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I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO: The Cultural Problem in China’s Engagement with Africa

14 min read. The Middle Kingdom is failing to acknowledge the cultural and racial distance it still has to close with the continent. By OWAAHH

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THE CHINESE DEBT TRAP: A new form of colonialism?
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Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move, fall like a thunderbolt ~ Sun Tzu, The Art of War

It was a small part of a big story. Easy to miss, yet significant in more ways than one.

At the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR)’s Miritini station, there is a bronze statue on a plinth. The statue is of the great Chinese explorer Zheng He, who travelled to the Kenyan coast in the 15th century. You’ve heard parts of his story, including how one of the ships in his mighty armada was wrecked. A few people survived and swam ashore to Pate Island, where they settled after killing a snake. But most travellers tend to assume that it’s a statue of Chairman Mao. With good reason. Mao is probably the second most recognisable Chinese man in Kenya after Jackie Chan.

But the story wasn’t even about Zheng He the man, but Zheng He the statue. Like everything about our new railway, this statue was made in China and shipped to the Kenyan coast. It was installed by Chinese sculptors. At the time, a group of Kenyan sculptors wondered why they weren’t considered for the job. Hidden within this labour and material question was a much deeper reality – that the Chinese economic conquest is nothing else but. Although it is radically altering the societies it is involved in, China is refusing to acknowledge the cultural distance it has to close. Not only that, China is also ignoring the histories and cultures of those societies, choosing instead a cultural journey that we’ve already been through (and not with good results) in the belief that everything must be made in China, with Chinese money, by Chinese people.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem. You’ve probably already heard the statement “China cannot be racist.” That, or seen the numerous press statements China and her companies have to send out almost every week defending themselves against claims of open racism.

The statue is not the only example of Chinese racism. Another is the signage. Where one could argue that the Zheng He statue was rightly made by China because he is their national hero, there was no such argument for the terrible translations. The notice “Hakuna kipenzi kuruhisiwa” next to the escalator, for example, was translated as “No pets allowed” instead of “No lovers allowed” (when actually it probably intended to say “No petting”). This was clearly a hilarious algorithmic mistranslation that went unnoticed until the signs were mounted. A single Kiswahili speaker, after laughing his or her heart out, would have helped avoid such an embarrassment.

There are several things about the statue that reflect how China’s sees itself and the world it intends to conquer. One is that the Chinese have a racial superiority problem they refuse to acknowledge – not only openly, but even within. For them, racism is a Western problem.

The confusion is not surprising. In China’s quest for global dominance, it has adopted a bland, business-like approach to soft power. Through a global network of Confucius Institutes, China tries to encourage the citizens of other countries to admire Chinese values. It doesn’t seek to adapt itself to those societies at all. It instead sees them in the same way Victorian Britain and her contemporaries saw Africa: as a land inhabited by uncivilised people in need of a model to aspire to. Just like the racism that drove European conquest of other continents, the Chinese believe they are the superior race. Somehow, in both contexts, black people form the base of the racial hierarchy.

China’s current soft power model is ignorant of the complexity of the post-colonial societies it is investing in. Any society seeking to impose its culture on the world should have a plan, at the very least. For the British, it was immolation of any preceding cultures or religions, and the imposition of replacements that sustained the racial hierarchies that were required to entrench their domination. We are still here a century later, albeit traumatised. On paper, China’s plan is simple: to loan money to poor countries to help them build things, not for their own prosperity, but for China’s. How this alters those societies, or how the cultural conquest to make the world Chinese is a foolhardy task, are not things that keep the Chinese up at night. Branded as a partnership rather than a conquest, it is thankfully secular, but the absence of a plan will undoubtedly complicate race relations. It already is.

Several recent events epitomise this. Earlier this year, a racist 13-minute skit aired on CCTV during the Lunar New Year. It had an audience of more than 700 million people. The plotline was something one would expect to see in old British movies about Africa in the 1930s. It featured a black actress, dressed as a train stewardess, who asks a Chinese man to pose as her husband so her mother can stop pestering her to marry. The man’s real wife then appears, but the mum has no problem because, as she shouts for all to hear “I love China!” Simple enough, but the actress playing the mum was Chinese. For her role she wore blackface, a fake chest, and an exaggerated fake posterior. She also had a basketful of fruits on her head, and was accompanied by a black man in a monkey suit. That no one saw the many things that were wrong in these choices shows just how little China has learnt about the history of race globally.

In 2017, an exhibition opened in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei Province. Titled “This is Africa”, it featured images of Africans juxtaposed with images of animals. The exhibition was closed after an outcry, but the curator defended it, saying that being compared to animals is a compliment in Chinese culture. What he left out is that in Sinology, the animals one would want to be compared with are very specific. The defence also ignored how black people would react to being compared to animals, given the negative history it triggers. It might as well have been a human zoo.

Another example, from 2016, was a detergent ad. A black man with dark paint on his face hits on a Chinese girl, who pushes detergent into his mouth and then pushes him into a washing machine. When he emerges, he is a fair-skinned Chinese man. Presumably, they live happily ever after. The commercial was copied from an Italian ad, which showed the reverse transformation: a scrawny white man transformed into a muscular black man.

China and her defenders were quick to claim that the CCTV skit was not racist. More than one official, including a diplomat in Nairobi, said that the outrage was an attempt by Western media “to drive a wedge between China and African countries”. The implication here is that because China doesn’t have a history of enslaving and colonising black people, it cannot be racist. But China does have a history of enslaving black people, and all its actions in the last two decades smell, walk, and quack like colonialism. 

***

The first black people to enter China were slaves, taken there by Arab traders around the second half of the first millennium. At first, the Chinese saw black people as strange, and added them to folklore as people descended from animals and who possessed magical powers. After these first interactions, black Africans entered Chinese folklore as knights-errant, but as times changed, they became “devil slaves”.

While darker skin Chinese could be “improved” in an economic sense that would raise their social hierarchy and hence, skin colour, these dark Africans could not be. This piece rightly notes that although China has not had as much a history of racism as the Western world, the idea of whiteness is about class rather than mere racial superiority. To the common Chinese, the writer notes, “Africa symbolises poverty; no money.” The Mandarin word for Africa, 非洲 (Feizhou / Fēizhōu) translates to “wrong continent”, or “no state”, or “nothing state”. Its etymology might point to the time when China was closed off to the world, but in a modern world it carries all the connotations of “The Dark Continent”, as reflected in some of the negative responses to the Black Panther movie. These ideas are also shaping Chinese pop culture; one 2017 blockbuster had all the hallmarks of a “white saviour and poor helpless Africans” story.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

In many societies, lighter skin is seen as a sign of material and social affluence. Among the Chinese and most East and South Asian societies, darker skin implies you are not wealthy enough to not work in the fields. It connotes poverty, while light skin is aspirational. For the Chinese, the racial hierarchy has them at the top, Manchuns and Europeans next, and Africans after whoever you want to add between them and Europeans. This view precedes communism and Mao, and defined how empires fostered cohesion and conquest in the centuries before.

Chinese understanding of race is based on colourism within its own culture and history. Colourism and racism are different, although related. Colourism is discrimination based solely on skin colour and whatever stereotypes you choose to attach to it. Racism is a construct that often either starts with, or grows into, colourism.

Although there are 56 ethnic groups in China, more than 90 per cent of China’s population is Han Chinese. This homogeneity, combined with cycles of conquest and insular pursuits, has worsened colorism. It has also blinded China to changes in how the rest of the world processes race.

As a people, the Chinese see nothing wrong with treating people they consider poor badly. This wouldn’t be a significant problem if it did not define how we do business together. Deals are unfair, unequal, expensive, destructive, and benefit no one but the Chinese. There’s no appreciation of the unique experiences of a society such as Kenya. The only thing China is worried about is its own survival. After Zheng He’s golden age of exploration, China closed itself off again.

The Ming Dynasty destroyed the entire naval fleet; for centuries, the reason offered was that the empire was distracted by excursions by the Mongols. But recent research shows that although the “barbarian” distraction was blamed, it was actually the social and economic shifts within Chinese society that triggered the fallback. Private wealth was disrupting the social hierarchies. During the Golden Age though, Malindi city-state had sent diplomats and gifts to China for two years, and Zheng He had been to the East African coast.

When China reemerged on the global scene after centuries of being an insular society, racism against black people was rife. The earliest African students in China in the 1960s and ‘70s were discriminated against. There were also widespread demonstrations against African students in late 1988 and early 1989 in Nanjing. The main issues included the contact between African men and Chinese women, similar to the “black peril” fears during the colonial decades. Among the solutions to the demonstration was a raft of policies that placed a race-specific night-time curfew, as well as access limits to Chinese girlfriends. Within modern China, there is a growing xenophobia against black Africans, despite official denials. There have been instances, such as a protest in Guangzhou in 2009 after continued police harassment. Africans living in China have also written about being called things like “hei gui” (black devil) and being assumed to be criminals. There has also been racism in Chinese football.

Societies process colour and race differently. A recent example is the reaction to Albert Einstein’s 1922/3 travel diary where he made what, to the modern reader, are racist observations about the Chinese. To the West, the celebrated genius finally had (another) kink in his shining armour; he was a racist. There was the usual sense of shame and catharsis that comes from people in atonement when they recognise what they believe to be wrong in their heroes, based on the realities today. Einstein describes the Chinese as “spiritless” and “peculiar”, adding that “it would be a pity if these Chinese supplant all other races. For the likes of us the mere thought is unspeakably dreary.”

For the Chinese though, Einstein wasn’t being racist. For them, he was just recording what he saw, and he kept true to it. That Einstein said he found their “houses very formulaic, balconies like bee-hive cells” wasn’t a racist view. Or when he (rightly, when you think about it) wrote that China was a “peculiar herd-like nation” that would one day take over the world. To the modern Chinese in a period of prosperity, in a driven society that only looks back to learn business lessons and not reflect enough, the past is factual, and if the facts are right, then that’s that.

A big part of how China is experiencing blackness (as a concept) now is that which is filtered by the West, especially by Hollywood, or by its own government. In the Black Panther case, marketers were afraid a movie with a majority black cast wouldn’t do well in the second biggest movie market. But they were wrong, which might point more towards the curiosity of a culturally insular people to people different from them than to an appreciation of black people. The social interactions are already shaping China’s inevitable diversity explosion. An example is the marriage between a Chinese man and a Cameroonian woman, which has become an online sensation within the Chinese corner of the web.

***

In much the same way that black skin connotes poverty to the common Chinese, fair skin connotes wealth to the common Kenyan. One example was a photograph of a Chinese man selling roasted maize in Nairobi. The image went viral in 2012, and often had captions, such as the “Chinese invasion” of the informal economy. That same year, there was a protest in Nairobi on the same issue, where one protester said, “The Chinese must go. Let them come and build roads.” It was a response to the increasing number not just of cheap Chinese products in the market, but Chinese businessmen in the informal economy. This has happened before, but when it did, Kenya didn’t exist as an independent country. The Indian labourers who first came to build the railway at the end of the 19th century set up dukas and businesses, and became the middle race in the British colonial hierarchy. As loosely connected networks of related cultures, even Indians today are accused of racism against black people.

China cannot ignore that while they went through centuries of being insular, Africa went through radical transformation. It went through slavery, civil wars, colonial conquest, liberation wars, independence, coups, and democratic revolutions. Its sons and daughters were shackled and taken across seas. They were kept in human zoos and others sent to the cotton fields. At home, millions were caged in concentration camps by people with lighter skin, and killing a black person was considered pretty much the same as killing an animal. When the first white man was being hanged in Kenya, the white community here couldn’t believe one of their own was dying for killing a black man who had thrown stones at his dog. That was in the 1950s, and I am not sure Kenya hanged any other white man until it unofficially suspended executions in 1987.

This history is conveniently forgotten, at least officially. Perhaps the hope is that it will fade into the background, which is impossible. Ignoring the issues of race is essentially also ignoring the issues of class that colonialism built. Even worse, it is downplaying the fact that the debt model China is using is worsening, not helping, the glaring inequality in African countries. As China seeks to transfer its surplus capacity to Africa, it has not only skewed competition and stifled formal markets, but it is also seeking dominance over the informal sector as well. There are small-scale Chinese businesspeople even in agriculture, raising the chances of a new xenophobia.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future. But in its months of operations, and even before, it’s become clear that the railway is a white elephant – a white elephant that barely grows the Kenyan economy because it was made for China. The Chinese built it for the same reason slavers scoured the landscape in caravans, and the British built a railway – to steal from people who they believed to be lesser than them.

***

Unlike the 19th century conquests, when our ancestors were caught mostly unaware of the global order, we are living in a time when we can see it in motion. The Kenyans alive from 1895 all the way to the mid-1960s experienced institutionalized racism. It was ingrained in their psyche that lighter skin was better than darker skin. Our cultural experience has been with the West, hence even a significant part of how we process cultural problems like racism is influenced by the Western catharsis on race issues. For China, as a society united on the basis of being superior to everyone else, this presents an opportunity – one that has become roads and bridges and railways. Buildings and disappearing ports. An opportunity driven by debt, the promise of a future built, funded, and owned by the Chinese.

Since Kenyan elites are personally benefitting from this newfound love with China, they are willing to ignore China’s negative impact on Kenyan society. They are also unwilling to seek any leverage with China that would hurt their pockets. Their hope is that the same way that the Uganda Railway built a country, the new SGR will set Kenya off to a new future.

China’s claims that the Western media is trying to drive a wedge (which it is) between Sino-African relations portray blackness as a point of contention only between white people and Asians. It feels as if black people are kids being discussed, or fought over, in a room by adults. It’s clear in the one-size-fits-all approach to infrastructure projects, where instead of adopting cultural elements to infrastructure projects, China prefers its own model. When it has to translate signage to local languages, it chooses algorithmic translations to human interaction. It also prefers its own professionals and, in most instances, blue-collar workers. With little leverage, economies such as Kenya have acquiesced, choosing to ignore the damage this is doing to the same societies it should be uplifting.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary. And for a business society built to work like the parts of a factory, what matters are emotions based on facts.

The blindness of the Chinese to their own racism presents a chance to the West to reconnect with us – to shift us back from “facing East”, which we only viewed through the lens of economic prosperity, not the cultural challenges. This 2013 study epitomises the Western perspective of Chinese racism and African experience with anti-racism. In this global chess match, we are the piece, the pawns and the merchandise. And that presents itself as a challenge when we have mortgaged our economies and, therefore, the basis of our cultural cohesion as a nation-state. Instances of racism that belong to a time long past are back in the news, but we are processing them differently from those who are racist against us.

For our new creditors, the Chinese, this reality only exists in conversations they have nothing to do with. For them, blessed as they are with significant ethnic homogeneity and more used to social hierarchy based on class, there’s no need to atone if you treat others differently simply because they are poor. That they happen to be black is actually secondary.

By this point, you must be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the most recent cases. I don’t think I need to. At least not about Liu Jiaqi, who confidently and without flinching said, “I don’t belong to here. I don’t like here, like monkey people, I don’t like talk with them, it smells bad, and poor, and foolish, and black. I don’t like them. Why not [like] the white people, like the American?” Or the many other instances, such as the restaurant in Nairobi that refused service to blacks after 5pm. Or the racism, discrimination, and emotional abuse experienced by those not just working at the SGR, but at almost every Chinese-owned or run business in the country. We can’t deport all our Chinese visitors (because we owe them money), but we must remind them that if nothing else, we will not sit and become second-class citizens simply because we happen to be born black.

How should we experience this, as African societies who have been at the bottom of almost every global socio-political hierarchy in recent history? Do we think of ourselves as a global force? Are we proud to be black because we are beautiful, or because we are reacting to those who say we are not? We see ourselves through how others see us, and thus accept this reality unless it directly affects us. Or we have learnt to acknowledge that it is wrong and untenable.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan. It is not the work of the oppressed to understand the oppressor, but because we still don’t see China as a new conqueror, and we live in a time of forced self-reflection, we might need to. How many more Chinese people can we deport for racism, insults, and being uncouth before we realise the problem is not just with individuals involved? The other side does actually see as stupid, pliable, poor, animal-like lesser beings.

If we didn’t know it yet, here’s the truth. There’s no cultural exchange happening with the Chinese. While their economic conquest is in full gear, it is ripping the fabric of our societies in its wake. Instead of processing this new reality, however, we are reacting in real time, with no real plan.

When we turned East, we should have restarted a conversation we’d already had. That we Kenyans, as a diverse country of mostly dark-skinned people, are deserving of respect as human beings. That we are proud to be black, and we will not accept to be enslaved again or to be made to feel like lesser human beings. There’s enough to worry about as a Kenyan in 2018 without having to deal with yet another group of people who think that because we have less than they do, we can’t think for ourselves. But this conversation needs to start from within, by acknowledging that we are a proud society with diverse cultures, a colourful history, and world-class artisans who are capable of making a statue.

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Owaahh is the pseudonym of a blogger based in Nairobi

Politics

Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women

7 min read. The main objective of Kenya’s largest women’s organisation has been to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for Kenya’s women.

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Maendeleo ya Wanawake and the Politics of Silencing Women
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MYWO has always existed to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the foreseeable future

We are witnessing the Kenyan government’s attempt to reimpose silence as the preferred political language in this next phase of politics. These attempts are hidden in plain sight. Take for instance the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake Organisation (MYWO)’s recent public censure of the Member of Parliament for Kandara constituency, Alice Wahome, for criticising the president, or the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders demanding that the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI)’s popularisation is the preserve of those aligned to the president.

According to its website, MYWO is a non-governmental organisation of over 25,000 affiliate women’s groups and over 4 million individual members. Registered in 1952 by a group of white settler women as part of the colonial government’s Department of Community Development and Rehabilitation, its purpose was to focus on women’s social welfare, which it did through organising women’s self-help groups around the country. In central Kenya where the movement for land, freedom and independence (the Mau Mau) was active, MYWO was treated with suspicion and there were rumours it was used to collect information on Mau Mau activities.

MYWO was initially funded by the colonial government and later the independence government and continued to focus primarily on social welfare and development. The post-independence MYWO continued to act as an appendage of the state, going so far as to merge with the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party in 1987. MYWO, therefore, has deep roots in the state and the state as an institution for the control of people. It is an organisation by women but not for women; its purpose is to serve the interests of the state.

MYWO has never deviated from its historical roots and purpose. It has never been an independent women’s organisation, nor has it ever been invested in women’s political agency. Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

Because women were for all intents and purposes excluded from mainstream politics, MYWO was one of the few spaces for politically active women. Thus, some of its chairpersons include such politically active women as: Hon. Phoebe Asiyo, who was first elected in 1980 and was also the first person to table a bill for affirmative action for women’s representation in elective politics in 1997; Jael Ogombe Mobogo, who almost beat Mwai Kibaki in the race for Member of Parliament for Bahati Constituency in the 1969 elections; and Ruth Habwe, who was expelled from KANU in 1966 after she dared to run against KANU as an independent. Other chairpersons of MYWO include such prominent women as Hon. Zipporah Kittony, who was first nominated by President Moi as a KANU MP in 1988 and again by Gideon Moi, President Moi’s son and the Chairman of KANU, to the Senate 25 years later in 2013; and Jane Kiano, who was also a patron of the organisation until her death in 2018.

Despite being founded and growing as a social welfare and “development” organisation, MYWO gained political relevance as a voice for the ruling party KANU during President Daniel arap Moi’s repressive 24-year single-party rule.

However, MYWO’s influence began to decline during the “second liberation” as demands for multipartyism grew and civic space expanded. As the public space for women expanded, including through the promulgation of the Constitution in 2010, MYWO continued to shrink. Its resurgence to chastise Alice Wahome for criticising the president is, therefore, worth reflection.It is also worth noting that President Uhuru Kenyatta first ran on a KANU ticket and his political mentor was President Moi.

For the first time in our history, men and women form a class of citizens, neither with superior status, and both with the right to representation in elective and appointive bodies. Yet over the past decade, and especially in the last seven years, we have witnessed some of the most hardened resistance by the state to women as citizens — from systematic violations of the Constitution to exclude women from Parliament, Cabinet, and parastatal and ambassadorial appointments (as required by the Bill of Rights Article 27) to laws undermining their equality in marriage and the increase in violence against women by men in the public and private spheres.

In other words, there has been no shortage of “women’s issues” over the past decade. Women and women’s organisations working in women’s interests have had to demand, advocate and fight for women against the state despite the law – from court cases challenging these unconstitutional actions by Parliament and by the president to public advocacy for compliance with the rule of law to ensure women’s full representation in public space and politics. Women working for and on behalf of women have been at the forefront of challenging state illegalities that harm women, undermine their citizenship and limit their opportunities. During this time MYWO has been missing in action.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment. MYWO certainly does not protect the interests of women as a class of citizens. This isn’t to argue that their position is invalid or does not deserve a platform but to provide context and to assert it is not the women’s position.

MYWO was established to subdue women’s voices and to control the constituency of women, a purpose that was both necessary and effective in an undemocratic state. That it is being revived may indicate the type of politics the elite envision for the future of women in the country. The Kikuyu Council of Elders is the preserve of men, and the emergence of a “women’s league” in a notoriously misogynistic institution is probably a sign that the interests and positions being advanced are those of men.

The homogenisation of women

Women have been speaking for the past decade on issues of national importance. Where are those voices of women who have been speaking when it wasn’t convenient or politically expedient? Indeed, what the 2010 Constitution did to the consternation of the political elite is to create opportunities for the largest number of women in Kenyan politics – women who demand public space and national platforms without apology and on the same terms as men, women who speak against the state’s failure to protect women.

The loud silence of MYWO and others, including the Women’s League of the Kikuyu Council of Elders, is because they aren’t concerned with or working in the interests of Kenyan women generally; they are working for and in the interests of the state and a minority of women within the establishment.

But the way in which women who have been speaking for and on behalf of women against the state are being covered today is an attempt to homogenise women, to deny women the right to multiple and diverse opinions (see how this is consistent with a view of women as not real citizens). A small class of politically active women are also trying use the media to manipulate the public into seeing them as the “leaders” of the constituency of women so that they can leverage this standing to secure positions in the negotiated politics that is the fashion post-BBI.

Women are insulted, raped and killed and MYWO is silent, but a woman politician doing politics in a way that upsets the establishment is a cause for national statements. No woman with an issue – from the alienation of inheritance land or rape of her daughter in a public high school, or even the death of her daughter allegedly by a governor – runs to MYWO. However, the state runs to MYWO when it has issues with women.

To deny women diverse political opinions is to deny us the fullness of citizenship; it serves to infantilise us as well as to deny us agency at a time when the political elite is most vulnerable. Our politics is bad but it isn’t simple.  Attempts by the political elite to gloss over differences or muzzle dissent should be met with suspicion.The only way citizens can influence the direction or agenda of politics is through critical political engagement not mere acquiescence.

MYWO’s resurgence, especially in the role of the disciplinarian of women doing politics, is a harbinger of a politics without basic freedoms: freedom of association and speech, not just for women, but all citizens. The nature of our popular, predominately male, political analysis is to render anything articulated by a woman as peripheral to the national discourse and only for the consumption of other women. Whereas men speak and do politics for the public, women speak and do politics only for other women.

This analytical framework fails to take cognisance of changes in society, as well as the expanded public and political role of women, especially post-2010. In addition, it is stubbornly ahistorical, ignoring this administration’s history of violating women’s rights as a prelude to more expansive and systematic repression. We see the same modus operandi with court orders. The Parliament and the president have consistently violated court orders on the two-thirds gender rule, including refusing to enact legislation on women’s representation and naming an unconstitutional cabinet. Now court orders are violated to deny some citizens the right to enter the country, as well as release them on bail.

We would do well to broaden our political analysis to take women’s role seriously as citizens with agency and with diverse political perspectives and, therefore, as proponents of both progressive and regressive politics. Part of what is most threatening in the current context is diversity of political opinion, complexity and nuance among all citizens, not just women.

MYWO and organisations like it are telling women what the proper political position is, thus pulling women back from complicating the public space by demanding to be heard. This is especially damaging for women because women as a class of citizens have legitimate litigated grievances that challenge the legality and legitimacy of any proposed referendum or constitutional amendment processes.

Why women are critically important is because none of the legal processes to amend the Constitution are available because these institutions are unconstitutional as they exclude women. We have an unconstitutional cabinet, an unconstitutional Parliament, an unconstitutional electoral body and a political elite that have all but admitted that elections are hijacked by those in power. The scope of the current illegalities would seem to exclude the current holders of those positions from initiating or overseeing any constitutional amendment process. Instead of an unconstitutional government overseeing amendments to the Constitution, what we should have is an independent transitional government. But the political elite know that this political moment works in their collective interest only if it is a binary choice, uncomplicated by facts and the law.

As citizens we would do well to be suspicious of those seeking to silence us or to mould us into well-packaged constituencies, whether they be organised around ethnicity, gender or age, for sale to the highest bidder. We are being encouraged to consider political choices that are both illegal and ahistorical and questioning the framing is considered heresy. We seem to have learned nothing from the silencing of critics and the faux “tyranny of numbers” scenario.

Shrinking the political space, especially the space to disagree and oppose the status quo, is bad for citizens and great for politicians. The politics of silence is the politics of oppression; it merely starts with women but will eventually silence and oppress all citizens equally.

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Politics

How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule

11 min read. An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics suggests that President Moi owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries. The Moi era is also a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War.

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How Moi Manipulated Luo Politics to Entrench His Authoritarian Rule
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Daniel arap Moi, Kenya’s second and longest-serving post-independence president, was buried at his Kabarak home on February 12th. His death, eulogy and press coverage by the big commercial media outlets have stoked divisive debates and ambivalent recollections of the past, which recall Fyodor Dostoevsky’s observations that “while nothing is easier to denounce than an evildoer, nothing is more difficult than to understand him.”

How does one understand the evils of the Nyayo government if Moi was solely responsible for some of the evils of his government, but not all the evils were exclusively his? And what if some of the evils Moi is rightly condemned for, such as crony capitalism, sabotaging democracy, resisting political reforms, political murders and corruption, are also the evils that were perpetuated by his predecessors, Jomo Kenyatta and Mwai Kibaki, and even his successor, Uhuru Kenyatta?

Perhaps one way is not to see Moi as the African Big Man, which Moi’s death has brought back into circulation. Though convenient, the Big Man or strongman reference conceals rather than reveals the kind of state power an authoritarian ruler wields, and the internal and external political forces that also shape the politics of authoritarian regimes. It conceals the wellspring of crimes committed by an evil leader in charge of a highly centralised and unitary state, one where the executive’s power has been concentrated in the presidency in particular, without the mitigating effect of the counter-balancing powers of an independent Parliament and judiciary.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

Moi’s authoritarian rule wasn’t solely a product of a unique character trait in him as an individual; rather, it was a handmaiden of the statecraft of an unreformed highly centralised and unitary state. By using this form of state power to reward and punish, he adroitly exploited the national or regional political needs of Kenyans and the political schemes and rivalries among his political rivals, and astutely manipulated the greed and the cravings of the clergy, the intelligentsia, and bureaucrats.

Moi’s evil government also had the support of the West during the Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher eras, which kept his repressive, corrupt and incompetent government going. Britain and the United States were clear about who the enemies of the West were during the Cold War: communism and radical nationalisms in Africa. They wanted to reconfigure African economies through neoliberalism. So his was hardly a one-man show.

Perhaps the politics of the South Nyanza district in the 1980s, which resonated with the politics of the other marginalised regions of Kenya, offers some answers. At that time, Kenyan elites were jostling for positions in the new political order under Moi, and the Nyanza elite were no exception. Signaling a political truce and an intention to bring back the ostracised Kenya People’s Union politicians back into the fold, Moi appointed Jaramogi Oginga Odinga as the Chairman of the Cotton Lint and Seed Marketing in 1980.

Moi’s evil rule dominated every aspect of Kenya’s political life because his rule, like Jomo Kenyatta’s, was absolute state power, which post-independent statecraft has often wrapped in the rhetoric of sovereignty, patriotism, discipline, order, and development.

But, as Anyang’ Nyongo regretfully explained in the Star, despite their concerted efforts to keep Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of the limelight, Jaramogi granted Hillary Ng’weno of the Weekly Review an ill-timed interview. Moreover, in Mombasa, Jaramogi “denounced Kenyatta as a land grabber”. These successive events, as Nyongo notes, torpedoed what would have been the Moi-Odinga rapport because Moi was beholden to the very Jomo Kenyatta era forces that had forced Jaramogi Oginga Odinga out of government and that had jailed him.

After the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga debacle, Moi looked to South Nyanza for new leaders who did not have autonomous political constituencies such as Odinga’s, and leaders who would owe him their allegiance. Moi found willing accomplices in some South Nyanza elite with whom he could fend off political enemies, run a brutal and repressive state security apparatus, and build an alternative political base to Jaramogi Oginga Odinga’s. It was a move that stirred the undercurrents of the intra-Luo and inter-district elite competition, resentment, and envy.

Moi understood the Luo intra-ethnic political undercurrents, its elites’ vanities, greed, and opportunism and their region’s developmental challenges. He played one individual’s ambitions against another individual’s ambitions, or one district’s elite faction against another faction, thus keeping his would-be enemies busy and preoccupied with siasa ya kuchimbana.

Legacy of the Seventh Day Adventists

For years, the South Nyanza elite had felt that the district had lagged behind Kisumu and Siaya districts in terms of social and economic development. The area was beleaguered with a huge disease burden and high mortality rates. In Freedom and After, Tom Mboya, suggested that this had partly been the social cost of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) mission’s anti-educated African attitude and miniscule investment in the education sector.

Referring to a time when the education of the Africans was mainly left to Christian missionaries, Mboya lamented:

There were also churches—for instance, the Seventh Day Adventists—which thought it immoral to give Africans any academic education, and believed all they should learn was the Bible from the first page to the end, and perhaps how to do some woodwork and manual labour. Until a few years ago the Seventh Day Adventists thought it un-Christian for an African to want to go to high school and university. I know of many cases of Africans who were openly condemned in church for trying to get further academic education. In some cases Africans who defied the church on these matters lost their teaching jobs or the employment. As a result, you have today very few highly educated Africans among the Seventh Day Adventists.”

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations. But the SDA church of the colonial times, with its Kenyan headquarters at Gendia mission in Kendu-Bay, and its roots in the millennial religions of white North Americans, seemed to have exported America’s virulent racist attitudes towards “free” black people. The SDA church of colonial times seemed to have resolved that the type of education the “natives” needed was apolitical education – the teaching of “technical” or functional education, the kind that would not stir political agitation, but would be good enough for the immediate needs of the white-dominated colonial economy.

Mboya’s beef with the SDA mission, the dominant Christian mission in South Nyanza and the islands of Lake Victoria (locally known as Lolwe), can’t be dismissed as the coloured view of a Roman Catholic; missionary education was racially-biased across denominations.

In an era when the colonial government assigned various Christian missions particular geographical locations – ostensibly to forestall religious conflicts – only the Anglicans (the Queen’s church) could establish a mission anywhere they fancied. Thus a Christian mission’s formal or informal policy could have a great impact on a region’s socio-economic (mis)fortunes. The white missionaries’ preference for high altitudes and cooler climates meant that there were very few missions and missionary schools in South Nyanza’s mostly hot, mosquito- and tsetse fly-infested areas.

The rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi

Tom Mboya’s rise as the ultimate champion of post-independence modernity held great hopes for South Nyanza. But his assassination on July 5, 1969 robbed the region of a grand patron and an impatient moderniser who felt that the colonial government had dealt the region an unfair card. Orphaned by Tom Mboya’s murder, South Nyanza, more than any other district, was a region yearning for a patron and inclusion in government.

But South Nyanza elites’ ambitions and popular needs, a laggard elite formation, poor social and economic welfare, especially when compared with the other Luo-dominated districts of Kisumu and Siaya, played into Daniel Moi’s Machiavellian hands. The failed Oginga Odinga and Moi rapport paved the way for Moi to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza’s Luo community politics.

No one personified Daniel arap Moi’s attempt to shift the centre of gravity of Nyanza politics and to control it more than the late Hezekiah Nelson Oyugi Ogango, aka “Kalam Maduong” or the Big Pen. Oyugi’s nickname attested to the might of Oyugi’s powers, which he derived from his lofty position in the Provincial Administration, and later as Permanent Secretary in charge of internal security, an office he held at the pleasure of President Moi.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga. No one expected another Luo to come close to state power, and certainly not close to a national security organ.

A Homa Bay legend has it that in the 1980s, a goat had spoken to Hezekiah Oyugi when he was serving as a Provincial Administrator in the Rift Valley. The goat had told him to warn the Kenyan government or the president of an impending drought or famine and request them to build a buffer against such an eventuality. Oyugi promptly relayed the message. President Moi heeded the prophetic warning by building a grain reserve, thus averting a famine. The legend’s Old Testament undertones cast Oyugi as Joseph, the interpreter of dreams in the Pharaoh’s court.

Hezekiah Oyugi’s meteoric rise in Moi’s government came as a big surprise, especially after another Hezekiah, and a Luo to boot, Hezekiah Ochuka Rabala, a senior private in the Kenya Air Force, was named as being at the centre of the 1982 abortive coup that was said to have had the blessing of Jaramogi Oginga Odinga.

Oyugi, like Simeon Nyachae, was an ambitious workaholic and a stickler for rules who zealously served the Moi government while pursuing his own regional political ambitions and development agenda, especially in South Nyanza. Tired of the streetwise, honey-tongued and rib-tickling political orators with dismal “development” records, such Olouch Kanindo, Oyugi attempted to remake South Nyanza’s politics in the 1980s.

The Moi-Oyugi line-up of the favoured Members of Parliament included politicians such as Peter Nyakiamo, Dalmas Otieno and one maverick – if ever there was one – Professor Ouma Muga, and other loud and loutish Nyayo loyalist types. The new crop of leaders had expansive worldviews, were educated and experienced as administrators of big corporate or academic institutions, and were above all Nyayo loyalists.

In the mid-1980s, Moi came calling at Homa Bay. The KANU’s brass band was bigger and better than St John Seminary Rakwaro’s, which often graced Homa Bay town’s national day celebrations. South Nyanza, it was said, had topped the list of the districts with the highest number of registered KANU supporters for the two consecutive years preceding the presidential visit. This wasn’t entirely voluntary. During those years, KANU youth wingers forcibly recruited party members. They had laid siege at the entrances and exits of the town’s markets and the main bus park, letting in only those who had a KANU membership card and the annual KANU membership stamp (worth five or ten shillings) affixed to it. In addition, the KANU Maendeleo Ya Wanawake women, the party stalwarts who could secure more than five kilos of pishori rice or unga ngano, went door to door, making sure that every adult was a registered and duly paid card-carrying member of the ruling party.

With the rise and rise of Hezekiah Oyugi as the PS in charge of internal security, the fortunes of other Luo leaders, such as David Okiki Amayo (KANU’s national chairman), ministers Dalmas Otieno, James Okwanyo, and Peter Nyakiamo, and several assistant ministers, such as Professor Ouma Muga and Ochola Mak’Anyengo, appeared to be on the rise too. But were they?

When the tide of Nyayoism receded from the shores of South Nyanza in the early 1990s, a mixed bag of harvest was revealed. Some educational institutions, notably Kanga High School and the Migori Institute of Science and Technology, were established. There was employment in the Provincial Administration and the Administration Police. There were other goodies, such as a school bus and a few church buildings.

However, the region faced deepening economic decline: bad roads, collapsed marine transport, beleaguered cotton, sugarcane and fisheries sectors, declining public sector employment or retrenchment (popularly known as “the golden handshake”), and an increasing disease and healthcare burden. Moi’s government was also balkanising the old South Nyanza district, dividing it along its dominant language and clan cleavages, namely, Rachuonyo, Migori, Suba, and Kuria districts.

Around that time, Hezekiah Oyugi had also died mysteriously, which was quite common during the Nyayo era. And Moi was openly and widely resented.

Representation without development

In 1993, the MP for Kasipul Kabondo, Otieno K’Opiyo, asked the Minister of Health why there were no Nyayo wards built in the former South Nyanza district. Yet, in his words, “if you consider the proximity of the previous leaders of South Nyanza, all of them were in cabinet and were very, very close to and were co-operating with the KANU government, but in spite of all this cooperation by nine ministers, nothing was done…why did they not consider South Nyanza where they had the heartbeat of KANU throbbing day in day out?”

Although many Nyayo wards were never completed in several parts of the country, and the Moi government later said that the wards were supposedly mainly a self-help and a partially government-sponsored project, South Nyanza did not get a Nyayo ward despite the fact that Peter Nyakiamo, the MP for Mbita, was the Minister of Health when the Nyayo ward project was initiated.

How could this happen? Can this paradox of good cabinet representation without local development explain the kinds of tweets posted on the debate on Moi’s legacy, but informed by the former North Eastern Province’s harsher experiences? Rashid Abdi stated on Twitter:

He [Moi] kept North under emergency law, deepened hatred of the ethnic Somalis, forced discriminatory pink card on them, looked on as his troops massacred civilians in Wagalla, ran a prosperous country aground, disappeared & killed ForMin [foreign minister]. Whose legacy history will look to kindly it is Raila Odinga. Raila made his mark in the struggle for democracy, new constitution and devolution (notwithstanding qualms about BBI), on the one hand.”

And then there was Ahmednasir Abdullahi SC’s ambivalent reaction:

Despite the history of NFD, the Independence Referendum of 1963, the war of independence (the shifta wars) and Section 124? Of the constitution that imposed state of emergency on NFD from 1963 to 1992, BABA Moi made Somalis, Borana, Gabra, Rendille et al to part of Kenya.”

Dr Sally Kosgei, Nyayo’s last Head of Civil Service and Secretary to the Cabinet, in her eulogy at Kabakak during Moi’s funeral, put her finger on this paradox of cabinet representation without development when she noted without any sense of irony that Moi “managed the affairs of the state with his civil servants”. (Note: Moi’s civil servants, not Kenya’s civil service.)

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

In nearly all-key institutions of Kenya’s highly centralised state power, the locus of power was not the elected public face of any particular institution. Rather, Kenya’s state power was deliberately designed to subvert its citizens’ democratic will and aspiration. In some instances, the bureaucrats and henchmen who wielded the most power were invisible or largely unknown beyond their private spheres of influence.

It was clear to all that in Moi’s government, cabinet positions were largely symbolic and ministers were dispensable. The KBC 1 o’clock news bulletin announcing the sacking of ministers hung over the cabinet ministers’ heads like a guillotine.

The locus of power lay in the office of a bureaucrat appointed directly or indirectly by the president, often without security of tenure or with superficial security of tenure. (“His civil servants.”) So it was the Treasury, not the National Assembly, that allocated national resources. Within the National Assembly, the clerk had more authority than the speaker. In the justice sector, it was the Attorney General, not the Chief Justice, who was the ultimate legal authority. In any given ministry, it was the Permanent Secretary, not the minister, who made the important decisions. In local governments, it was the various clerks who wielded power. In the districts, the District Commissioners called the shots as chairmen of the District Development Committees and the District Security Committees. In the villages, it was the chiefs, not the elected councillors, who were the kingpins. Nearly all the elected leaders were subservient to the president’s appointed bureaucrats who had the “Authority to Incur Expenditure” behind the scenes.

An assessment of South Nyanza’s politics in the first decade of Moi’s presidency suggests that the former Kenyan president owed his long rule partly to the Luo elite’s internal divisions and rivalries – often ignited by none other than Moi himself. Moi adroitly and carefully co-opted the regional elite from marginalised ethnic groups, cynically exploiting their yearning for “development”, and keeping them happy and slavish. However, their appointment to key positions did little to bring “development” to their regions.

South Nyanza’s experience also suggests that Moi stayed in power for long because of his brutal repression of the opposition, because of the atomising fear and despondency that his regime of terror induced in the population, as well as because of the international financial support his government received from or through the West, especially Britain and the United States. Kenya under Moi’s authoritarian rule was the proverbial crocodile’s lair where no freedom fighter or radical nationalist sought refuge.

Daniel arap Moi may have fancied himself as an African statesman – and was even eulogised as one by many – but his reign is a study on how authoritarian leaders sustained their grip on power during the Cold War. The evils of the Nyayo era recall Lord Acton’s maxim: absolute power corrupts absolutely.

To think of Moi as either a “Big Man” or a “strongman” is to ignore the institutional distortions that enabled him to rule over Kenya with an iron fist, and the domestic and international support that sustained his presidency.

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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts

14 min read. The Goldenberg scandal did not just negatively impact the Kenyan economy, it also left in its wake damaged and destroyed lives. Central Bank of Kenya employees who raised queries about the massive fraud were quickly sacrificed. These individuals and their families have hauntingly traumatic memories of Moi and his government.

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Revisiting the Goldenberg Ghosts
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As a curious child growing up in the early 1990s, I had a general idea from reading the newspapers that my father brought home that Daniel arap Moi’s Kenya was not a place to play around. Then, in August 1992, these abstract ideas became realities. One evening, my visibly distressed mother brought home a newspaper bearing the photo of her elder brother appearing unconscious and lying on a bed at Nairobi Hospital. The caption had my uncle’s name, Francis Lukorito (whom we called Uncle L), followed by an explanation that the hospitalised Central Bank of Kenya employee had been arrested days earlier in relation to the mysterious death of the multiparty stalwart Masinde Muliro.

Pius Masinde Muliro, the founding member of the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), had been declared dead on a Nairobi-bound flight from London, where he had gone to fund-raise for the party. FORD was a serious contender in the 1992 general election following the repeal of Section 2(a) of the constitution, abolishing Moi’s one-party state. That newspaper, with the usually charming Uncle L appearing bruised, swollen and defeated, became part of family memorabilia, in remembrance of the day my uncle became an enemy of the state.

Uncle L was a tall, heavily built and worldly individual who people aspired to become. He finished his high school education at Lenana School and proceeded to undergraduate Bachelor of Commerce studies at the University of Nairobi. He was an impressionable 23-year-old when the Central Bank of Kenya came calling in 1976. He was first sent to Milan, then to Washington, D.C. for further training. Within a short period of time, he became the bank’s superintendent, then the senior Superintendent. The future was supposed to be bright – until August 1992 happened.

As narrated to the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into the Goldenberg Affair, where Uncle L took the witness stand on 14 January 2004, the truth was that Muliro and Uncle L came a long way. When Muliro was attending school in Tororo, Uganda, before proceeding to the University of Cape Town in South Africa, he made a habit of passing by my grandfather’s home at the Kenya-Uganda border, not too far from Tororo, where he spent time with my grandfather, who was his age-mate. Since then, Muliro remained a regular visitor to my late grandfather’s home, in the process becoming my uncle’s guardian.

On 14 August 1992, while minding his business at work, Uncle L received a call from a friend who informed him that Muliro was dead. Shocked and in disbelief, he left for Muliro’s Nairobi residence in Upper Hill, where he confirmed the news. As Muliro’s children contemplated their next move in dealing with their patriarch’s death, it was decided that Uncle L would become the treasurer for the funeral organising committee. Uncle L drove back to work, unaware that his association with Muliro was about to be conveniently used as a scapegoat to kick him out of the Central Bank – in a bigger game of chess that was being played at Moi’s State House.

Five days later, on 19 August 1992, three plainclothes policemen showed up at the Central Bank. With them was Mr. H. H. Njoroge, Uncle L’s head of division, and a Mr. Karanja, the bank’s chief security officer. The men requested Uncle L to accompany them. No explanations were given. Since the bank officials were aware of what was transpiring, Uncle L obliged. Outside the bank building, on Haile Selassie Avenue, Uncle L saw a Special Branch Peugeot 504 station wagon with two more men inside. There and then, in Moi’s Kenya of detention without trial, he knew his goose was cooked. Multiparty politics had been begrudgingly restored, and although it appeared the democratic space was expanding, in Uncle L’s world, there lurked a monster which was about to cripple the Kenyan economy, an ogre which he and a few others had tried to slay, but which had now come back to haunt them.

As senior superintendent, Uncle L had to scrutinise all export compensation scheme-related CD3 forms submitted to the Central Bank by commercial banks on behalf of their exporting customers. Uncle L worked with Mr. David Meader, an Australian national seconded to the bank from the International Monetary Fund. The duo flagged a whopping 17 billion shillings, which they considered an irregular payout to a company called Goldenberg International, which was purporting to be exporting massive amounts of gold and diamonds on a daily basis to Europe, the Middle East and Asia (even though Kenya had no known commercial deposits of either). For every US dollar earned in the purported sales abroad, Goldenberg was under a statutory export compensation claim where it was paid thirty US cents by the Central Bank in Kenya shillings as a reward for boosting Kenya’s exports.

However, proof of sales and exports of gold and diamonds later turned out to be forgeries.

By mid-1992, six months prior to the first multiparty presidential election in three decades, the flow of CD3 forms intensified. At that time, Uncle L and Mr. Meader raised red flags about what they believed was fraud by writing to the Central Bank’s chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office. As they kept scrutinising more CD3 forms, more anomalies surfaced. Unknown to Uncle L and Mr. Meader, the scheme involved some of the most powerful individuals in Kenya, including the Head of the Special Branch (Kenya’s intelligence service), who was a partner in Goldenberg International, a company owned by Kamlesh Pattni.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal, which was being executed right in front of their eyes. As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

Khaminwa: Why do you believe Mr. Riungu, Mr. Waiguru and Mr. Karanja were responsible for your arrest? 

Lukorito: Because when I was working on pre-shipment finance papers, Mr. Pattni was very close to Mr. Riungu. On a daily basis, Mr. Pattni would come and see Mr. Riungu. While working on the papers with Mr. Meader, I would see Mr. Pattni going into Mr. Riungu’s office next door.

Upon entering the Peugeot 504, Uncle L was driven to the Nairobi Area Police Headquarters, where he was taken to a basement office. There, he met three policemen – Mr. Kimurgor, Mr. Murage and Mr. Slim – who wanted to know how he knew Muliro, how he came to know about Muliro’s death, how close he was to the opposition leader, and whether he knew where Muliro stayed. Uncle L gave them the history by writing a 16-page statement.

Later that evening, he was thrown into the back seat of the Peugeot, where he was made to lie down on the vehicle’s floor. The policemen sat and stepped on him as they drove along. After a not-so-smooth drive, the vehicle slowed down at what seemed like the entrance of a building. As they pulled Uncle L out, he saw Hotel InterContinental’s beige façade. If he hadn’t expected the worst, then being in the precincts of Nyayo House gave him reason to be afraid.

Two decades later, while answering a question posed by the Goldenberg Commission’s lead counsel, Dr. John Khaminwa, Uncle L admitted that he and Mr. Meader suspected that they were in the middle of a multi-billion financial scandal…As it would later emerge, some of the individuals whom they wrote to complain about the 17 billion shillings and other irregularities were in fact part of the action.

He was taken to an upper floor within Nyayo House where he met a new set of hostile Special Branch interrogators. This time, the story was that he was an opposition mole within the bank. He told them he wasn’t. The beating started. Uncle L collapsed. When he came to, he was in a dark room filled with water that made his skin itchy. His body was swollen and aching all over. Lucky for him, he was picked up later that night and delivered to Parklands Police Station.

The following morning, Uncle L was driven to Nairobi Area Police Headquarters. This time there was not much to talk about other than kicks and blows. He collapsed. When he came to, he found himself at Nairobi Hospital, where the photo in the newspaper my mother brought home was taken. How the media knew who he was, why he had been arrested and where he was hospitalised is anyone’s guess. Uncle L had not been charged with any crime, but he had been badly tarred with a broad brush – he was now a government official caught in the middle of the country’s “dangerous” opposition politics. He stayed bedridden for six days.

The impact of the beatings meted on Uncle L are captured in the 14 January 2004 proceedings of the Goldenberg Commission, which read: (The witness was then referred to a medical report signed by Dr. D. K Gikonyo, a physician and cardiologist, which showed that on admission, among other things, his blood pressure was extremely high – 230/130. (He has since become hypertensive.) After a mandatory two week sick leave, Uncle L was quickly interdicted.

“Following your arrest by the police on 19 August 1992, we write to advise you that it has been decided to interdict you with immediate effect in accordance with Rule 6.35 (b) of the Staff Rules and Regulations,’’ read the letter from the Central Bank of Kenya’s Administration Division, signed by Mr. C.K. Ndubai. ‘‘While on interdiction, you will be paid half your salary and you will be required to report on every working day to the Head, Security Division, where you will sign a register of attendance. You will not leave your place of work except with the permission of the Head of Security Division. The interdiction will remain in force until further notice.” 

This is how a lame game of ping pong at the highest level of Moi’s government started. On 21 September 1992, Uncle L received another letter, ostensibly reversing his earlier interdiction and requesting him to report to the Principal, Development Division, for assignment of duties.

“This is to advise you that it has been decided that your interdiction be lifted with immediate effect and that you report in your former Division. Accordingly, please arrange to report to the Principal, Development Division immediately for assignment of duties.”

On 8 July 1993, Mr. J. K. Waiguru, the Central Bank’s Secretary had some news.

“Following the lifting of your interdiction and posting back to your division, there has been further development in this matter. Would you please report to the Deputy Governor for further instructions.”

When Uncle L went to see the deputy governor, he was advised to go and see the head of the civil service, Prof. Philip Mbithi, who was stationed at Harambee House. Prof. Mbithi told Uncle L to go home and wait. Someone would be sent to him. Uncle L waited for over six months without pay. Then in February 1994, Prof. Mbithi sent someone to Uncle L’s Nairobi home to bring him over. On reaching Harambee House, Prof. Mbithi referred Uncle L to his personal assistant, Mr. S. Z. Ambuka. Mr. Ambuka showed Uncle L a letter dated 10 February 1993 – signed by Mr. Ambuka – addressed to Dr. Wilfred Koinange, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance.

You will recall that early this week, I talked to you about the redeployment of the above-named officer who previously worked with the Central Bank and whom we were asked to assist in re-deploying to any of the other banking institutions.

You asked me to check with the Central Bank and confirm [Uncle L’s] status with them before you could take over the case. I had discussions with the bank secretary who confirmed that:

(a) When [Uncle L] had a discipline case with them, he was struck off their payroll.

(b) However, when it was later decided that [he] be forgiven and rehabilitated, he was reinstated in the payroll.

(c) Later on, a decision was made that [Uncle L] be referred to the Office of the President for re-allocation of duties elsewhere. When he was referred to the Office of the President (and subsequently to Treasury), he ceased being in the CBK payroll.

(d) The Bank Secretary advises that [Uncle L] could apply for early retirement from the bank. This early retirement, if approved, would be frozen as [Uncle L] would not be entitled to any retirement benefits until he attains the mandatory age of 50 years.

(e) [Uncle L] would then be available for you to assist him get a fresh placement in any other financial institutions.

[Uncle L] has accordingly been informed and is herewith sent to you for the necessary assistance.”

There it was. Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House to enact the final chess move. It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Khaminwa: Were you forgiven and rehabilitated? 

Lukorito: I do not know that I was supposed to be forgiven because I had committed no offence.

Khaminwa: Something I don’t seem to understand. You were employed by the Central Bank, then how does the Head of the Public Service come into a corporate organisation like CBK?

Lukorito: I do not understand either.

Khaminwa: In Mrs. Mwatela’s statement in Exhibit 111, could you read what she says about you.

Lukorito: [Reads statement.] “I remember Mr. Pattni visiting me in my new office. He arrogantly and proudly reprimanded me for my alleged stupidity in questioning his affairs. He claimed that my stupidity would get me nowhere. I did not reply to him. He specifically referred to one Mr. Lukorito who had been sacked and informed me that no one played about with him and got away with it. I knew he had powerful connections and no purpose would be served in answering him.”

There it was, confirmed in black and white: Goldenberg. Uncle L’s mistake was that he had stood in the way of Kamlesh Pattni, who could leverage state power, including the Office of the Head of the Civil Service, to deal with him firmly.

Having tried to kick Uncle L out of the Central Bank and failed, his case had now been referred to the country’s top civil servant at Harambee House…It was being fashioned as a case of an ill-disciplined employee, but no one at the Central Bank wanted to take administrative responsibility for Uncle L’s predicament. It was all so confusing until Jacinta Mwatela, a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, solved the puzzle.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi? More importantly, one may then want to ask: How did Uncle L try to interfere with the Goldenberg pay-outs, and did he have powers to stop Kenya’s biggest economic crime to date? The answer lies in an exchange between Uncle L and lawyer Cecil Miller, appearing for the Deposit Protection Fund at the Goldenberg Commission.

Miller: Mr. Lukorito, did you question the duplication of CD3s in writing?

Lukorito: Yes. They should be with CBK.

Miller: Who did you write to?

Lukorito: The chief banking manager, the director of research, the deputy governor and the national debt office.

Miller: Did you get a response?

Lukorito: They did not come directly but they came in the form of whether we had agreed on the level of Treasury Bills that we were to advertise for the weekly tenders. If we all agreed on the amount, we would advertise. 

Miller: Am I right in saying that technically you were the final port of call in relation to CD3s and pre-shipment?

Lukorito: Yes my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 17 of your statement, you mention Exchange and Pan African banks. 

Lukorito: Yes my lords. 

Miller: You then proceed to say on page 18; “The funds would be withdrawn from CBK under a currency withdrawal scheme by the two banks and then the amount withdrawn by the beneficiaries at the bank.” Would you know who the beneficiaries were?

Lukorito: I would not know my lords. We would detect the money movement using the open market operations ledger. 

Miller: You raised a concern on page 39 – your memo – on the potential snowball effect on the banking sector. And you got a response which you say you were not satisfied with?

Lukorito: I was not my lords.

Miller: If you look at page 14 of your statement, you list the beneficiaries of the pre-export finance scheme. You left the bank in November 1994. 

Lukorito: I was arrested on August 19, 1992 and from that day I just used to report but I was not working within the bank.

Miller: So you would not know that three of these banks went into liquidation thereafter?

Lukorito: I wouldn’t know. 

Miller: And you would not know whether they had paid their pre-shipment funds by the time? 

Lukorito: I would not know. 

Dr. Wilfred Koinange seemed like a man of few words. ‘‘I have nothing to do with you,’’ he told Uncle L. With that, my uncle was forcibly retired from the Central Bank of Kenya aged 40, an age where he wasn’t entitled to a pension. This is how Kenya is known to treat its best.

‘‘That is all I wish to say in deciding to risk my life by becoming an actor instead of a privileged spectator in the fraudulent deals through CBK during my last years with them.’’ Uncle L told the Commission when wrapping up his testimony. ‘‘And while I can claim a background in central banking, I can only claim a very great interest in the fields of money, banking and finance which would have enabled me to contribute to the economic transformation taking place in our sub-region. It is my hope that someday I will have the opportunity to bring to consummation that interest.’’                                                            

*** 

Sometime in 2014, Uncle L pulled me aside during a family gathering, sat me under a tree and started reading to me a letter of solidarity sent to him during his travails at the hands of the Moi state by a mutual friend he shared with Muliro, who had since moved abroad. The letter was aged, worn thin by the elements and now turning brownish. As he read it, it was as if he was being transported into a different realm. Tears started rolling down his cheeks, but his voice didn’t falter. He was crying, but he wasn’t. I felt both sorry and proud of him, for his endurance, defiance and stoicism. It was an awkward yet special moment. As always, the conversation veered back to Goldenberg. He quickly dispatched his son to bring more documents. He wanted to show me the architects of the 1990-1994 Goldenberg fraud.

Unless one lived through it or studied Moi’s state in the 1980s and 1990s, one may be prone to ask: How could Pattni wield so much power within the state, including at the Office of the President, knowing that power was centralised around Moi?

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate), the scam transferring the equivalent of over 10% of Kenya’s GDP for the 5 years concerned into private hands. In the process, the Kenya shilling collapsed – dropping from 21 shillings in 1990 to 56 shillings in 1994 against the US dollar. Some of the names Uncle L mentioned, known to those who know within the banking system, left me dumbfounded. But then no one could talk. Those like him who dared speak were unceremoniously pushed to the gutter, their lives turned upside down.

The same fate befell Joseph Mumelo, the Central Bank’s Head of Foreign Exchange, who was married to my mother’s first cousin. As mentioned in the 8 February 2020 Saturday Nation article “Legitimate and dubious means Moi used to build empire”, Uncle Joe was asked not to interfere whenever money was siphoned through the Moi-affiliated Transnational Bank. In 1993, a terrified and non-cooperative Uncle Joe was arrested and detained before being kicked out of the bank.

When I joined Nairobi School in 1999, my family had already moved out of Nairobi, and so I spent my mid-term breaks either at Uncle Joe’s or Uncle L’s. They both had children my age. By then, Uncle L had long moved to his rural home. Uncle Joe retreated to his new home on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Whenever I visited, Uncle Joe and I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning playing Scrabble. He would open up to me about all sorts of things. Through him and Uncle L, I learnt the proper meaning of lying low. Just like Uncle L, Uncle Joe never drove any of his cars. He enlisted the services of a taxi driver who drove a Volkswagen beetle, and unless the guy showed up, Uncle Joe rarely left the house. On some nights, when he was brought home by his friends, Uncle Joe refused to get out of the vehicle until the song playing on the car stereo played to the end. His were little pleasures. Just like Uncle L, with his roaring voice, he cursed loudly at Moi and his men on the rare occasions he watched the news. Everyone knew to stay quiet.

According to Uncle L, much as it had siphoned billions of shillings, Goldenberg International was not the only guilty party; the Goldenberg Inquiry listed over 500 individuals and companies as recipients of portions of the loot. In the end, the Kenyan public was defrauded to the tune of 158 billion shillings (2.8 billion US dollars at the 1994 exchange rate)…

Seeing that Uncle Joe died before he could appear as a witness at the Goldenberg Commission, Uncle L decided to do family duty by adding Uncle Joe’s police statement at the time of his arrest as an annexure to his own, so that Uncle Joe could be heard posthumously. Below, the Commission’s Dr. Khaminwa questions Uncle L about Uncle Joe’s statement on the pay-outs.

Khaminwa: Would you look at your additional statement and read it. 

Lukorito: [Reads statement.]Further to my January 12, 2004 statement, I wish to state that sometime in July 1993, I learnt from the Central Bank of Kenya that one of my former seniors there, Mr. Joseph Mumelo had been arrested by police and was at Kileleshwa Police Station. I visited him and he told me that the previous governor Mr. Kotut had asked him to pass some cheques relating to some banks and when he later on put it in writing, the governor disowned him. I told him that I also had a similar problem with pre–export finance in relation to Goldenberg International. He told me he believed that it was the source of my problem with the bank. I later learnt that he was released and retired from bank service. I have been shown a statement recorded from the late Mumelo on July 23, 1993. The deceased shared the same views as those noted in my memo to Mr. Riungu on January 21, 1992. 

Khaminwa: You state that you had problems with Mr. Kotut regarding pre–export finance, could you remind us what the problem was? 

Lukorito: We got some applications from Goldenberg International but Mr. Riungu was absent. The papers were pushed to Mr. Kotut’s office but we never got any reply. We were not able to proceed because the papers were, to me, very suspect. They had the same CD3 serial numbers from different banks and the amounts were substantial. Mr. Mumelo appeared scared and told me that he was not staying at home because he had been threatened by powerful people. He was moving from hotel to hotel. He cautioned me and from July 1993, I never drove any of my vehicles.

Uncle Joe’s and Uncle L’s well-being – careers, livelihoods, health, family life and their wives’ and children’s welfares and futures – all became collateral damage because they raised queries which had the capacity to unravel Goldenberg. These are the hauntingly traumatic memories some families have of Moi and his government. Sadly, the Goldenberg culprits remain unpunished to date.

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