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Jubinomics in an Era of Austerity: Will the New VAT on Fuel Lead to an Economic Crisis?

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The increased taxation of fuel is making life harder for Kenyans and is neither good politics nor wise leadership. By DAUTI KAHURA

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JUBINOMICS IN AN ERA OF AUSTERITY: Will the new VAT on fuel lead to an economic crisis?
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Three weeks ago, at the Karen bus stop opposite the Karen Police Station, there was a face-off that pitted passengers against matatu crews and their surrogates, the freelance touts that hang around such stops soliciting for passengers. The 33-seater matatus headed to Ngong town, 10km from Karen, were charging Sh80. Just a couple of weeks ago, the standard fare was Sh30. Occasionally, if the demand outstripped supply, which happens from time to time in the matatu industry, the fare would go up by Sh10. Any increase in fare exceeding Sh40 for the 10km ride, whatever the circumstance, would be considered exorbitant. The passengers won this round, but the lingering problem of arbitrary and surreptitious increases in transport fare had not been solved.

The Nairobi-Karen-Ngong route is a microcosm of the looming confrontation between passengers and matatus. And Karen town could be the flashpoint. The route is a very lucrative one, especially during peak hours. Most of the matatu passengers on this route work in the many church institutions, mega malls, restaurants, schools and universities and a big hospital that are located in Karen. Some work for the wealthy Kenyans who have homes there. There are also a lot of casual labourers working in Karen for whom every penny counts.

The tension that had been building between the passengers and the matatu crews had been palpable: “Hawa wathii siku moja watachoma hizi matatu, hii hasira yao ni mbaya sana,” (“These passengers will torch these matatus one of these days, their anger is real”) said a matatu driver. Wary of the people’s wrath, the matatu crews wait for the people to board the matatu, then ambush and cajole them with the ridiculous fare increase. But a fortnight ago, the people refused to enter the matatus, until the crew members publicly announced the fare they were charging. After a 30-minute stalemate, the matatu crew eventually lowered the fare to Sh100. “Lakini bado hawa wathii wananung’unika, sasa sijui wanataka tufanye nini.” (“Even after giving them a fairer price, the people are still grumbling, I don’t know what they expect us to do.”)

Since September 1, 2018, when the new 16 per cent VAT (value added tax) on fuel took effect, there has been a commotion in the public transport industry. The Karen-Ngong town driver who said that angry passengers may one of these days burn down matatus to protest against what they consider to be unfair matatu fares, was voicing a concern that has in the past few weeks put matatu crews on edge. “Wathii wanateta sana, wengine wanataka tu guoko na sisi…si kupoa,” said a matatu driver operating on the Nairobi-Limuru town route. (“Passengers are really complaining, some are picking fights with us…it is not a good sign.”)

Since September 1, 2018, when the new 16 per cent VAT (value added tax) on fuel took effect, there has been a commotion in the public transport industry. The Karen-Ngong town driver who said that angry passengers may one of these days burn down matatus to protest against what they consider to be unfair matatu fares, was voicing a concern that has in the past few weeks put matatu crews on edge.

The Karen-Ngong driver who was edgy about passengers’ uneasiness with the hiked fares said that he was struggling to remit the Sh8,000 his boss demands at the end of each day. “On several instances, we’ve had to forego our own pay. At Sh115 a litre, the diesel has become way too expensive. We asked the matatu owner to stabilize his profit to Sh7,000, with the hope of balancing the books, at the end of every day but it is not working. I think some people have cut their reliance on matatus. This has a direct relation with frequency of the roundtrips we make – the fewer the roundtrips, the lesser the money we make.”

The matatu cooperatives (Saccos) in Nairobi are in a quandary: they have been mulling (even before the fuel tax increase) over how to “rationalise their increasing costs of operations without being seen as gleeful and uncaring,” said a top brass at the Matatu Owners Association (MOA). “The business is really hurting, but so are our customers, yet, somebody has to carry the load and feel the pain. Unfortunately, it has always to be the consumer.”

But the Saccos have been hesitant: They are afraid of pushing too hard lest their customers rebel and spark off a wave of street demonstrations. Conversely, the industry is undergoing one of its most trying times in recent times – dwindling fortunes occasioned by a gloomy economic outlook. “How long can they hold on like this? That is the Saccos’ bosses’ question,” said the MOA official.

In a bizarre incident on September 16, a matatu stopped at Corporation stage (that is before Uthiru on the Nairobi-Nakuru highway) to pick passengers to Nairobi. Before the driver could know what was going on, a chap grabbed the matatu keys, scaled the dividing wall of the dual carriageway and ran off with keys. The people milling around the stage seemed unperturbed by the incident and the passengers inside and outside the matatu did not seem to mind the ordeal. Afterwards, when I asked one of the freelance touts why the fellow (who is very well known around the area), was risking his life snatching keys from a matatu, his answer was: “Hizi mathree zinaumiza watu sana.” (“These matatus are squeezing people financially.”)

The matatus operating along long distances are not faring any better. My driver friend who operates a Nairobi-Nyahururu shuttle has been mourning since VAT on fuel was introduced. “I’m now spending Sh5,000 on fuel to and from Nyahururu, up from Sh3,200. Nyahururu is exactly 200km from Nairobi city centre. I used to charge my passengers Sh350 one way from Nairobi to Nyahururu before the fuel increase and I’d still take home between Sh3,200 and Sh3,500. It was reasonable.”

After September 1, he increased the fare to Sh400, but this has not helped. “Ndiraruta wira wa kuhura mai na ndiri.” (“I’ve resorted to pounding water in a mortar – in short, I’m doing zero work.”) Even after increasing the fare by Sh50 per person, the best he can take home at the end of the day, he told me, was Sh3,400, after deducting his expenses. As it is, his transport business was running on a Sh1,800 deficit every day – courtesy of the fuel tax. “I can’t dare push the fare more than Sh400: I know my customers, they are also suffering, we’ve to wait and hope President Uhuru will lower the prices,” said the driver nonchalantly.

The journey to Nyahururu is usually a one-way trip: A shuttle leaves Nairobi for Nyahururu in the morning at around 9.00am. The 200km trip usually takes about four hours. If the shuttle is lucky, it will make the return trip to Nairobi by between 5.00pm and 6.00pm, arriving in Nairobi at around 10.00pm. There are between 240 and 260 14-seater shuttles on the Nairobi-Nyahururu route. “If you make the round trip,” said my driver friend, “you count yourself lucky.”

His prayer about President Uhuru rescinding the implementation of VAT on the fuel sounded half-hearted and without conviction – like a person who already knows it is impossible but hopes for the unexpected to happen. “The truth of the matter,” he opined, “is that even if the fuel levy was dropped entirely, there certainly would be some relief, but life as it is, is already tough. Too much money had been stolen under President Uhuru’s watch and that is the price we’ve to pay for the profligacy.” But it has become increasingly difficult to hold a discussion on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s performance, especially with Jubilee supporters, like my driver friend. “Nitutigane na uhoro ucio.” (“Let’s just leave that topic alone.”)

President Kenyatta’s recent fulmination against matatu owners increasing fares, lest their licenses are revoked by National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) was rebutted by MOA, which argued the threat had no basis in law. “The President,” said a Jubilee Party MP, “will soon realise that nobody will be taking his threats any more seriously. He is a lame duck president who is doing his final term and holds no sway whatsoever on the politics of the future.”

The imposition of VAT on fuel has had an inflationary effect on practically every commodity that must be transported from point A to point B. In effect, this means that soon almost every household item will become more expensive.

On 20 September, the controversial Finance Bill, 2018 was passed by MPs. And without wasting any time, the President assented to the Bill the following day. The Bill’s vote in Parliament had been preceded by a little-nested game between the MPs and the President. The Parliamentarians had already threatened to shoot down Uhuru’s proposal to halve the VAT to 8 per cent, maintaining that there should be none placed on fuel and defying party chief whips.

The imposition of VAT on fuel has had an inflationary effect on practically every commodity that must be transported from point A to point B. In effect, this means that soon almost every household item will become more expensive.

“I’m afraid to tell you that even with that seeming reprieve, nothing much will move immediately,” said an oilman who imports oil products and runs several petrol stations in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. “These are the reasons: VAT is charged at the point of sale and is calculated as 16 per cent on all other costs of the product, over and above the other taxes and levies other than VAT. No importer will agree to sell at a loss simply because politics have been at play. So, even if the Finance Bill 2018 becomes law, with the President’s incorporation of the eight per cent VAT proposal, oil importers will not agree to lower their prices. We must first empty all the fuel bought within the time the VAT on fuel was imposed till we bring in new consignments. And this will take some time. If the people are thinking they are going to enjoy the VAT reprieve immediately, they are deluded.”

The oil tycoon told me that such a situation presents a perfect scenario for the industry to play market games. “If, for example, some oil importers, for whatever reason (most obviously, it would be for a quick super profit), choose to create an artificial oil shortage by hoarding their product, the price must necessarily shoot upwards, momentarily disrupting the official levy on fuel products.”

Apart from the matatu price jolts, the effects of the VAT on fuel has been heavily felt by the long-distance transport trucks that move all manner of goods from source to different markets. Businessmen who transport goats and sheep from Isiolo, Laisamis, Loiyangalani, Mandera, Maralal, Marsabit, Moyale, Turbi, Sololo and southern Ethiopia to Kiamaiko abattoirs in Huruma, Nairobi, told me that their fuel costs had gone by up by between Sh10,000 and Sh12,000 per trip. These animals are carried for up to 14 hours by 10-wheel Mitsubishi Fuso trucks on some of the roughest roads and in the most bandit-prone territories. “Already the wear and tear of the trucks has been staring down at us, but with this new tax on fuel, it has complicated our business,” said one of the transporters.

“The increase in the fuel costs means that they have to also pass down the burden to us butcher-men,” said Francis Kimani, a butcher, who goes to Kiamaiko every day to buy meat products, including goats’ heads, offal for making mutura (sausage-like delicacies) and hoofs for boiling soup. Until recently. Kimani was buying up to 100 goat heads every day at Kiamaiko to sell to his staunchly loyal customers at his outlet at the central bus station in Nairobi. “I arrive at Kiamaiko by 6.00am, pick my stuff and quickly head back to my base, because my customers want to find me ready by latest 11.00am.”

Kimani hires a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) to transport his meat products in a box-like container. “I was paying the driver Sh250 per trip to the bus station, but after the VAT increase, he doubled the amount,” he said. But that is not the only burden he has to bear: already the prices of his meat products have gone up by more than 30 per cent. “I’ll confess I was doing a roaring business until this VAT thing came. My customers have dwindled, partly because I am buying less goat heads and partly because they are also feeling the pinch.” From selling 100 heads by the end of the day, Kimani is now barely selling 30. He said that if nothing improves, he will consider relocating to either Isiolo or Rumuruti in Laikipia County. The business was proving too difficult to sustain. “I was born in Rumuruti, I know there isn’t much there, but home is home.” “Nairobi tuokire gwetha ido na muturiri.” (“Nairobi’s not home, we just came here to look for money and a living.”) He said that in Isiolo he could look for work as a truck driver.

The VAT on petroleum products was first mooted in 2013, just after President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, formed the Jubilee coalition government. The VAT Act 2013, as it came to be known, was not implemented immediately; it was shelved for three years till 2016. When it came for review in September 2016, Treasury mandarins, through the drafting of the Financial Act 2016, postponed its introduction. But in March 2018, the Treasury Principal Secretary, Kamau Thugge, finally signalled the fact that beginning this September, the 16 per cent VAT on fuel would certainly be effected. This would mean that for every litre of fuel sold at a petrol station, Sh18 would be added on top of the original cost: a 14 per cent increase per litre.

Thugge was candid: The government had no option but to swallow the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s bitter pill. Since 2016, the IMF has wanted the government to levy VAT on fuel as a way for it to collect extra revenue domestically. However, it is important to note that although petroleum products were previously exempt from VAT, they are still one of the most taxed commodities in Kenya.

This time last year, the Jubilee government was reeling from two shambolic elections – both conducted within two-and-half-months. The government was broke and was looking for credit facilities, so it turned to the IMF. The VAT on fuel, therefore, is part of the stringent conditions that the IMF has imposed on the Jubilee government in exchange for access to a standby credit facility – a fallback plan for Kenya’s Exchequer in case the economy finds itself in the ICU and needs quick resuscitation.

“Playing good politics,” and presumably exhibiting “poor leadership”, President Uhuru seemingly chastised MPs for initially rejecting his proposal halve the VAT on fuel to 8 per cent. The truth of the matter is that the President himself, in regard to the “problematic” taxation issues, is neither playing good politics nor exhibiting wise leadership.

This time last year, the Jubilee government was reeling from two shambolic elections – both conducted within two-and-half-months. The government was broke and was looking for credit facilities, so it turned to the IMF. The VAT on fuel, therefore, is part of the stringent conditions that the IMF has imposed on the Jubilee government in exchange for access to a standby credit facility – a fallback plan for the Kenya’s Exchequer in case the economy finds itself in the ICU and needs quick resuscitation.

“The Bill according to the Budget highlights by the Cabinet Secretary for the National Treasury and Planning is intended is to raise an additional KSh27.5billion to finance 2018/19 fiscal budget year,” observes the Department Committee on Finance and National Planning: Report on the Consideration of the Finance Bill 2018. The report says, “total projected expenditure and net lending for 2018/19 estimates amounted to KSh2.533 trillion to be financed through ordinary revenue (KSh1.743 trillion) and AIA (Annual-in-Advance) (KSh179.95 billion). Expected external grants will amount to KSh47.037 billion, bringing the revenue to KSh1.970 trillion. This leaves a fiscal deficit of KSh562.748 billion to be financed through debt. The proportion of revenue estimates to GDP for 2018/19 is 19.6 percent which is equivalent to that of the 2017/18 budget.”

The Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM), one of the lobby groups that presented its resolutions to the committee, argues in the report that, “(the) local manufacturer was losing competition vs major foreign player. The local industries are manufacturing basic products with low gross margin compared to most foreign players, who can support the duty costs. Local players had to increase their prices around (five percent) and it’s the final consumer that will pay for the final bill. This, in turn, was jeopardising local employment.”

A Kenyan industrialist who had intended to contract some local companies to manufacture carton boxes for packaging consumer goods, such as milk, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), told me he took his business to Uganda after he was hit with a prohibitive tax levy. “The Kenyan companies were charging me $0.7 per carton box – that is exclusive of transport logistics and documentation charges,” said the entrepreneur. “Yet in Kampala, I was being charged $0.42 – inclusive of transport and documentation costs, what they refer to as free on board (FOB).”

On September 18, 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta rejected the Bill passed by MPs a fortnight before, citing his reasons in a memorandum that sought to overturn some of the proposals shot down by the MPs – chief among them, the 16 per cent VAT on petroleum products and the National Housing Fund, a new tax where the government hopes to impose a tax of 1.5 per cent of income on employees and their employers, ostensibly to fund a home ownership and social housing programme. According to the memorandum, the 16 per cent VAT on fuel has been scaled down to 8 percent in order to raise Sh17.5 billion in the current financial year.

A Kenyan industrialist who had intended to contract some local companies to manufacture carton boxes for packaging consumer goods, such as milk, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), told me he took his business to Uganda after he was hit with a prohibitive tax levy.

Another proposal contained in the President’s memorandum was to tax betting companies 15 per cent, down from 35 per cent as the case is now. This proposal, instead, hopes to raid the lottery winners’ cash by taxing it 20 per cent. The President is looking to raise between Sh25 and Sh30 billion accrued from the sports gaming taxes. The total computation of President Uhuru’s memorandum proposal was collecting Sh100 billion in this financial year.

Gitau Githongo, writing in the E Review, succinctly observed that “over the past five years, several tax measures have been introduced, including: 12 per cent Rental Income Tax on landlords from 2015, successive excise duty and fuel levy increases in 2015, 2016 and 2018; VAT on bottled water and juices, VAT on food served by restaurants, as well as, piped water; successive increases in excise duties on spirits, cigarettes and mobile telephony; and 50 per cent Gaming Tax on lotteries and bookmakers in 2017, among a host of others.”

Gitau’s article touched on the real reasons why President Kenyatta returned Kenya into the arms of hard-nosed IMF economists: “The parlous state of Kenya’s national accounts – most notably the KSh 5 trillion stock of public debt and ballooning budget deficit…suggests that the slew of tax measures proposed in Budget 2018 was purely about desperately seeking to finance reckless government spending and not about providing incentives for private sector economic growth.”

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Mr Kahura is a senior writer for The Elephant.

Politics

A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19

Trumpism in the age of coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

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A Very Political Virus: Trumpism’s Ridiculous Response to COVID-19
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I can’t tell for certain, but the ambulance sirens seem to keep increasing, not with the incessant wails reported in New York, but a creeping feeling that something is on the rise.

Here, in the state of Wisconsin, on April 6th, the Democratic Governor, Tony Evers, fearing the worst in light of the COVID-19 crisis, passed an executive order to postpone the primary election, which took place on April 7th. Republicans had immediately taken the order to the state Supreme Court, and over turned it, forcing people to go to the polls.

Why? To align with Trump’s political desires. With thousands of absentee ballots already thrown out, the primary election (which includes a key state Supreme Court seat) is one that could be decisive in what is sure to be a controversial, close and unprecedented presidential election in the fall. President Donald Trump had backed the Republican candidate publicly, and called for the people of Wisconsin to turn out to vote for him, despite COVID-19.

In a state with controversial voter ID laws (which disproportionately affect people of colour), this has made a stark choice all the more vivid – come vote if you dare tempt coronavirus or stay home and be disenfranchised.

That’s where the screw really turns here: Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them. (It makes sense that in this context, both the Kenyan ruling political elite and the Trump campaign were clients of Cambridge Analytica, the controversial firm whose use of unethical data mining tactics during elections have been exposed by the international media.)

Shown through the lens of an increasingly horrific pandemic, such election rigging is all the more grotesque. But it will soon be swept aside as another story of power grabbing, political manoeuvring over human life and bullshit grandstanding over the public good will utterly mar the last two months of the descent into the Age of the Coronavirus. An entire state just got thrown into an accelerated timeline of potentially being a horrific hotspot for the virus; the fates of potentially thousands of lives now sealed, there will be a push to promote a political agenda.

Donald Trump didn’t just learn from the example of Kenyan election farces; he studied and plagiarised them.

The political leadership of East Africa could truly stand in awe at the utter Machiavellian dumbness of this narcissistic manoeuvre – as it is truly a Stalinesque effort. The problem inherent right now in the world’s “best economy” is that politics has crept into the pandemic; the divisive nature of the discourse is such that it has spiraled downwards over the last five years. The election debacle in Wisconsin perfectly encapsulates the state of things right now in the US. In the year of a presidential election, pandemic tumult and constant political punching dominate.

All things are on equal footing, all things are intertwined, as Trump has made them to be. And as anyone with eyes or outside the administration can tell, it is going terribly. By the third week of May, the US had more than 1.5 million COVID-19 cases; of these, nearly 94,000 had died from the disease. Because the country is woefully inept at testing, more than a dozen states seem to be on the upward curve.

Where to start?

Even attempting to encapsulate the last several weeks in a sprawling critique seems to point in a million directions, so let’s focus and dissect three key aspects of the response to coronavirus in the US more in depth:

The Trump administration playing dumb while being dumber

First, Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind. (You can’t expect a climate denier to have the brains to handle a scientific crisis). Trump’s positions, like a fish left on the counter, grow in their stench as the days continue bloodily onward. His latest in a long string of travesties find him stumbling into the idea of injecting disinfectant into the human body to “clean it” of the virus. This latest gaffe, at least, was rooted more in idiocy than in cruelty, and was almost a welcome change towards comic relief after previous actions he’s undertaken. Even so, despite what he and the American far right-wing culture say, the fact is that the White House is listened to by the public, and so poison control cases went up across several US states after Trump made this ridiculous claim.

Trump and his cohort have seemingly deliberately made a once distant threat of disease exponentially worse through denial, deceit, malice and twists so moronic they mystify the mind.

The most important aspect to emphasise here is the outright denial that carried over for approximately six weeks (and, according to some reports that leaked memos to the White House regarding the COVID-19 threat, possibly even longer). Trump’s denial of the crisis was astounding, and to be frank, is still ongoing. Often, even in the days leading into May of 2020, the stance of the White House has been to express how things are improving, although they are clearly markedly getting worse for all to see. The optics hit the American public in the same vein as the Westgate mall terror attack crisis hit Kenya’s. (The fires in the mall couldn’t possibly be merely burning mattresses.)

Trump’s reaction to the crisis helped spur what must be statistically the worst outbreak globally. As far as optics are concerned, his reaction can only be put alongside Bolsanaro’s in Brazil and the Iranian regime’s in terms of terminal dumbness, obtuse means-spiritedness and ineptitude. It is a denial of a natural disaster that I haven’t seen at a leadership level since perhaps the 2011 drought ravaging northern Kenya; while the Kibaki administration and Kenya’s Parliament seemed largely to sit and twiddle their thumbs, occasionally making a statement expressing their condolences, they promptly went back to bitching at one another.

On a daily basis, Trump lumbers out (despite constant efforts by Republican lawmakers to stop him), shouts mixed messages to a confused press corps, then screams at them for asking what he’s talking about. The paranoia has reached levels of Daniel arap Moi in the 1980s; there are enemies within all corners, closing in, making the virus worse just to hurt him, the mounting deaths swept aside in importance so that the name of his brand not be tarnished by “haters”.

Such a tone is a tonic for no one, least of all medical staff, who, despite all outward claims made by the administration, are in dire need of absolutely everything, with no end in sight. Random people are scrambling to adjust – there are weird stories of desperation and plugging in holes wherever the government fell abysmally flat. People sew masks and stockpile if they can afford to. There is mounting concern that the hospitals are so overwhelmed that people with other conditions are going ignored or skipping vital visits.

It is simply proving to be more than anyone bargained for, even for those who officially became doctors and nurses by taking the Hippocratic Oath. As an old friend, a resident nurse at a prominent Michigan hospital, told me in early March, “We’re going to lose many doctors, nurses…people we already have a national shortage of. There are already conversations amongst healthcare providers, nurses, staff about what’s worth the risk. None of us signed up to work in unprotected conditions. It is like walking onto a battlefield without anything, anything at all needed for the specific fight.”

In the US, nurses, doctors and emergency medical technicians talk openly about going on strike, citing lack of protection – a move almost reminiscent of the series of strikes undertaken by medical workers in Kenya over employment conditions across the last several years. Even now, after months of the obvious from a multitude of voices, the Trump administration comes out and yells about its successes in the very areas that are the depths of its failure.

Think about this: over the last several weeks, Trump has ignored the virus, then fought to reopen the economy; he has blamed Democrats, yelled at the media on a daily basis, and called the virus a conspiracy to get him out of office; he has supported rebellion in several US states, encouraged primary elections to go forward and given his son-in-law (who has been cited by multiple researchers as an utter failure) a more prominent role in the COVID-19 response than any scientific expert.

All this while the high-ranking members of his party and surrounding hangers-on float ideas, such as the federal US government not owing states supplies (although states make up the US) and for states themselves to go bankrupt.

It has, for all intents and purposes, been a showing so abysmal and wrong-headed at every conceivable level that there is already talk that the last two months may have permanently crippled the GOP and will push them out of political relevance permanently as the US becomes a more diverse and younger country moving into the middle decades of the 21st century.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

It is now growing harder to see how the current administration will get its collective act together (even though it urgently needs to do so) as the virus continues to pound the US in the coming months.

Clear cracks in the US system

Over the years, many friends have told me that they have wanted to go to the United States – to study, to work, to whatever. Universally, I’ve told them all to look elsewhere. All the flaws in the American Death Star have been highlighted by the Trump administration, including inherent societal problems, susceptibility to totalitarian blowhards, racial inequity, horrific economic disparity, capitalism’s exploitative nature, and the fundamental flaws in the US system of governance itself.

Trump and his administration, in their desperate flailing about in the dark for someone to blame, have made this crisis entirely about themselves and their own inherent “victimisation” – a strategy which, as deaths mount steadily and the economy finds new cliffs to dive from, looks increasingly foolhardy.

The last several weeks have proven the “far left types” (myself included) correct – although few of us could have imagined such a rapid descent. America, “the most powerful nation on Earth”, is inherently unequal, terminally flawed and fetishises money to a disgusting level. There are rampant stories of businesses closing, predatory loans, and debt claims coming out of life-saving stimulus money.

The very governmental system has shown itself to be labyrinthine, a truth only accelerated by capitalism, Trumpism and, let’s face it, the modern Republican Party.

Take medical care, where is an ugly Catch-22 at play. People are broke, and the American medical system is the most expensive in the world. People need healthcare and tests, but the fear of the cost often outweighs the fear of a deadly virus. The one thing that could correct the economy (testing) is avoided because of the state of the economy (both before the crisis and into it).

States compete against each other to get supplies while the government sells off its supplies to companies in order for the companies to sell them back to the government for distribution to the states. All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

The medical system itself has been brought to its knees. Walking around a few weeks ago, I saw two ambulance crews going into houses, all wearing masks, every one of them looking well beyond their breaking points.

All this is happening while the government is questioning whether the states really need the supplies, and possibly favouring some states that favour Trump and his cronies politically. It is the kind of nightmarish inaction that would even make Kafka stir in his grave.

This, in a well-to-do city with several prominent functioning hospitals run by competent individuals. This is not the case in all US states and cities, but the most glaringly obtuse responses are coming from Republican-held legislatures.

An inherent problem in the US is that smaller states skew Republican votes, hold equal power in the Senate, and elect increasingly bigger idiots and inept climate sceptics while carving up districts to benefit their own hold on power. This has proven true in South Dakota, where the Republican Governor, resistant to social distancing, has seen an outbreak of more than 500 cases in a single pork processing plant.

It has also rung true in Florida, where Governor Ron DeSantis, himself a loyal Trumpian, resisted calls within his state to close down because the state with the high geriatric population could be hit catastrophically. Instead he waited for Trump’s go ahead, even as White House press conferences repeatedly turned into unbalanced, unhinged name-calling sessions while Trump himself denied the true impact of the virus and prematurely called for the economy to reopen. DeSantis has since given a “stay-at-home” order and ordered that World Wrestling Entertainment be continued as an essential service, alongside grocery stores, banks, hospitals, and the fire department.

It inherently means that while some states (such as California, Ohio and Washington) reacted with preemptive speed and some (like Maryland, New York and New Jersey) have risen to the challenge admirably after it began to spiral, other states may keep up the perpetual game of whack-a-mole indefinitely through their own failings.

In many of these states, particularly those with large black communities (New York, New Jersey, Michigan), the disparities have grown even more stark. It is a discrepancy in standards that can almost be compared to the lack of resources afforded to Western Kenya; there are some areas of focus, but if you’re not of a certain set, a constant less will be your systemic truth.

This has become all the more clear in the American situation. Ugly reports have seeped out about black and minority individuals being less likely to receive coronavirus testing, care or access to the same medical treatment as whites. In turn, this has led to minority and lower class communities being slammed by this virus disproportionately, sometimes at shocking rates. In hardest hit New York City, some reports show people of colour dying at double the rate of white people.

It has also shown the true insidious nature of the political divide under the Trump administration. From powerful corners on the right, there have been ideas floated to defund Democratic states for reasons that are still unclear beyond the spectrum of unbelievable political pettiness. Take Trump’s Twitter gem on April 27th: “Why should the people and taxpayers of America be bailing out poorly run states (like Illinois, as example) and cities, in all cases Democrat run and managed, when most of the other states are not looking for bailout help? I am open to discussing anything, but just asking?” The irony that states like Illinois are also American is an irony that may or may not be lost upon the Republican Party.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

There seems to be something tectonic happening, although it is yet to be seen if it will prove to be beneficial or harmful to the public good after the scourge of COVID finally recedes.

Trump sinks the world

The final key takeaway: that in this globalised world, Trumpism in the Age of Coronavirus may be gasoline poured onto the fire of a worldwide catastrophe in bizarre ways that are only beginning to be spelled out now, but which could have dire ramifications globally, including in East Africa.

The virus has already shifted from the West down and into the Southern hemisphere, with the level of consequence yet to be seen. While some credit must be given to the swift action taken in many African countries (such as closing borders and reinstating Ebola protocols), the reaction of some governments has taken on a definitively Western tint: doing what works for them while simultaneously ignoring the economic realities in their own backyards.

Economically, the capital of capitalism has shown its true colours; and they break badly along generational lines. People post long screeds about suddenly being thrown out of work, with the government arguing bitterly about any support for citizens while simultaneously sending trillions to large corporations.

China, of course, has borne the brunt of the blame, and perhaps in the long term, ensured the nation’s dominance over global influence (especially in sub-Saharan Africa, a focus of Beijing).

Given this, the failings of countries such as the US should be looked at as a warning. Where society fails to protect, advantage shall be taken, and swiftly. Just this month, the US cut off funding to the World Health Organization (WHO), a UN body where US contributions constitute approximately 20 per cent of the budget. Make no mistake about Trump and his ilk – he abandoned us Americans, and, as his recent cut in funding to WHO showed, he won’t think twice about abandoning the rest of the world too. There will be no gestures of international goodwill coming from the Trump administration, something that is leading to feelings of unease within spheres of the diplomatic community. It can be seen already, with valuable protective equipment being intercepted from going abroad; those ugly protectionist and isolationist instincts are taking over.

This move just proves that the ugliness of Trumpism is, unfortunately, not localised within US borders; there is no quarantining this administration. Such isolationism and xenophobia will get downright dangerous when (for instance) a global pandemic, a historic economic crisis and a once-in-a-century locust swarm hits the East African region simultaneously with full force in the coming months.

On top of this, the Trump administration’s policies have helped to undercut the already stretched-thin medical systems of the developing world. In Kenya, for instance, a major pillar of funding for blood donations and subsequent transfusions has already been cut. It is unlikely to be restored under a Republican White House.

In times of crisis, the failings of this White House will become starker. In the years to come, it may come to light that the mishandling of this crisis by the Trump administration accelerated the economic and health ramifications of COVID-19 and spiraled the global system further on its downward trajectory. If the West has been brought to its knees, the United States seems hell-bent on sinking itself lower, swamping the world as well.

Once the US industrial machine finds footing and produces the needed testing, masks, ventilators and medication (it will, despite the Trump administration, not because of it), the White House will surely rapidly pivot to “these must be kept to protect us”, the same shortsighted dumbness that will both kill people by the tens of thousands in the developing world, and serve to perpetuate the virus once it circulates around the global channels again, inevitably circling back into America, which, when led by such an inept head of the federal government, will be “totally unaware, because it is your fault anyway” and the cycle will continue until a vaccine is developed or Trump is finally cast out of the White House.

The latter option, while knocking on every piece of wood within reach, is becoming increasingly viable. In that same bastardisation of an election in Wisconsin – the one that was blatantly rigged and dangerous – Jill Karofsky, the Democratic candidate for the Supreme Court, landed an improbable victory, and a massive one. Winning by more than 150,000 votes and a margin of more than 10 per cent (which is much higher due to factors such as voter suppression and the throwing out of ballots) in the swing state of Wisconsin, which narrowly went for Trump in 2016, gives hope that a rational person can get back behind the wheel of the White House as early as January of next year. It may be an early indication that Trumpism has overstayed its welcome in the time of corona, and that a more sensible America may emerge again.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

This is the truest shame of the US side of this initial chapter of coronavirus: that it has truly shown the goodness of the people of the country who as individual citizens and communities have largely reacted admirably, at times even heroically, to meet the challenge head on. Their efforts couldn’t have been wasted on a worse leader. What progress they make locally gets undercut nationally.

Even so, while there may be some glimmer of better heads coming to the table in the US, this is far from certain. The fear is that the damage to the world from a single man with bad hair may be irreparable.

As Trump and his cronies continue to cast blame, ban immigrants and defund international health organisations, there may be a truly long fight ahead. It may become a situation akin to an unruly drunk desperately trying to break everything just to ruin the vibe of a party as he is forced out of the gathering.

If nothing else, this crisis proves that the American model is an utter failure. Anyone who wishes to emulate its foray into neoliberalism will wind up in a similar ruin.

And the ambulances will continue coming.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?

The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on scientific evidence cannot be disputed. However, listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy.

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Responding to COVID-19: Should Science Alone Determine Policy?
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As I was starting to write this article, the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a victim of the coronavirus pandemic that is sweeping the globe, had just left the intensive care unit of a London hospital after fighting for his life. Just a few weeks earlier, he had been gleefully shaking hands at events, including one at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. That may seem, in hindsight, to be incredibly reckless behaviour on his part, which ignored the scientific advice we were all getting about the need for social distancing. Similarly, many may see the sluggish UK response to the threat posed by the virus as flying in the face of science.

However, a Reuters investigation suggests the opposite. In fact, Johnson may have been guilty of too uncritically following the advice of scientists. It suggests that when future historians look back at his handling of the crisis, “the criticism levelled at the prime minister may be that, rather than ignoring the advice of his scientific advisers, he failed to question their assumptions”.

Should we be listening to the doctors? It may seem like a foolish question to ask in the midst of a deadly global pandemic that had infected over 3 million people and killed more than 200,000 by the end of April. In such circumstances, heeding the advice of the medical establishment seems to be the most sensible thing to do.

However, as the disruption of national and global commerce and travel demonstrates, the coronavirus does not just attack individuals; it poses a threat to entire social and economic systems built around mass personal interactions, be they markets or transport systems. And though medics may be adept at safeguarding and even curing our bodies, they are perhaps less so when it comes to societies. As Kenyan economist and outspoken public intellectual, Dr David Ndii, pointed out on Twitter, “Our medical/epidemic experts seem to understand pathogens/disease spread but they don’t seem to understand people/society. And that’s a problem.”

However, this has not stopped governments around the world from rolling out the high priests of science (medical doctors and epidemiology specialists) to lend legitimacy and credibility to the measures they are taking, in some cases reluctantly, to combat the virus. It is, after all, difficult for the ordinary citizen to argue with inevitability as presented by knowledgeable people who have spent their lives drinking from the fountain of wisdom and who now come armed with charts and graphs and statistics predicting a terrifying apocalypse if we do not obey.

Yet the question still should be asked whether it is desirable that science and scientists should be dictating government policy responses. One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do; rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action. As Therese Raphael explains, “The world of scientific modelers looks so neat — pristine sloping lines on two-dimensional axes that tickle our love of pattern recognition and cause-effect. Only, that’s deceptive; it simply masks all the uncertainty.”

Models are simplified representations of reality, and inasmuch as scientists may recommend a particular path, this recommendation is based on their interpretation of what the science is telling them about the options they have looked at, the assumptions they have made, and the variables they have decided to consider. As Dr Mark Nanyingi, an infectious diseases epidemiologist explains, “Models can help in forecasting where and when the diseases are likely to occur and what measures are needed to slow down the spread. This can guide future government policies for better preparedness and response to pandemics.”

One thing to keep in mind is that despite the appeals to it, science doesn’t actually tell us what to do. Rather, scientists attempt to explain the linkages between variables, to predict what might happen if we decided on a particular course of action.

Further, as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. So different scientists will bring their various biases to their assessment of problems. While medics may privilege the need to do whatever it takes to arrest the disease, economists, on the other hand, may point out that harming the economy could create worse problems.

Even within the medical fraternity, one might be likely to find people who think that focusing on coronavirus while ignoring other diseases that kill many more people may be a mistake. As Tom Angier of the University of St Andrews points out, “There are significant disagreements between experts even within limited domains of expertise, and these disagreements are often themselves fundamentally political.” He adds that it would be naïve to expect politically neutral results. “The rule of experts would generate not expert rule, but a cacophony of conflicting views and interests.”

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making. Few would argue that they have no role. But it is another thing altogether to claim that theirs are the only considerations. For one, when scientists speak, it is not just the science talking; they bring with them their biases, even prejudices, as exemplified by the recent suggestion by two French doctors that a potential coronavirus vaccine should be first tried out on Africans. As Prof W. Henry Lambright notes, “When scientists leave their labs to advocate position they may be behaving much like other interest groups, trying to influence public policy.”

More importantly, technocracy (rule by unelected skilled experts) or its cousin, epistocracy (rule by the knowledgeable) may not be a good idea. As David Runciman explained two years ago in an intriguing article for the Guardian, “Even qualified economists often haven’t a clue what’s best to do. What they know is how to operate a complex system that they have been instrumental in building – so long as it behaves the way it is meant to. Technocrats are the people who understand what’s best for the machine. But keeping the machine running might be the worst thing we could do. Technocrats won’t help with that question.” Substitute medics for economists and you begin to see the conundrum.

Asking whether we should listen to our doctors is not about questioning their capabilities and knowledge; it is about querying the role of science and scientists in democratic governance and decision-making.

The British response provides a telling example. In explaining why the UK government did not join the rush to impose a lockdown, Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who chairs a group of scientists advising the government on pandemic responses, told The Atlantic’s Ed Yong: “My problem with many countries’ strategies is that they haven’t thought beyond the next month. The U.K. is different.” The country would not be panicked into taking rash measures, such as closing down schools, “in a way that feels good but isn’t necessarily evidence-based”.

Waiting for the evidence to come in before making a decision may sound like a good plan in the academy, but in the real world, decisions often need to be taken in the absence of full information, and waiting can have catastrophic consequences, as was the case in Italy.

Who decides?

So who should determine what the best course of action is? In a democracy, this function is left to elected public officials who then answer to the electorate. But are politicians any better placed to make wiser decisions? Not necessarily. However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Democracy is better thought of as system for limiting the harm that governments can do than as a route to generating the best possible decisions. “Rather than thinking of democracy as the least worst form of politics, we could think of it as the best when at its worst.” And such damage limitation is undoubtedly a virtue when poor decisions – such as choosing to wait – could lead to people dying in the streets. As Prof Rupert Read writes regarding the situation in the UK, “Make no mistake, it is government policy that has led to the dire situation we are now in.”

But democracy cannot function in the absence of information and transparency about the basis on which governments are making their decisions. In the case of the UK, Yong pointed out that the models and data that had influenced the government’s initial strategy hadn’t been published, much to the chagrin of many scientists. “If your models are not ready for public scrutiny, they shouldn’t be the basis of public policy,” one scientist told him. The same could be said of other countries, including Kenya, where Dr Nanyingi has decried the government’s reluctance to publish the information on which it is basing its directives. “The disease belongs to the people but data belongs to the government,” he wryly observed.

However, as Runciman argues, the advantage of democracy is assuming that no one has a monopoly on wisdom; it “protects us against getting stuck with truly bad ideas”, even when these are promoted by the most knowledgeable people on the planet.

Obviously, science and the advice of scientists matters. The advantages of governments pursuing policies that are based on evidence and the best and most accurate information available cannot be disputed. And listening to the science does not automatically mean shutting down society and the economy, as countries like Sweden and South Korea may be proving. Requiring politicians to reveal the data underlying their decisions can inoculate against the tendency of politicians to play to the gallery, taking actions that may be popular or make them look decisive but that may have little actual utility. However, it must be emphasised that this is not the same as saying that it is the scientists who should be setting public policy.

In the end, querying the role of science is not really about the competence of modern day medicine-men, but rather the accountability of politicians and public officials. The decisions that need to be taken must consider the scenarios presented by different cadres of scientists, as well as the various uncertainties in their models. They will need to take into account not just consequences but also values and the aspirations of society. They will inevitably involve painful trade-offs and compromises.

In short, these are political, not technical, decisions and will require human beings prepared to make them and to be accountable for them. They are not abstract science.

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?

The economic hardship aggravated by COVID-19 and the mistreatment of Kenyans in China have re-opened old wounds among the Kikuyu, who are now questioning whether Uhuru Kenyatta was really the right choice for president.

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Betrayal in Wuhan City: Is the Love Affair Between Uhuru and the Kikuyus Over?
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Last week, my friend Njuguna called to tell me he wanted us to meet. I went to their home in Gitaru, not too far from the Nairobi-Nakuru highway and 15 km from the Nairobi city centre. The family was going to have a Skype call with their kid sister, who is now marooned in Wuhan city in Hubei Province, central China.

Six years ago, after Nyambura finished her high school studies, the family put together their resources to send her to China to study medicine, something she had always dreamed of doing. Last December, she graduated from university as a physician and even found a temporary job at a local hospital. Last November, she told her eldest brother Njuguna that she wanted to gain some experience and earn some money before coming home.

Then the coronavirus explosion happened and her life was turned topsy-turvy.

Nyambura told her family that COVID-19 was possibly detected in mid-November in Wuhan, but when it could not be kept under wraps for too long by the Chinese authorities – as they figured out how to control and manage it – the authorities were forced to report the first infection cases after Christmas 2019.

Now, talking to her family from some street corner in Wuhan city, Nyambura was sobbing on Skype, beseeching her family to save her life and not abandon her. On seeing her home and family, she broke down and wept uncontrollably. She thought of how she would have been safe and sound at home among her family, among people she would feel secure with, in her country, where she would mingle and walk freely without fear of being beaten, insulted and harassed for being a foreigner.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar. She was now living on the streets; a fully trained doctor, homeless, penniless, and cowering under the brutalities of a racist regime that her government was scared of confronting.

“The unkempt kids that live and scrounge on the streets of Nairobi are 100 times better than me here in Wuhan,” said a tearful Nyambura. “They are scrounging at home in the full knowledge that nobody will beat them, they scrounge among their people and even though the street boys and girls can be rogue, the people can never disown them, or even beat them recklessly, no one would ever allow that.” In China, said Nyambura, the blacks were being treated like stray cats.

She asked her family to send her money for food. After the Chinese authorities went rogue on Africans about a fortnight ago, she was tossed out of her apartment and thrown out of the hospital where she was working as a registrar.

Describing the current situation in China, Nyambura said the country had become a nightmare for Africans, for Kenyans, for anybody with black pigmentation. But she could not believe the extent to which the Kenyan government feared the Chinese, the extent to which the Kenyan government was ready to abandon and disown its people. “At least the Nigerian embassy has registered its displeasure with the Chinese authorities, stood with its people and asked the Nigerian representatives to collect the names of all the Nigerians in Wuhan for safe evacuation. Right now to be a Kenyan in Wuhan, or indeed elsewhere in China, is akin to abandonment, to statelessness, to be entirely on your own, to have been sacrificed,” said the physician.

“Why is Sarah Serem [the Kenyan ambassador to China] lying? Why?” sobbed Nyambura to her family. “She’s been telling you that the people who have been thrown of their houses, who are being kicked around and beaten up and button-holed are illegal migrants, Kenyans who supposedly are without papers…these are outright lies. Am I illegal in China? Am I not in the streets? Don’t I have all the papers? Why is she lying to Kenyans?”

But assuming the Kenyans in China are indeed illegally here, posed Nyambura, “doesn’t an ‘illegal’ Kenyan have rights? Doesn’t she have a life worthy of being protected? Doesn’t she require representation from her government? A Kenyan in a foreign country, whether illegal or legal is a Kenyan. Civilized and thinking governments first don’t stop to ask whether their people stuck in some foreign country are illegal or legal. They move in to evacuate and protect them…they can later on, if it’s really necessary, deal with the issues of how and why they went to that county in the first place after they are finally home safe.”

Diplomats are people who are employed by their respective governments to officially lie on their behalf. “But what [Ambassador] Macharia Kamau [the Principal Secretary in the Foreign Affairs Ministry] and Serem are doing is denying our existence, calling us all manner of names, pandering to Chinese authorities’ whims. It is the worst thing a government can do to its people,” said a crying Nyambura. “To think that we have a responsible government…to believe that the government cared for its people…we’ve all along been cheated and fooled…it’s been a con-game through and through,” trailed off the physician.

The family asked her why the Chinese authorities suddenly found it fit to openly discriminate and harass the Africans. “You know when coronavirus first manifested itself, for some unexplained reason, it did not affect and infect Africans, or more correctly, black people, in China. As the Chinese were getting ravaged by the deadly disease, black people went about their business, unperturbed, apparently, oblivious of the malaise. It, therefore, seems to me, to their chagrin, the Chinese were really irked by this state of affairs. They thought, ‘Why is it that we the Chinese (who believe they are superior to the black race) are dying off, yet these blacks seems to be immune?’ they wondered.”

After the conversation, which lasted something like 45 minutes, Nyambura’s family was distraught, fraught with fear and foreboding. As is wont with many families, they bent their heads and fervently prayed for their sister and imploring the Lord God to “ring her life with the mighty blood of Jesus”.

***

The Njuguna family not only voted for Uhuru Kenyatta three times, it vigorously campaigned for him and the Jubilee Party. I know this because Njuguna and I have known each other for quite some time now. But thinking about the predicament of his youngest sister thousands of kilometres away has made him question his choices. “What kind of government do we have?” (He was not asking me, he was thinking aloud.) “What does Macharia mean when he says hiring a plane is not like hiring a matatu? When Serem disowns Kenyans in China. What’s going on in her head?”

In 2017, we had many arguments and conversations regarding that year’s presidential elections on August 8. I was sceptical about Uhuru’s re-election and he was cocksure that his fortunes, and that of his family, would rise. “How?” I kept on asking him. His response: “The Chinese are building a highway outside our village. It’s going to change our fortunes.”

Two years into President Uhuru Kenyatta’s second term, the project has not only stalled, but Njuguna does not want to hear anything to do with Uhuru or the Chinese.

When the Chinese started constructing the section on Gitaru, there was a huge uproar among Gitaru villagers. The villagers accused the Chinese of not employing any of their kith and kin. “The Chinese were doing everything, including the simplest of tasks, like dredging the tunnels, driving the trucks and even using the theodolite,” Njuguna recalled. “The local people went to complain to the local administration and the Chinese were asked to be considerate.”

“Do you know why the road has stopped?” asked Njuguna. “It is because Uhuru’s government has delayed paying the property owners their dues to allow the Chinese contractor to expand the road by building drainage that needs to build first. The people are so angry they don’t want to hear about Uhuru and his Jubilee Party government.”

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

I asked him whether he had been bewitched during the 2013 and 2017 elections. He said yes. “How else can I explain my total conviction in Uhuru’s presidency without wanting to brook any contrary opinion? My sister being stuck in China is the last straw that broke the camel’s back. We are through with Uhuru…”

Even I was taken aback by his brazen candour. “The Kenyatta family has been the millstone around the Kikuyu’s necks. Do you know why our people are loiterers around the country? Do you know why our people are impoverished? Because the Kenyatta family grabbed all the prime lands in the ancestral Kikuyuland. I’ve told you about our pieces of land in Naivasha and Nakuru? He has now given a Danish company huge tracts of land in Naivasha to build a beer factory,” he complained.

“The Kikuyu people are bewitched,” mused Njuguna. “How do you explain the fact that one family has been able to control the thinking of an entire group for so long?”

“I’m done with Uhuru… I’m really done with him. I regret why I voted for him, why I campaigned for him… it is a mistake I hope never to repeat again,” grumbled Njuguna. “Uhuru can find money for musicians, find money for politicians, dead and alive, but he cannot find money to evacuate Kenyans suffering in a faraway country for no fault of theirs. Once again, for the umpteenth time, President Uhuru has thrown the Kikuyus under the bus,” growled Njuguna.

In the lead-up to the 2017 presidential elections, Njuguna and I had had many heated discussions on who Kenyans should elect as president. That time he told me, “Uhuru ni gaitu ga guicirira…mukuigwa uguo…” Uhuru is ours by birth and blood…you can lump it if you don’t like it.

***

“Iguthua ndogoria, itikinyagira nyeki,” said my friend, a matatu driver to me. Translated metaphorically, it means a limping shepherd leads his flock astray. Literally it means, a leader who lacks foresight cannot lead his people to greener pastures. Essentially, he becomes a burden to his people.

My friend was in a mood to speak his mind “in these times of coronavirus, where our world has been thrown into utter confusion”. He was taking his matatu to the garage for service in Kawangware, so he asked me if I could I accompany him.

“If I didn’t take care of this matatu, regularly making sure it’s well-serviced, it’s clean, that generally it is in a good condition, would I really feed my family? Would I claim to be a right thinking human being who cares about the welfare of his people? I wouldn’t, because it would keep on breaking down, and I would lose face with my loyal customers and my business would be wobbly. That is what Uhuru’s leadership has become. I will tell you this, many Kikuyus voted for him believing that he would lead us to greener pastures, that he would care for our interests, that he would not let us suffer, that he would remember he is where he is because of the sacrifices of the people, many of them strugglers and poor.

“But look what happened? Kikuyus hitched their wagon on a fading horse, a wild horse that didn’t, in the first place, know where it was headed and how it was heading wherever it was heading. Yet we Kikuyus couldn’t stop to ask these important questions because we were consumed by ethnic jingoism. We were all in a tribally induced trance…now we’re all paying for it. I’ve thought about these things: cooked up presidential elections, tribal voting, about Uhuru, politicians, why people are suffering, and now coronavirus and I can tell you we’re living in apocalyptic times.

“I’ve listened to Uhuru in his addresses to the nation – the man lost the plot a long time ago. He is so disconnected from the people, I wonder whether he truly listens to himself. But I’m told these people [politicians] never stop playing games with us, the electorate. ‘My fellow Kenyans’…when did we become his fellow Kenyans? Do you know there are Kenyans who are starving, because they don’t have food to feed their children?”

My matatu driver friend said that in some parts of Kiambu County, where he grew up and still lives, he knows of families that have been rendered jobless. Even with their meagre incomes, at least they could afford to buy food. “Now that meagre pay is not forthcoming. How do you expect these people to survive? Still, the president talks of ‘my fellow Kenyans’. No muhaka ticiria uhoro wa muturire witu wa hau kabere.” We must seriously think of how lives will be in the future.

“For me, I already have”, said the driver. “I’ve thought long and hard and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ll never again participate in electoral politics. What’s the point? Uhuru and his band of politicians can spend millions of shillings cheating our mothers with branded lesos [kitenge-like wrapping cloth, popular with women], caps and T-Shirts, yet he cannot find money to buy the same women masks. In his first address to the nation during these coronavirus times, the president said he had allocated so many millions to money paid to old people. That money is in the government portals – just like the stadia were built in the portals. I can tell you, the last time that money was paid to the retirees was way back, six months ago.

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

Coronavirus, said the matatu driver, had exposed President Uhuru’s administration: “It doesn’t know what it’s doing. Every time Uhuru takes to the podium to address the nation, he repeats the same things that he said the last time, hence, the speeches have become boring and repetitive. Or regurgitates what Muthai Kagwe [the Cabinet Secretary for Health] has been saying. It’s threats, warnings and blaming the youth, the poor and those who cannot afford to self-distance, quarantine, and even self-isolate, because for them it is a matter of life and death.”

“The Kenyatta family runs the biggest milk production company in this part of the world, but it cannot, even for one day, say it will subsidise the price of milk so that poor people can afford it. That is the same milk they get from those poor farmers in Mt Kenya region.”

My friend said the president had relegated everything concerning coronavirus to Mutahi. “Where is his leadership? It is missing, because I cannot see it. It looks like his spin doctors have told him to be occasionally holding press conferences to be seen to be on top of things. So he has become a talking head, talking to himself. Meanwhile, Mutahi’s major preoccupation in his numerously press conferences is to constantly frighten us with numbers, issue threats and condemn the poor and the less privileged.”

If there is one thing coronavirus ought to teach us, said my friend, is that we Kenyans need to think long and hard about the future of the country: “What do we want for ourselves? What kind of leaders do we desire? How do we right the political wrongs we’ve made? Talking specifically to my fellow Kikuyus: How do we unchain ourselves from the Kenyatta family servitude? This will be critical if the Kikuyu people in the coming years hope to be part of the struggle to liberate the country from the shackles of predatory politics.”

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