CKRC process, not this amateurish effort of a process and mishmash of proposals.
The whole process so far shows the tendency of politicians to mess around with the Constitution to their own benefit.
Raila Odinga has suffered for democracy in this country. He achieved a wider degree of public support, less pegged to ethnicity, than any other Kenyan politician in a democratic context. He has genuinely believed in ideologies and policies.
But is this where he would want to end his distinguished career in a shoddy and clumsy process, designed for the benefit of himself and a few others and for the exclusion of others?
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