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A Faustian Bargain: Westgate and Kenya’s Role in America’s Forever War

8 min read.

The Westgate attack was a missed teachable moment in the country’s Western-funded counterterrorism campaign and Kenyan continue to pay the price for it.



A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN: Westgate and Kenya’s role in America’s Forever War
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The Kenyan government’s studious silence on the 5th anniversary of the attack on the Westgate mall by Al Shabaab was baffling, even for an administration obsessed with meaningless symbolic gestures and spin rather than with meaningful policy interventions. Silence is not out of step but is in keeping with President Uhuru Kenyatta and his handlers’ deceptive baiting and switching; every tragedy, including Westgate, is followed by feigned concern and significant made-for-TV roadside pronouncements that inevitably lack the necessary follow-through. Welcome to #MoveOn, #MtaDo Inc.

Following the fateful Saturday, 21 September 2013 attack, when four masked gunmen entered the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi and killed dozens of people, President Kenyatta promised a Commission of Inquiry. Five years later, the commission has not been established.

It is not just the presidency who demonstrated a grave dereliction of duty; the Joint Parliamentary Committee report on the Westgate attack was rejected by the National Assembly because the report was “shoddy”. That says plenty considering the standard of debate in Parliament where discussions are increasingly resembling a marketplace where the highest bidders buy votes, sometime in the parliamentary toilet. There has not been genuine attempt since then to pursue what exactly happened during the Westgate.

As a result, five years later, Kenyans do not know the official number of those killed or even what exactly happened at the mall. The media puts the number of people killed during the attack at nearly 70 and the attackers at four. It is unclear whether all were killed or whether any escaped. A Commission of Inquiry or even the parliamentary report, dismissed by the National Assembly as “shoddy” could have answered some of these questions, not expressly for accountability alone – which is critical – but also for posterity.

Despite both the presidency’s and the executive’s failure, the Westgate effect continues to exert a toll on Kenyans’ daily interactions and experiences: the law and order police work continues to be militarised at an almost industrial scale; extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in Muslim majority areas in the name of fighting terrorism continue unabated; crime in low-income urban areas has reached epidemic proportions; and Kenya’s military officers and their families continue to count the cost in blood and treasure even as the country’s military intervention in Somalia recedes from the collective national memory.

Despite both the presidency’s and the executive’s failure, the Westgate effect continues to exert a toll on Kenyans’ daily interactions and experiences: the law and order police work continues to be militarised at an almost industrial scale; extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances in Muslim majority areas in the name of fighting terrorism continue unabated…

Kenya and terrorism

Kenya has long been at the crosshairs of international terrorist groups. The first major terrorist attack on Kenyan soil occurred on New Year’s Eve in 1980, when the Popular Front of the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) bombed the Norfolk Hotel in Nairobi as retribution for Kenya’s assistance to the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF)’s Operation Entebbe/ Operation Thunderbolt. The majority of the 20 people killed and 100 injured were foreign nationals.

On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda in East Africa simultaneously attacked the United States embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. The attack in Nairobi killed 213 people and injured more than 4,000 while the one in Dar es Salaam killed 11 people and injured more than 100. Al Qaeda’s Somalia connections were instrumental in planning and carrying out these attacks.

Four years later, on December 28, 2002, the same group bombed the Paradise Hotel, an Israeli-owned hotel in Kikambala on the Kenyan coast, killing 15 and injuring 80. Simultaneously, it attempted – but failed – to bring down Arkia Airline Flight 582 as it took off from Mombasa’s Moi International Airport heading to Tel Aviv.

These attacks targeted mostly the United States and Israeli/Jewish facilities, and Kenyans were considered “collateral damage”.

Domestic blowback

In October 2011, following cross-border attacks and kidnappings targeting humanitarian and aid workers, Kenya deployed thousands of soldiers to Somalia in Operation Linda Nchi (Protect the Nation) to fight against Al Shabaab. This was first time Kenyan troops had engaged in combat abroad outside peacekeeping operations. However, the intervention, instead of making Kenya safe, exposed the country’s vulnerability, especially in northern and coastal areas near the Somalia border. After the intervention in Somalia, Kenya and Kenyans became principal targets. The porous and poorly policed border allowed Al Shabaab to cross over and launch a series of attacks targeting security installations, as well as churches, schools and night clubs.

Al Shabaab attacks fall into two broad categories: large-scale and sophisticated (some foiled, some successful) and amateurish low-grade and low casualty. The attacks on the Westgate shopping mall, Garissa University and Mpeketoni in Lamu County fall in the former category. Sandwiched between these are those targeting matatus – public transport taxis – in Eastleigh, a Nairobi suburb popular with the ethnic Somali community, and other public facilities like Gikomba, East Africa’s largest open-air market. These types of attacks are also concentrated in the Muslim majority regions of north-eastern Kenya, such as Garissa, Wajir, Mandera, and Isiolo, as well as Lamu. One of the largest Al Shabaab attacks occurred in Mpeketoni, a settlement in Lamu County, where over 70 people were killed.

As a response to these domestic attacks, the government launched counterterrorism operations in Eastleigh, Coastal Kenya and the North-East. These operations were mostly conducted in scorched earth fashion; everyone was guilty until they proved their innocence. No means were spared, including extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances, of suspected terrorists.

For instance, during Operation Usalama Watch in Eastleigh, over 4,000 Somalis were arrested and held in the Kasarani football stadium. The security sweep touched a raw nerve and exacerbated the already fraught relations between the ethnic Somali community and the state. These operations, beyond causing egregious human rights violations, as documented by human rights organisations and the media, antagonised communities at the centre of gravity in the fight against terrorism, thus creating a trust deficit between them and the state. They also animated the latent yet potent animus between the state and the communities, a legacy of past attempts at secession from Kenya. During the Shifta War, fought between 1963 and 1967, ethnic Somalis in the North-East tried to join Somalia, and in the 2000s the Mombasa Republican Council had issued their clarion call Pwani si Kenya (The Coast is not Kenya).

If the Somalis in the past were Shiftas (bandits), now they were classified as terrorists. For the Somalis and coastal Kenya communities, Kenyan citizenship comes with terms and conditions, and they have no agency in accepting or declining those terms. Human rights violations against these communities by the police has a rich tradition that transcends the advent of the War on Terror. Within the context of counterterrorism operations in the two regions, they are not an exception, but rather a continuation of the trajectory the police have been on.

US Africa policy

America’s recent Africa policy has evolved in three distinctive phases. The first phase was the period immediately after the end of the Cold War, during the George H Bush administration, when fueled by the confidence in defeating communism, the United States projected a more maximalist approach to foreign policy centered on humanitarian intervention. Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, launched in December 1992, was the first product of the policy. However, through a combination of a lack of understanding of the local nuanced realities and an underestimation of the warlord Mohamed Farah Aideed, America was bogged down in urban warfare that its troops were unprepared for. The October 1993 “Black Hawk Down” incident, in which America lost 18 servicemen, broke its armour of post-Cold War invulnerability.

Chastised by the Mogadishu experience, America opted for a more minimalist approach borne out of the realisation that the United States is not good at engaging in intractable “tribal” fighting in foreign countries. One of the outcomes of that was the hands-off approach during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The Somalia syndrome persisted, until it was replaced by the third phase that emerged after the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam bombings. Under this new outlook, the US argued that threats came from transnational non-state actors rather than from inter-state conflicts. In this new reality, the US would require “smart” military engagement.

This smart military engagement was given a further boost by the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington DC. This approach was articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy, which states: “The events of September 11, 2001, taught us that weak states…can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.” At the operational level, among many other options, security sector assistance was prioritised, especially in failed/fragile states that were viewed as fertile breeding grounds for transnational jihadi groups.

Because it borders Somalia from where Al Shabaab was operating, Kenya fit the bill.

Pakistanisation of Kenya

Similar to Pakistan in its war against the Taliban, Kenya plays a focal point in America’s and the West’s counterterrorism operations. Kenya provides Western intelligence with the base and infrastructure from which to wage the war. Unlike in Pakistan, however, there is a marginal political cost to Kenya’s political elite for supporting the operation. Participating in America’s Forever War has seen the security sector receive tremendous amounts of support in the form of training, equipment and money. From 2010 to 2014, Kenya received more than $141 million in US counterterrorism aid, and over the last few years, military aid has been increasing.

However, Kenya’s military personnel pay a steep price for engaging in US-led counterterrorism operations. In January 2016, Al Shabaab attacked a Kenya Defence Forces base in El Adde, Somalia, killing over 140 troops (although the government has yet to release the exact casualty numbers). A year later, on 27 January 2017, Al Shabaab attacked another KDF base in Kulbiyo causing multiple casualties. After El Adde attack, the president addressed the nation and stated, “We remain unbowed, determined to protect our way of life and committed to pursue our goal of a united, integrated and prosperous nation, region and continent. Neither shall we be shaken nor deterred by the actions of these criminals”.

Similar to Pakistan in its war against the Taliban, Kenya plays a focal point in America’s and the West’s counterterrorism operations. Kenya provides Western intelligence with the base and infrastructure from which to wage the war. Unlike in Pakistan, however, there is a marginal political cost to Kenya’s political elite for supporting the operation…From 2010 to 2014, Kenya received more than $141 million in US counterterrorism aid, and over the last few years, military aid has been increasing.

Post-Westgate, nearly all public and private spaces have been effectively securitised. Most offices and shopping malls have security barriers, guards and metal detectors, including some that are fake. There has also been a proliferation of private security companies (PSCs) in major towns. By some estimates, PSCs employ 500,000 people, compared to the less than 100,000 serving in the police. The legal-policy framework governing PSCs is the Private Security Regulation Act and the body regulating them is the Private Security Regulatory Authority. One of the changes announced by President Kenyatta under the latest iteration of police reform is that the police will strategically pull out of VIP protection services and “Cash-in-Transit” operations. This will be a boon for the already thriving PSCs. There have also been calls to amend the Act to allow private security guards to carry arms. Arming of half a million PSC employees would potentially double the estimated number of legal and illegal arms held by civilians.

Increasingly, in line with a global shift, the government has admitted that its “hard” approach has to be complemented by a “softer” one in addressing terrorism, and hence the framing has shifted from counterterrorism to countering violent extremism (CVE). The military method, in most cases, is concerned with eliminating individuals and does not address the broad spectrum of how and why individuals are recruited into terrorist groups, and how they can be incentivised to denounce and abandon them – because the reasons for joining, staying and eventually leaving are not always the same.

The use of force also treats all violent extremists and terrorists – regardless of rank, file or leadership – in the same way. As such, it does not offer a mechanism of rehabilitation and reintegration of returnees back into the community.

As part of the pivot, the national government launched a national CVE strategy in 2016, after years of consultation with various stakeholders. This has been followed by counties crafting their respective CVE plans through a similarly consultative process with the national government and other none-state actors, including human rights groups. Central to the success of these plans is community and citizen ownership.

While undoubtedly there has been a discernible shift from counterterrorism to CVE, it will take more than a change in nomenclature to heal the trust deficit between the security agencies and the communities in northern and coastal Kenya. Further, there is no legal or policy framework that governs the returnees who have renounced Al Shabaab and who find themselves in a double bind: targeted by both Al Shabaab, who regard them as deserters, and by security agencies, who see them as double agents. This distrust has seen some of them rejoin Al Shabaab, while others have been killed by the terror group, especially in Kwale, and by the anti-terror police.

While undoubtedly there has been a discernible shift from counterterrorism to CVE, it will take more than a change in nomenclature to heal the trust deficit between the security agencies and the communities in northern and coastal Kenya.

The stated reason for Kenya’s intervention in Somalia was to keep Kenya safe, but it achieved the opposite, turning Kenya and Kenyans into primary targets. Despite the mounting cost, the country is doubling down on the Somalia mission, which has metastasised into an open-ended stay in Somalia.

The Western-funded counterterrorism campaign is a Faustian bargain: Kenya gets money but completely loses its soft power regarding Somalia. The Westgate attack represented a seminal teachable moment, but Kenya missed the opportunity, and as a result, Kenyans continue to pay the price.

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Abdullahi Boru Halakhe is a security analyst from the Horn of Africa.


Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning

Rwandans are welcoming, but the government’s priority must be to solve the internal political problems which produce refugees.



Asylum Pact: Rwanda Must Do Some Political Housecleaning
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The governments of the United Kingdom and Rwanda have signed an agreement to move asylum seekers from the UK to Rwanda for processing. This partnership has been heavily criticized and has been referred to as unethical and inhumane. It has also been opposed by the United Nations Refugee Agency on the grounds that it is contrary to the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

Here in Rwanda, we heard the news of the partnership on the day it was signed. The subject has never been debated in the Rwandan parliament and neither had it been canvassed in the local media prior to the announcement.

According to the government’s official press release, the partnership reflects Rwanda’s commitment to protect vulnerable people around the world. It is argued that by relocating migrants to Rwanda, their dignity and rights will be respected and they will be provided with a range of opportunities, including for personal development and employment, in a country that has consistently been ranked among the safest in the world.

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives. Therefore, most Rwandans are sensitive to the plight of those forced to leave their home countries and would be more than willing to make them feel welcome. However, the decision to relocate the migrants to Rwanda raises a number of questions.

The government argues that relocating migrants to Rwanda will address the inequalities in opportunity that push economic migrants to leave their homes. It is not clear how this will work considering that Rwanda is already the most unequal country in the East African region. And while it is indeed seen as among the safest countries in the world, it was however ranked among the bottom five globally in the recently released 2022 World Happiness Index. How would migrants, who may have suffered psychological trauma fare in such an environment, and in a country that is still rebuilding itself?

A considerable number of Rwandans have been refugees and therefore understand the struggle that comes with being an asylum seeker and what it means to receive help from host countries to rebuild lives.

What opportunities can Rwanda provide to the migrants? Between 2018—the year the index was first published—and 2020, Rwanda’s ranking on the Human Capital Index (HCI) has been consistently low. Published by the World Bank, HCI measures which countries are best at mobilising the economic and professional potential of their citizens. Rwanda’s score is lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa and it is partly due to this that the government had found it difficult to attract private investment that would create significant levels of employment prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Unemployment, particularly among the youth, has since worsened.

Despite the accolades Rwanda has received internationally for its development record, Rwanda’s economy has never been driven by a dynamic private or trade sector; it has been driven by aid. The country’s debt reached 73 per cent of GDP in 2021 while its economy has not developed the key areas needed to achieve and secure genuine social and economic transformation for its entire population. In addition to human capital development, these include social capital development, especially mutual trust among citizens considering the country’s unfortunate historical past, establishing good relations with neighbouring states, respect for human rights, and guaranteeing the accountability of public officials.

Rwanda aspires to become an upper middle-income country by 2035 and a high-income country by 2050. In 2000, the country launched a development plan that aimed to transform it into a middle-income country by 2020 on the back on a knowledge economy. That development plan, which has received financial support from various development partners including the UK which contributed over £1 billion, did not deliver the anticipated outcomes. Today the country remains stuck in the category of low-income states. Its structural constraints as a small land-locked country with few natural resources are often cited as an obstacle to development. However, this is exacerbated by current governance in Rwanda, which limits the political space, lacks separation of powers, impedes freedom of expression and represses government critics, making it even harder for Rwanda to reach the desired developmental goals.

Rwanda’s structural constraints as a small land-locked country with no natural resources are often viewed as an obstacle to achieving the anticipated development.

As a result of the foregoing, Rwanda has been producing its own share of refugees, who have sought political and economic asylum in other countries. The UK alone took in 250 Rwandese last year. There are others around the world, the majority of whom have found refuge in different countries in Africa, including countries neighbouring Rwanda. The presence of these refugees has been a source of tension in the region with Kigali accusing neighbouring states of supporting those who want to overthrow the government by force. Some Rwandans have indeed taken up armed struggle, a situation that, if not resolved, threatens long-term security in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. In fact, the UK government’s advice on travel to Rwanda has consistently warned of the unstable security situation near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

While Rwanda’s intention to help address the global imbalance of opportunity that fuels illegal immigration is laudable, I would recommend that charity start at home. As host of the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled for June 2022, and Commonwealth Chair-in-Office for the next two years, the government should seize the opportunity to implement the core values and principles of the Commonwealth, particularly the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, freedom of expression, political and civil rights, and a vibrant civil society. This would enable Rwanda to address its internal social, economic and political challenges, creating a conducive environment for long-term economic development, and durable peace that will not only stop Rwanda from producing refugees but will also render the country ready and capable of economically and socially integrating refugees from less fortunate countries in the future.

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Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement

The elite’s ‘solution’ to the climate crisis is to turn the displaced into exploitable migrant labour. We need a truly internationalist alternative.



Beyond Borders: Why We Need a Truly Internationalist Climate Justice Movement
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“We are not drowning, we are fighting” has become the rallying call for the Pacific Climate Warriors. From UN climate meetings to blockades of Australian coal ports, these young Indigenous defenders from twenty Pacific Island states are raising the alarm of global warming for low-lying atoll nations. Rejecting the narrative of victimisation – “you don’t need my pain or tears to know that we’re in a crisis,” as Samoan Brianna Fruean puts it – they are challenging the fossil fuel industry and colonial giants such as Australia, responsible for the world’s highest per-capita carbon emissions.

Around the world, climate disasters displace around 25.3 million people annually – one person every one to two seconds. In 2016, new displacements caused by climate disasters outnumbered new displacements as a result of persecution by a ratio of three to one. By 2050, an estimated 143 million people will be displaced in just three regions: Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Some projections for global climate displacement are as high as one billion people.

Mapping who is most vulnerable to displacement reveals the fault lines between rich and poor, between the global North and South, and between whiteness and its Black, Indigenous and racialised others.

Globalised asymmetries of power create migration but constrict mobility. Displaced people – the least responsible for global warming – face militarised borders. While climate change is itself ignored by the political elite, climate migration is presented as a border security issue and the latest excuse for wealthy states to fortify their borders. In 2019, the Australian Defence Forces announced military patrols around Australia’s waters to intercept climate refugees.

The burgeoning terrain of “climate security” prioritises militarised borders, dovetailing perfectly into eco-apartheid. “Borders are the environment’s greatest ally; it is through them that we will save the planet,” declares the party of French far-Right politician Marine Le Pen. A US Pentagon-commissioned report on the security implications of climate change encapsulates the hostility to climate refugees: “Borders will be strengthened around the country to hold back unwanted starving immigrants from the Caribbean islands (an especially severe problem), Mexico, and South America.” The US has now launched Operation Vigilant Sentry off the Florida coast and created Homeland Security Task Force Southeast to enforce marine interdiction and deportation in the aftermath of disasters in the Caribbean.

Labour migration as climate mitigation

you broke the ocean in
half to be here.
only to meet nothing that wants you
– Nayyirah Waheed

Parallel to increasing border controls, temporary labour migration is increasingly touted as a climate adaptation strategy. As part of the ‘Nansen Initiative’, a multilateral, state-led project to address climate-induced displacement, the Australian government has put forward its temporary seasonal worker program as a key solution to building climate resilience in the Pacific region. The Australian statement to the Nansen Initiative Intergovernmental Global Consultation was, in fact, delivered not by the environment minister but by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.

Beginning in April 2022, the new Pacific Australia Labour Mobility scheme will make it easier for Australian businesses to temporarily insource low-wage workers (what the scheme calls “low-skilled” and “unskilled” workers) from small Pacific island countries including Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, and Tuvalu. Not coincidentally, many of these countries’ ecologies and economies have already been ravaged by Australian colonialism for over one hundred years.

It is not an anomaly that Australia is turning displaced climate refugees into a funnel of temporary labour migration. With growing ungovernable and irregular migration, including climate migration, temporary labour migration programs have become the worldwide template for “well-managed migration.” Elites present labour migration as a double win because high-income countries fill their labour shortage needs without providing job security or citizenship, while low-income countries alleviate structural impoverishment through migrants’ remittances.

Dangerous, low-wage jobs like farm, domestic, and service work that cannot be outsourced are now almost entirely insourced in this way. Insourcing and outsourcing represent two sides of the same neoliberal coin: deliberately deflated labour and political power. Not to be confused with free mobility, temporary labour migration represents an extreme neoliberal approach to the quartet of foreign, climate, immigration, and labour policy, all structured to expand networks of capital accumulation through the creation and disciplining of surplus populations.

The International Labour Organization recognises that temporary migrant workers face forced labour, low wages, poor working conditions, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom association and union rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion. Under these state-sanctioned programs of indentureship, workers are legally tied to an employer and deportable. Temporary migrant workers are kept compliant through the threats of both termination and deportation, revealing the crucial connection between immigration status and precarious labour.

Through temporary labour migration programs, workers’ labour power is first captured by the border and this pliable labour is then exploited by the employer. Denying migrant workers permanent immigration status ensures a steady supply of cheapened labour. Borders are not intended to exclude all people, but to create conditions of ‘deportability’, which increases social and labour precarity. These workers are labelled as ‘foreign’ workers, furthering racist xenophobia against them, including by other workers. While migrant workers are temporary, temporary migration is becoming the permanent neoliberal, state-led model of migration.

Reparations include No Borders

“It’s immoral for the rich to talk about their future children and grandchildren when the children of the Global South are dying now.” – Asad Rehman

Discussions about building fairer and more sustainable political-economic systems have coalesced around a Green New Deal. Most public policy proposals for a Green New Deal in the US, Canada, UK and the EU articulate the need to simultaneously tackle economic inequality, social injustice, and the climate crisis by transforming our extractive and exploitative system towards a low-carbon, feminist, worker and community-controlled care-based society. While a Green New Deal necessarily understands the climate crisis and the crisis of capitalism as interconnected — and not a dichotomy of ‘the environment versus the economy’ — one of its main shortcomings is its bordered scope. As Harpreet Kaur Paul and Dalia Gebrial write: “the Green New Deal has largely been trapped in national imaginations.”

Any Green New Deal that is not internationalist runs the risk of perpetuating climate apartheid and imperialist domination in our warming world. Rich countries must redress the global and asymmetrical dimensions of climate debtunfair trade and financial agreements, military subjugation, vaccine apartheidlabour exploitation, and border securitisation.

It is impossible to think about borders outside the modern nation-state and its entanglements with empire, capitalism, race, caste, gender, sexuality, and ability. Borders are not even fixed lines demarcating territory. Bordering regimes are increasingly layered with drone surveillance, interception of migrant boats, and security controls far beyond states’ territorial limits. From Australia offshoring migrant detention around Oceania to Fortress Europe outsourcing surveillance and interdiction to the Sahel and Middle East, shifting cartographies demarcate our colonial present.

Perhaps most offensively, when colonial countries panic about ‘border crises’ they position themselves as victims. But the genocide, displacement, and movement of millions of people were unequally structured by colonialism for three centuries, with European settlers in the Americas and Oceania, the transatlantic slave trade from Africa, and imported indentured labourers from Asia. Empire, enslavement, and indentureship are the bedrock of global apartheid today, determining who can live where and under what conditions. Borders are structured to uphold this apartheid.

The freedom to stay and the freedom to move, which is to say no borders, is decolonial reparations and redistribution long due.

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The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections

The Murang’a people are really yet to decide who they are going to vote for as a president. If they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves. Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Can Jimi Wanjigi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction?



The Murang’a Factor in the Upcoming Presidential Elections
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In the last quarter of 2021, I visited Murang’a County twice: In September, we were in Kandiri in Kigumo constituency. We had gone for a church fundraiser and were hosted by the Anglican Church of Kenya’s (ACK), Kahariro parish, Murang’a South diocese. A month later, I was back, this time to Ihi-gaini deep in Kangema constituency for a burial.

The church function attracted politicians: it had to; they know how to sniff such occasions and if not officially invited, they gate-crash them. Church functions, just like funerals, are perfect platforms for politicians to exhibit their presumed piousness, generosity and their closeness to the respective clergy and the bereaved family.

Well, the other reason they were there, is because they had been invited by the Church leadership. During the electioneering period, the Church is not shy to exploit the politicians’ ambitions: they “blackmail” them for money, because they can mobilise ready audiences for the competing politicians. The politicians on the other hand, are very ready to part with cash. This quid pro quo arrangement is usually an unstated agreement between the Church leadership and the politicians.

The church, which was being fund raised for, being in Kigumo constituency, the area MP Ruth Wangari Mwaniki, promptly showed up. Likewise, the area Member of the County Assembly (MCA) and of course several aspirants for the MP and MCA seats, also showed up.

Church and secular politics often sit cheek by jowl and so, on this day, local politics was the order of the day. I couldn’t have speculated on which side of the political divide Murang’a people were, until the young man Zack Kinuthia Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) for Sports, Culture and Heritage, took to the rostrum to speak.

A local boy and an Uhuru Kenyatta loyalist, he completely avoided mentioning his name and his “development track record” in central Kenya. Kinuthia has a habit of over-extolling President Uhuru’s virtues whenever and wherever he mounts any platform. By the time he was done speaking, I quickly deduced he was angling to unseat Wangari. I wasn’t wrong; five months later in February 2022, Kinuthia resigned his CAS position to vie for Kigumo on a Party of the National Unity (PNU) ticket.

He spoke briefly, feigned some meeting that was awaiting him elsewhere and left hurriedly, but not before giving his KSh50,000 donation. Apparently, I later learnt that he had been forewarned, ahead of time, that the people were not in a mood to listen to his panegyrics on President Uhuru, Jubilee Party, or anything associated to the two. Kinuthia couldn’t dare run on President Uhuru’s Jubilee Party. His patron-boss’s party is not wanted in Murang’a.

I spent the whole day in Kandiri, talking to people, young and old, men and women and by the time I was leaving, I was certain about one thing; The Murang’a folks didn’t want anything to do with President Uhuru. What I wasn’t sure of is, where their political sympathies lay.

I returned to Murang’a the following month, in the expansive Kangema – it is still huge – even after Mathioya was hived off from the larger Kangema constituency. Funerals provide a good barometer that captures peoples’ political sentiments and even though this burial was not attended by politicians – a few senior government officials were present though; political talk was very much on the peoples’ lips.

What I gathered from the crowd was that President Uhuru had destroyed their livelihood, remember many of the Nairobi city trading, hawking, big downtown real estate and restaurants are run and owned largely by Murang’a people. The famous Nyamakima trading area of downtown Nairobi has been run by Murang’a Kikuyus.

In 2018, their goods were confiscated and declared contrabrand by the government. Many of their businesses went under, this, despite the merchants not only, whole heartedly throwing their support to President Uhuru’s controversial re-election, but contributing handsomely to the presidential kitty. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them: “We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him.”

We voted for him to safeguard our businesses, instead, he destroyed them. So much for supporting him

Last week, I attended a Murang’a County caucus group that was meeting somewhere in Gatundu, in Kiambu County. One of the clearest messages that I got from this group is that the GEMA vote in the August 9, 2022, presidential elections is certainly anti-Uhuru Kenyatta and not necessarily pro-William Ruto.

“The Murang’a people are really yet to decide, (if they have, they are keeping the secret to themselves) on who they are going to vote for as a president. And that’s why you see Uhuru is craftily courting us with all manner of promises, seductions and prophetic messages.” Two weeks ago, President Uhuru was in Murang’a attending an African Independent Pentecostal Church of Africa (AIPCA) church function in Kandara constituency.

At the church, the president yet again threatened to “tell you what’s in my heart and what I believe and why so.” These prophecy-laced threats by the President, to the GEMA nation, in which he has been threatening to show them the sign, have become the butt of crude jokes among Kikuyus.

Corollary, President Uhuru once again has plucked Polycarp Igathe away from his corporate perch as Equity Bank’s Chief Commercial Officer back to Nairobi’s tumultuous governor seat politics. The first time the bespectacled Igathe was thrown into the deep end of the Nairobi murky politics was in 2017, as Mike Sonko’s deputy governor. After six months, he threw in the towel, lamenting that Sonko couldn’t let him even breathe.

Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people

“Igathe is from Wanjerere in Kigumo, Murang’a, but grew up in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County,” one of the Mzees told me. “He’s not interested in politics; much less know how it’s played. I’ve spent time with him and confided in me as much. Uhuru has a tendency of (mis)using Murang’a people. President Uhuru wants to use Igathe to control Nairobi. The sad thing is that Igathe doesn’t have the guts to tell Uhuru the brutal fact: I’m really not interested in all these shenanigans, leave me alone. The president is hoping, once again, to hopefully placate the Murang’a people, by pretending to front Igathe. I foresee another terrible disaster ultimately befalling both Igathe and Uhuru.”

Be that as it may, what I got away with from this caucus, after an entire day’s deliberations, is that its keeping it presidential choice close to its chest. My attempts to goad some of the men and women present were fruitless.

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest. Kiambu has produced two presidents from the same family, Nyeri one, President Mwai Kibaki, who died on April 22. The closest Murang’a came to giving the country a president was during Ken Matiba’s time in the 1990s. “But Matiba had suffered a debilitating stroke that incapacitated him,” said one of the mzees. “It was tragic, but there was nothing we could do.”

Murang’a people like reminding everyone that it’s only they, who have yet to produce a president from the GEMA stable, despite being the wealthiest

It is interesting to note that Jimi Wanjigi, the Safina party presidential flagbearer is from Murang’a County. His family hails from Wahundura, in Mathioya constituency. Him and Mwangi wa Iria, the Murang’a County governor are the other two Murang’a prominent persons who have tossed themselves into the presidential race. Wa Iria’s bid which was announced at the beginning of 2022, seems to have stagnated, while Jimi’s seems to be gathering storm.

Are the Murang’a people prepping themselves this time to vote for one of their own? Jimi’s campaign team has crafted a two-pronged strategy that it hopes will endear Kenyans to his presidency. One, a generational, paradigm shift, especially among the youth, targeting mostly post-secondary, tertiary college and university students.

“We believe this group of voters who are basically between the ages of 18–27 years and who comprise more than 65 per cent of total registered voters are the key to turning this election,” said one of his presidential campaign team members. “It matters most how you craft the political message to capture their attention.” So, branding his key message as itwika, it is meant to orchestrate a break from past electoral behaviour that is pegged on traditional ethnic voting patterns.

The other plunk of Jimi’s campaign theme is economic emancipation, quite pointedly as it talks directly to the GEMA nation, especially the Murang’a Kikuyus, who are reputed for their business acumen and entrepreneurial skills. “What Kikuyus cherish most,” said the team member “is someone who will create an enabling business environment and leave the Kikuyus to do their thing. You know, Kikuyus live off business, if you interfere with it, that’s the end of your friendship, it doesn’t matter who you are.”

Can Jimi re-ignite the Murang’a/Matiba popular passion among the GEMA community and re-influence it to vote in a different direction? As all the presidential candidates gear-up this week on who they will eventually pick as their running mates, the GEMA community once more shifts the spotlight on itself, as the most sought-after vote basket.

Both Raila Odinga and William Ruto coalitions – Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya and Kenya Kwanza Alliance – must seek to impress and woe Mt Kenya region by appointing a running mate from one of its ranks. If not, the coalitions fear losing the vote-rich area either to each other, or perhaps to a third party. Murang’a County, may as well, become the conundrum, with which the August 9, presidential race may yet to be unravelled and decided.

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